Bassel El Koussa has come a long way from launching a business in a living room in London to running one of the fastest-growing quick-commerce last-mile delivery companies in the UAE.
It was a long ride, but a mindset of “resilience at all costs” is what helped him and his co-founders survive the pivot in their business model, shifting the company from one continent to another and the turmoil of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Born and raised in Beirut, Lebanon, Mr El Koussa says he is an entrepreneur "by chance".
After completing a master’s degree in international management at SOAS University of London in 2008, Mr El Koussa went on to work for a manufacturing business in Saudi Arabia. A couple of years later, he decided to pursue a degree in finance at the Imperial College in London and went on to join the venture capital industry.
Mr El Koussa started working for a technology investment-focused private family office in London and that is where he met Quiqup's co-founders Federico Ferraro, Tim Linssen and Danny Hawkins.
The idea of starting a venture of their own brewed for a while before they finally launched the company in 2014.
“What we launched initially in the UK was sort of a get anything delivered to you, like an on-demand business,” Mr El Koussa says.
“It was like InstaShop meets Deliveroo meets Careem all boxed in one. That was the starting point of Quiqup and then we grew from there.”
The venture was bootstrapped with £50,000 and the partners, like most founders, struggled initially.
“We started off basically from the living room of one of our co-founders. A couple of us manned the desk while others were out there doing deliveries,“ Mr El Koussa said.
“We were out there in the elements, experiencing what it meant to go out and execute this operation ourselves and interacting with customers.”
The AI-powered start-up provided on-demand same-day delivery services for retailers and restaurants of all sizes. It used a network of self-employed drivers it called "Quiqees" and managed to build a solid and loyal customer base in the UK.
However, the partners realised that the company had not grown enough in size to become the “dominant player in the food delivery category, which was the leading business segment back in the days.
They saw the opportunity in pivoting to the e-commerce sector and faster delivery segment, deploying the technology they had built over the years.
In 2015, the company raised an undisclosed amount for its series A round, which was followed by a £20m series B financing deal in 2017 to support growth.
The partners made the decision to expand internationally and in 2018 launched operations in the UAE. The following year, Quiqup announced £10m strategic funding to further grow its operations.
“We realised that the real opportunity is here and we made the transition” to the UAE, Mr El Koussa says.
When Quiqup started UAE operations, it was a “logistics-as-a-service” company, serving restaurants, retailers and e-commerce players.
The UAE market, however, was a “completely different beast” but Quiqup had the “basic building blocks and it was just a matter of prioritising which direction it wanted to take”, he says.
Over the past year, the venture has shifted completely towards quick-commerce, or q-commerce as it is known, serving e-commerce and retail sectors in the Arab world's second-largest economy.
The value of the Mena q-commerce market is expected to grow to about $47 billion by 2030, research from Redseer shows. Adjacent sector opportunities could also help the q-commerce market in the region to grow in value to $100bn by then, the consultancy said.
Mr El Koussa says the pivot was dictated by demand trends that emerged in the post-Covid lockdown period.
Today, Quiqup serves as an e-commerce enabler for small and medium enterprises as well as larger corporate clients. The platform provides last-mile logistics services, using AI and machine learning to power its operations.
That part of the market is “relatively underserved and the opportunity is much wider for us in that area”, Mr El Koussa says.
Quiqup’s experience in the London market has helped the company to grow its operations in the UAE quickly and large conglomerates realised that “there's a lot of depth in our approach”, he adds.
Since launching operations in the UAE, Quiqup has achieved about 160 per cent average compound annual growth rate, says Mr El Koussa.
In March, Quiqup received a guarantee for a Dh5 million ($1.36m) loan from the Mohammed bin Rashid Innovation Fund that will help the venture gain access to "affordable debt finance to continuously invest in its research and development capabilities”.
In November 2020, the delivery-tech start-up raised more than $5.5m in a funding round led by Delivery Hero. Existing shareholders Cedar Mundi, JOBI Capital and Transmed also participated in the funding round.
Quiqup now plans to expand its geographic footprint in the broader Mena region. The company aims to establish a presence in Saudi Arabia next year, which will most likely be followed by Egypt at a later stage, Mr El Koussa says.
“For us, Saudi Arabia is super important, and we have our eyes on it.”
The company currently has enough capital and will look to raise more funding at an “appropriate time” to fuel further growth, Mr El Koussa adds.
Q&A with Bassel El Koussa, co-founder and chief executive of Quiqup
Who is your role model?
There's more than one. Both my parents have really inspired me, showing me both sides of the coin. The holistic thinking came from my mother. The professional depth, vision and understanding of how to manage business, organisations and people well has come from my father.
What is your mantra of success?
Resilience at all costs — it is always going to be that for me. It's embodied in our journey — an unusual story of a business that started in a living room in London and ended up in Dubai. That's just a testament to the fact that we let go of our biases and emotions. We always find opportunity to move forward.
Are you a risk-taker or a cautious entrepreneur?
It really depends on the situation, but I would say I'm a calculated risk-taker. There are times when you have to trust your gut. And then there are times when you need to look deeply into matters before you make decisions. I manoeuvre between both ends of the spectrum constantly.
What successful start-ups do you wish you could have started and why?
I love Tesla. Not necessarily for the bravado and the star [status] of Elon Musk, but more for the environmental impact that business is bringing to the world, in an industry that is characterised as one of the biggest contributors to carbon emissions. I think that revolutionary approach was needed to shake up that entire industry, and that's what I really love about that company.
Where do you see Quiqup in 10 years from now?
We see this company enabling hundreds of thousands of entrepreneurs across the Mena region that are making the transition to the digital world and setting up online shops. We want to support local businesses in getting online and becoming part of the e-commerce revolution.
Mena is our first big milestone, however, … we would look at emerging markets beyond the Mena region and could potentially look at the rest of Africa and South American markets [at a later stage].
What would you change if you had to do it all over again?
I started this business when I was 27 years old, and as a first-time founder, you do not have a point of reference. So we tend to live in a lot of self-doubt. I think, faster decision-making and believing in oneself and trusting the instinct, is something that will be there in my next business. I would move faster, I'll just believe in myself a bit more and take decisions faster.
What new skills have you learnt with launching Quiqup?
I've learnt to listen — I think that is something a lot of entrepreneurs have learnt. Slowing down and listening to every single view that is presented to you by your people because you're not everywhere, you don't know everything. You need to be able to absorb [information] and then enable [strategies]. The other thing is adaptability … [and] believing in knowing when to make a decision from your gut and when to look deeper.
What is your advice for budding entrepreneurs?
Start fast, fail fast and learn fast.
Founders: Bassel El Koussa, Federico Ferraro, Tim Linssen, Danny Hawkins
Industry: E-commerce Logistics
Funding size: $50m
Investors: Delivery Hero, JOBI Capital, Transmed, IFA Capital, Alchimia, B8 Ventures