Entrepreneur of the Week in about 20 different magazines in recent years, Tarek Kabrit started his career as strategy consultant with Booz Allen and worked in investment banking and private equity with Deutsche Bank and Abraaj Capital, then joined Mubadala in Abu Dhabi. He was also a venture partner with a few V.C. funds like Wunder. When he imagined an app that would do to cars what Shazam does to music, he founded his billion-dollar startup, Seez.
In this Q&A excerpted from a live webinar, Tarek discusses pitches, VCs, hiring a team, the future of remote working, and how to get from idea to business.
Q1. So, It’s quite the classic entrepreneurial story. You read a lot about startups and one of the bits of advice always is find a problem that you’re facing and it’s likely that other people are facing the same thing.
A. There was a problem with that, though. At some point early on in our journey, we realized it’s a problem: no one is going to pay you a lot of money to really snap a picture of a car. So over time, we had to evolve our business model to match the problem with the real business as well.
Q2. What do you need as an entrepreneur to be able to push through some of the hurdles?
A. That’s maybe where my consulting background kicks in. like consciously being able to step back and think, okay guys, you know, we’re doing this. But is it the right thing to do? Should we be doing something else? And that’s what I think, at least from my V.C. days. Lot of entrepreneurs don’t do well enough. Right? They dive into it and you just keep trying to make it work. And really, that ability to step back and say, OK, is this? Is this the right business model? Is this the market? Is this right team? Maybe am I the right CEO for this thing. So really questioning all these big things. We have something pretty funny now that you mentioned it. Once a month we have something called Forward Day: once a month, we all just literally step back and say, should we be selling cars? Literally to that extreme. And it’s good to have these, you know, massive wakeup calls sometimes.
Q3. I’d love to hear a little bit more about that very first step from idea stage to kind of validation of the market, product market fit. Were there any key things that you think are important for any entrepreneur to do early on, maybe before they’ve spent three months thinking the idea is great?
A. Make sure it’s a large enough market. Make sure you can monetize that idea. And that second one is very tricky, because in a lot of cases it feels like it’s monetizable, but often it’s not. If you can don’t rely on an advertising model where you say, yeah, I’m going to have 2 million users and charge for ads because the Middle East is too small for that and it’s too fragmented in terms of countries and try to test, you know, as dummy of a version as you can.
For example, before we launched our chatting robot that negotiated car prices for people, I went out and asked people at work “which car do you want?” I’ll go research over 28 websites, contact the sellers and negotiate and send you a list of the three top things. Is this something you would like? Would you pay me X for that? Do it manually before you go higher. Make sure it’s monetizable and make sure you can attract the right team, because sometimes you have the greatest ideas and you just are not able to have the team on board to really realize your vision.
Q4. What were the key things in attracting a team and first hire? What would you look forward to kind of fill the team?
A. I brought my nephew and I played the blood card. I’m more on the business side. I’m not a tech guy and I don’t even like cars. My nephew is in his late 20s and more techie, and we needed a lot of A.I. skills. And his mom is Danish. He was born and lived in Denmark all his life. So it was easier for him to get that skill set on board. But you still need to sell a vision. So being a good storyteller is really underrated. And, being a founder, you need to get your team, get your investors, get your clients as you start. So it’s one of the most important skill sets you’ll need.
Q5. And very recently, you closed your six-million-dollar series A round. I’d love to hear a little bit more about how that came about. You said you’re lucky. Where was the luck? Where was the skill?
A. You know, I think the luck is that it’s closed to once, because if it didn’t, we definitely would have been in trouble. We initially had raised three million dollars prior to that. And now we closed the six million round. For this round, we wanted to raise three million dollars. That was a year ago. The round got five times oversubscribed. So we got fifteen and a half million dollars of investors who wanted to come in. So then we had to make a decision, do we raise a bigger round or just stick with our three million? So long story short, we decided to go with six and it was a bit tricky for us because we got a few financial investors who wanted to come in. And then we got a few strategic automotive people who wanted to come in and we wanted to really play the right balance between financial and strategic. It took us a year of back and forth and figuring out how to do it.
Q6. What would you say are the most important slides in a pitch deck? And what’s the one that you should never leave out?
A. There’s a standard outline for a pitch deck. Talk about the problem. Talk about your solution. Talk about the size of the market. Talk about your competition and then some financials. Focus more on the product and what you’re doing and what a lot of startups don’t do enough, particularly at the early stage. Share traction numbers and KPI’s. Those KPI’s are basically your story. It’s the proof that you’ve build a decent enough product to raise money to develop it even more and then grow it from there onwards.
Q7. How do you make contacts with fast VCs? What would your advice be for people looking to try to engage with investors? Your best steps to make those connections to start the conversation?
A. I really don’t think cold emails are a good use of any entrepreneur’s time. I would spend that time and effort really trying to find someone who is close to one of those V.C.’s who can do a warm introduction or send the deck themselves. That would give you a much better return than sure, because they get a billion of these emails and it’s very hard to stand out. And then again, the region is small. I guarantee you, every entrepreneur is one degree away from a partner in every V.C. Like they know someone who knows that guy. So figure out who that someone is and let them connect you.
One more thing. Always put the extra effort to try to go to the senior people in those funds. Others don’t have any decision power to move it up or down. They might, you know, say five words about it in their weekly meeting and then if it gets cold, they just move on.
Q8. Tell me about your relationship with your co-founder. How does that work, day to day? And how big is your team now?
A. I think it’s really more psychological support you know, because you need to bounce ideas. You need someone to challenge you. You need someone to tell you it’s going to be OK sometimes. So having that person with you throughout the journey is extremely important.
We are twenty-four, twenty-four people now. Our team is pretty weirdly split out. We have eight people in Dubai, we have an office in Beirut with seven-eight people. And then our tech team is works remotely from Europe. So quite a few of them in Denmark, Germany, Italy and France. So when this whole work from home, remote thing hit recently, these guys didn’t change anything. The Lebanese team, because there’s been quite a bit of trouble going on in Lebanon since October, there were also half working remotely. So we were fairly OK with this, like Zoom and Slack were home for us.
Q9. Interesting that you said a lot of your tech team is based in Europe. I think the assumption for many people is often you outsource your tech teams to as opposed cheaper locations, you know, whether it be kind of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, which are really strong tech infrastructure. What was the choice to kind of keep it in Europe? Was it based on quality, price, availability?
A. We didn’t outsource it; there are full time employees with us. I think if we outsourced it, we would have probably gone with the cheaper option. But we initially needed a lot of A.I. skills. And my co-founder Andrew with his network in Denmark managed to get three or four Danish engineers and it started there. And then we wanted to hire more developers in Dubai, in Germany and then in France it just grew organically that way.
Q 10. I think more and more companies will be moving to remote working. What would be your best tips for working with a team remotely?
A. So there’s all the obvious stuff, you know, communication, the right tools. Although I think the most important one, honestly, is hire the right people for that, because not everyone can self-motivate. So I think, it’s not for everybody. It doesn’t make those people bad people. They just need a different type of structure or management. And for some people, they operate well. They like working with their own set up from home. They manage their own time. We had a lot of flexibility even before coronavirus. So people could work from home. They could work remotely. We have unlimited vacation days. So literally people act as if there are owners in the business and decide how they want to split their time, what they want to do as long as they deliver on what they should deliver.
Q11. What is the next 12 months like for you? Interested in your thoughts on how Coronavirus is going to affect the economy and your business in particular?
A. I don’t know how long this thing is going to last. I don’t know how the world is going to look like by the end of it. But people will continue to buy cars once this is over. I think it’ll move much more digitally than it was. And that’s good for us because that’s what we do. So from that angle, I think there is an opportunity there for us. Dealerships are much more open right now to explore digital solutions than they were six months ago. So we’re trying to play that card. And there will be demand. If you wanted to buy a car, now you’re going to postpone it, you’re not going to cancel it. I think the industry will recover and for automotive generally, it will work out.
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