“Twenty years ago you studied something and became an expert in it, but today that’s not enough,” says Philipp Tachas, co-founder and chief executive of Skilldeer, an online platform that helps people refine their skill set through courses and activities.
With technology evolving rapidly and fewer people choosing a single career path, “up-skilling” and “cross-skilling” is the future, he adds. “You might be a good graphic designer, but today you are expected to also be a good photographer, or at least know how to edit photos.”
In an increasingly competitive job market, people are anxious to expand their skill set and develop new disciplines to stay ahead of the curve. But Skilldeer’s "raison d’etre (reason for being) is not just about upskilling the workforce. It also wants people to rediscover an old luxury: hobbies.
“I think people really did forget about having hobbies,” says German-born Mr Tachas. “My parents used to collect coins but now people are on their phones all the time, browsing. It’s become such a convenient way of passing time.”
Caught up in that often antisocial, technology-driven existence, people are overlooking the transformative potential of non-business "soft" skills one attains through hobbies, he reasons.
“Taking acting classes improves your public speaking, group dancing makes you a better team player," Mr Tachas says. "Even Steve Jobs, the founder of Apple, has spoken about how calligraphy lessons shaped his thinking and helped him understand the concept of precision.”
It is a compelling argument – if a woeful observation of our times. Skilldeer is trying to challenge the status quo, and make it fun and easy to learn new things. “We call ourselves the Airbnb of education,” says Orkun Gedik, co-founder and chief operating officer alongside Mr Tachas, referring to the popular online hospitality website.
The duo worked together at auto sales platform SellAnyCar.com – Mr Gedik as Turkey director and Mr Tachas as country manager for Saudi Arabia. Eager to launch their own venture, they got the idea for Skilldeer from an acquaintance with a GCC contact who was willing to finance a business that connected people with high-quality course providers, promoted their services, handled booking and payments and enabled customers to discover activities and skills.
There was nothing like it in the region at the time and as similar ventures in other markets had achieved a decent level of success, the pair set about drawing up a business model.
They were fortunate to receive seed funding from their anonymous backer in January 2017; the money helped them launch the website that May with six employees, including web developers, content producer, sales executive and customer care manager.
In February, their investor increased the funding, bringing the total to date to more than $1 million (Dh3.67m), “making us a Series A start-up”, says Mr Gedik.
The website lists hundreds of courses across Dubai and Abu Dhabi, run by established educational institutions such as the Arabic Language Centre in Downtown Dubai and the Scafa School of Culinary and Finishing Arts, to one-man kitesurfing, knitting or music teachers. There is also a magic class listed on the website, as well as accredited life coaching and professional training.
Each course is vetted by Skilldeer and the instructor must have the requisite qualifications and “well maintained” facilities, the founders say. The platform promotes each class on its website with marketing content and handles bookings, payments and customer care. In addition, it uses web analytics to generate insight as to which courses people are interested in and why they are or aren’t booking.
In return, the company takes a 25 to 30 per cent commission, depending on the course, and is tough on any provider that fails to hold up its side of the bargain by referring enquiries to Skilldeer. “We use mystery shoppers and stop listing courses if need be,” Mr Tachas says.
That said, the majority of service providers see benefit in the value-add services the business provides. In particular, Skilldeer is tapping into a growing community of freelance professionals in the UAE that lack the budget or know-how to do sophisticated digital marketing or handle payments.
The company is recording around 300 bookings per month and average monthly revenue growth of 20 per cent. Website traffic has risen from 10,000 in mid-2017 to 100,000 today, according to the founders. On current growth rates they should top $1m in revenue by the end of the year, and are targeting $4.5m by the end of 2019, in part by expanding operations beyond the UAE.
A soft launch in Saudi Arabia, the Arab world's largest economy, is planned for the first half of 2019, and there are plans to launch in Bahrain later the same year. A Series B fundraising round is scheduled for the first quarter, although the founders do not yet know how much they want to raise.
They are also in early stage negotiations with their backer to grow beyond the Middle East, potentially to Singapore and Istanbul. “Provided there is demand it is fairly easy for us to scale up – we are not an e-commerce product, we do not need warehousing or transport fleets, all we need is our website and a sales team,” Mr Gedik says.
There is also scope to grow within the UAE, by linking up corporates with service providers to run workshops and training sessions. Skilldeer recently organised an event for Dubai Chamber of Commerce and Industry.
It’s all in the name, Mr Tachas says. "Skill" because it’s all about skills and self- development, and "deer", because it’s a likeable, agile animal of which there are hundreds of sub-species across the world, he explains. “So we want to be an agile, likeable and highly diversified platform with many different courses.”