The UAE is fertile ground for transforming bright ideas into viable businesses and with the rise of SME culture has come demand for improved, modern methods for taking payments.
New merchants unable to access a credit card POS (point of sale) device or a payment gateway in an increasingly cashless society face losing customers and a potential revenue road hump.
So they’ve been turning to a handful of plausible emerging options; mostly overseas-evolved, app-based solutions allowing card payment for online, and physical, transactions. However, that has not always met their needs.
Dubai start-up Zbooni recognised small businesses and individual vendors were desperate for something simple, local and cost effective and developed a social commerce platform allowing home enterprises and larger merchants to take card payment online - or in person without a POS device.
Meaning ‘my customer’ in Arabic, Zbooni’s app has swiftly gained thousands of users and is processing millions of dirhams of transactions.
Placing itself at the heart of “social-based commerce” it acts as a digital marketplace, enabling sales to be completed via messaging services such as WhatsApp, crucially fulfilling card payments.
Giving Zbooni’s first interview, founder and chief executive Ramy Assaf, 35, says the company helps businesses "manage check-out and payment for social-based commerce".
"It’s a marriage of unique software - a cart and checkout that can be dispatched over WhatsApp - and a payment gateway built in," he adds.
Zbooni’s clientele includes sellers whose only “storefront” is Instagram or Facebook.
“But nowadays almost every business is social, to some extent,” says Mr Assaf. “We have bricks and mortar customers and SMEs from flower shops to restaurants to physical therapy clinics, all on Instagram and Facebook; the common thread is they interact with customers through WhatsApp.”
Zbooni was inspired when Mr Assaf devised a “toolkit” enabling his wife to complete transactions with her online business in 2016.
“She was selling hats on Instagram. She posted them, started getting direct messages and WhatsApps from customers who wanted to order," he says. “The journey of how you get customers has been resolved through Instagram, but when customers want to transact with you, then what?”
With an entrepreneurial and venture capital background, Mr Assaf recognised broader demand for a solution in the e-commerce world - where social media platforms are the ‘trading post’ - as well as physical businesses.
Chief operating officer Ashraf Atia, 43, is keen to clarify Zbooni isn’t a payment gateway, but gives access to one.
“We’re in the plumbing. From a regulatory perspective, we fall into a digital marketplace model - when you download Zbooni and start selling, you’re a supplier, essentially, on the marketplace," he explains.
But where traditional merchant payment set-up and servicing costs can prove inhibitive to emerging companies, Zbooni’s fee is 3.5 per cent of each transaction.
Miriam Walsh, founder and organiser of Dubai artisans market group ArtE, says that represents a "good deal" and opportunity for cash-reliant vendors unable to afford, or qualify for, a POS device.
"It is a fair charge, we all have to make money,” she says. “We are a mostly cards world and it is about time these features became accessible and affordable.
“Often a sale is not completed as soon as a buyer needs to find the cashpoint machine - we have also had experience of machines running out of cash on busy ARTE days. Some vendors used to share their credit card machine with other vendors, but with VAT ... it now means a 'sale' shows up on the (machine) vendor's statement, which is not a sale (for them).”
Zbooni solves those problems, according to Mr Atia who, like his colleague, is US born and raised before moving to Dubai.
“We want to empower SMEs, help SMEs in their digital transformation, after all, cash is the fuel,” says Mr Atia.
“It’s a very high bar in this region to get a merchant ID to accept credit card. We’re enabling any business to sell online in a matter of five minutes. You get the tools to put your products online and to send baskets to customers, with mobile payment links, and they can pay online using their card.”
Merchants keep tabs on sales revenue via a wallet on the app, which credits cleared payments in seven days.
In short, Zbooni has reduced procedural burden and simplified software to give access to payment gateways while utilising the UAE’s high WhatsApp penetration.
US merchants have had access to similar solutions for years, such as Stripe, Shopify and Square, though these are unavailable to UAE users who turned to systems such as Kuwait’s Tap or PayPal for non-cash sales.
“We’ve brought the software and usability element of a Square or Shopify and connected it with a Payfort, or another payment gateway. Our goal is to make everything frictionless,” says Mr Assaf.
Last year the firm was incubated for five months by Facebook, in California - the only company from this region to be invited to participate in an accelerator programme called FB Start 2.0, designed to nurture and support through workshops and mentorship from senior level executives. Each company was also given $50,000.
Zbooni had been passively growing from 2016, but now employs 15 people in Jumeirah Lake Towers, doubling the number of active merchants and transactions each month since August; as of March this year 20,000 businesses were on board in 59 Mena countries with UAE and Saudi Arabia accounting for 25 per cent each of that figure.
Ayla Masson is among Dubai traders using Zbooni after an unsatisfactory experience with another solution.
"For the first year we had an online platform, and payment gateways were key to driving online sales," says the founder of La Maison de Masson, which accesses sustainable brands previously unavailable to UAE mums.
“We didn’t have a great experience. There was a lack of transparency about how much funds they’d collected, with no real way to see how much was owed from our online sales," says Ms Masson. “Due to high costs associated with most payment gateways, we decided to focus on (community) markets for growing our business.”
Ms Masson still needed to take card payments and discovered Zbooni.
“It’s extremely transparent, has helped me close sales I otherwise wouldn't have been able to do. It has made my business more agile, more profitable, and more flexible for customers,” she adds.
Having seen strong word of mouth uptake, Zbooni’s chief executive believes it could have a broader impact on driving commerce in the UAE and other developing markets, including currently offline, physical businesses.
“Some of our customers have a POS machine but it is physical, has to be present, so think of us as a virtual POS machine for remote transactions (on mobile),” says Mr Assaf.
An example is a restaurant that takes walk-in customer card payments, but for deliveries has to send another device with its driver, take cash on delivery or direct callers to Deliveroo or Zomato, so surrendering profit margin.
“Whether or not Zomato brought that customer, they’re benefitting from that traffic,” says Mr Assaf. “We’re breaking that a little bit - here’s a way to issue an order, check out – and bypass intermediaries.”
With businesses today interacting with customers over WhatsApp and sales happening by chat, Mr Assaf asks: "How do you consummate that transaction?
“We want to be there when you close a transaction, accepting a card. We’re like a POS terminal that’s sitting on top of WhatsApp.“