In October 2013, Dunia Othman and Ibrahim Colak cut short their honeymoon in Crete to pitch their idea for a technology start-up to Afkar, a digital business incubator.
Their idea was to launch a new online marketplace to link tradespeople – from painters to martial arts instructors – with UAE residents.
Now, the business, called Mr Usta, connects 9,000 users a month with 3,500 tradespeople, or “ustas”, as the site’s founders call them. Operating on just US$2,000 a month, the site allows customers to rate their experience of service providers, which will help to direct customers to the best ustas.
Similar to “guru”, “master” or “teacher”, and familiar to Arabic speakers as a term for drivers (in Egypt) and professionals (although Levant Arabs prefer ma’elem), an usta is someone you call when you need something fixed.
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At Afkar’s pitching competition in Dubai Media City in October 2013, Mr Usta beat seven rivals to secure office space, a design, finance and development team and mentorship.
The idea had formed four months earlier, when Mr Colak’s air-conditioning unit stopped working in Dubai’s July heat.
His landlord promised to fix the air-conditioning unit, then said that he could not arrange for a repairman. So Mr Colak made some calls and hired a specialist, who turned up two days later, promised to return and was never heard from again. Finally, he paid someone to finish the job.
But Mr Colak realised that he was not alone in having difficulty in finding a reliable services provider. In Dubai, few small service and trade businesses are online and few were willing to offer quotes over the phone.
When Ms Othman accepted a repairman’s offer of a free quotation on the cost to put up her curtains, she realised she was in a precarious position.
“He came into the house and started yelling at me. He had offered a free quotation but was now yelling ‘You have to pay me’, to put up the curtains,” she said.
“I realised I was alone in my house, I was getting yelled at by a stranger who was being threatening.”
A lack of information about which service providers are reliable could even be dangerous for Dubai’s residents, she realised.
Ms Othman and Mr Colak met at Nokia. Mr Colak talked to two friends at the company, Onur Tepeli, its developer-in-chief, and Serhan Yazici, a finance manager.
This is not the first new idea the pair has been involved with. Mr Colak had worked in product development at Nokia in Istanbul and Dubai.
Ms Othman, who had lived in New Zealand, launched a “mini-start-up” in 2003 that she called “Shoestring Solutions”. It sold devices to help people regulate systems where the temperature had to be kept within a tight range.
She had a colleague who wanted to be able to store vaccines at a constant temperature in a refrigerator. So Ms Othman built a device to monitor the temperature in the fridge, which would send a text message to the owner when the temperature deviated above or below a certain range.
“That was back in the days when SMS was widespread and phone internet wasn’t. It became kind of obsolete after that, but I still have one sample in my house,” said Ms Othman.
For Mr Usta, she and Mr Colak looked at examples of similar concepts abroad – Task Rabbit in the United States, and Yelp, which operates in several cities. “But we were focused on localising the solution here, not just copying and pasting a model from somewhere else,” she said.
So the couple wanted to gather real customer data about the user experience by making the site free to use for the first year.
Data from Dubai’s government show there are more than 100,000 small- and micro-businesses in the emirate, almost 90 per cent of which have no online presence.
“People on Facebook have thanked us for bringing this online world to them. Plumbers don’t necessarily know how to market to customers,” said Ms Othman.
“My ideal is that anyone who asks, ‘where can I find a plumber, or a someone to put up curtains, or a cake decorator’ will be told – go to Mr Usta.
“In the same way that new expats in the UAE who need apartments or furniture are told to go to Dubizzle, we want people to say ‘go to Mr Usta’.”
The biggest challenge that Ms Othman and Mr Colak faced was finding an investor who understood the technology sector – and who believed in the idea.
“There are so many people in the UAE who call themselves investors,” said Mr Colak. “But mostly they’re interested in real estate and want to return a profit within six months.
“When you talk to them about technology, they think about robots. And when they hear that you’re a company who helps people to find cleaners and plumbers, they lose interest.
“We needed to find someone who understands and believes in the concept.”
The pair plans to expand into Egypt and Saudi Arabia. But they are aware that that will pose unique challenges in countries where the culture of hiring tradespeople is different.
“In Egypt you have street life – downstairs from the building where you live there will be a painter and a plumber somewhere on the street. So our challenge there will be to try and make the marketplace more competitive,” said Ms Othman.
“In Saudi Arabia, expats usually pay a company to sort everything out. These companies are more like concierge services.
“The UAE is different to both of these. Here, expats are usually lost and need to know how to find painters and plumbers and so on.
“We want to make sure we understand the UAE really well, and then we can cater to new markets.”
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