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Ambareen Musa, founder and CEO of Souqalmal, shares her story of triumph.

In early October, Souqalmal, a UAE-based financial and insurance aggregator, announced it had raised US$10 million to expand and move ahead of the pack, allowing Ambareen Musa, the company’s founder and CEO, to deservedly ride a wave of support on the internet as the entrepreneur of the moment. With the Saudi-based Riyad TAQNIA Fund (RTF) as the lead investor, and UAE Exchange Group and UK-based GoCompare joining the round, Musa has been applauded for building a business with an appeal that effortlessly crosses borders and investor hesitation. But the fundraising was soon followed by another triumph for Souqalmal- after a formal pitch process, her company won a three-year agreement to help the central bank of Saudi Arabia, Saudi Arabian Monetary Authority (SAMA), build, populate and manage an official financial awareness platform for KSA consumers -SAMACares- including handling complaints from both Saudi consumers and banks, finance, and insurance companies.

In hindsight, Musa recalls being fearful when receiving a call from a SAMA representative, although it ultimately led to an unforeseen benefit. “They called us in after learning about us on Twitter, and I went there thinking they would shut us down,” she says. “I had never been to Saudi Arabia before; that was my first time, and yet, that was when they offered us to do financial education for them. That’s a new business for which we are paid a fixed price.”

If anything, this episode speaks volumes about her eagerness to follow through on opportunities that present themselves to her, notwithstanding the fact that she isn’t concerned with presenting only the strongest or any other best-behavior version of her public self. When we met at Souqalmal’s office in Jumeirah Lakes Towers for this interview, I found it interesting to note that she didn’t bat an eyelid when answering my plethora of questions, always maintaining a word-perfect commentary about every detail of the business she has built, and how it has changed her and her life. When an employee walks into Musa’s office in the middle of our interview, looking to her for advice on something, she takes a quick glance at an excel sheet on the former’s laptop, suggests a solution, nods, and as if not distracted in the slightest, continues talking to me. At one point, she takes my pen to circle or cross out a few points in my notebook, saving the time that uttering the answer would require. And it is there that her multi-tasking expertise -in addition to being a founder of a fast-growing company, Musa is a mother of two, to name just two of her many roles- displays itself as a pivotal part of her success. “I have to say that over the last 12 months, I learnt that I didn’t even know how strong I was,” she says. “Every single experience you go through just makes you stronger. Every time I raise more funding now, I just get more self-confident because it’s about knowledge, pure knowledge. The way to stay calm and be able to deal with all of this is that the more knowledge you have, the calmer you are. What you really should stay out of is panic mode, no matter what happens. In the end, it is about your mindset, your ability of be calm and find solutions.”

When I first interviewed Musa some time ago, she noted she was struggling then to strike a balance between motherhood and entrepreneurship. Now, instead of trying to define it, she says, she takes it as it is. “The trick about doing it as a mum is to bring the kids with you along your journey, so that they know and understand what you do,” she says. “I sometimes introduce my kids to my clients, my partners, because I also want people to understand that I am a person, and not just a founder and CEO. It is important for them to know that it’s okay if I don’t answer their call immediately. Also, as I have the household to manage, I have learnt that you have to be super strict on timing, and you have to be productive. I don’t do two-hour lunches anymore. I also rarely do meetings after 6pm. So, I think it’s doable, it’s manageable as long as you know where your priorities lie. At different times, I have different priorities. My kids understand that. And, for example, when I signed the term sheets, I went out for dinner with my kids.”

It isn’t hard to discern why her business is based on offering online price transparency and comparison tools -or, in other words, learning opportunities to keep our finances in order- that enable consumers in this region to make more educated financial choices. Musa seems to have had this hunger for learning in abundance from an early age. Her path reads as a guide to venturing into entrepreneurship, where a good educational background, a successful corporate career, and a passionate personality resulted in the creation of a solid business. She holds an undergraduate business degree from RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia, and an MBA from INSEAD. Her first forays into entrepreneurship include founding an online property portal for international students in Australia, and an online financial education site in the UK. Later on, her corporate career saw her working for GE’s financial arm, GE Money, in London, and for Bain & Company Middle East after moving to Dubai in 2008. In Dubai, she went on to set up the consulting arm of MasterCard Middle East and Africa, where she stayed for two years before founding in 2012.

Souqalmal has been conceptualized as a highly transparent marketplace to empower consumers to make the right choice by bringing together on one convenient platform all the latest details on more than 3,200 retail banking, insurance, and education products offered by various providers in the UAE and Saudi Arabia. Financial literacy has been its main mission from the outset.

Those familiar with the prevalent, often decadent, lifestyles of the region’s residents do not doubt the need for a trusted partner in these matters- a recent Souqalmal survey of 300 UAE residents revealed that 83% had at least one active loan, while over a quarter (27%) had three or more active debt obligations. “Over the last five years, we have built a brand, which I would say is the most trusted brand when it comes to an aggregator, and it’s because we’ve brought the full financial education to the core of the business,” Musa says. “Honestly, 60% of our traffic comes through the content today. So, more than half of our traffic is due to people finding us and asking for help. Putting the customer, and the financial education as an aspect of it, at the core of the business, really helped us build the brand. Our USP is really about that, and not about short-term revenues. It really is a long-term strategy of building a customer base of residents who are smart enough to understand what they are getting themselves into. Naturally, because all this information comes from us, we have become a trusted brand. It is about our customers because, at the end of the day, the moment you get a whole bunch of customers that trust you, the revenue follows.” Souqalmal’s business model is a sustainable solution for the providers of these services as well. “On the banks’ side we get paid per lead, meaning any eligible customer they get from us,” Musa adds. “In the insurance business, it is different as it is a commission-based model, meaning that we have partnered with Life Care International, which is our broker, and we do a revenue share with them. It is a revenue share between us and the insurance companies. That is very much a scalable business. For others, it’s all customer-per-lead. Yet, even the way we make money is all about education. For example, banks pay us, but some of them weren’t excited about some of their products at the beginning, and then we tried to explain to them that if they didn’t stop hiding details about those products, they would get wrong customers to start with. This has resulted in us expanding our cooperation with those banks.”

The successful raise of the aggregator’s $10 million Series B round comes following its revenue increase of 300% year-on-year since inception, with only insurance vertical growing 800% in the last 12 months. Previously, Souqalmal received funds from seven angel investors (2012), and closed a $1.2 million Series A round by London and Antwerpbased Hummingbird Ventures (2013), known for supporting high-growth startups like Deliveroo. Musa is acutely conscious of the responsibility this conferred. “When it comes to angel investors, I remember that I spoke to two guys on Monday, and next Thursday I had a check- in four days,” she reveals. “There are a couple of reasons for this. Angels liked that we were already making money which proved to them that the customer wanted to buy our product. We were making $4,000 a month. We were making nothing at the time. But, I remember really well that one of the angels sat with me and said he wanted to invest in me because, one, we were making money, and two, I had INSEAD and Bain on my CV. That just says something. Then, you realize that your background, what you’ve done before, does count. We closed seven of them within a period of three months. My angel investors are always close to my heart, because if you think about it, I was just one person working out of a coffee shop, and these guys put their savings into my business. It is important for me, as a founder, to look after the guys who backed me up early on. So, in every other investment round that I do, I always take care of them. I think the whole entrepreneurship world -and the whole journey- is about the relationships that you build with people. It’s about the trust that you can bring out there and that is the only reason people will give you money. If they don’t trust you, they will not give you money. And, even at this stage we are at now, I cannot tell you how many times I’ve heard that they are still investing in the founder. Trust is still a big part of it.”

The concept of an aggregator website has been proven around the world, she explains, leading Souqalmal’s investors to base their decision only on whether Musa has enough local knowledge and ability to execute- to put it simply whether she will be able to build a business that shows signs of long-term sustainability and a path to profitability at some point of time. When asked for her main lessons from all three founding rounds, she replies, “You learn what to watch out for. You start to know what to look out for, but you also start to learn that in every single race, there is give and take. I also think that it’s important to understand that every round is different because people come in at different prices, people come in for different reasons. So, when you negotiate the terms, you need to take all of this into consideration. And you need to make sure that you, as a founder, get motivated as well. You need to pass this message on very clearly to the investors that are coming in. Also, what you have to remember is that you should always think about the next round because next time you will have to accept even bigger terms than the terms that you accept today. The investors that are coming in next time will normally request preferred terms to the ones who came before because they are coming in at a higher price. If you give more today, you’ll have to give even more next time. So, if you give it all out in your first round, what else do you have to give later?” For now, Musa and her 33-person-strong team are focused on preventing a fairly common fate among tech startups- not handling fast-paced growth properly. There are two rules for scaling up a business that she is unapologetic about: building solid foundations and keeping her personal touch in all aspects of the business. “Scaling up a business is all about the objective,” she says. “It can be done in two ways. You can just go out and burn a whole lot of money on marketing and be like: “We’ll figure it out when the cash is gone.’ The other way to do it is getting your foundations right. That’s what we’ve decided to do. We’ve been very careful in terms of how much investment we burn out. There is a very good reason for that. One, I believe very strongly that before you start burning marketing budgets, you need to have your economics positive. You need to have your foundations right, and when I talk about foundations, it can include everything, starting with your conversion rate, for example. We have decreased our customer acquisition costs by 80%. It is about being smart to use the money that you raise in the most efficient way and literally making sure that the foundation that you are going to scale up on doesn’t just break down. That’s one part of it.”

Operating in the UAE and KSA, allows users to compare retail banking products, such as credit cards, loans, accounts and insurance.
Source:“The second part of it is that most companies take their call center as an admin, but when you think about it, most of the complaints are because of that,” she continues. “If these are the people who are representing your brand, don’t you think you should put more effort into it? A consumer judges Souqalmal by them, not by me; they might not even know who I am. So, I go to our call center in Al Quoz once a month just to listen what’s going on there. I also meet all 12 of our team members [who work in the call center] over dinner once a month. As a founder, it is easy that at some point you just start delegating, and lose that personal touch you had when it was only five or six people doing everything. I try not to lose that. I spend a couple of hours with them, hear things that I bring back into my world, and think what I can do to help these guys. It is about me showing them that I need to give them what they need to do their job. It is easy to just say: “Why didn’t you meet your targets?’ It is better to add layers and support good employees. So, scaling up is about that as well- train them properly, get that foundation right, so when you scale up it becomes a process. The training itself becomes a process, and then you can add more. So, the trick is to learn how to delegate, but also to keep a bit of a personal touch.”

Yes, this is a difficult technique, but all indications are that Musa was able to do it expertly. Additionally, it is encouraging for her business; we are already preparing for Souqalmal’s next major announcement. It will happen eventually.

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