For e-commerce businesses finding it hard to survive during the Covid-19 pandemic, digital marketing specialist Mansour Althani of Itcan has one message: "You shouldn’t be struggling at this time.”
“If you are,” adds the chief executive and cofounder of the technology and digital marketing start-up, “then there is something wrong".
With people across the world staying at home as they follow government directives to help curb the spread of the virus, this is a perfect time for e-commerce ventures to flourish, says Mr Althani, from Saudi Arabia.
“It’s not only e-commerce; on the internet there are education businesses, gaming and lots of opportunities, so if your business is based online, you shouldn't be struggling. If an e-commerce venture is not doing well, they can pivot, they can be more dynamic and shift their business model a little bit,” he says.
This is why Itcan, which Mr Althani set up with his co-founder and cousin, Abdullah Althani, in 2015, has not only survived over the past few weeks but actually thrived.
The digital marketing specialist works with more than 25 big clients in the UAE and Saudi Arabia, such as Al Tayer owned Ounass and Nisnass, offering services such as digital marketing, performance marketing and app development to help large e-commerce ventures grow their business.
While the company started out with just the Althani cousins, today it has 70 employees spread across four offices – Dubai in the UAE, Damman in Saudi Arabia, Cairo in Egypt and Bangalore in India.
Since launching, the company is now on track to make Dh100 million in revenue this year and Mr Althani says the current economic challenges will not prevent Itcan meeting the target.
Some contracts were paused at the start of the crisis as e-commerce ventures looked to resolve issues related to the sourcing of goods and management of their warehouses. These problems are now resolved and the companies are now operating normally, he says.
“We saw a high demand on the business development side with new clients asking us to help them move to e-commerce faster or those seeking performance marketing,” Mr Althani adds.
The e-commerce market in the Middle East and North Africa is expected to reach $28.5 billion (Dh104.68bn) by 2022, according to a March 2019 report from Bain & Company.
However, the recent growth in demand for e-commerce amid Covid-19 could accelerate the industry's growth. Majid Al Futtaim Retail's online orders, for example, increased 301 per cent year-on-year in March as the coronavirus outbreak limited people’s movement, according to chief executive Hani Weiss. Majid Al Futtaim Retail holds the exclusive franchise rights to operate Carrefour in more than 31 countries across the Middle East, Africa and Asia.
Separately, orders of skincare products soared by 144 per cent in the UAE in a month through to March 26, according to Itcan data, with the rise dominated by demand from new users. Make-up brands also saw order numbers increase by 275 per cent over the same period as consumers seek alternative ways to secure goods.
Itcan's revenue has been steady during the pandemic and despite all of its staff working remotely they have not had to cut salaries or let any employees go – something they do not expect to happen in the future either.
“We actually need to hire more people,” says Mr Althani.
One element that helped the company stay nimble was its ability to switch its workforce to remote working without any hiccups, using new tech tools to enhance efficiency.
Before the crisis even started, the company had already stopped using email to communicate internally. Instead it uses Slack to communicate or task management tools such as Trello, Jira, Zoho projects and Asana to monitor productivity.
“When we started working from home our performance actually became much stronger and our productivity higher,” says Mr Althani. “People were online and we started to put some new rules in place. With our focus on innovation and knowledge, it was very easy to adapt to any kind of change.”
Itan's achievements are quite a feat for a company that started just five years ago when Mr Althani was only 25. The idea for the venture came while he was studying computer science at Sharjah University. He and his cousin then entered a government entrepreneurship contest with an online clothing store, making it to a shortlist of 100 entrants and winning Dh20,000 to set up.
After graduating, the duo then decided to build a marketing company for the e-commerce sector but Mr Althani says it did not work out because they lacked experience.
“I still needed time to understand everything,” he says. “We started and we failed. The biggest challenge was our lack of experience in the business in general – I had just graduated and did not know how it all worked.”
Instead the pair put their business plans on hold and Mr Althani joined Namshi in 2014, an e-commerce venture that Emaar Malls acquired last year. Working in the company’s affiliate marketing channel, Mr Althani says he later applied the invaluable experience he gained to relaunch Itcan in 2015.
The venture started with the founders working from coffee shops and later co-working spaces as the team grew. What is particularly unique about their start-up, however, is that they are entirely self-funded and have been profitable from the outset.
“The company funded itself from the first mile,” says Mr Althani. “I even paid myself from the first month, a small salary at the beginning, but by the third or fourth month I was earning a salary."
While half of the company’s business comes from the UAE and the other half from Saudi Arabia, Itcan plans to expand further into the GCC and North Africa. It is also set to launch products, such as an affiliate network that connects brands with publishers, by the end of the second quarter.
“We are a start-up that started from Dubai without any funding and all the years we have been operating we have been profitable and bringing in a high revenue,” says Mr Althani. "I do not hear of many start-ups that succeeded financially from the outset."
Q&A: Mansour Althani, chief executive and cofounder of Itcan
How does your business model work?
We have three ways to make money: the first is services such as offering performance marketing for an e-commerce, mobile and app development or digital marketing. The second way is offering solutions, such as SEO for a company that needs it or a fix for a mobile app. The third is the products, which we are launching this year.
Will you consider funding in the future?
We will consider funding but it has to be right. We have two plans, one to launch products, and then going forward with funding for the business itself. We will explore funding for the company this year.
How many countries would you like to have a presence in?
Ultimately, we don't have a limit. We want to dominate more in the markets we are already in, then we can move to the next stage.
What new skills have you learnt from setting up Itcan?
I have gained leadership skills. I was 25 when we set up and had never hired someone before I started, so it was very difficult at the beginning. I'd think 'how can I count on people? How can I hire the right people?' So leadership skills are something I have learnt over the years, 100 per cent, and choosing the right people was key as well.
What other successful start-ups do you admire?
Snapchat is a strong start-up. It changed the way social media works by introducing instant videos or images that are deleted within a day. It helped us at the start of the company because Snapchat is quite popular in Saudi Arabia.