When Jon Richards first moved to the UAE in 2011, he faced a number of financial challenges.
Unsure of where to open a bank account or who to insure his car with, he realised there was no way to compare all the options in the market.
“Banking websites had one page and a login button if you were lucky. There were no products, no information, no transparency and no clarity,” says the founder and chief executive of yallacompare, one of the region’s leading financial aggregators. “Like everyone else, I scratched my head and thought, how am I going to do this?”
Mr Richards, who worked in digital marketing at the time, decided to set up a financial comparison website similar to those already in existence in his native UK.
“In the UK it’s second-nature; you wouldn’t dream of taking out a banking or insurance product without comparing, so it was just really obvious to me that this was a gap I could exploit," he says.
As a first-time entrepreneur, he decided against putting all his eggs in one basket and initially built seven websites, launching them all at the same time.
“There was a restaurant review site, a car reviews platform, a job portal – loads of different things," he says. "The idea was to throw them out there and see which one catches traction,”
It quickly became clear, however, that Compareit4me.com, as the company was initially called before rebranding to yallacompare in 2017, was gaining the most interest.
Today the company is one of the biggest players among a crop of UAE comparison platforms that help residents decide which financial products are most suited to their needs. Competitors include insurance technology firm, Aqeed.com, which secured $18 million in Series A funding last year, and established firm Souqalmal.com, which raised $10m in Series B funding in 2017.
Yallacompare has raised $11.5 million (Dh42.24m) from three funding rounds, the latest in January, when it secured $8m from existing investors STC Ventures, managed by Iris Capital, and Dubai venture capital firm Wamda Capital, along with new player Argo Ventures, the early stage investment arm of global insurance carrier Agro Group.
It’s quite a journey for Mr Richards, who started his career in South Wales, where he is from, before a relocation to the UAE to head up Property Finder's digital marketing team seemed a natural step, as he had often visited the country as a child to see family.
After noticing his website taking off, he confided in Property Finder colleague Samer Chebab, telling him he had a website where thousands of people were requesting more information on how to apply for banking products.
The duo set about expanding the site, building the business on the side of their regular jobs. To source the content, they took the information from bank websites or their call centres.
"We would literally phone the banks and say ‘if I’ve got this salary, what’s the interest rate on your personal loan?' Or we would walk in the branch, take the leaflet and then publish it online. A couple of them didn’t like it," says Mr Richards.
To monetise the idea, they used their network of contacts to find companies willing to advertise on the platform.
“By the time we approached investors we already had a business, we had revenues," says Mr Richards. "We'd demonstrated we could acquire customers and acquire bank revenues as well.”
In December 2013, they contacted an advisory firm called Mulverhill to find out how to raise funding. But rather than help them find investors, the company decided to invest themselves, securing yallacompare $500,000 in seed funding for the company in March 2014. It allowed Mr Richards to give up his regular job, go full-time and employ the company's first team member.
A year later, the company secured Series A funding of $3m, with STC Ventures, Wamda and Dubai Silicon Oasis Authority coming on board.
“It was a real stamp of approval and a proud moment,” says Mr Richards. "We were setting up to raise $1m so we couldn’t believe it when it became $3m. Unfortunately I can celebrate these things for about an hour and then the real work starts. That’s probably something I’ve learnt over the years to try and take stock a little more.”
The company then decided to focus on insurance rather than simply comparing credit cards and loans. They brought in Jonathan Rawlings as co-founder and chief financial officer, who at the time was looking to launch a potential competitor.
“He had offers from investors and at the eleventh hour I convinced him to come with us and we’ve all benefitted, as he has a wealth of insurance knowledge,” says Mr Richards.
Yallacompare was the first to bring insurance aggregation online in the UAE, giving it six to nine months of running without any competition.
‘What then happens, you shine a light on an industry and others get excited and think they can do it better. But we’ve managed to maintain the advantage," Mr Richards says.
But the move was not only about comparing insurance options in the market but also selling policies directly to customers.
“Controlling the product has been a game changer for us because we can offer the kind of service we want and can discount when we want to," says Mr Richards. "If we take a broken process, put it online and make it transparent and we save you money and save you time – then we know you will tell someone."
Last year the company sold $25m worth of car insurance policies – a figure Mr Richards expects to triple this year. It also has a dominant position in digital insurance sales in the UAE, accounting for more than 75 per cent of online insurance transactions.
“That’s partly our own growth story and trajectory and that’s also the market becoming more familiar with the concept and understanding that this is what you should do – whether it’s with us or not – you should compare," says Mr Richards.
The second funding round of $8m earlier this year crystallised yallacompare's expansion plans as they look to reach more markets, with Turkey and Pakistan under consideration.
At the time, Oleg Ilichev, head of Argo Ventures, a new investor, said "yallacompare’s goal of educating and simplifying the purchase of financial products aligns nicely with our beliefs".
So what's next?
“We’re very close to profitablility,” Mr Richards says, adding that the company plans to bring out its own financial products, such as an affordable life insurance option.
"Our goal is to move higher up the value chain, so simply comparing other people’s products will not be how we survive in the future," says Mr Richards. “And we have venture investors – which means at some point we will have to see some sort of exit.”
The company is considering different M&A options, he says, including "acquiring other aggregators and perhaps one day look to be acquired ourselves”.
“When you have venture investors you have to find that liquidity for them. I think the best way we can achieve that is by having the dominant position in our chosen market and by unifying the Middle East,” says Mr Richards, pointing to Souq.com as a company that achieved this. "The idea of an outsider going across all these different jurisdictions, speaking to all these regulators – if we can do that hard work, then we should be an attractive option for external investors."
Q&A: Jon Richards, founder and chief executive of yallacompare
Why did you seek out a partner early on?
Being an entrepreneur on your own would be incredibly lonely. The highs and lows are incredible; one day we are billionaires the next we are going out of business, so you need someone else to prop you up or hold you back when you get too excited.
What is your definition of a true entrepreneur?
I’m not an optimist, I’m not a pessimist – I’m a realist. So the glass is half empty but I’ll tell you how we’re going to fill it.
When you started out, did your employer know you were building another business?
They did not know, but they are now okay with it. Now it is almost seen as a source of pride because I think the ecosystem demands this – it demands that you grow talent and they spin off and grow their own businesses and hire more people. Also, the kind of person that I am, there’s no way I wasn’t going to do my level best for Property Finder. I’m still very passionate about that business and thankful for my time there.
How did you juggle two jobs?
If someone had given me a hug at any point during those years, I would have definitely broken down. It was really tough and you question – is this worth it? When will I get my reward? When I say reward, I don’t mean when I will be rich but when will I only work 12 hours a day? At the same time, it was and is a passion of mine. When people tell me over dinner about their new business idea, I could spend 10 hours talking to them and spit-balling ideas.
How did your family cope?
It did mean a lot of stress; I’d leave work and I had a young daughter by this point – and I had to give up on being a social human. I had to give up on evenings and weekends and say no to parties.
Are you working less than 12 hours a day now?
My wife also has a senior role in her job, but we both make it home for dinner with our daughter and weekends are dedicated to her. However, both of us will put her to bed and then log on again and work all night. The only time I forget about work is when I ride my motorbike out into the desert.