Talk from the Top - meet the boss of online retail brand Souq.com
"The Amazon.com of the Middle East". This phrase - so widely used to describe popular Dubai-based online marketplace Souq.com - draws a frown from the firm's CEO Ronaldo Mouchawar.
Not, one suspects, because he dislikes the comparison - indeed, who wouldn’t want to be mentioned in the same breath as one of the successful and well-known internet companies ever?
Perhaps more so because he feels Souq.com has done enough to be recognised and acknowledged for its own achievements since it hit the web back in 2006.
“From a customer service point of view I like it,” the 45-year-old Syrian national of the Dubai-based firm finally admits.
“But...I feel we are a lot more relevant to people in the region.
“We have an Egypt site, a Kuwait site, a Saudi site - that one is even bigger than Dubai.”
Ask how it then differs from Amazon and the key for Souq seems to be that life truly is local. “People are new to e-commerce in the region, so you speak to them differently. If they want to do cash on delivery, we do cash on delivery,” he says.
“We know it’s not the way e-commerce works but we see it as an early adapter - first time they pay cash on delivery when they see the product.
“Second time it may be more expensive - (and) when they really want something, then a credit card is a good way to acquire a product, so they trust our platform.”
The firm has reaped the rewards if this willingness to give the customer exactly what they want.
“The Arab world has woken up the internet or the internet has woken up the Arab world - one or the other. It’s great,” beams Mouchawar, adding that Souq.com’s reach has “grown to be massive.”
He’s not kidding. An estimated 3.5 million people visit Souq.com every month. That's about six million visits and 65 million page views a month. It’s one of the most visited sites in the UAE.
“The internet keeps me on, I love it,” gushes Mouchawar. “Sixty per cent of the population is below 25, the new generation is very online savvy.” For the clued-up, tech-loving ‘mobile generation’, it has very much become a way of life.
“Sixty per cent of people in the UAE buy online and we want every one of them to buy on Souq,” says Mouchawar. “The biggest Mall here gets 300,000 visitors every day. We already get more visitors than that,” he insists.
According to Mouchawar though, e-commerce in the UAE still accounts for less than 1 per cent of retail - an opportunity for web gurus like himself. But if online is the only way ahead, why have discount voucher giants Groupon - phenomenally successful elsewhere on earth - experienced so many teething problems here?
“I can’t speak for Groupon,” says Mouchawar. “But, from our point of view, you really need to understand your market well and what your customer wants. If you buy a product then we want to deliver the product to you. We don’t want to give you a voucher and then you have to go find the merchant. You need to understand your demographic in the region and you need to have trust.”
It’s more than that though: “Trust is essential but you also have to give choice; if I want to buy a product I need to decide when to buy it - not somebody else offering it to me.”
LIVE AND LEARN
Name: Ronaldo mouchawar
Q WHAT WAS YOUR FIRST EVER JOB?
A I worked in a bookstore. I went to university and you have to make extra income to survive and one of my professors said ‘you should try working in a bookstore’. It was quite an academic bookstore.
Q WHO HAS BEEN THE BIGGEST INFLUENCE ON YOUR CAREER?
A That would be my dad, from an upbringing point of view.
Q WHAT HAS BEEN THE BEST DAY OF YOUR CAREER?
A Every day is the best day - we keep growing.
Q HOW DO YOU RELAX?
A I’m a basketball player. I like to play and I watch a lot of NBA games. I’m a big Celtics fan; I went to school in Boston.
Q WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE TO PEOPLE KEEN TO GET INTO YOUR INDUSTRY?
A I tell them two things. One is you have to try - you can’t be scared that things won’t work. The other is focus on what you are trying to build as an entrepreneur. If you are looking at the short term and just want to build a company to sell it, then that might not work. Focus on the long term.