Dani El-Zein comes from a family of bankers. The Boston University graduate decided to carry on the family legacy when he joined Deutsche Bank at age 20.
Determined to make a name for himself, Mr El-Zein quickly rose through the ranks, becoming a vice president in the German lender’s investment banking division. However, banking was not the profession that gave him a “sense of achievement”.
His entrepreneurial spirit led him to found technology start-up Supy, which has disrupted the hospitality industry and restaurant ecosystem, changing the way businesses engage with suppliers, maintain inventories and minimise costs.
“I didn't find much satisfaction in the job,” says Mr El-Zein. “It never gave me the right sense of achievement and I felt like I was really young, and I wanted a new challenge.”
Having fulfilled his father’s wish of pursuing banking, he then decided to focus on building things that “give me satisfaction”, he says.
“I wanted to come back home at the end of the day with a challenge to think of for the next day and feeling satisfied about my accomplishments.”
Mr El-Zein joined Quiqup, one of the fastest-growing quick-commerce last-mile delivery start-up ventures in the UAE in 2017. He was serving as chief operating officer of the company when he moved on in December 2020.
The 33-year-old, who grew up between London and Lebanon, started Supy in 2021 when the hospitality industry’s pain points became all too apparent in the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic and focus turned to supply chains, inventories and costs to maintain profitability.
Mr El-Zein, who runs a successful restaurant and a nightclub in Dubai, came up with the idea of finding a solution that could help him better manage his suppliers, track inventories and save money.
“Being a restaurant operator myself, I realised that we would always enjoy high revenue but never enjoyed [higher] profits. There was never a focus on cost, as in back of the house there was always a focus on how to drive more revenue,” he says.
As a restaurant operator, Mr El-Zein used a number of systems but noticed there was no accurate way of putting data into those systems, and the data he would get was always inaccurate.
“There were so many inefficiencies as costs were so high in my restaurant,” he says.
After the pandemic, Mr El-Zein reached out to Ibrahim Bou Ncoula, a software engineer and architect – who later joined Supy as co-founder and chief technology officer – to help him build a platform that could help him solve the problem.
“So, I built an app with freelancers for my chef, just to give me a bit more control [on inventories and costs,” he says.
What started as a side gig quickly became a full-time venture as word of mouth from chefs and restaurant staff brought other outlets facing same problems into the Supy fold.
Mr El-Zein invited Mr Bou Ncoula, who at that time was working with IPlytics in Germany, to join him as co-founder. He also reached out to Yazeed Bin Busayyis, a Saudi Arabia-based serial entrepreneur to join as managing director and co-founder.
The three men have managed to build Supy from the initial 10 customers in Dubai to a client base that is spread as far away as Portugal, Greece and the UK.
Supy, which had an initial focus on streamlining the procurement experience of restaurants, in July launched its “back-of-house” platform, which the company says will revolutionise inventory management for the Middle East and North Africa region's $300 billion hospitality industry.
The aim, the co-founders say, is not to create “a good to have product” but to offer the hospitality industry something “that's a must-have”.
“You need to focus on stickiness, on retention” of customers, Mr El-Zein says.
“I think we've overcome our first hurdle. Our next will be growth, and how do we grow this product now that we have validation.”
In July last year, the company raised $8 million in a funding round led by Dubai's early-stage venture capital company Beco Capital, which also included participation by existing investors such as Valia Ventures and Cotu Ventures.
It aims to use the fresh funding to boost its technology capabilities and expand into new markets.
Mr El-Zein says the company has enough cash on the balance sheet at the moment and it may look for another round of between $8 million and $10 million in financing during the first or second quarter of 2024.
“The funding that we want to raise in the next round will be purely for growth. We will wait until we have positive unit economics on all fronts of the business,” he says.
Supy co-funders say the modular approach of the platform is replicable and it can be customised for any market.
The company currently has clients in Saudi Arabia as well as Lebanon and Egypt, and plans to expand its footprint to every Mena market.
“Mena will definitely be our playground. We want to be leaders in Mena,” Mr El-Zein says.
“Building the infrastructure to expand is what we've been focusing on. And yes, we do have aspirations to go global very soon.”
Q&A with Dani El-Zein, chief executive and co-founder of Supy
Who is your role model and what is your mantra for success?
Ever since Virgin Megastore opened its doors in Lebanon in 2000, Richard Branson has been my constant source of inspiration.
His ability to recognise opportunities globally across different industries and fearlessly pursue them is fascinating to me.
Despite the ambitious and unconventional nature of his ventures, he navigates the balance between innovation and tradition. I greatly admire his perseverance, creativity and commitment to turning audacious ideas into thriving ventures.
Are you a risk-taker or a cautious entrepreneur?
Venturing into entrepreneurship naturally entails embracing risks. I tend to lean towards a risk-taking approach, but I place great emphasis on staying closely aligned with my shareholders by ensuring that they are aligned about the risks I am taking for the company.
While taking risks can carry the potential for negative outcomes, I also recognise the value of being cautious and calculated with certain risks, as successful execution can lead to significant achievements and success.
What successful start-ups do you wish you had started, and why?
During my college days, one of my classmates, who is now a major investor in Supy, and I embarked on a project to create a website that would connect students with employers, much like LinkedIn, aiming to ease the job search process.
Looking back, I regret not fully pursuing that business idea. Unfortunately, during that time, funding opportunities were not as readily accessible, and we lacked knowledge about fundraising and how to secure the necessary capital to seize the opportunity.
Where do you see the company in five years?
Our mission has always been to maximise profits while reducing costs for businesses in the hospitality sector and will always stay the same.
This means staying in line with our customers’ needs at all times, and always delivering to the best of our abilities.
In the coming five years, we aim to establish a strong presence in all major cities worldwide. We are committed to nurturing talent and cultivating a creative environment that benefits both our team and clients alike.
What would you change if you have to do it all over again? What mistakes you would like to correct?
If I had to do it all over again, I wouldn't change anything regarding my co-founders and team, as I couldn't have asked for a better group of individuals.
However, in terms of the business, I would have shifted my focus towards the product much earlier, rather than concentrating on growth very early on.
I would prioritise ensuring a strong product-market fit and not rush into expansion until we have achieved positive unit economics.
What new skills have you learnt in launching Supy?
I have acquired many skills, and my learning continues every day. However, two skills that hold immense value for me now are resilience and adaptability.
Confronting setbacks during our early days taught me the art of bouncing back and persisting despite challenges. Equally important is the ability to quickly adapt to ever-changing circumstances and market conditions, enabling us to stay agile and competitive.
These skills have been instrumental in shaping our progress and will remain critical for our future growth.
What is one quality entrepreneurs should have and what is your advice for struggling entrepreneurs?
A quality that I firmly believe every entrepreneur should possess is perseverance.
My advice for struggling entrepreneurs is to view each hurdle and setback as an opportunity for learning and growth.
Overcoming these challenges will bring you closer to your ultimate objective. Embracing failure is crucial; reflecting on setbacks as chances to learn and improve is essential.
Sometimes, when product-market fit is not achieved, it's important not to be stubborn, but rather to swiftly adapt and pivot to find the right direction.