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Here's how Souq.com makes it click

Khaleej Times logo Khaleej Times 19/04/2017 Alvin R. Cabral
Here's how Souq.com makes it click © Provided by Khaleej Times Here's how Souq.com makes it click

He's seen it all. From doing business in a country void of Internet to dealing with multiple disappointments, Ronaldo Mouchawar just won't go down that easily.

"You have to be able to stand up in front of your team and make them believe that what you're doing is unique, groundbreaking and history-making," he says.

True to his philosophy, he now stands at the forefront of what is considered to be the first unicorn in the Middle East. And with his words, Mouchawar - the co-founder and CEO of e-commerce titan Souq.com, during an interaction with the editorial team of Khaleej Times - sounds like he's just beginning.

From the get-go, it wasn't easy. Mouchawar started off in the United States working on image processing in the healthcare industry. At the time - in the 1990s -the Internet, while still in its infancy, was already bringing a lot of change.

One day he had to return to his native Syria because his father has passed away. During those days he was working for Aramex, and it was also during this time that he'd meet two Jordanians - Samih Toukan and Hussam Khoury - that would trigger a series of events that would transform Mouchawar's life forever.

And it all started with the idea that slapping a small Arabic keyboard to a Web page would change things.

"The rest, as they say," he quips, "is history."

Although not exactly how we know it right now: it would lead to the foundation of Maktoob.com, the world's first Arabic e-mail and largest Arab online community, that helped Arabs globally communicate with each other. (Maktoob would later be acquired by Yahoo in 2009.)

"We received fan mails from all over the world, thanking us for the service we've provided them, making it easier for them to communicate in Arabic," he recalls.

More challenges would come - including the dot-com bubble and a bigger rival with more firepower than what they had. Mouchawar and his friends had realised it was time to take that leap and begin "selling" the idea.

The early days

Souq.com was then born in 2005, and Dubai was the obvious choice for its base. But - again - it wasn't easy; try seeing your promotional flyers being taken down because they didn't have permits.

"There is no easy win in this space; it can't be built overnight," Mouchawar firmly says.

"It's going to take time, but when it starts winning, it's going to be crazy."

Crazy it has been, indeed. Reflecting on Souq.com's early days - years, even - and beyond that in Mouchawar's career, the growth story of the company has been "magical".

"When things work well, the customer itself scales; because [as a customer] if you are happy then you just come back to that platform. and that's something that's magical," he explains. "You got to figure out how to do it; there's not a lot of science there - you just have to make sure your service works and works well at scale."

E-commerce is a huge business in the region. A recent AT Kearney report showed that the market in the GCC is expected to grow from Dh19.5 billion in 2015 to Dh73.4 billion by 2020.

Mouchawar recalls that Souq.com initially concentrated on mobile phones - a "specialty", as he termed it - but soon branched out to be a well-rounded marketplace. And it still is the most popular category on the site, followed by electronics and fashion/lifestyle.

At present, the portal offers over two million products across 31 categories, with 70 per cent of customers being male and the rest female.

With a huge selection, Souq.com also realises that coming up with special events - such as Mobile Mania and White Friday, the equivalent of America's Black Friday - is one effective way to spruce up even more business.

And just how effective? Mouchawar recalls what happened prior to its first White Friday, and how it played out as an eye-popping ride.

"Many directors didn't believe that we would achieve our goal [for the whole White Friday period], he says.

Guess what? They were able to hit the target in its very first day.

So, the problem, it turned out, wasn't about achieving the goal, but to "stop the sale and figure out how to deliver everything", he says with a laugh.

Unexpected things like these also build stronger character and foster better teamwork, Mouchawar adds. "As a company we're good at setting a goal and rallying around it," he says.

He firmly believes that change is the only thing constant, "and it has helped me a lot", he stresses.

The tech factor

Dubai being its headquarters has only helped Souq.com: the emirate's knack for technology, media and marketing has indeed helped Mouchawar and his team scale greater heights.

But he points to one key component in this space: the "best friend" that we have in our hands.

"People got empowered by the mobile," he says, pointing out that persons are always connected, and that this has helped Souq.com build its brand further, especially through social media channels. And even Souq.com's investors have the know-how: "We had global investors who knew how [e-commerce] ran, those who knew about India's Flipkart and China's Alibaba."

Recently, Souq.com was acquired by US e-commerce giant Amazon.com, and Mouchawar looks forward to looking into the latter "from the inside".

And speaking of inside, he was proud to about the culture at Souq.com: he points out that his team adheres to six key values: trust, fun, innovation, initiative, growth and the "wow" factor.

"We set goals for the company at a higher level so that everyone can step up. people [then] get very creative to solve problems [in the future]," he says.

And how do you manage your team and keep them motivated?

"We have incentivised programmes to make everyone feel they're part of everything," he adds.

Do not be afraid to fail

Mouchawar has had his fair share of failures - but there is no other recourse but to get back up and keep punching.

"Believe in your mission, build a good team and have fun doing it. It's not going to be easy so you have to persevere," he says.

Mouchawar goes further on whether there could be a possible startup bubble burst - and he gives a very enlightening take on it.

"You'll have some startups that won't continue but what comes out of those are also positive," he stresses. "A failed startup creates a new startup. and a good startup means more jobs... I would not look at that as negative because those are hard-tested entrepreneurs that will do well with others."

And never miss an opportunity, he says.

"You have to be fast," Mouchawar adds. "If your DNA is figuring out and making decisions quickly, then there is a lot to be achieved."

- alvin@khaleejtimes.com

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