A chance encounter between a budding UAE entrepreneur and an IT and finance enthusiast from India — two men on seemingly completely different career paths — paved the way for a technology venture that has recently been valued at more than $300 million (Dh1.1 billion).
“Harsh and I met in the most ‘Bollywood’ film ways possible,” Abdulaziz Alblooshi, the founder and chief commercial officer at WhizKey Intelligent Solutions says of his first meeting with co-founder Harsh Hirani. “I was out hunting for a cheap deal on a laptop at Gitex, while Harsh was a promoter at one of the stalls over there.”
The pair met in 2014, when Mr Alblooshi was still a business and management sciences student at the Higher Technology College and Mr Hirani was completing his engineering degree at BITS Pilani, Dubai. He met Mr Hirani a few times who helped him with some technical issues with his laptop and as their friendship grew, they discussed the idea of starting a business together while still studying.
Mr Alblooshi went on to launch a business providing smart machines for phone charging and other services in public areas, before making a successful exit.
Mr Hirani, meanwhile, had become a hedge fund trader in Dubai after graduating, but they began working again together in 2017, forming Whizkey as an innovative software company which eventually branched out into artificial intelligence, robotics and blockchain technologies.
Mr Hirani, who is now chief investment officer at WhizKey, has a “profound love” for computers and has been writing computer coding since the age of seven. His passion for computers and Mr Alblooshi’s flair for business are the reasons behind the growth the company has seen in such a short space of time.
The pair started the business with financial help from friends and family, and the fact that they developed a firm that focused on revenue generation meant they have not had to go through the pain of venture funding rounds.
They have developed from within in5, a government-owned business incubator, and have been able to generate revenue from their work with government entities.
“Both of our enterprising natures came together in a synergy,” Mr Alblooshi says. “We started the company with zero external investments.”
Mr Hirani says from the outset he believed in “creating a classic company that actually generates profit and is not established on the basis of just pumped-up valuations”.
WhizKey’s $300 million valuation today, which was attributed to it by an independent valuer, the company says, is “purely based on our revenue and our technology”, he says.
In 2017, WhizKey won the Dubai chapter of the global AngelHack programme, where entrants compete to build, test and launch new software solutions. It received an invitation to the Hackcelerator, a pre-accelerator programme for AngelHack winners, and ended up receiving the IBM Global Entrepreneurs prize.
After this initial success, the venture was invited to incorporate within in5. A further push came in November last year, when WhizKey was enrolled into the Dubai Future Accelerators programme, a platform that pairs budding entrepreneurs and private sector organisations with government entities to create technological solutions to existing challenges. Through the accelerator, WhizKey got its first big break — a chance to work with the Dubai Electricity and Water Authority.
WhizKey built a state-of-the- art software product for the utility firm, which is today used by more than 800,000 Dubai residents. Dewa has also engaged the company for more projects.
Last month, Dewa signed a memorandum of understanding with WhizKey to explore new methods to use 4th Industrial Revolution technologies such as artificial intelligence, blockchain and robotics to improve performance, productivity, and service quality. The company is also working with the authority to implement a pilot AI system for its distribution systems.
WhizKey’s work has not gone unnoticed and Dewa has expressed interest in investing in the company, Mr Alblooshi says.
WhizKey has also received interest from a South Korean technology investor, and talks with other potential investors are at an early stage, according to Mr Hirani.
Although WhizKey has not yet tapped the venture capital market for funding, it is not ruling out investment, Mr Alblooshi says. WhizKey wants to build its business and revenue base, which will make it easier to raise funding when it eventually decides to do so.
“It has to be a right thing at the right time,” adds Mr Hirani.
Today, WhizKey's AI division creates software that simulates human intelligence to extract unrealised value from an organisation's existing data to help it optimise business processes. It also provides blockchain solutions and its robotic process automation services allow companies to reduce the cost of human capital and increase efficiency, the company argues.
It is currently in talks for pilot programmes and projects for other government entities, including Dubai Police, Dubai Civil Defence, the Dubai Future Foundation and Dubai Municipality.
“We are very close to signing a deal with Dubai [Future] Foundation. Hopefully, it will be done in a few weeks,” Mr Alblooshi says.
Looking ahead, Mr Hirani says 2020 will be the “year of expansion” for WhizKey, as it looks to “getting into the entire UAE and the GCC markets”, he adds.
Given the bright start made to date, that initial laptop purchase could prove to be the best bit of business that the partners ever did.
Q&A with Abdulaziz Alblooshi, co-founder of WhizKey
This is your second business at a young age. Does entrepreneurship traits run in the family?
I believe age has very little to do with business success. I am, however, a first-generation entrepreneur in my family.
My first venture was about Smart Machines [providing multiple mobile phone-charging slots and other such services at public places]. I worked for about three years to transform the venture into a successful business. As a market-aware business-person, when I saw my venture peaking and saw headwinds and challenges coming for such a business, I made a successful exit. I have dedicated my time to the next big thing — WhizKey — ever since.
What have you learnt so far from being an entrepreneur?
The single most valuable lesson I have learnt is that sustainability has to be the most important goal of any successful business. Entrepreneurs have to focus on sustainability in each and every dimension of their venture, whether financial, technological, operational or even creating a team. All visions and agendas, whatever you set out to achieve, can be realised if business owners focus their energies on sustainable developmental agendas. It is the right thing to do.
What has been the biggest challenge that you have faced?
One of the biggest challenges that my partner and I faced when we started our company was the fear in the market to work with new ventures or smaller companies, and especially the ‘cheeky ones’ in artificial intelligence like us.
If you had to do this all over again, what would you do differently?
Despite starting our company in the first wave of fourth Industrial Revolution companies, one thing I would have preferred is starting even earlier before some of the significant players established their presence in the market. Our early-bird advantage would have been even greater if we had done that.
Which already successful business venture do you wish you'd started?
Apple — hands down. It is one of the most successful privately-owned companies in the world. Apple started as an innovation venture, became the industry leader and changed the way people interacted and worked with technology. Also, their share value and the company’s net worth is awe-inspiring.