What Uber is to transport, ServiceMarket.com is to home services. Founded in Dubai in 2013, the home-grown company has grown exponentially to cover 10 cities in the Middle East. Bana Shomali, Founder, ServiceMarket, shares some of her hard-won lessons on leading a company and innovating in the crowded sharing economy space…
Running a business gives you invaluable lessons about the market you operate in and a deep understanding of the customer. When Bana Shomali ventured into the entrepreneurial world, she originally founded a concept called MoveSouq.com. Reflecting on the transition, she remarks: “We had originally been called ‘MoveSouq.com’ and we rebranded to ServiceMarket.com to more accurately reflect our ambition and scope of services. We launched several new services, most notably, a platform where people can compare and buy their car and home insurance online. Today, ServiceMarket.com is the region’s largest online marketplace for home services. ServiceMarket helps people find, get quotes and book any service they need with the click of a button from professional, vetted companies. Whether you’re looking for a mover or a maintenance company, a cleaner or a caterer, ServiceMarket has paired up with over 300 licensed companies to deliver these services.”
What is helping growth?
ServiceMarket is one of the UAE’s fastest growing start-ups, with double-digit growth month-on-month in online transactions. Much of this advancement can be accredited to the uniqueness of the platform. It provides something that there is a huge demand for and currently isn’t being offered elsewhere. It solves a unique problem for customers in the region, which is that home services have been traditionally very difficult to procure due to the high fragmentation of the industry. At the same time, companies operating in the industry found it difficult to reach customers in a cost-effective way. The platform presents the perfect solution for both customer and company, by connecting them both and allowing them to transact online. “Another aspect is that a lot of our customers come back and use us for several services – if you’ve used our site to find a catering company for a party, you’ll likely use us again to book a cleaner to help clean up afterwards,” Shomali remarks.
What’s also beneficial to her start-up is that the overall e-commerce market in the region is growing rapidly each year.
It is forecast that e-commerce in the UAE will be worth US$10 billion by 2018.
The online services market is only nascent. This bodes a very positive outlook for ServiceMarket. Perhaps, it was these defining factors driving growth that convinced investors to put their money behind the company. ServiceMarket raised US$ 4 million into the business so far since its launch. The last round (Series A) was in 2016, which comprised of a US$ 3 million capital investment from a global VC firm called Addventure. “We have exceeded our investors’ expectations in terms of growth year on year, despite originally having very little in terms of funding. We did this by focusing on monetisation and profitability from Day One. We’re very proud of the team we have built at ServiceMarket. It’s 40 people strong and comprises of passionate, entrepreneurial and hardworking individuals. It’s led by a C-level team that has over 40 years of combined work experience,” beams Shomali.
Powering through challenges
“The biggest challenge you face when running a small business is having very limited resources while trying to solve a big problem. In our case, we are trying to digitise a traditionally offline industry (a huge challenge) and we are cracking at this problem with a small team and limited funding,” Shomali quips. “The reality of having limited resources means that you must continuously prioritise initiatives, choosing the ones that drive the fastest growth, and parking the rest of the ideas for a later date. It is sometimes very difficult to force these choices, but we have to. If we could launch everything we wanted, and funding wasn’t an issue, we’d probably grow much faster.”
Even as Shomali is facing the harsh reality of being an entrepreneur, she has found a hack to boost productivity with a small team.
“We have yearly, monthly and weekly planning sessions to make sure we are continuously assessing what we need to get done, by when and in which order of priority. As our team grew from three to 15 people and now to 40 people, we’ve had to formalise our working relationships with more transparent processes and tools. In the early days, our “processes” entailed just asking the person next to you to get something done! Now, with a bigger team, we’ve instilled some formal processes and tools for planning, execution and tracking. Despite these new more formal tools, we still leave room for acting on our feet, and staying agile.”
Why being a small company is advantageous?
Shomali likes to think that as a small company, they are quite efficient in getting things done. “We’re lucky that we are not held back by things like company politics and bureaucracy. We have a high bar with our team on the speed of execution. It’s important we remain agile in an increasingly competitive market,” she explains. It is this captivating combination of agility and functionality that helps Shomali’s platform stand out from the competition. “While there have been some smaller players who have entered the market, we remain the largest player, with the most advanced technology and most premium network of home service providers. We make sure we remain the first choice for our customers by investing significantly in our customer experience and technology. We’ve adopted world-class tools to track the experience of every customer using our service, and addressing customer complaints in real-time.”
Technology, new markets and ambitions for the future
At its very core, ServiceMarket is a company that runs on state-of-the-art technology. This is the ethos that Shomali wants to continue focusing on as she plans to take her business to the next level. “As a tech company, the primary capex investments we make is in our technology – both our front-end website and app, but also the machine that operates in the back-end. Our biggest investment in technology moving forward will be toward going deeper in the value chain, and integrating more deeply with our service providers. So that means developing products that help them schedule jobs in an easier way, get paid faster, and track the service real time.”
In the meantime, she is also eyeing expansion using a three-pronged approach. First, she will expand geographically. Having already grown to 10 cities in the last six months, she will continue to add more cities to her portfolio. Second, she is looking to add more services so that she can offer a more valuable platform to customers. She adds: “I prioritise my time daily toward the initiatives that are very important for mid-to longer-term growth, such as designing new products and launching in new cities.” Looking to the future, Shomali hopes that the lucrative market will continue to favour her business. “The exponential growth of online consumption in the UAE and the region is a boon for our business. Just in the last year, we’ve seen online search volumes for some of our services quadruple. We believe that it’s only a matter of time before people are booking anything they need online, with a technology that’s integrated into their homes. I can imagine someone coming home at the end of a long day, speaking into an online personal assistant, like Siri or Alexa, asking them to book a cleaner for the next day,” she concludes.