Dubai-based Abdullah Alshalabi is Co-founder of FishFishMe.com, an online fishing boat charter service. Like booking hotels and rental cars online, he came up with the idea where people can hire fishing boats anywhere in the world online rather than going through a tour company or hotel. Fishfishme.com lists 100 boats with 80 charter partners in 20 countries, including the Bahamas, India, Mozambique and Thailand. With 15 boats based in the UAE, they are available in the majority of the seven emirates. Majority of the rest are in Oman, Kuwait and Spain.YourStory caught up with Adbullah Alshalabi to get a glimpse of his entrepreneurial journey. Here are the excerpts from the interview.
YS: Tell us a little about yourself. How did you come up with Fishfishme?
AA: I’m from Kuwait. My undergrad is in Mechanical Engineering, but after graduation, I immediately joined an investment company back in Kuwait working as a financial analyst in Real Estate asset management. I then moved on to the Private Equity department. I did this for three years, while simultaneously attempting the CFA, which I passed till level 2 and then stopped. In 2010-2011, I did my MBA in Hong Kong at HKUST, and there I met my co-founder Jose. Before starting Fishfishme, I was part of another startup called Mybuyfriends (previously bangbanglab.com) in Barcelona, Spain. But, I left in June 2012.
I always loved fishing, but never owned a boat. I used to go fishing with my uncle when I was young. However, when I grew older it was more difficult specially since none my close friends enjoyed it. I used to watch fisherman going fishing everyday from my office window and wondered if I could pay them to take me fishing with them.
When I moved to Hong Kong I was always searching online for a boat to rent to go fishing, but found it difficult to find anything. I later went to the harbor and asked an old lady to take me fishing, but the trip was a disaster! I faced a similar problem when I moved to Barcelona, Spain. I wondered why there wasn’t an online platform, similar to the hotel booking websites, that would charter fishing boats? That’s what motivated me to create Fishfishme.In some cities you’ll find a directory listing the names, phone numbers and websites of fishing charters. But, you will not find the complete profile of the charter boat or be able to book or pay online. I wanted to build something where you could easily find and compare (prices, quality of service, type of fish to catch etc.) all of the charter boats available and be able to book online and get a quick confirmation.
I started working on the concept from my dad’s office in Kuwait in June, 2012. It was just a programmer that I hired and me. Three months later, I asked Jose Gil Zafra (co-founder and product manager) to join me after realizing I needed a technical co-founder to help with product development – I needed someone smart and who I could trust. Shortly after that Miguel Clamente (our lead programmer) and Christian Cabrera (a friend from the previous startup and our lead designer) joined the team. Finding talent, especially in Kuwait, was a big issue. From four, today we are a team of seven working full-time and split between two offices - one in Dubai, UAE, and the other in Malaga, Spain. Dubai is our operational office and the Malaga unit takes care of the product and operational activities in Europe.
YS: What was it like, going from an investment firm to starting out on your own, on something completely unrelated?
AA: I was doing my MBA when we decided to create our first startup. We agreed to meet in Spain and build Bangbanglab along with a couple of MBA friends. In early 2012, we decided to not look for a job and go the entrepreneurial route instead. My family and friends thought I was crazy. I didn’t get much support at that time. They wrote it off an experiment which would fail in all likelihood. And the first startup surely failed.
When I came back to Kuwait they thought I’d search for a job and go back to a ‘regular’ life. I even got an offer from a couple of companies, but just five days after returning to Kuwait, I started Fishfishme!
But it’s been great so far. Lots of ups and downs and lots of learning, that I may not have gotten otherwise. I’ve realized that the most important part of a startup is the founding team and I believe the founders should be:
- Passionate about the problem they are solving: If you don’t really like or believe in what you are doing then you’ll give up easily. You’ll face doubts and depression almost every day in the early days of your startup, and if you are not passionate about what you are doing then you’ll easily give up and move on to something else.
- Persistence: The founder should be persistent. You should never stop trying. It’s ok if the founder is not self-confident or not the best sales person, but he should be persistent. .
- Ok with failing: If you are not OK with failing and afraid of facing your friends, family and the whole world, then you’ll never take risks. Building a startup is all about taking risks and putting yourself in difficult situations. Chances are you’ll fail big time sometime during the process, but remember that it’s actually a learning not failing.
YS: What exactly does the website solve for?
AA: The problem we are trying to address is to make it easy for people to find and book a fishing trip. It was super hard to find sufficient information about fishing charter boats, the prices are always hidden and the websites just looks outdated. It seemed fisherman and technology did not go well together. We want to fix that and make fishing accessible to everyone. Now more than 30% of our bookings are from women customers!
We are addressing a huge market. Fishing is really for everyone; even six-year-old kids can enjoy fishing. It’s a hobby, a sport and an outdoor activity. The passion for fishing varies from one country to the other. Kuwaitis are famous in the Middle East for their fishing passion. In the US, the number of people who go fishing is more than those who play tennis and golf combined!
It’s an activity that is usually enjoyed by millions of people around the world. Our customers are locals, expats and travelers. What’s special about fishing is the location. That’s why you’ll find many of our customers are travelers from around the world. We are already working with travel agencies around the world to fulfill their clients’ needs.
We don’t charge our charter partners for listing their services, we only charge a flat commission fee on successful bookings.
YS: What was your growth strategy?
AA: We generated more than US$100,000 through our charter partners in less than a year. Acquiring customers was a challenge and is still not an easy task. How do you convince someone to book and pay online for a fishing trip, through a website they have never heard of before! It’s something new and people are not used to doing that. We had to make many changes to our product to gain trust and confidence from prospective customers. It was also extremely hard to get the first few customers because we weren’t focused. We tried to tackle the whole world from day one. Our advisors guided us to focus in certain cities first, and then move to other cities. We started focusing on Kuwait only, doing marketing campaigns like blog posts, being very active on Instagram and even distributing flyers on the streets. Things immediately started to pick up.
Kuwait was a great place to test the idea, but it’s not big enough to make real money. Moving to Dubai was not an easy decision and without the support of In5 (our incubator) and Dubai Internet City, I don’t think we would have made it. I had many difficulties moving to this new market - I didn’t know anyone and things didn’t go well in the early days. But, I’m glad that those days are behind us and UAE is now considered one of our biggest markets.
We are currently focused on some regions more than others, like UAE, Oman and Spain. We allocate most of our resources for these markets in terms of acquiring more charter boat partners and marketing. However, we are now expanding to other new territories, especially after getting our new funding round.
We just closed a US$200,000 funding round from a diverse group of angel investors - Sim Whatley, American co-founder of Dubizzle.com; SaifAlZarouni, Emeriti founder of Yadig.com and Abdulaziz B. Al Loughani, previous managing partner of Talabat.com - to help us move to the next level and expand globally.
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