Money & Me: 'I've spent way more in rent than the cost of buying a house'

The Kidzapp co-founder Karim Ghassan says he wishes he'd bought a property when he first moved to Dubai in 2007

DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES. 13 MARCH 2019. Karim Ghassan of new app Kidzapp, a digital family guide to the UAE. (Photo: Antonie Robertson/The National) Journalist: Suzanne Locke Section: Business.
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Karim Ghassan is the Lebanese-Canadian co-founder and "opportunity creator" of Kidzapp, a family guide app and marketplace that lists 3,000 activities for children in the UAE and caters to more than 4,000 parents. Mr Ghassan, 40, lives in Al Sufouh, Dubai with his wife and two children, a nine-year-old boy and seven-year-old girl, and has lived in the UAE for 12 years.

How did your upbringing shape your attitude towards money?

I mostly grew up in Cairo, Egypt, my father working for a water treatment company, and we spent four months a year in London for the summer. We were always fairly comfortable and my parents never made me feel any issues with money - that money was a factor or something to be considered in day-to-day actions. If they had to consider the budget, they didn’t do so in front of us. I grew up not really worrying about money or, honestly, valuing it that highly.

How much did you get paid for your first job? 

My first work was in university. I was studying electronic and electrical engineering in Manchester, UK, and did an internship for the summer with Arab Bank in London in the corporate finance department. The pay was good for the time - £8 (Dh39) an hour and no tax as a student. My parents were paying for the rent, as it was their apartment, so all of my money went straight into the bank account - and I blew it.

Are you a spender or saver?

Both. Leave it up to me and I’d wear jeans and a white T-shirt every day for the rest of my life. My parents gave me a Rolex watch for my birthday but I put it away in the safe. I can tell the time from my phone. But when it comes to investments or experiences, like a trip somewhere, that’s where I’ll spend.

What is the purpose of money to you?

I believe you should make money work - you don’t have to hold on to it. The point of money is not to collect it but to achieve things with it, to put it to work. You’re here for a short time and the only thing that counts is what you’ve done with the time. Money is just a way of achieving things, it’s not something valuable in itself. Money has to flow to make work go round and, the faster it flows, the better it is for everybody.

What is your most cherished purchase?

I’m walking around the house trying to think what it could be - and there’s nothing I don’t feel I can replace as a purchase, that has a high value that I’d feel uncomfortable replacing. My parents gave me some paintings that were in their house that I really like. I’m not into art that much, but I love these four paintings. They personify the four seasons - spring, summer, autumn, winter - and are really cool.

Have you ever had a month where you feared you could not pay the bills?

Every month. Investing in a digital start-up is a big challenge. In the beginning, it’s all about growing the business and the returns come much later. But it becomes normal and you get used to it. Things work out.

Where do you save? 

I invest in start-ups and businesses. I set up a water treatment business in Lebanon with my father that is still functioning and generating revenues. I put $100,000 into a marketplace app for the Middle East while here in the UAE and I’ve invested $50,000 in a gym in Egypt. I tried some trading businesses in Egypt with friends too.

Do you prefer paying by credit card or in cash? 

Credit card, especially where they have the tap function as it’s quicker, easier, and you don’t have to worry about having cash with you, having change or going to the ATM.

DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES. 13 MARCH 2019. Karim Ghassan of new app Kidzapp, a digital family guide to the UAE. (Photo: Antonie Robertson/The National) Journalist: Suzanne Locke Section: Business.

What has been your best financial investment?

Hopefully this one, but historically shares, especially real estate. I put $25,000 into Solidere (which built Beirut Central District) and doubled my money in a year, and $50,000 in Emaar 10 years ago and doubled it in two years. I also did well on gold and doubled my money from about 2007-2012.

What do you most regret spending money on and how much was it?

Some of my previous investments, but I learned from them. A lot of stuff I did with not a lot of attention – like take a loan out or sign up for subscription services without assessing which is cheapest or looking at interest rates and consolidating. If I had done some of that over the years, I would have saved without feeling it, without changing our lifestyle. I learned to do that during Kidzapp because I had to. There’s so much money just sitting there, tied up, that you don’t even notice.

What financial advice would you offer your younger self?

I would have bought a house when I first moved to Dubai. The rent I’ve paid, a couple of million dirhams, is way more than the cost of buying a house. It always feels like a bit of a risk as, once you buy a house, the money is stuck there. But enforced saving is sometimes useful. I had a long-term savings account for 10 years. It wasn’t necessarily good; I took out 110 per cent of what was put in, but it was another enforced saving.

Do you have a financial plan for the future?

I have a financial plan around my business and that’s taking up most of my focus. You don’t know what’s going to happen. Everyone teaches you to think about the future - when my son was born, something could have happened to me and very few people are prepared for it and have long-term retirement plans. I just feel my value is always going up, I’m still young and, with everything that I’ve learned (recently, especially) when it comes to saving and planning I’ll be 10 times more effective. Right now, I’m focused on Kidzapp and making it work; that could be our retirement plan as well but I’m not thinking of that - I don’t have one yet. If you’re held back by a fear of future, then you’re going to end up not living. The future will take care of itself.

If you won Dh1 million, what would you do with it? 

The whole Dh1m would be committed to Kidzapp. I would invest a bit more to accelerate growth, building out technology and features, doing marketing and growing internationally - not all of it on day one.

What would you raid your savings account for? 

The business. I’d break into my savings if, when raising investment, it took longer. Up until now, it’s all been personal investment but we’re at seed stage and talking to a few investors now and some look quite promising. One thing I’ve learned is that some investors you feel are quite right for you and the company, but others you find there’s no fit – but you don’t know it until you meet a few of them.