There should be an app for that.’
How many of us have found ourselves saying these very words? As smartphones become ever-more ubiquitous and we become ever-more reliant on them, it seems there is always just one more app which would make life easier – if only it existed.
The three UAE residents below – Ebrahim Colak, Shezan Amiji and Craig McDonald – all had such a thought.
But, unlike most of us, they didn’t then simply forget it. They each went out and made their idea happen. And, today, their individual creations – that’s MrUsta, Beam Wallet and Yalla Parking – are among the most popular apps in the UAE. So, how did they do that?
Here they tell Friday about turning their tech vision into reality…
Ebrahim Colak is co-founder of MrUsta, which connects customers with approved hired-hands including repairmen, decorators, plumbers, pest control teams, cleaners and removal vans. The app went live in 2015 and has processed Dh30million of transactions in the past 12 months.
Ebrahim is 30, originally from Turkey and lives in Barsha Heights.
‘It all started, in 2012, with a broken air-conditioning unit in my apartment. I’d only recently moved to Dubai – to work for Nokia – and it was a real struggle to get it repaired. Some businesses wouldn’t come to The Greens where I lived or said they could only get to me in a week’s time; others were quoting exhorbitant prices. It ended up taking a dozen calls and three days to get it fixed. It was summer and I had to stay with a friend for two nights.
‘While talking about the harrowing experience afterwards, what struck me was how many had experienced similar problems. Not just for air-conditioning but lots of things: decorating, plumbing, just getting a washing machine fixed. Because everyone here arrives with a blank slate, it can be difficult to know where to go. Finding someone reliable and reasonably priced can be a real trial.
‘I was sure there had to be a better way, and that was when the idea for MrUsta was born – an online platform connecting people with quality service providers.
‘The idea was simple. Customers would type in the job they needed doing, and receive quotes from approved ustas – Arabic for ‘craftsmen’ – within minutes. They could then assess those bidding for the work, read previous reviews, compare prices and hire their preferred person. All without having to make a call.
‘I felt, done right, it could bring order to a chaotic market. I was sure everyone – customers and ustas – would benefit. So, I went for it.
‘Two tech friends, Onur Tepeli and Serhan Yazici, and my now wife, Dunia Othman, joined me as co-founders. We set up at the In5 Innovation Centre in Dubai Internet City, and received Dh1.2 million from investors Precinct Partners which was a huge confidence booster.
‘The website itself was designed fairly quickly. We just wanted something simple.
‘Then it was a case of finding our ustas. We hired field agents to find traders and businesses, explain what we were doing, and ask if they wanted to join the platform. About 2,000 signed up within a month. We didn’t need to sell the idea at all. Most realised we could provide them with a constant supply of customers. Our only stipulation was every usta had to have a trade licence and good customer reviews.
‘We launched in January 2014 and customers were soon coming to us. Word of mouth and Google searches meant there was almost instant traction. People came looking for everything from carpenters to auto maintenance. ‘After a year of growing as a website, we launched the app in 2015. We now have 15 staff, 7,000 ustas, and tens of thousands of customers across the UAE.
‘It’s been a wonderful journey and we’re very proud of what we’ve done. Not just for ourselves as a business but for the whole market. I genuinely believe MrUsta has improved the quality of service in the UAE. This is the feedback from both customers and traders themselves.
‘That said, we want to achieve more. We would like to expand into other GCC cities. Every day is exciting. Every day, I wake up and am thankful for that broken air-conditioning unit.’
Shezan Amiji, 43, launched Beam Wallet with co-founders Serdar Nurmammedov, 35, and Nadim Khoury, 39, in 2012.
It has since become the UAE’s most popular mobile wallet app, enabling users to make payments – and receive cash rewards – in more than 5,000 shops and outlets in the UAE, including VOX Cinemas and Carrefour supermarkets.
Today, it is used by more than half a million customers and has just launched in Sweden and Australia.
Shezan is originally from India and lives in Jumeirah.
‘BEAM first launched in the UAE in 2012 and since then we have processed more than Dh2million worth of transactions.
‘You can use the app in thousands of outlets including Costa, Aldo, Dune and Pret To Go. Last year we became the country’s first mobile wallet which allows you to pay for petrol.
‘Yet, despite the UAE being our launch pad, the original idea can be traced back to Sydney, Australia. Specifically, to a kebab shop.
‘My co-founder Serdar Nurmammedov was running the restaurant and had started wrestling with the problem of how best to advertise the place: how to reach an audience, how to attract new diners and how to retain existing customers. And, crucially, how to do all that with the relatively small budget of an independent business.
‘What he realised was that if he was struggling with these things, other businesses must be too. So, he started thinking about possible common solutions.
‘This is how Beam begun.
‘He concluded the most efficient way of communicating with people was through smartphones because they’re so ubiquitous. And, from there, he decided if you could create an app where people use mobile to pay – and earn rewards – in store, it would both attract customers and give the business a real-time supply of customer data which could be used to improve services.
‘He and I had a friend in common, and were introduced. I’d started a number of businesses here in Dubai down the years – including a newspaper and an environmental advisory business – and so Serdar pitched the idea to me and our other co-founder Nadim, who was working for Cisco. He asked for help with capital and finding a city to launch the app in.
‘Nadim and I thought it was an excellent proposal, and we believed Dubai would be the perfect place. It’s a city where there’s high smartphone ownership, where people love to shop, and where businesses are keen to grasp new opportunities. We were sure it would have traction here.
‘We spent six months building the app, working through problems, acquiring investors, and developing ways to attract both customers and businesses.
‘By the time we launched in 2012, we already had hundreds of outlets signed up, and customers came on board pretty quickly. I think because the rewards are so simple – cash back, essentially – and because it’s so easy to use, people understood it instantly: the advantages were real and quantifiable.
‘Today, we have more than 5,000 outlets accepting Beam – a mix of small businesses and big chains – and 500,000 customers. Now, we’re looking to break into other markets. We’ve already gone live in Sweden after being approached by a company there to partner with and we have just launched in Sydney. But we’re also thinking Singapore would be an interesting market for us to launch.
‘I sometimes get asked by young tech-preneurs for advice. My answer is always the same: think big and think global.
‘Have a plan to scale up because starting your own business is a huge risk and a huge amount of work – so you might as well maximise the potential rewards. You might as well aim for the world.’
Craig McDonald, 26, is co-founder of YallaParking, a platform which allows Dubai residents and businesses to list their unused car lots for motorists to rent.
The website launched in May 2016 with the app going live this month. It has been described as an “AirBnB for parking”.
Craig, a financial analyst, is originally from Scotland and now lives in Jumeirah 3. Co-founder Harrison Jones is 28, from Wales and lives in Jumeirah 1.
‘My parents moved to Dubai before I was born and, for them, parking was never an issue. Back then, you just stuck your car on the nearest patch of sand.
‘But as the city developed, finding a space has become increasingly difficult. These days, you needed to add an extra 20 minutes onto any journey just to give yourself time to locate a parking spot at the end of it. There was one time I ripped the front bumper off my car trying to stick it on a sand bank near DIFC.
‘I met Harrison at a party in 2012. He was a recruiter and new here. His job meant he had to drive around seeing clients; and, so, we bonded over a mutual problem: parking. And, then, we said we should solve the problem ourselves by building an app. We had the expertise between us, and we both wanted to run our own business so we did some testing.
‘To start with, we just launched a webpage with a single question really: do you struggle with parking in Dubai? If that hadn’t got any response we might have left it. But over the next two weeks, we were inundated with emails from people telling us their own horror stories.
‘Initially, we envisaged Yalla as a kind of real estate website for parking but this was 2012-13 and, with the rise of on-demand services like Uber, we thought there was no reason we couldn’t do something similar for parking: pre-book a space, pay on your card, and go about your day.
‘Initial pick up after launch was promising, but it was when we’d been online for about a month that a corporate developer got in touch. They said they had a couple of hundred spaces they wanted to rent out and asked if they could do it through the website. Up to that point we had developed the site ourselves and were treating YallaParking as an experiment. This was the moment we realised just how big the marketplace could be. We set up in In5 and, after a bit of pitching, received an investment of Dh375,000 from an Emirati angel investor who works in transport and understood the problem first-hand.
‘Since then, we’ve had individuals, businesses, building owners and hotels all listing their spare spaces. We’ve now got more than 1,000 spaces across Marina, Barsha Heights, Business Bay, Downtown, DIFC, Deira and Bur Dubai; and about 700 registered customers. People can book spaces for anything from an hour – on the app – to more than a month on the website.
‘The plan is to expand across the UAE next. We’ve had emails from Kuwait, Lebanon, Bahrain and Eygpt asking if we’d consider launching there but, for now, we’re concentrating on refining things here.
‘Setting up Yalla has probably been the best thing we’ve ever done. Running your own business can be extremely difficult but the sense of satisfaction has its own reward.
I grew up in Dubai and consider it my home, I love the thought that our company can make it an even better city to live.