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Middle East Interview: Dubai-based Fetchr

Delivery app Fetchr is spreading across the Middle East with its mobile-to-mobile delivery service. We talk to its founder

Dubai-based delivery app founder Idriss Al Rifai is well on his way to building one of the largest tech companies in the Middle East.

Al Rifai launched Fetchr, the region’s first “phone-to-phone” delivery service, with just three developers in 2012. The company has grown rapidly and now serves 500 cities across the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Bahrain, Egypt and Jordan.

With an initial funding of $1.2m, Fetchr bills itself as a last-mile delivery supplier. Similar to Uber, the app uses a smartphone’s GPS location as an address and delivers packages to the receiver’s mobile phone location.

Fetchr’s fortunes have been fuelled by the rise of e-commerce in the Middle East. The online retail sector, expected to be worth $49bn by 2021, is the fastest-growing sector in the region, according to digital marketing specialist eMarketer.

Al Rifai says about 98% of his firm’s orders come from the region’s online retail websites.

He says his team built Fetchr’s technology from scratch. “There were so many peculiarities in our trading hours and how we include GPS at the core of the process that we had to build it ourselves,” he said. “We have built everything in-house, apart from accounting services.”

There are two main parts to the app’s technology infrastructure, says Al Rifai. “One side is the automatic system, so we’ve developed our own ERP [enterprise resource planning]. It’s a decision we made really early on in the process.

“And secondly, there’s the app and anything that is customer-facing or e-commerce client-facing – we built that from the ground up too.”

The whole technology platform is based on Amazon Web Services (AWS), says Al Rifai, who decided to move from Microsoft Azure to AWS in the early stages of the business because he says it is easier to find AWS developers in the region.

Read more about the Middle East digital sector

“A lot of the large regional startups are on AWS,” he says. “Other providers have tried to get us, but we don’t want to have a product that developers might not be 100% familiar with.”

One piece of advice Al Rifai offers is that entrepreneurs should not launch a product too late. “If you’re not ashamed of your product when you launch it, then you’ve launched it too late,” he says.

Speed to market is a lot more important than making the perfect product at the first attempt, he says.

“You should launch the product, start talking with your customers, take feedback, and then start making some alterations – that is a lot more important than having the perfect product straight away. It’s about what the market wants, not what you want.”

Fetchr has 80-100 engineers working on its app at any one time, but tech recruitment remains one of the company’s perennial challenges, says Al Rifai. “It’s difficult for anyone to find good engineers, regionally and globally,” he adds.

“One problem is that universities don’t train a lot of good computer engineers, so if you want talent, you have to import them from other countries and Europe. That creates a lot of difficulties, along with the high salaries required.”

Currently, Fetchr recruits most of its engineers from outside Dubai – from countries including Pakistan, Jordan, Egypt, Poland, Montenegro, Canada, France, the US and the UK.

Growth curve

Fetchr has now raised $52m from four rounds of funding, and Al Rifai is preparing to close the firm’s C-Series funding round within the next few months.

He says he will use the new round of funding to splash out on expansion into three as-yet undisclosed emerging markets in the next year.

“We want to be in markets where e-commerce is growing fast – where our e-commerce clients want us to be,” he says. “We can address delivery problems in Africa and South Asia similarly to the Middle East.”

Al Rifai says customer experience, lead time and performance remain top of mind for Fetchr as it expands into emerging markets, but he points out that startups rarely think about scaling up at the beginning.

“We only thought about scale when we had to think about scale,” he says. “My first vision was just about getting the product out there, getting some feedback, customers and dollars.

“Once you raise enough for a bigger company, then you start thinking about scale. Scale comes naturally as the next step on the products you build.”

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