From Silicon Valley to Dubai: stories of failure and success

Mudassir Sheikha is the founder of Careem, a high-end car booking service in Dubai that has recently acquired Moroccan startup Taxi. He reveals what the dotcom bubble taught him about creating a product for the value of the idea, rather than the financial gains

Mudassir Sheikha has seen his fair share of triumphs and failures. The Pakistan-born former McKinsey & Co. employee learned most of what he knows about entrepreneurship today the hard way. 

Sheikha graduated in 1999 in California, at a time when the dotcom bubble was at its peak. Like most of his friends at the time, he aspired to make it big fast in Silicon Valley, where internet startups mushroomed. “I remember having a discussion with my friends that by the time we were 24 we should have millions of dollars in our bank accounts. Those were the aspirations back in the day,” he said.

With this in mind, he joined a startup known as Brience that had raised a whooping US$200m in the first round of funding and was one of the hottest stories at the time. The plan was to sell shares to the public in nine months, have a US$1bn IPO and make everyone rich for the rest of their lives, said Sheikha. But after three years of burning money, Brience folded and was acquired by another company.

Careem is a smartphone app based booking service for limousines in the UAE

“It was very financially focused and driven, which seemed alright at the time, but the unfolding of the bubble and the fact that we were purely financially driven didn’t end up in a good place,” said Sheikha. “From that first experience I learned a lot of things not to do. To build a sustainable business you need to deliver a product or service that is really going to add value to people’s lives, that is going to improve people’s lives. If it doesn’t do that in some shape or form it doesn’t make sense.”

Luckily, Sheikha emerged from that experience with valuable lessons that he would later apply to starting a venture of his own. He moved to Dubai in 2008 and joined consultancy firm McKinsey & Co., before the entrepreneurial itch came back. He teamed up with colleague Magnus Olsson and started Careem, a high-end car booking service that offered reliable and comfortable transport solutions through online booking. It started with a simple website that served corporations wishing to make future bookings.

Describing Careem’s value proposition, Sheikha said: “We would make sure the car would show up, the driver knows the pick up location, he would be prepared to take you where you needed to go without necessarily needing directions because we would’ve prepared that in advance, the quality would be fine and consistent.”

Noticing increasing demand from the consumer side, the co-founders decided to take Careem to the next level, extending the service to individuals and launching an app-based mobile service that enabled customers to make on-demand bookings instead of pre-bookings.

To build a sustainable business you need to deliver a product or service that is really going to add value to people’s lives, that is going to improve people’s lives. If it doesn’t do that in some shape or form it doesn’t make sense

Mudassir Sheikha, Founder, Careem

“The main driver for us was to build an institution in the region that would improve people’s lives. That’s really what got us excited,” said Sheikha.  

Among the many lessons Sheikha learned from his California experience is ‘how to dream’. “The startup, despite all its follies, had a dream and an aspiration to become extremely big extremely rapidly, and that, I think, if I had not spent time in the valley, I probably would not have learned.”

Sheikha’s advice for young entrepreneurs is “if you have entrepreneurial ambitions and you’re on the fence then just do it” and the earlier the better. Entrepreneurs also need to have a thorough understanding of the problem they intend to solve, he says; lessons that he imparted as a speaker at the “Building your team to achieve your dream” event at In5, which Falcon and Associates ran in partnership with Young Arab Leaders on 9 March.

He doesn’t like Careem to be compared to the global car booking company Uber, saying Careem offers a local product geared towards solving local problems, as opposed to the international competitor. However, he welcomes competition. 

“Overall we like competition. Since competition came to the market we have benefited not only from the market education that happened as a result of it, but we have also become stronger in our execution because you need to compete and up your game when you have a global player down your throat,” said Sheikha. “I think it has helped us, made us stronger and the results show that.”