Week in the Life: Kanwal Sarfraz of e-commerce marketplace Wadi.com

"A big part of my role as someone leading the company is to show up and be there," says co-founder of online retailer who spends much time travelling between offices


Kanwal Sarfraz, COO and co-founder of WADI.com e-commerce business, at her office.

(Photo by Reem Mohammed/The National)

Reporter: David A. Dunn 
Section: BZ

Kanwal Sarfraz is chief operating officer of Wadi.com, an e-commerce marketplace she co-founded three years ago. The company, which grew six-fold last year and offers 550,000 products, has offices in Dubai, Saudi Arabia, India and is expanding to Kuwait, Oman and Bahrain. Ms Sarfraz, who is 31 and from Pakistan, tells The National about her week. i


The three of us [founders] spend a few hours discussing issues that came up last week and what is going to be priority this week. Other than that it’s rarely a set schedule. All three manage a few teams. I look after finance, HR, corporate, investments; the goal is to have at least one conversation with each so I know what they’re going to spend most time on during the week. Because I interact a lot with investors, I give them a heads up that I will need numbers because someone is expecting me to report. We think of ourselves as an international marketplace. The goal is to open GCC to not just suppliers within the GCC but to suppliers outside. I leave the Oud Metha office 8 to 9pm.


Normally I go to Riyadh, have two full days there. We take the 7am Emirates flight, go straight to the office. Because we do a lot of fulfilment and infrastructure ourselves we have sorting centres in 10 KSA cities. We are 700-800 employees - about 170 in Dubai, over 350 in KSA. This is audit and reporting season, business planning season, VAT, so the last few months I’ve been spending more time with the finance team. Lately we were signing off with banks, negotiating some payment gateway fees; a big component of our cost structure.


A big part of my role as someone leading the company is to show up and be there. In KSA, even when I don’t have meetings set up, they [staff] need to know I’m available. I spend time with the HR head; she has issues about visas. We’re setting up a new process for cash reconciliation and deposits, because we do a lot of cash on delivery business. If there’s an issue you address it. What I deal with directly is finance; investor-related stuff I manage personally. Because we’re a marketplace, occasionally sellers upload products that may not be appropriate [for that market]. We have algorithms to catch such products, but if they come up with a new word, it could slip through. A lot of my job is crisis management. If you do not plan ahead you will get sucked into day-to-day dramas.


I get home [from Riyadh] at 2am. I’m up at 10ish. When here I try to go for yoga two/three times a week. I don’t have a fixed routine. I have a running task list. There are always things adding, but I like to close at least three or four every day. In terms of very big campaigns the next one will be Ramadan; we start planning two/three months in advance…how many days to run it, the marketing budget. You need to lock down some channels and affiliate partners, start planning in terms of traffic. Some growth is going to sustain afterwards. If the increase we expect continues, we increase the number of [delivery] vans and drivers. Ramadan is a big season for all e-commerce players. People are spending more time at home - they’re online shopping; 2am, 3am, 1am … people are awake, they’ve eaten and have energy. In Ramadan we can deliver at 2am.


Every Thursday we have free breakfast for everyone. We get to interact with people, know what they’re doing. Somebody might be working on a new app feature. I spend time with the finance team; look over working capital. If we’re planning the next few campaigns we need to know how much we can afford in terms of inventory. If it’s the start of the month we review what the targets are going to be. E-commerce companies grow really fast - the last year has been crazy for us. We have 6,000 brands, 2,000 sellers. We have dedicated account managers who help sellers once ‘on-boarded’. There are a lot of moving parts. I spend less time running day-to-day fulfilment operations; it’s more about planning what the business needs to look like; reviewing every department. Thursday evenings in the office we have a DJ playing. If possible we [the founders] go out.


I do yoga Friday mornings. Clean the house, cook, watch as much Netflix as I can. My husband is a consultant and away four days. A lot of time we end up meeting in Riyadh during the week for dinner. We live in Downtown. When the weather is good you can walk. At any point someone can call with an issue. I need to be available 24/7; there’s no way you can check out. Even on holiday or a weekend, the day is not completely yours.


I shop a lot online, which I never did in the past. The way we think about Wadi is it’s bringing products you didn’t know you needed, products nobody else has, and showcasing them. E-commerce should be about discovery, products you cannot necessarily find here [in malls]. We are bringing in vendors from Turkey, China, India; through these we can get millions of products that may not otherwise be available to the GCC.