Generation Start-up: Ogram tackles on-demand manpower needs

Staffing marketplace matches jobseekers for roles in the gig economy and provides companies with a flexible workforce

Shafiq Khartabil, left, and Karim Kouatly identified a gap in temporary staffing solutions in the UAE and Greece. Antonie Robertson / The National
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Karim Kouatly and his cousin, Shafiq Khartabil, were running hospitality businesses in Greece and the UAE, respectively, when they identified a gap in temporary staffing solutions in both markets.

Food and beverage venues were unable to find qualified, vetted, on-demand part-time staff through a centralised platform, according to Mr Kouatly.

“The only solutions in the market at that time, and at present, were not agile enough to cater to the nature of the hospitality sector,” he says.

“They required at least one to two months to deploy staff, a minimum requirement to be hired, and imposed unbreakable contracts, which were not addressing their pain points.”

These challenges, along with their experience in the hospitality industry, motivated the pair to launch Ogram, a staffing marketplace that enables businesses to book and manage staff on demand. The start-up took off in Dubai in 2017.

Mr Kouatly, who grew up in Greece, and Mr Khartabil, who was born and bred in London, would meet up every summer.

Mr Khartabil, who was a serial restaurateur in Dubai, is co-founder and chief executive of Ogram.

“A hint of a future professional partnership seemed apparent when we would sell peculiar-looking stones to strangers on the road by our grandmother’s house at the age of 12,” says Mr Kouatly, co-founder and global commercial director of Ogram.

Being an “Ogrammer” or an “OG” means you are part of this new workforce, a community or the gig economy, he adds.

The gig economy is often described as a free market in which companies hire freelancers to provide services to cut costs.

The arrangement benefits both parties. For employers, it reduces human resource costs, while workers are able to choose the gigs they want and even switch between several professions if it is convenient for them.

The global gig economy is projected to surge to about $919 billion by 2028, from an estimated $414 billion in 2022, at a compound annual growth rate of 14.2 per cent, a study by US data platform Industry Research showed last year.

The share of online gig workers in the global labour force ranges from 4.4 per cent to 12.5 per cent, and holds particular promise for women and youth in developing countries, the World Bank said in its Working Without Borders report last year.

Ogram matches people with jobs for many companies or individuals struggling to find staff on demand.

Company profile

Company name: Ogram
Started: 2017
Founders: Karim Kouatly and Shafiq Khartabil
Based: Dubai, UAE
Industry: On-demand staffing
Number of employees: 50
Funding: More than $4 million
Funding round: Series A
Investors: Global Ventures, Aditum and Oraseya Capital

As the hiring process – everything from creating a job ad to hiring someone – is expensive and time-consuming, Ogram aims to ease and expedite the process by matching its database of qualified people with clients' on-demand jobs, Mr Kouatly says.

The start-up provides an end-to-end technology solution that includes all steps from hiring to managing attendance and payroll.

By removing the bulk of the administrative work and contractual commitments, it aims to allow customers to have more time to focus on their businesses.

Ogram also offers workers a more efficient way to find and book part-time jobs, as they can be considered for several roles at once without having to manually search for vacancies or complete lengthy application processes, Mr Kouatly says.

“Every Ogrammer who books shifts through our platform is also building a digital CV. This helps them to stand out from the crowd and get selected for jobs much faster than the traditional way, as clients can easily see and compare their skills, work experience and ratings score,” he says.

“Because we are a technology platform, we’re also able to match people with jobs on a larger scale, helping thousands of people to earn an extra income.

“With an average Dh1.5 million [$408,440] of payouts per month, Ogrammers can generate anywhere from Dh2,000 to Dh10,000 per month.”

Ogram primarily caters to the staffing demands of hospitality, retail, food and beverage, and logistics industries.

The start-up focuses on roles such as waiters, chefs, hostesses, guards, data entry administrators, warehouse workers and customer service agents, among others, according to its website.

Customers range from “large, well-known establishments to emerging smaller boutique hotels and independent businesses”, the co-founder says.

The company was recently chosen as a staffing partner at Cop28. Other customers include Jumeirah Group, Emaar and Majid Al Futtaim.

Some companies use Ogram to fulfil all their manpower needs, while others use it to complement existing teams.

That includes covering absences or additional hires for special events, Mr Kouatly says.

To scale up or down quickly, companies turn to temporary contracts or on-demand solutions like ours
Karim Kouatly, co-founder and global commercial director, Ogram

“The staffing market in the UAE is very cyclical, which means that the number of staff a business needs will fluctuate throughout the year,” he says.

“To scale up or down quickly, companies turn to temporary contracts or on-demand solutions like ours. We help them manage seasonality and offer an efficient solution when last-minute staffing changes get in the way.”

Ogram uses smart algorithms to match available candidates with customers’ job criteria.

This automated matching process saves time and money and once a match is made, the staff is ready for deployment, Mr Kouatly says.

On the job, the start-up uses geofencing to track staff when clocking in and out. This system helps to ensure that every hour is fairly worked and paid.

The platform also handles payments.

“We will soon launch the Ogram Academy, which will help Ogrammers validate and learn new skills through courses taught by industry leaders,” he says.

“Ogrammers that pass these courses will be eligible for higher paying jobs.”

The start-up launched operations in Greece last May, with the aim of making it their European launch pad.

Greece was selected for the first phase of Ogram’s expansion strategy for Europe, the Middle East and Africa because of favourable market conditions, an increasing demand for flexible workers, and a lack of direct competition, Mr Kouatly says.

The company faced “immense challenges” preparing Ogram for the Greek market, Mr Kouatly adds.

“In Greece, as in most European countries, labour laws are stringent and revolve around a lot of bureaucracy. In addition, it is mandatory that employees, working part time or not, receive their social security. In most cases, this is the responsibility of the employer,” he says.

“Adapting Ogram’s operational model in Greece meant we needed to abide by these regulations and get a special licence, which required several months of preparation, specific labour requirements, and several approvals ranging from the Ministry of Labour to the Social Security Service.”

The process delayed Ogram’s anticipated launch by four to five months, while costs were running.

The company now has more than 200 hospitality and retail clients, and 10,000 registered Ogrammers in Greece.

The company now has its sights set on Saudi Arabia for the next phase of expansion.

“The kingdom’s significant investment in hospitality and tourism, coupled with a growing demand for flexible staffing solutions, makes it an ideal next step in our expansion journey,” Mr Khartabil says.

“We are particularly excited about the opportunity to upskill the national workforce, aligning with Saudi Arabia's Vision 2030 and contributing to the kingdom's development goals.”

Saudi Arabia's significant investment in hospitality and tourism, coupled with a growing demand for flexible staffing solutions, makes it an ideal next step in our expansion journey
Shafiq Khartabil, co-founder and chief executive, Ogram

The UAE is currently the company's biggest market in terms of revenue, shifts and registered clients.

It has more than 1,500 active clients and 80,000 registered Ogrammers in the country, Mr Kouatly says.

The digital staffing platform has 50 employees at its headquarters in Dubai, Lebanon and Greece. It launched in 2017 with just two full-time employees – the co-founders.

In terms of its revenue model, Ogram charges an administration fee in the form of a commission on top of staff hourly or shift rates. This is paid by clients.

“In our first year, we generated $500,000 in revenue and acquired some large clients like top hotels, catering companies and several high-end restaurants in DIFC and Downtown Dubai,” Mr Kouatly says.

Ogram has raised more than $4 million to date and is backed by investors including Global Ventures, Aditum and Oraseya Capital.

“Like any business, one of our main challenges is keeping up with demand. As the tourism, hospitality and events sectors continue to grow rapidly in the UAE and Greece, so is the demand for staff,” Mr Kouatly says.

“Key growth drivers include geographical expansion across EMEA [Europe, Middle East and Africa], starting with Saudi Arabia, integrating education technology into our platform, and exploring new verticals beyond our current sectors.”

He recommends that fellow entrepreneurs be financially sound before starting a business, partner with the right people, be willing to accept change, be agile, hire people who are smarter than they are, and try to prove their concept before raising funds.

Q&A with Karim Kouatly, co-founder and global commercial director of Ogram

What already successful start-up do you wish you had started?

Online marketplaces have always been of interest and companies like Amazon have penetrated the way people shop globally. The post-pandemic consumer behaviour of online shopping accelerated rapidly and this is here to stay for a very long time, if not for good. I would, therefore, say that the closest start-up I wish I was involved in was with Amazon, back in the 90s.

What is your next big dream to make happen?

My biggest dream, professionally, is to diversify and work on other innovative start-up ideas in the coming years. Ogram will always be my priority, and my goal – along with Shafiq and our team – will be to make it the next unicorn in the Middle East.

What new skills have you learnt in the process of launching your start-up?

I really believe that having a start-up educates you more than any MBA, as you are learning everything pragmatically. I have gained an abundance of new skills over the past seven years in finance, investments, dealing with investors, company valuations, establishing objectives and key results, technology, people management, and how to analyse market trends and data to expand geographically on the supply and demand fronts.

If you could start all over again, what would you do differently?

Like most business owners, you may tend to look to the past and have regrets or wish you had done certain things differently. For me, everything was a learning curve that improved who I was professionally and personally. Due to this, I wouldn’t do anything differently.

Who is your role model?

My role model is a childhood friend called Jad, who owns a successful domestic workers business in Dubai, which was built from scratch and addressed a market need. His persistence and resilience, both professionally and personally, have given me a tremendous amount of inspiration.

Where do you see yourself after 10 years?

Professionally, I would continue to see myself as an entrepreneur discovering new spaces and capitalising on new opportunities.

Updated: April 04, 2024, 10:09 AM
Company profile

Company name: Ogram
Started: 2017
Founders: Karim Kouatly and Shafiq Khartabil
Based: Dubai, UAE
Industry: On-demand staffing
Number of employees: 50
Funding: More than $4 million
Funding round: Series A
Investors: Global Ventures, Aditum and Oraseya Capital