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Why the Careem deal resonates with every entrepreneur

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This week, just like everyone else, I wake up to the stories on the internet of the Uber-Careem acquisition. Everyone that’s anyone in the Middle East is either talking about it, posting something about it or sharing it with their networks. It makes me wonder: what is it about the story that resonates with the community? What is it that makes Careem’s victory feel like our victory? And the answer is simple: it’s because Careem’s story is personal. Personal in so many ways.

Coming out of 2018, it won’t be an exaggeration to say that this deal is a moment of pride for the UAE SME ecosystem and a defining moment of the year. What makes it personal, however, is the fact that Careem has an identity bigger than the ‘most valued start-up’ or ‘the first unicorn of the UAE’ or ‘one of the biggest deals of the UAE market’.

The founders of Careem have built a company that made thousands of UAE residents trust technology to get them safely to their destination.

They’ve built a company which carved a place — not just in the start-up ecosystem — but in the hearts of UAE residents with their ‘Yalla Careem’ campaigns or the fact that they call their drivers ‘Captains’.

They’ve built a company where the management team took passenger rides themselves to connect with their customers.

From the very beginning, they have made it personal.

From the perspective of the SME community, this story is personal because it sets the right template for every business owner looking to make an exit, and more importantly sends out a message that Middle Eastern start-ups not only stand a chance against global competition but are doing so while being equally well-funded and technically superior.

Looking at it from the point of view of a business owner or entrepreneur, one of the main reasons why Careem’s story will strongly resonate to anyone running a business is because their company graph has been scaling-up strategically year-on-year. While they did receive funding at crucial points in time, their focus has been on organic expansion across markets.

The company started in 2012 as a website-based service and evolved to become a transportation network service. In 2013, the company raised US$1.7 million in its Seed Round by STC Ventures. In 2014, the company raised US$10 million in Series B funding. By 2015, the company received an investment of US$ 60 million led by the Abraaj Group and acquired Saudi-based home-delivery service Enwani. In 2016, the company acquired Savaree — a Pakistan-based cab service and raised US$ 350 million in a Series D round. In 2017, the company raised US$ 150 million in a Series E round. In 2018, the company received funding of US$ 200 million from its existing investors and announced the acquisition of RoundMenu — a UAE-based restaurant discovery online platform as well as the Indian start-up for mass transit shuttle services, Commut.

Careem has focused on year-on-growth not only through its major funding deals but also through its strategic acquisitions. The major trigger for Careem’s growth has been its entry into markets such as Pakistan, Morocco, Turkey and Sudan — targeting over 120 cities. And perhaps it was this clarity in vision that has led it to where it is today.

I remember the first time I went to the Careem office in 2015 to interview its CEO Mudassir Sheikha and he said, “The way I look at it, any start-up should have four primary characteristics: it needs to be big, awesome, socially responsible and produce leaders.” The kind of vision he had when Careem was still fairly early on in its growth journey was nothing short of remarkable and a clear indication that the start-up had big ambitions. Ever since we’ve reported all of Careem’s small and big wins along the way.

So, for us at SME Advisor, this deal is personal because this is a business we’ve been rooting for since inception. It’s a local success story that started small, stuck to doing what it does best and has now been acquired by its larger global counterpart.

As business owners ourselves, we know that the SME space is a challenging ecosystem to be in and thus for a home-grown start-up to go from 0 to US$ 3.1 billion is something that validates the fact that aspirations can be turned into reality.

Careem has been a story of risks, invention, adaptation, growth — and of course — a story of creating a personal connection to a local market — and perhaps that’s what makes us feel so strongly about it – and we truly hope it continues being so.

Rushika Bhatia

Rushika Bhatia is one of the region’s leading commentators on business and current affairs issues. She is the Editor of SME Advisor magazine - the flagship title of CPI Business. She is passionate about infographics – with special emphasis on data, research and statistics. Rushika has a Bachelor’s Degree from Indiana University, USA and is also CIMA qualified.