It was the expression "it takes two to tango" that inspired the entrepreneurial journey of Alex Tchablakian, the founder of e-commerce site Letstango.com.
For Mr Tchablakian not only wanted to provide a service to his customers but also keep them happy at all times.
"It always take two to achieve success — your idea and customers … both can't survive in silos," Mr Tchablakian, founder and chief commercial officer of Dubai-headquartered e-commerce platform, tells The National.
"I always try to build a personal relationship with customers. By sending them handwritten notes, driving myself to deliver products, offering surprise discounts and additional services … we always try to go the extra mile to bring a smile on customer’s face. This differentiates us from the scrum in the e-commerce market."
The company, which started in 2013 with a team of 15 selling electronics in the UAE, now markets over 50 different categories of products from sportswear and fitness to fashion and beauty to locations across the globe.
“I always believed e-commerce will have bright future in Middle East and I wanted to be a part of that journey,” says Mr Tchablakian, 30, from Singapore. “My philosophy is not to run after money but make customers comfortable in the online space. Six years back, people were quiet hesitant … they are still hesitant in some parts of the region.”
In Saudi Arabia, for example, many customers are adamant that cash-on-delivery is the only way to pay, says Mr Tchablakian, which is why he wants to convince the market that online payment channels are safe and swift.
Thanks to the deep internet penetration and popularity of smartphones in the Middle East and North Africa region, the e-commerce market is booming. From $8.3 billion (Dh30.48bn) in 2017, the industry is expected to more than triple by 2022 reaching $28.5bn in the region, according to research from Bain & Company and Google.
The UAE, the Arab world’s second-largest economy after Saudi Arabia, is the most advanced e-commerce market in the region with a penetration rate of 4.2 per cent, followed by the kingdom at 3.8 per cent providing the perfect place for Mr Tchablakian, who grew up in the Emirates, to locate his business.
After completing his schooling and junior college in Dubai, Mr Tchablakian went to Singapore for a mandatory two-year national military service before moving to London for his graduation.
However, it was his love for the UAE that brought him back to the region to start his own venture.
“While I was in Singapore and London, I always missed the vibrancy of Dubai," he says. "If you want to be an entrepreneur, you should be in Dubai … there are so many successful business stories to inspire you.”
Mr Tchablakian, who studied marketing, communications and advertising at London’s Kingston College, started Letstango with an investment of Dh10 million from his own pocket.
“We were very aggressive in marketing in the initial days and immediately caught the eye of the telco du which approached us to host their e-shop on our platform," says Mr Tchablakian. "That was a major boost as big regional brands started recognising our potential."
Letstango is now focusing on scaling up the business than generating profits by opening up to external investment.
“Any e-commerce business takes time before becoming profitable. But it's fine until you are expanding your geographical presence and adding more categories of products in the portfolio," says the entrepreneur. “We are looking forward to raising new money and opening for outside investment. If anyone shows interest and they have the same vision and can open new doors for us … we are ready to sit on a table to discuss."
Letstango, which has its warehouse in Dubai’s Al Quoz area, started with 10 local vendors and now has dozens.
To begin with, the company sold high-end and exclusice electronic products before it gradually changed course and added more items to reach a bigger audience as it looks to feature among the top five e-commerce platforms in the region.
“We are very realistic … we are not here to compete with giants like Souk or Noon that are backed with huge capital. We have our own niche clientele that keeps coming back to us. Our aim is to be among top five or may be top three players in the region,” says Mr Tchablakian.
Though Letstango is based in UAE, it ships overseas as well.
“Sometimes we get orders from other GCC nations, Europe, Armenia and even the US. We never say no and always find a way to deliver," says Mr Tchablakian. “We believe in entertaining every customer and keep the conversation going … you never know what new opportunity comes along with it."
When it comes to expansion, Mr Tchablakian says Saudi Arabia is the “obvious choice” with plans to enter the market by the end of this year
“We already have an office and a warehouse in Riyadh but we are only waiting for the right moment and the right partner," he adds.
The platform, which receives 1.5 million visitors every month, of which 300,000 are unique or new customers, is now looking to strengthen its payment gateway system to protect the company against fraud. In one instance, criminals used stolen credit card details to make purchases on Letstango.
“We have upgraded our payment gateway system but still it’s a big problem," says Mr Tchablakian.
However, it’s a double-edged sword, adds the start-up founder. “If you take a long time to verify customer details, it will delay the delivery … [but] if you don’t go through checks then you might be at a receiving end as a company.”
Q&A: Letstango.com's founder Alex Tchablakian
If you could change one thing in your entrepreneurial journey, what would it be?
I would be more cautious about hiring talent during the early stages of my start-up. I thought hiring more staff would automatically translate into more business but I was wrong. So we cut down on numbers and started focusing on hiring skilled talent needed in our industry. Now we are a small team of 30 people who are more focused and everyone trusts each other.
Were you a born leader?
I always wanted to do something of my own. But the military experience, gained during national service in Singapore, helped me to become a better leader and eventually an entrepreneur. It taught me patience, leadership skills and how to control things while empowering every member of your team.
Who is your role-model?
My father Dikran Tchablakian, a seasoned entrepreneur in the technology industry in the Middle East. After my graduation, I spent the first couple of years working with him in his ventures to learn the intricacies of the business world. Even today, he is my first point of contact whenever I am in a dilemma or need any business guidance.
Where do you see yourself after 10 years?
I will be an established name in the e-commerce industry globally. Besides my existing e-commerce platform, I will be running a business consultancy arm to guide other young entrepreneurs. I will also be investing more in new ideas and innovative concepts. I think 50 per cent of my business will be based out of Dubai with 25 per cent each in the UK and Singapore.
What type of entrepreneur are you?
When things are going smoothly I always feel there could be an impending problem. I like disruptions, experimenting with new themes and adding new features so that my customers feel excited all the times.
What entrepreneur do you think you could have done better than?
I believe everybody has his own mission. I don’t think I could have done better than any other successful entrepreneur. I look up to all of them for their ideas and business strategies and learn from their wins as well as failures.