Scale is important for startups to put them on the radar of strategic acquirers, which are a more likely route to an exit in MENA than listing on public markets.
But MENA is not a single market so regionalizing your business is a difficult and expensive achievement, although we’ve seen some notable names do it such as Careem, Souq.com and Anghami.
To achieve scale, and attract those strategic acquirers, you need sustainable growth rather than quick wins.
These are the elements that I believe are necessary for a company to get there, and if you don’t end up exiting you’ll have built a solid enterprise that will last forever.
1. Use the right growth metrics
Growth in product use and adoption is key to a startup’s valuation. Regardless of the vertical you’re in, your key performance metrics should always capture that as valuations for technology startups are more correlated to revenue/usage growth than any other financial metric. To put this in perspective, at Talabat a modest week for transaction growth was 7 percent week-on-week, and acquired for a more than 20x revenue multiple, versus market comparables of 10x at that time.
2. Show your regional scale through product adoption
Showing strong evidence of widespread product use and adoption at scale is the only evidence of your position as a regional startup, but it’s much harder to show high growth rates when your revenue/usage are large (when you hit about $5 million per five million users). Product/market fit at scale is how strategic investors gauge a company’s growth prospects.
3. Pick the right investors
To achieve long-term sustainable growth, access to smart capital through multiple rounds of financing is critical. Instead of spending half of your time trying to fundraise, resilient financial backing lets you focus on the business. The best regional example I can think of is Souq.com, whose institutional investors have supported the company’s growth through its different stages.
4. Understand unit economics
Understanding your costing structure and properly allocating your total costs on per transaction basis must be accurately captured in your unit economics. As you reach your Series A and B funding rounds, understanding your unit economics is important in order to have a sense of what your margins could look like when your business matures. Due to different business environments Talabat was operating in, we used separate unit economics for each country we operated in. Such reports gave a better understanding of how much incremental growth directly affected Talabat’s bottom line.
5. Have a large market
Strategic acquirers invest in companies that have a large market. A large market means that the company could reasonably become a large enterprise even without extremely high penetration of that market. At Talabat, the food ordering market size was at least 10 times our daily transactions, even after operating for 10 years when we were growing at over 7 percent week-on-week.
6. Know the competition
When you’re disrupting an industry, competing products should never be ignored. Understanding your market structure and how your startup fits into the broader market is key to building your ‘unfair advantage’ over direct and indirect competition.
7. One vision, multiple products
Strategic investors want companies that aren’t built around one product. It’s important for founders to look beyond the product they’re currently offering, to build a community of products. That’s why market-leading companies such as Facebook start with one core product and end with multiple products that ultimately serve the single core vision.
8. Be community leaders
Strategic investors want to invest in companies with leadership teams that are branded well in the ecosystem they operate in. Beyond the founders, your C-Suite executive team have to be known names in their field, to build the trust of strategic investors when they do reference checks.
9. Hire the right sales and marketing people
Strategic investors will want to see you’ve hired a proven head of product and marketing, and sales. That person/persons is important as you seek to address consumer needs as you scale, and help you develop new features and products in the long-run.
10. Doing good for the community
Make sure you give back to your community. Mentoring entrepreneurs, supporting coding schools and engineering departments at local universities, as well as startup initiatives and many other activities are important. Strategic investors understand the value of a community leader. It’s not a quantitative metric, but a brand value that the community appreciates.
11. Keep your accounts clean
Most startups are deeply involved around the product and often forget that finance is core to ensuring long-term sustainability. Maintaining healthy accounting books and producing financials in a timely manner will prepare you for the fiscal rigour required by strategic investors.
12. Provide the right work environment
It may seem more administration work to build a code of conduct, employee handbook and operational procedures, but is important to create the right environment in your workplace. Communicating the founders’ values and expectations to employees affects the startup’s ability to execute on its plans. During Talabat’s first five years, we always tried writing our playbooks ourselves, which tended to be brief. As we grew, proper policies and procedures were developed to ensure we had the same operational efficiency as when we were a six-member team, and provided new hires with the appropriate context for doing the job. We had a weekly breakfast where everyone from the business could attend which was a chance to embrace the company’s values and vision.
13. Don’t take legal shortcuts
Startups in our part of the world often take shortcuts in complying with the local laws, which is not attractive for strategic investors. An example we see regionally is that business licensing and jurisdiction regulations are often ignored: your startup can be registered in a free-zone that only allows you to do business in that jurisdiction, but your revenue actually comes from other jurisdictions. Taking legal short-cuts might save you some money in the short-run but as you achieve regional scale this will come at a cost to your company’s valuation at the time of acquisition.
14. Responsible governance
Assemble a board from your investors that challenges your vision and governs your practice, and attract experts who could technically and operationally help you improve the business. This strategy paid off well for Talabat at the time of exiting as a member of the board played an important role in negotiating with the acquirers.
Abdulaziz B. Al Loughani