Vision talks to the CEO and co-founder of the ride-sharing app rivalling Uber, about how to retain regional roots when driving a startup across the globe
Five years have lapsed since Mudassir Sheikha left his career in consultancy and unknowingly set out on a journey to create the Middle East’s first ever billion-dollar company, ride-hailing app Careem.
53 cities, and that magical unicorn status followed suit, and most importantly the app has come to be known by many as ‘the Uber of the Middle East’. But in an interview with Vision in 2015, Sheikha was ambivalent to any such comparison, heralding his as a “local product, geared towards solving local problems, to build an institution in the region that would improve people’s lives”.
“We still continue to be the better product for our markets,” says the former McKinsey & Co. employee, as a brand-new partnership with Splyt has sky-rocketed Careem’s expansion. “These technologies allow global travelers to use a single app across multiple regions, eliminating the need to download new software when abroad.”
Such partnerships open the door for Careem to scale up global operations, says Sheikha. “We work with many international partners, including the likes of Google and Microsoft. These companies offer us an opportunity to learn from their expertise and expand our reach to their large global customer bases.”
However, as inaccurate news broke that Careem has brokered a deal with Yidao Yongche, similarly a five-year-old private car service valued at US$1bn in China, Sheikha stressed the local underpinning of his own brand, despite its ambitious plans overseas.
“Being based locally allows us to more fully understand the needs of our customers and prioritise those needs. That is not always easy for multinationals for whom this region may not be a big opportunity or priority.”
The rapid scaling up of Sheikha’s tech startup has also been facilitated by Dubai’s location and talent pool, he says. “We are extremely fortunate to be based in Dubai. It offers access to a very diverse and high-caliber talent pool that is needed to build a rapidly growing technology business and operate in so many diverse parts of the region.”
“It also has advanced infrastructure that enables technology businesses to scale quickly. It is well-connected with the rest of the world, and lastly, the legal infrastructure allows for 100 per cent ownership for expats.”
This expertly positions Careem to take advantage of the mobility opportunity in the region – which remains “wide open,” he says. “We are focused on continuing to scale in our existing cities, launching new cities, and experimenting with new products and services.”
Though Careem is going from strength to strength internationally, Sheikha still maintains the same “local product for local problems” mindset that he shared with Vision in 2015. His loyalty to Dubai and the Middle East is clear, and when it comes to thinking globally, he at once strategic and pragmatic. “Our mission is to simplify the lives of people, and anything that fits that bill is fair game for us.”