Sha­heen Alkhud­hari tells John Everington how monthly meet­ings with his land­lord gave him his ‘big idea’

The National - News - - BUSINESS -

Ajar On­line founder, Sha­heen Alkhud­hari, did no al­ways see him­self as an en­tre­pre­neur. Af­ter grad­u­at­ing in Man­age­ment In­for­ma­tion Sys­tems from Kuwait Univer­sity, the Kuwaiti was happy to work his way up through a series of se­nior po­si­tions across a wide range of sec­tors, in­clud­ing lo­gis­tics, real estate, in­vest­ments and in­for­ma­tion techn­l­ogy.

Even­tu­ally, how­ever, he found he needed a change in di­rec­tion. “Af­ter nearly 10 years of work­ing my way up through var­i­ous com­pa­nies I even­tu­ally re­alised this wasn’t where I wanted to be any­more,” Mr Alkhud­hari told The

Na­tional from Ajar On­line’s of­fices in Kuwait.

“I found that I didn’t want to work for a com­pany any more, and I needed to find an is­sue to solve and cre­ate some­thing for my­self.” But as any strug­gling en­tre­pre­neur will tell you, de­cid­ing you want to start your own business is the easy part. Find­ing the “big idea” to build a com­pany on can take months if not years to come up with, and then an even greater time to test in the mar­ket­place, re­fine, and then sell to cus­tomers and in­vestors.

For Mr Alkhud­hari, the “big idea” came to him rel­a­tively early dur­ing his search in late 2014, af­ter get­ting mar­ried and mov­ing into an apart­ment. As a first-time ten­ant, he came face-to-face with the of­ten tor­tu­ous process of pay­ing his rent.

“As a ten­ant, it was a real has­sle and a hec­tic process to pay my rent each month,” he said.

“Every time it was due, it was like a night­mare. I had to pay cash or cheque, of­ten chas­ing down my land­lord to come and col­lect the rental pay­ment. So I re­ally felt the need to solve this is­sue.”

His ex­pe­ri­ence in man­age­ment in­for­ma­tion sys­tems, par­tic­u­larly as IT man­ager for lo­gis­tics and engi­neer­ing firm Bri­tish Link Kuwait, lent it­self to find­ing a tech­ni­cal so­lu­tion to such a problem. Mean­while his MBA from the Amer­i­can Univer­sity of the Mid­dle East got him think­ing about how to mon­e­tise such a so­lu­tion.

Mr Alkhud­hari’s next move was to be­gin re­search­ing whether the rental problem was a large enough is­sue for a large enough num­ber of peo­ple to turn into a business.

“I started ask­ing my friends if they faced the same, and they all val­i­dated the long and mun­dane process of pay­ing their rents,” he said.

“I wanted to do some fur­ther re­search, so I in­ter­viewed ten­ants and real-estate en­ti­ties, and they too con­firmed the has­sle of pay­ing or col­lect­ing rent. See­ing this op­por­tu­nity, I seized it, and went on to find the right tech­ni­cal re­sources to turn my idea into re­al­ity.”

Con­vinced that the business idea was good enough, Mr Al Khud­hari brought on board two fel­low Kuwaitis, Ali Taqi and Talal Alyaseen, both of whom brought sim­i­lar ex­pe­ri­ence of work­ing as soft­ware de­vel­op­ers at or­gan­i­sa­tions in­clud­ing Kuwait’s Min­istry of Fi­nance, the Kuwait Na­tional Pe­tro­leum Com­pany and Citibank.

The three en­trepreneurs founded the com­pany in Jan­uary 2015; while all three put in money, Mr Alkhud­hari pro­vided the lion’s share of fund­ing in the early stages, ded­i­cat­ing 50 per cent of his salary to fund the com­pany’s start-up costs.

Ajar On­line’s cloud-based rental pay­ments ser­vice was for­mally launched in Kuwait City in Au­gust 2015. Land­lords look­ing to make use of Ajar On­line’s ser­vice reg­is­ter de­tails of their prop­er­ties via the com­pany’s on­line por­tal, to­gether with the de­tails of what­ever ten­ants may be liv­ing there. The com­pany is work­ing on a mo­bile app to fur­ther sim­plify the process.

Ten­ants sub­se­quently re­ceive an au­to­matic SMS and email from Ajar On­line at the start of the month with a link to the com­pany’s pay­ment sec­tion, en­abling them to pay the rent with a few clicks via Kuwait’s widely used K-net elec­tronic pay­ment sys­tem from any­where in the world, in less than 60 sec­onds.

Ajar On­line makes money out of the process by charg­ing land­lords a small trans­ac­tion fee for each pay­ment.

While the com­pany ini­tially had a hard time sell­ing the ser­vice to of­ten tech­no­log­i­cally-chal­lenged land­lords, the ser­vice even­tu­ally be­gan to take off, as large real estate firms be­gan to see how such a sys­tem could vastly sim­plify rental col­lec­tions.

Ten­ants in turn also be­gan to ap­pre­ci­ate the ser­vice, which re­duced the need to ar­range meet­ings with land­lords on a monthly ba­sis to pay the rent.

Ajar On­line re­ceived a ma­jor boost in Oc­to­ber 2015, when it signed a non-ex­clu­sive part­ner­ship with Warba Bank. Not only did the deal with Warba bring cred­i­bil­ity for the com­pany, but the bank also agreed to pro­mote the com­pany’s ser­vices to its cor­po­rate clients.

“We needed to build trust around our prod­uct, and that part­ner­ship gave us a good push,” said Mr Alkhud­hari.

In the two years since the ser­vice of­fi­cially launched, Ajar On­line has signed up over 70 land­lords in Kuwait. While some of these may own one or two prop­er­ties, it has a num­ber of large real estate firms on its books, us­ing the ser­vice for hun­dreds of prop­er­ties, Mr Alkhud­hari says. “We’re see­ing a pos­i­tive growth month over month, which at times, ex­ceeds our forecast,” he says, de­clin­ing to give de­tails.

Hav­ing started with three em­ploy­ees, the com­pany now em­ploy­ees 14 full-time staff.

Oth­ers in Kuwait have cot­ton to the idea of elec­tronic rental pay­ments, with Kuwait In­ter­na­tional Bank among in­sti­tu­tions to of­fer such ser­vices.

Mr Alkhud­hari in­sists how­ever that Ajar On­line is able to re­tain a com­pet­i­tive edge, say­ing the com­pany en­ables land­lords to man­age mul­ti­ple prop­er­ties via one ac­count.

“What banks do is pro­vide pay­ment so­lu­tions,” he says. “We’re a prop­erty man­age­ment so­lu­tion that has a pay­ment fea­ture.”

Ajar On­line has al­ready at­tracted in­ter­est from the fund­ing com­mu­nity both within Kuwait and in the wider re­gion. In Novem­ber 2015, Ajar On­line was awarded first prize in Kuwait’s first Tm­keen Award, a col­lab­o­ra­tion be­tween Kuwaiti in­vest­ment firm Kipco and the coun­try’s Youth Em­pow­er­ment Or­gan­i­sa­tion.

The award gave the com­pany ac­cess to US$100,000 worth of Kipco ser­vices in­clud­ing fi­nan­cial, strate­gic and op­er­a­tional con­sul­ta­tion ses­sions, mar­ket stud­ies, in­sur­ance cov­er­age and ad­ver­tis­ing ser­vices.

The com­pany also at­tracted its first for­mal seed fund­ing

at the end of last year, in a fund­ing round led by one Kuwait-based ven­ture cap­i­tal firm and one based in Dubai.

Mr Alkhud­hari says the com­pany will dis­close the full de­tails of the on­go­ing fund­ing round in the com­ing weeks, di­vulging only what has been raised is “a big amount”.

Such fund­ing will be used to help Ajar On­line spread its wings be­yond Kuwait into the wider re­gion. The com­pany has opened an of­fice in Dubai and is be­gin­ning to roll-out ser­vices in the UAE. Its ser­vices are also be­ing pi­loted in Saudi Ara­bia, with a view to a full launch in De­cem­ber.

Ajar On­line is dis­cussing part­ner­ship agree­ments with lo­cal banks in both the UAE and Saudi Ara­bia, he said, de­clin­ing to give fur­ther de­tails.

Mr Alkhud­hari is bullish about the com­pany’s prospects in the UAE and Saudi Ara­bia, and is also look­ing to spread the app fur­ther in the Ara­bian Gulf and be­yond.

“We want to scale to be across the Mena re­gion by 2020, with ar­range­ments with the main lo­cal banks in each coun­try,” Mr Alkhud­hari says.

Gus­tavo Fer­rari for The Na­tional

The co-founder of Ajar On­line, Sha­heen Alkhud­hari, seated, with mem­bers of staff

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