Generation Start-up: eyewa eyes retail market expansion in Mena growth push

The eyewear retail company plans to open about a dozen stores in Saudi Arabia and the UAE before the end of this year

An eyewa store in Saudi Arabia. the company is looking to expand its eyewear retail market presence this year. Courtesy eyewa
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Immersing himself in Silicon Valley’s entrepreneurship culture while studying at Stanford University in California changed Mehdi Oudghiri’s life for ever.

His career in the consulting world was flourishing before he went to the US but the urge to emulate the success of entrepreneurs who built their ventures from the ground up pushed him on a path that led to the creation of eyewa. The eyewear retail company began online but has moved into bricks-and-mortar retail.

Mr Oudghiri, originally from Morocco, planted his roots in Dubai when he started his career in consulting with Bain & Company in 2009. After working in the region for a few years, he decided to take a break and move to the US to study for an MBA at Stanford.

“It was really a life-changer for me. Being in Silicon Valley, surrounded by entrepreneurs and the campuses of all the big tech companies, got me really excited about start-ups,” he says.

“I made a decision that this is what I wanted to do with my life. I also believed that there was a bigger opportunity for me to come back [to Dubai] and do something here in the region.”

After graduating, he returned to Bain for a few months where he met fellow Moroccan Anass Boumediene, who had joined the company in the meantime.

Both of them left their consulting careers and moved to Food Panda, a start-up founded in Singapore that had raised $350 million and had a presence in 40 countries around the globe. It was little known in the Middle East in 2015 when the duo decided to manage its Mena operations.

“Online food delivery was still not a [popular] thing in the region but we were really at the right place at the right time,” says Mr Oudghiri. “We grew the business revenue by 50 times in a couple of years … through organic growth and some acquisitions.”

When Delivery Hero acquired the entire Food Panda business in 2016, Saudi Arabia was its largest market globally and the Middle East was its biggest region.

“At that point after the acquisition, Annas and I felt we have been through an amazing journey of scaling a start-up, turning it profitable. There was an exit at the end. We learnt a lot from the experience and felt the two of us were ready to launch something of our own,” Mr Oudghiri says.

They agreed on a transition plan with Delivery Hero to start their own venture. The aim was to build something ambitious that could disrupt an industry.

The pair, who both wear glasses, saw an obvious gap in the region’s eyewear industry. It was a proven business model and there were success stories from around the world of companies that started online and eventually added offline components to their operations.

It was really a life-changer for me. Being in Silicon Valley, surrounded by entrepreneurs and the campuses of all the big tech companies, got me really excited about start-ups
Mehdi Oudghiri, co-founder of eyewa

“In the region, there was no one addressing the industry online and the incumbents were very traditional in their ways of offering eyewear products,” Mr Oudghiri says. “A lot of it was based on the medical aspect – the whole experience was outdated. They were all selling the same products and the price point was higher than the global average.”

The partners decided to change all that with eyewa.

“There was a business opportunity, plus it was something we suffered from as users of eyewear – it was a no-brainer that was the right start-up for us to launch,” he adds.

They initially invested their own savings into establishing the venture, but within a few months of its launch in October 2017 they managed to secure $1.1m in seed funding.

Their track record of success at Food Panda and close interaction with regional and global investors during that time helped them in crossing their first major financial hurdle, Mr Oudghiri says.

After launching operations in the UAE with a handful of team members, eyewa expanded at a brisk pace and ventured into Saudi Arabia within weeks.

“We knew Saudi Arabia is going to be a key market for us,” Mr Oudghiri says.

It operates in the kingdom, which is currently its biggest market, through three fulfilment centres that serve the kingdom’s three major regions.

“The sheer size of the country” requires eyewa to dedicate more resources to Saudi Arabia, the Arab world’s biggest economy. Eyewa’s centre in Dubai, meanwhile, caters to online orders from other Gulf markets and the broader Mena region, he adds.

Eyewa is not a marketplace for retailers to sell their products. It is an online retailer that sources its inventory from major global brands. Over the years, the company has also invested in building its own brands – 30Sundays, Blackout and Layala – to fill market gaps for different price points.

It is currently sourcing frames from partners in China, Italy, the US and South Korea, while its contact lenses are produced in the US.

After the $1.1m seed funding round led by EQ2 Ventures, eyewa raised $7.5m in Series A growth financing in the first quarter of 2019, led by Wamda Capital. That “gave us the means to launch our own brands”, Mr Oudghiri says.

Last month, it secured its biggest amount of funding yet, raising $21m in a round that will fuel its geographical expansion and help it morph into a true “omniplayer” to grow its offline retail presence.

“We have proven our model”, Mr Oudghiri says, and adds that eyewa’s brick-and-mortar retail outlets will have a different “look and feel” to what is currently available in the market.

Three of its stores are already open in Saudi Arabia. The company has plans to open about a dozen more before the end of this year between the kingdom and the UAE. Its first UAE store will open in Dubai’s City Centre Mirdif mall.

Expansion is what “we are actively working on”, he says.

The co-founders have no plans to slow the pace of growth or exit the venture just yet.

“For Anass and myself, we don’t have any plans [for exits]. The more time we spend on eyewa the more excited we get,” Mr Oudghiri says.

Q&A with Mehdi Oudghiri, co-founder of eyewa

What existing start-up do you wish you had started?

Careem, because of the impact it had on the entrepreneurship ecosystem in the region by attracting and training top talent in the digital space. Nothing would make me prouder than seeing, in a few years, people working with eyewa launching their own start-ups or playing key roles in large organisations on the back of the experience they have gained.

What was the biggest lesson you have learnt in launching your venture?

There were so many ... it is very hard for me to pinpoint one. I would say resilience, discipline and hard work are the keys to success for any endeavour, be it a start-up or otherwise.

If you get a chance to do it all over again, what would you do differently?

I cannot rewrite the past, although I would say there were mistakes made along the way. But making mistakes is part of the process that took us where we are today. I feel blessed with what we have achieved so far and I wouldn’t change a thing.

What is your next big dream?

Building great companies that will have a positive impact in our region and doing it surrounded by amazing people is what brings me the greatest satisfaction. That is what we are doing at eyewa.

How has the pandemic affected your business?

As an online-first business, we saw a huge surge in demand during the pandemic. Customer behaviour is changing and they are realising the convenience that online shopping offers.

Where do you see eyewa in five years?

We are building eyewa to be the largest tech-enabled eyewear specialist in Mena. We want to establish our presence across the region, offering a seamless omni-channel experience with exclusive, trendy and accessible products to all our customers.

Profile of eyewa

  • Founders: Mehdi Oudghiri and Anass Boumediene
  • Started: October 2017
  • Based: Dubai, UAE
  • Sector: e-commerce, retail
  • Initial investment: $1.1m in 2018
  • Funding stage: Series-B, $21m
  • Investors: Series-B round co-led by Kingsway and Nuwa Capital, with participation from French Partners, Endeavor Catalyst, Derayah, Palm Drive and Hardy Capital
Updated: July 25, 2021, 4:00 AM