Remote Work and Upward Mobility in The Middle East

The Middle East, with its diverse economies, has been in an ongoing economic and political transformation since the onset of this decade. Different governments have vowed to curb social woes in their countries such as dim economic opportunities, high youth unemployment and the lack of access to social services, however a lot of these promises have yet to come to fruition.

Countries like Tunisia and Egypt, who have both witnessed a regime change, have averaged 1-2% in economic growth since 2011 (according to the World Bank), not enough to create jobs for millions of young people in both countries. Young graduates in Tunisia account for 30% of youth unemployment on average and this number goes up to 50% in the interior regions.

Unlike Europe and other economic blocs in the world such as ASEAN and even the GCC, the vast area of the Middle East has been negatively affected by lack of free movement of people and labor in the past decades. Although they speak the same language and share several cultural traits and traditions (which are always good indicators for economic hegemony), talent in the Middle East is constrained to national borders. Thus, talent pooling and knowledge exchanges are both restricted and expensive.

Growing Opportunities Across the Middle East

E-commerce and the overall “technology” industries have seen a consistent surge all across the Middle East. Souq, Careem, Jumia and other e-commerce businesses are ubiquitous in many economies of the Middle East. While each country has its own local market forces, several people and managers are doing the same job everywhere and learning from their own local challenges whenever they arise. Many opportunities are emerging with new injection of money after the Amazon-souq acquisition which will open new doors and bring new players to the e-commerce market across the Middle East

Remote Jobs and Talent Pooling

Remote jobs, the permanent kind, offer a genuine challenge to the status quo. If some companies are willing to pay recruitment agencies the handsome amount of money they usually pay to solicit and filter applications from foreign labor, they might as well invest the same money to scout for talent and groom it to be able to work outside office and national physical boundaries.

Besides traditional professional social networks such as LinkedIn and Bayt.com, young talents from the Middle East are adopting social networks to their employment needs. Online communities allow employers to reach and hire regional talent that are suitable for their job openings without footing a large bill for their physical movement and relocation costs.

With the rapid spread of mobile and internet literacy, more young people are able and trained to work in the internet industry more than can their national economy can accommodate, as is the case for struggling economies like Tunisia, Algeria and Egypt – and even Morocco.

GCC economies, which have traditionally welcomed migration from other Arab countries to grow their service industries, can now better manage this migration flux while maintaining their aid commitment to other developing economies in the region by helping integrate and train the local workforce from these countries with simple access to internet connections. Remote jobs offer the perfect combination of formal professional training and the possibility to redirect income earned in any market towards any other market in the world.

Remote work, upward mobility and combatting brain drain

When I joined Melltoo as a remote employee in 2014, the “remote” part did not factor much in my unspoken commitment to the team and business. I knew that I had a job to wake up to and I understood the business was heading in a direction that required my full alertness and enthusiasm to do the tasks that needed to be done. I was also slightly averse to leaving my country to migrate to a new place.

Remote work has allowed me to access gainful employment in a vibrant market outside of my home country while effectively spending my disposable income right here in my local community, buying from local businesses that employ many other people around me.

When executed right (read our pieces about productivity and collaboration in a virtual environment), remote work opportunities can offer stable jobs and incomes to vast people around the Middle East right where they are. With the advance of communication tools, not so many words are lost in translation nowadays.

I have spent three years of my professional life since graduation in a remote work environment. During these years, I have learnt immensely about the intricacies of peer-to-peer marketplaces more than I could have ever dreamed of. During the same time, I spent my income wisely traveling to over 20 countries in the world. Thanks to my job, I was also able to buy a the technology and devices I need to support me in with my remote work routine.

Traveling has become a major fixture of remote work because of its obvious benefits. Visiting new places, meeting new people and discovering new places is not only thrilling, but also a cleansing experience. I have felt the most energized doing my work from different locations while maintaining a responsible work routine. This is a privilege I have access to that many young people my age cannot even dream of.

At Melltoo, we grew from few scores of users per day to 10,000+ active users during peak days. Pace has changed but my work routine has been the same. In these three years, I have grown from a business administration graduate who had the chance and the opportunity to study abroad to a grown, more experienced, business manager who handled not only both frustrated and ecstatic customers, but also a people manager and someone who understands the complicated processes of the internet industry.

This knowledge and operational expertise has become a golden goose in my country, Tunisia, where digitalizing services and the economy is only at infant stages to say the least. Fortunately, I did not have to leave my country to benefit from all this learning. Remote work is one viable solution for governments to preserve talent and cultivate exchanges of expertise and skills transfers.

Female labor integration

Apart from my own experience, the Middle East faces an issue with staggering female unemployment due to local economic forces or otherwise. Female labor participation in the Middle East is only 27%, a low number when female university graduates in the region are almost equal (47.7%) in number to male graduates.

Remote jobbing supports women’s integration into the workforce and the workplace. The missing 15% can have an immense impact on local economies on the Middle East. Added income will help lift families above the poverty line and increase their access to good education and further professional training. This added income will replenish local treasuries with income taxes and other types of taxes from local commercial activity and capital gain.

Melltoo fully supports female training and integration into the global industry since we have often extended job opportunities on several occasions to female university students to learn and work with us. Such was the case of Yusra, who worked as our community manager and later moved on to become a special needs teacher. Yesmin, who participated in our newest article about female employees at Melltoo is our illustrator-in-chief. She works on our visual branding UI design.

Is the Middle East fully ready for new jobs of the future?

This horrific infographic, circulating among youth on Facebook, on MENA’s readiness to host skills and jobs of the future can speak further to why remote jobs are now more needed than ever. The map looks grim, however, opportunities are only arising right now. Remote work has been embraced globally by Fortune 500 companies. New tools are being developed everyday such as (slack, basecamp and other communication tools) to support the nature of remote work.

It is time to push toward the future of work to allow MEA to truly turn a new page. Join the remote work revolution.

Melltoo Pioneer Social Classifieds Towards A More Sustainable Economy in the UAE

Like most startups, the process of going to market is never a straightforward one. We started out with what we thought users wanted and ended up in what users actually want. Since then, we’ve built a business and a community platform whose primary offerings are trust and convenience.

We call it, the no-meetup classifieds. A community classifieds that comes to you on a technologically robust mobile app (more than just a retranscription of a few web pages) with full shipping and return management (convenience), a dedicated customer service team, curated listings and vetted users (trust).

This is our story.

When we launched Melltoo, we made a cool mobile app with listings and a chat option. We dubbed it the mobile classifieds app. Soon after, we launched our own payment guarantee and shipping features transforming our platform into a marketplace. Our community grew to hundreds of thousands of people who come to our platform to buy second hand items, backed by a money-back guarantee.

Like with every new disruptive business, we focused on user education. We doubled down on using new terms such as “marketplace” or “peer-to-peer” which have become buzzwords in other industrialized markets, but had little resonance for users who simply searched the word “classifieds” and downloaded our app.

After a short euphoric period of hypergrowth which had its own challenges, we figured out that we can only best serve our users if we remain truthful to how we envisioned our product in the first place.

This is how we do it differently:

Product value

Trust 

When you go on traditional classifieds, you usually have no idea who you’re dealing with. That’s a problem for people who prefer not to meet strangers. In fact, people on classifieds usually have concerns about putting their contact information on a public platform. And you will certainly run into problems where people lie about their items as well as a variety of other scams.

Being the modern classifieds that we are, every listing sold on our platform comes with a money-back guarantee, both parties are protected. Users have ratings from previous transactions and are verified to make sure they’re “real” and physically present in the UAE at the time of the transaction. When an item is paid for by a buyer, the funds are held in escrow until the buyer receives and the item he purchased. Once the item is accepted by the buyer, funds are automatically transferred to the seller’s account. As a buyer, this means that your money will be returned to you if you don’t receive your item. As a seller, this means that the buyer’s payment is secured prior to you shipping your item.

Convenience

Melltoo leverages a network of third party logistics companies to ship items sold in-app without the need for users to meet in person. The logistics of meeting in person to trade items like strollers, used iPhones or furniture is the biggest hurdle to selling on classifieds.

Dedicated customer service

Two years into servicing hundreds of thousands of users and tens of thousands of transactions, we’ve built a strong customer service team to push our brand forward. We push for great customer support before technology. Our primary KPI’s are speed and success in solving user problems.

When users come to us with a problem, we try our best to fix their problems as soon as it happens. In the word of our COO, Sharene Lee, “Prioritize, prioritize! First priority is to solve problems.” And she couldn’t have said it better. As the no-meetup classifieds, we handle complicated cases of shipping and returns as well as cash collections and withdrawals. The problems that may arise are numerous and we strive to always put the needs of our customers first.

Morrad Irsane, our CEO, shapes and pushes this vision to remind us of what we stand for:

“We are product and customer focused. Customers are the focal point of Melltoo’s development and vision. All goes hand to hand. Without customers there is no melltoo. Hence the online – offline experience should be delightful from the “buy it now” button to last mile delivery. We are striving to make the process so enjoyable and easy for customers that it becomes a no brainer when it comes to selling your stuff.”

Who is our customer?

Advertisers vs users

Traditional classifieds make money from advertisers and paid listings. They are typically platform hosts to other companies’ media and promotional campaigns. When you don’t pay for a product, you’re the product. Classifieds serve advertisers first and foremost and users are the product that they sell to advertisers.

At Melltoo, we do things differently. We serve our users, buyers and sellers, who use our platform for buying and selling among one  another. We don’t sell ads, we don’t have advertisers. Our focus is on providing the best user experience and ensuring that each sale goes smoothly. Since we make money off successful sales, we are partners with our users (both buyers and sellers) and they are our priority.

This is reflected in our marketing campaigns where we invest our marketing dollars right into our users’ pockets. Through a combination of a referral program and promo code campaigns, we incentivise purchases so buyers get a good deal and sellers sell fast.

Social Impact

Melltoo is a business with a mission. This mission is to contribute to a sustainable future through facilitating resale and reuse. We strive to reduce our footprint on our planet by reducing the need for overproduction through responsible consumerism (buying used!).

We go to work with the understanding that the 3 R’s “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” are the only way ahead if we intend to keep inhabiting this earth. We are introducing a fourth “R”, resell. Reselling helps us reduce and reuse and is a necessary step before recycling.

Melltoo Remote Work Culture Help Its Women Employees Thrive in Their Jobs

Work experiences differ between different employees even as they execute the same tasks sometimes. I have worked at Melltoo for the past three years where I have seen the exponential expansion of our team from 3 people to 25 employees working in several departments: delivery operations, customer success, marketing, product development and quality assurance.

I often have conversations with my university friends in Tunisia about how work means different things to different people. All of us, males and females, do agree that work experiences are influenced by gender and sometimes class at least in Tunisia. I have seen many young job seekers in Tunisia, often females, be constrained by distance and poor transportation infrastructure when accepting a job or trying to perform well at a job. This is not unheard of in th region. Remote work allows me to be productive anywhere as long I’m dead focused on deliverables that matter.

I have been interested in everyone’s experience at Melltoo for some time. We first published a piece about working remotely and then another piece about collaboration while working around a remote work business models. Now, I want to explore the experiences of our female employees in our own unique “workplace.”

Four women in our team hold central roles chiefly our co-founder and COO, Sharene Lee, who manages the team. Asiya Shakirova, a startup veteran who worked with several UAE incubators, manages our brand online and our partners programme. Yesmin Choutri, Melltoo’s illustrator, is the skilled artist behind Melltoo’s visual branding (on the app, blog and YouTube). Heba is a customer service agent who had been with the team for over a year. Without them, we can’t do our work properly; and just like everyone, Sharene, Asiya and Yesmin, and Heba benefit from working remotely.

I spoke to them privately about their remote experience at Melltoo and what it means to them in their own words as professionals, parents and humans.

Sharene, Asiya, Yesmin and Heba represent different demographic segments that are now the new normal for innovative tech companies. Sharene and Asiya are both momprenreurs who manage both a dynamic career and a growing family. Yesmin and Heba are at the start of their careers, managing different operations. Yesmin executes her tasks skillfully while enjoying a fulfilling work-life balance. Heba speaks to our customers on a regular basis and is in charge of the regular user education cycle about our brand and our operations.

It is not often easy to lead a career in tech as female. Even Sheryl Sandberg, former COO at Facebook, still can’t make up her mind whether it is just enough to “lean in” or if the odds are just stacked against women. According to Pew Research Center, as many as 51% of working mothers in the US say they find it hard to advance their careers. This is the result of archaic work environments that require lengthy hours of work and physical presence in an office to get things done. Nearly half of working mothers would have to interrupt their careers at some point for family reasons.

When Sharene started Melltoo, she did not envision remote work as a possibility but as more people joined and proved able to work effectively by themselves, the choice has become more and more obvious. It was rather economically smarter for the young team to continue to work remotely, spend less on overhead and more on acquisition and user experience.

I asked Sharene about her relationship with work and her family whom I often hear on the other end of every other call. Family is important to me as work is.

“Being close to home and able to respond to my children’s needs allows me to focus better on my work. I know I’m not missing anything and I don’t feel a need to overcompensate after work,” she tells me.

“I think the most positive thing about working from home is being able to share what I do with my kids. Growing up, I don’t think I had a clue what my parents’ jobs were like. However, my kids do look over my shoulder, they overhear me in meetings, they are sounding boards for new ideas, they are beta testers and they are able to participate in my work life in ways that wouldn’t be possible if I were working from an office, she adds.

Because of societal expectations, women have to stop their careers when they become mothers to take care of their newborns. This interruption often puts a lid on women’s career advancement and pay expectations compared to men. It’s referred to as the “glass ceiling” – an invisible barrier that hold women back compared to men. This is also one of the strong reasons some countries are considering allowing working fathers to take some time off to take care of their families.

Asiya Shakirova is also a Melltoo mom. She joined the Melltoo team shortly after the birth of her second child. I asked her the same question about managing work and managing a family.

“When I first time heard about remote job, I really wanted it. When I left my last job because I was pregnant with second child, I realized, how much time and effort I was spending in office. I didn’t want to work like this anymore. So, when I received an offer from Morrad (our CEO), I thought this is the perfect job style for mom,” she wrote me.

Asiya had to hire other people to take care of her family when she had an office job back in Russia before, but she doesn’t see the need to today.

Yesmin Choutri, our illustrator from Germany, joined Melltoo not only as her first remote experience, but also as her first work experience. Yesmin is only going to university this year. Talent has no boundaries or age.

Yesmin and I now speak more frequently when creating illustrations that match our content and engagement campaign visuals.

“Melltoo team is like a family, everyone is kind, respectful, friendly and always there to help anyone. Sharene invited me to join Melltoo even though I knew nothing of graphic design but she believed in in my potential for art and I accepted the challenge. I taught myself and learned how to use Photoshop, illustrator, create graphics, GIFs and videos,” she wrote me on Slack.

The friendly environment around our virtual office often makes it easier when new members of the team join our operations. Melltoo has a very low employee turnover with 90-plus percent of employees having worked with us for at least a year. The level of friendly communication encourages more people to participate regardless of their personal character if they are introvert or extrovert. There are no physical meetings where some people may want to assert themselves physically in the room or shout more to fill an empty space to impose their opinions (me by fault of my height and deep voice). All voices that go through the microphone are equal, men and women. Yesmin, who is a shy millennial, has enough room to suggest edits and opinios of her own to her work freely without any friction.

Heba Mahmoud, our customer service agent, challenged her own expectations with regards to remote work. Living in El Minya in Egypt, a city in Upper Egypt dominated by the agriculture sector, Heba had her own preconceptions when asked to join the customer service team.

“I haven’t expected to love the remote work or that I’ll enjoy the work behind a screen and to sit for 8 hours without feeling bored,” she says.

It is best said that Heba surmounted these fears. She has been with the team for over a year. She is a valuable member of the transactions management team.

A remote job in Heba’s case does not only allow for time flexibility, but is also a gainful job opportunity that offers income stability and upward mobility to young professionals in the Middle East. The state of youth unemployment in Egypt and the vast Middle East region remains staggerly high (~30%) and jobs are scarce.

When given flexibility, our female employees have encountered fewer obstacles to give their 100% to their jobs. The magic formula is work autonomy, good communication and an explicit agreement that despite our geographical remoteness, we are still gathered together via online platforms to brainstorm among each other and get things done. Such is the female experience at Melltoo.

Without Sharene’s leadership, we wouldn’t have gotten ahead with $1.2 million in private funding so far. Yesmin is the creative genius behind many Melltoo characters “Melltoo Man” and the rest of the Melltoo family character.

Asiya has successfully run 3 major engagement campaigns since Spring, as well as our partners programme.  Heba continues to interact and answer our user queries on a daily basis and not surpass our 8-min average targeted reply time. Special shoutout to the former women of Melltoo, Soukaina Rachidi and Yusra Bagsheir.

Share Melltoo Ads On Instagram And Win A Valuable Eid Gift!

Eid Mubarak!

Winning on Melltoo doesn’t end yet. Share an item you’d like to win from Melltoo to your instagram account, tag @melltoo and your friends to enter our Eid competition. Terms and conditions apply.

As always, we’re happy to reward our existing users and invite new users to enjoy the Melltoo experience of convenient and conscionable shopping on a peer-to-peer classifieds platform.

Our Eid campaign focuses on brand awareness and utilizing social traffic to acquire new users on the app.

#Share2Win Eid Campaign

Steps

  1. Share the preowned item that you wish to win from Melltoo to Instagram
  2. Tag @melltoo and at least 3 of your friends
  3. Mention your Melltoo user ID in comments

Terms and condition

  • Share the preowned item that you wish to win from Melltoo to Instagram
  • Tag @melltoo and at least 3 of your friends
  • Only registered* Melltoo users are eligible 

Attention!

  • Your instagram account must be opened during the competition
  • Maximum item price is AED 500 (If above, you can pay the rest. You can also use your free credit to pay the difference)
  • You can’t wish your own item or item of your family members
  • Competition ends on July 1, 2017 at 12.00. Winner will be chosen randomly and announced on July 2, 2017
  • If item has been sold by the time competition ends, winner can select another item with same price or less
  • The prize is non-transferable and can not be exchanged for cash

* A registered Melltoo user is a user who has verified address, email address and phone number

Cranky Customers, More Meaningful Engagement And Other Simple Tips For Your Ramadan As A Business

This is our fourth Ramadan since we launched in mid-2014. Ramadan for Melltoo is a month of work, reflection, preparation and execution. We continuously learn how to accommodate the needs of our customers and partners as well as develop better engagement campaigns that result in improved customer experiences and higher retention

If this is your first Ramadan as a business in the region, we would like to share with you our experience of the past three years.

Invest in Your Core Users

Retailing in the UAE

Peer-to-peer retailing in the UAE is typically slower in the summer since a significant portion of the population (mostly families) travel outside the UAE when school is out. Thus, we, at Melltoo, take this opportunity to focus on our core users. We do not typically launch any new acquisition campaigns during the summer. We prefer to reward and invest our money in customer experience (e.g. discounted products, better-vetted listings, a faster delivery time).

Engagement

Ramadan in the Muslim world has been traditionally a month for hyper consumerism that benefit some industries such as traditional brick-and-mortar retail, food and beverage, beauty services, etc. As retail and other services ramp up, businesses use this opportunity to connect with their customers and offer them deals they can’t refuse. As discretionary income increases during the month, businesses compete to get their share.

Typical engagement campaigns in the Muslim world concentrate on charity and giving back to one’s community since Ramadan is the month of benevolence and philanthropy in the Muslim calendar.

‘Flash sale’

In the last Ramadan, we ran one of our feature discount campaigns called “flash sales.” The basics of the flash sale campaign rest in the name. They’re flash i.e. they only last one to few hours, and they’re primarily sales campaigns. Flash sale campaigns run per category each time. We may run one campaign at a time or a few on the same day. During each campaign, we reward each buyer with 50% credit-back on the value of their purchase. Sellers benefit with a larger flux of engaged buyers who are present in-app to buy.

The primary goal of each campaign was to boost transactions per category. Secondary goals are to push the users to explore the app, scroll down the feed, use the many features of the app such as search, liking and commenting, looking into ratings on seller profiles and ultimately create a more dynamic marketplace. We have run this campaign and other forms of this campaign successfully since launch.

At a time of carefully managed growth, we increased our daily transactions by 50% for the overall month of Ramadan.  

The main distribution channel for the campaign was in-app messaging (automated live campaigns via intercom.io) and social media.

Since last Ramadan, we introduced new changes to the app’s UI. We changed two things. We now run marketing campaign visuals on the app’s  main browse feed. We also outsourced crediting rewards to users. Our staff does not add back credits to users. The users use coupons on the app and add money to their wallets themselves. Thus far, our coupons have been redeemed 1500 times since the first week of Ramadan 2017.

You can read more about Ramadan 2017 reward campaign and earn money on Melltoo right here!!

Understanding Customer Needs

User behavior typically shifts during the month of Ramadan even when the users themselves are not observing the religious duty, they are influenced by trends around them.

In a peer-to-peer classifieds, great customer experience is a combination of efforts from the sellers’ side who provide their pre-loved items for sale, logistics companies who ship the items and the buyers who may accept these items or choose to return them; and of course our operations team’s ability to manage user participation and expectations.

During Ramadan, working hours are shortened. This sometimes results in sellers being unavailable to ship their items on time and logistics companies having fewer hours in the day to complete deliveries. Our team’s responsibility is to maintain a positive user experience despite the inevitable logistical challenges. We take extra care to manage expectations and to be on top of sellers and logistics companies throughout the month. Customers are very reasonable people as long as they provided with timely and accurate information about their order. We let them know if a delay is anticipated, we revise our CS timings to accomodate the fasting schedule, we work with logistics companies to manage the flow of orders to prevent bottlenecks. Authenticity and honesty are key in our approach to customer service. We treat our customers as our partners and regularly update them on the status of their case.

Special Hours And Flexibility

In the UAE and many other Muslim countries, working hours are reduced. While legal hours may not always correspond to your operating hours, in order to strike a balance between both, you have to know your customers and reach out to your partners.

For most e-commerce businesses, you will deal with two important time slots: Working in the day will be crucial to make sure your sold items are shipped. Working the night shift is important because this is when your fasting customers will feel at ease to share their concerns and queries.

Flexibility is important too. We, at Melltoo, operate a location-independent business which means we don’t have core hours people need to clock in and out. We focus on getting things done, right. As a result, our hours are easily flexed to accomodate the needs of the month.

In the words of our customer service manager, Mostafa Gamal, who deals primarily with customers and manages customer-communications, “if you work in a healthy work environment and with a proper mindset, fasting won’t affect your productivity at all. Keeping yourself busy helps passing some time so might as well keep yourself busy with something productive.”

Sharene Lee is our co-founder and COO. She is a person whom I admire a lot for her focus, self-discipline and work ethic. Sharene is a mother of six. She manages several people with several functions. I often wonder how she does it.

“Not having to eat during the day actually makes me more productive because I don’t have to stop midday and figure out what to eat and get everyone else sorted. I like Ramadan coz It gives me uninterrupted time to do more ‘brain-intensive’ things like financial modeling and working on product roadmap and strategy,” she wrote me.

How you can lead the path forward?

Ramadan is a month of blessings for Muslims around the world. It can be time for activity, testing and training depending on your business. The key factor is to know your customers well, to reach out to them and keep them interested in your brand even if they’re not buying. Reach out to partners, find synergies and find out how you can ride the Ramadan wave and stay relevant. Focus on CSR campaigns. If you manage a diverse workforce, it is important to invest in cultural sensitivity trainings to avoid tension in the workplace. If you intend to jack up your growth this month, lay the foundation to measure this growth and speak with your customers as much as you can.

Building a Non-Stop Machine: How Melltoo, The No-Meetup Classifieds, Built A Location-Independent Business

At Melltoo, we work as a distributed team. It was not the plan, but we started out this way and kept growing from a team of 2 to 25. And in this time, we have not felt like we are disadvantaged, in fact, we have executed and grown much more rapidly then our peers.

We are not a team by virtue of sharing office space, but rather by a strong belief in our mission and by working toward common goals. For many of us, Melltoo is a unique opportunity to work within a rapidly growing market while not physically being in Dubai. It is also a great way to make an impact from wherever we are in the world, by contributing to the sharing economy and helping make resale and resuse part of the product lifecycle and in turn build a more sustainable future. Every single of one us finds meaning in our work.

Most people don’t fully understand what working remotely is about. Great ideas don’t always happen in closed spaces. We live in a world with excellent communication technologies (slack, hangouts, appear.in, jit.si Meet, etc.). Idea generation takes place when there is communication, it really doesn’t matter if it’s spoken, written, in person or asynchronous.

Achieving work-life balance in the 21st century

After all, working from the same place every day can be really depressing. With Melltoo, I have had the opportunity to travel to several destinations around the globe while launching major feature updates, such Melltoo Pay&Ship in October 2015. I still remember this experience as one of the most fulfilling work-personal experiences in the past three years. Perhaps, it is the change of routine that helps me schedule both work and “me” time evenly. One thing for certain, I did not feel overwhelmed by either work or travel, as compared to other times where I woke up every day and did the same exact thing over and over. Being able to work-travel also opened my eyes to new things and experiences that I’ve been able to import into my work.

When given the chance, many office employees welcome the option to work remotely. There is even a new “workation” trend, where you are able to fulfill your passions outside of work, while still successfully fulfill your job duties without being limited by physical space. These trends along with digital nomadism is responsible for a new work philosophy among Millennial workers and Gen X-ers. Southeast Asia and cheaper European and Latin American cities are filled with transient digital nomads who hop from city to city looking to feed both their soul and portfolios.

Parents also prefer working at home when available to them. Santosh Binwal, Melltoo’s quality assurance manager, works from home due to family reasons.

“I needed to work from home due to some family conditions. Melltoo gives me this chance. There is no hard timing and pressure. All members in our team are like family. Everybody helps one another. Top management are transparent with all team members and everyone knows what is going on. No hidden things,” Santosh wrote me when asked to contribute to this article.

For the uninitiated, here are three myths about the nature of distributed teams that need debunking.

Myth #3: Working remotely is freelancing

Working remotely is not akin to freelancing. We’re bound by KPI’s, tasks and objectives. Our commitment to the company is very real. In fact, everyone on our team, except several new hires, have been with us for at least a year. It’s all about organization and setting clear, achievable goals. Working remotely does not negate the development of company culture. In fact, I would argue that working remotely has shaped our company culture into one that emphasizes results and execution over office politics.

Many of our customer service agents have been working remotely with Melltoo for over a year. In fact, many are polyvalent and perform several tasks within our broad CS-Operations team. They have witnessed many changes to our processes from the way we verify and book orders to how we treat claims and cancellations.

Timing is especially crucial for a company like ours which prides itself for great customer experience we offer to our users. We schedule our working hours within peak hours of customer interactions. Typically these peak hours fall within people’s resting schedules. Our team is experienced enough to anticipate peak days and hours before they occur in synch with our marketing campaigns schedule.

Our CS team has been through different growth stages. They helped shape CS processes and performances in the past year resulting in a decrease in our CS reply time from hours to 10 minute per query. Everyone continues to learn on the job while also supporting themselves in a handful of small cities in Egypt plagued with a higher-than-average unemployment rate. Fortunately, our team’s professionalism and fondness for team work has kept them in their jobs year after year.

Myth #2: Working remotely is isolating

While this may be true at times, it is still preferable to working in an open office which tends to be awfully distracting with chatty coworkers, background noise, and office politics. According to a Harvard Business Review Research on work satisfaction in open-floor work spaces, the results are not great. The main complaints are noise, lack of cleanliness and constant interruption. In fact, the study reports a loss of 86 minutes per workday due to distractions.

From my own experience, as customer experience manager and content writer, I am able to focus better with a silent background while being the only person in the room. I do my work first and then I schedule calls and meetings around it. Hours of optimal productivity also differ from person to person. Allowing people to work asynchronously improves productivity while increasing job satisfaction. So, while working remotely can sometimes be lonely, it actually helps getting the job done, especially in creative tasks that require a lot of concentration, like coding or writing.

At Melltoo, we recognize the need for social interaction. It is something we constantly work towards.

Rahul Choudhary, our technical manager, recently moved to Melbourne, Australia. Just like the rest of the members of our team, he is not restricted by location to do his job. He fashioned his own communication style with his team of 10 people.

“One of my most important roles is to communicate with the tech team and get things done. I usually talk with the team on phone or skype. Text chat is only used to keep records. So, if there is something that needs to be present as reference, then I put it on Slack or email. Voice call makes it easier for everyone to explain & to understand,” he wrote to me on Slack.

Slack is our favorite channel of communication.

Myth #3: Working remotely decreases productivity

Wrong. As I mentioned above, working alone has the benefit of reducing distractions and boosting productivity.

In addition, work productivity is measured by motivation, not location. Remote workers are by default a motivated bunch of self-starters; you won’t survive very long in the remote work environment if you aren’t. There is no one to tell you when to start work and no one to prevent you from stopping. Without self-motivation, you won’t get anything done, which is a one-way ticket out of the job.

In my opinion , there is nothing more exhilarating than taking the lead and achieving the goals you set out for yourself.

Santosh has worked on multiple app iterations including major feature updates and changes. He relishes increased responsibility.

“I am motivated by taking responsibility. In Melltoo, there is a high responsibility on me that the application should be Bug Free and Users can use it without any hassle. One more thing, it gives me a sense of accomplishment and I am proud to say ‘I am working for Melltoo,'” he wrote me when asked about routine and execution in the job.

We, at Melltoo, have worked remotely since day 1 and we’ve been thriving and growing for the last three years. We don’t clock in, we don’t clock out, we travel, we work. In this time, we’ve served hundreds of thousands of buyers and sellers, raised several rounds of funding and continue to grow the business while working cohesively as a team from many places around the world. We haven’t missed a beat.

It has been a routine of mine to experiment with new automation processes along with our operations QA manager, Hesham Mustafa, often at the wee hours of the morning. We’re both night owls and I prefer test sending messages to users outside of rush hours to see what works best. We never found the need to sit together at one place at one time, we just communicated constantly as we worked together on developing a rationale and method of automation.

Hesham, who is a chemistry graduate, took a liking and commitment to learning and customizing codes and API’s from our tech team to fit the needs of our operations team.

No one on the team is really second-guessing their experience at Melltoo. He wrote:

“Everything I do now I have learned on the job, which was made possible because I could choose where and when to work and didn’t have to waste my time and energy going to and back from a certain work place. In addition to that, I was given the space to innovate and apply my ideas which was a huge motivation to do even more. I’ve thought of it as a hobby that I enjoy more than a job that I would have to do just to get paid,” he writes.

In just a few months, we managed to automate a large chunk of our operations at Melltoo. We have about 10+ people who collaborate daily on operations, from the product development team, CS team, Operations and QA. We’re not bound by strict schedule but rather the simple logic to serve our customers in the ways and in the hours they need us the most.

Ramadan 2017: Melltoo No-Meetup Classifieds Supports HH Sheikh Ben Zayed’s Year of Giving

“The UAE’s President His Highness Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan has declared 2017 as the Year of Giving.

‘Giving’ is a value we cherish and saw personified in the UAE’s Founding Father Sheikh Zayed. We continue to see this philanthropic legacy embodied by his sons and ingrained in the DNA of our society. Through my humble experience, I believe giving is not limited to monetary donations. Rather, “giving” is defined by the differences we make: the differences in someone’s life, in a society, or in a nation. Sheikh Zayed’s legacy is not measured in the generous donations he made to the less fortunate only, but in the impact he has had on our lives and our country forever. This is our goal for the Year of Giving – to make a difference in the lives of those we care for, and in ourselves.”  –Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum

Melltoo Marketplace embraces the vision of our national leaders and looks forward to Ramadan 2017 as an opportunity to start making an impact on society.

We invite you to join us in giving back and helping those those among us in need.

Here is how YOU can help:

  • List your pre-owned items to sell. Make the world a more sustainable place by re-selling your stuff.
  • We will sell your stuff for you. We will promote your items to buyers, pick up and deliver your items as well as transfer your money to you.
  • Make a difference in someone’s life. Melltoo will donate 1% of all sales proceeds during Ramadan 2017 to provide food for the needy with the help of Emirates Red Crescent.

Remember, every action, no matter how small, counts. Start selling now.

Download our app and list your items immediately via melltoo.me/downloadapp (this link will take to your phone’s app store).

As with every year, we will glad to have our buyers continuously shop on our app to save money while reducing the need to produce more and increase waste. During the entire month of Ramadan, earn free credit daily (up to AED 500) with us and buy preloved electronics, fashion, and more for you and your family.

How it works:

  • Answer our daily trivia questions in-app. Learn more about Ramadan, charity, and culture in the UAE
  • Earn credit for correct answers. The answer to each trivia question is a promocode that earns you credit to spend.
  • Spend your credit when you want. Accumulate credit and spend it when you want to purchase pre owned electronics, fashion, and home items (Terms and Conditions apply).

You can only play this guessing game and use the promo codes on the mobile applications.

Start earning credit now: melltoo.me/downloadapp (download the app and create an account)

Remember, every time you buy something, 1% of the sales proceeds will be donated to Emirates Red Crescent.

Help us give back to society. Join us and together we will make a difference.

If you want to read about Melltoo’s vision and plan to contribute to the UAE’s sustainability efforts and goal to reduce waste, read our latest blog post: Melltoo Manifesto, Vision and Values.

 

Melltoo Manifesto: Vision, Mission, Values

When we first started Melltoo, we started with scratching an itch, solving a pain point that we personally had, the terrible user experience of classifieds. Deep down, classifieds appealed to us on an emotional level because it encompasses several of our personal convictions.

  • We, as the human race, should not waste the precious resources we have been given by our creator. Classifieds is the key to resale and reuse.
  • We believe in community and the need to strengthen its bonds across social, economic, and cultural divides. Classifieds allows participation by all segments of the community.

Along the startup journey, as we busily grew the company from 2 to 25, we lost sight of some of the ideals that guided us in the first place. So over the last several weeks, we did some soul-searching in an effort to define our “raison d’etre” as a company. This is our we’ve come up with.

Our Vision

To change the way we consume things to enable society to strike a balance between consumerism and sustainability. To advocate for responsible consumerism through resale and reuse and to fight the disease of inaction. Great leaps forward begin with small steps.

Our Mission

The preservation of our only planet is the business of all and not the few. The only way to achieve this mission is to get the masses involved and the only way to get the masses involved is to make it easy for them to get involved. Hence, our mission is to make buying and selling preowned goods so easy it becomes an enjoyable and rewarding part of everyday life, enabling everyone to do their part in building a more sustainable society.

Our Values

  1. Individual responsibility = everyone is responsible for their own actions, be it our staff or consumers in general
  2. Social responsibility = It is our responsibility, as part of society, to give back to society
  3. People before technology = As technology becomes a mediator between people, we must not regard technological advancement as superior to human advancement. Technology exists to serve people.
  4. Customers are people just like us, they deserve to be treated the way we would want to be treated
  5. Always ask why = question the status quo, if there isn’t a good reason for something, then change something

Our Product Pillars

  1. Peer2peer = a marketplace for mass participation where buyers are sellers and sellers are buyers.
  2. Trust = the marketplace actively works to establish and protect trust within the community
  3. Innovation = innovate or die
  4. Service = beyond technology, our product is also about service and our responsibilities to our customers

As we look ahead in building the region’s foremost peer2peer marketplace, we will take our vision, mission, and values as guideposts along the way.

Melltoo Commits to Sustainability As Driving Force Behind Its Business

Not so long ago, we published our manifesto to our users, readers and the startup community. It has taken us three years to figure out how to communicate the vision and passion that have been the driving force behind our business and work culture.

Aa a peer2peer classifieds business, we have empowered thousands of individuals in the UAE to sell among one another, reuse, resell, make some money, save some money and conserve our planet’s resources.

Mellsters love a good deal and love to make some money off their old stuff. However, that’s not the only reason they buy and sell secondhand, they do it because they want to conserve our only planet. Every effort in extending the life cycle of a product contributes to extending the life cycle of our planet.

The unheard story of cotton

Sustainability is often an abstract notion for many people, but what is really? It is the notion that we ought to preserve the resources on earth and in our words “strike a balance” between the need or the urge to consume and its consequences on the planet.

Let’s take cotton, a major component in clothing and apparel. Fast fashion trends in recent years have accelerated the consumption of clothing as people continuously add to their wardrobes in an effort to keep up. While consumption is good for the economy, it comes at a cost.

Cotton products exhaust our water resources. Water is long thought of as a renewable resource, but with decades of droughts in different parts of the world, this no longer seems to be true. Add to this the effect of industrial polution and it’s no longer clear how renewable our water really is. Additionally, many security organizations now say that water has become a major security concern. Therefore, water (or lack of thereof) are potential sources of conflicts in the near future (think of the Nile dam tension in Eastern Africa).

Twenty thousand liters are spent to produce 1kg of cotton ergo one t-shirt. If 20,000 displaced refugees had a liter of water every time we produce a new t-shirt, the world would be a better place today. We would be able to save lives instead of producing more t-shirts that will eventually end in garbage bins and landfills.

Questionable labor conditions

Market forces ensure that basic cotton t-shirts do not sell for more than 5 dollars a piece. A major department store would typically pay between 1 to 2 dollars to a factory in Bangladesh for a T-shirt. The 2 dollars would be spread between overhead and labor costs. The Bangladeshi factory worker typically receive cents for their labor.

Mass production and the economics of  t-shirts encourage wage stagnation in manufacturing countries. These laws and regulations are often proctored and protected by the government in many countries. We do not want to be part of the problem.

Waste management

Waste management is a significant financial and environmental problem in many countries. UAE is not an exception. While the UAE recycles only 25% of its waste, we should aim higher.

eWaste

Electronics have become a major source of waste with new editions of different devices released every year. Technology changes rapidly and things become obsolete in a matter of months. In the age of the new normal, people prefer to pay up the price difference for a new device rather than get stuck with an old design. TV’s, mobile devices, PC’s all need to be recycled.

eWaste is an ever-growing problem because electronic products consist many non-renewable resources, the most important being metals. Once extracted from the earth, metal doesn’t grow back. In addition, if not properly handled, eWaste is toxic and pollutes, affecting communities in developing nations such as India and China where waste from developed nations are often exported.

What’s being done?

The UAE is making it easier to recycle e-waste. Thanks to an assisted UN project and an investment of about US$200 million, the UAE plans to install 8 recycling centers for e-waste across the nation. E-waste management is not just a tedious duty to save the environment but rather a profitable economic opportunity since metals can be extracted from discarded electronics, then reused and resold instead of newly mined.

The region is also coming together with a colossal investment in Masdar city and waste management companies such as Ecyclex. Masdar City’s annual Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week bring world leaders and businesses around sustainability. Splash, one of the region’s major department stores, is leading the initiative and collecting used items for reuse at their stores.

What can you do?

Reduce. Reuse. Recycle. These are the 3 R’s of the environment. Let’s add one more, Resell.

Reduce consumption where possible and don’t buy things you don’t need. This will help your pocket as well. Another way to reduce consumption is to buy used or secondhand. If you have to buy something, make the responsible choice and buy secondhand where possible. Certain products like furniture are often discarded before their time. A family that is leaving Dubai generally doesn’t have the luxury of taking their furniture with them and storage is too costly.

Resell and reuse. Reusing something extends a product’s lifecycle and reduces the need to produce a replacement unit, thereby preserving the earth’s resources. Reselling stuff also aids the class of economic participants who cannot to afford to buy certain products new. Giving them access to high quality products at lower prices reduces the production of cheaper alternatives that get trashed far more quickly due to poor quality.

Finally, recycle. Many of the resources we need are trapped in products that are simply buried in landfills because they weren’t recycled. There are recycling bins all over the UAE, do your part.

Join the movement. Anything you do helps. A small group of environmentalists doing everything is not going to make a difference. We need everyone to do just one small thing and THAT will make a huge difference. Going green is not about doing everything, it’s about doing something. Help us make our planet and our economy more durable and more sustainable. Resell and reuse and make an impact on the planet today.

How We Built A Live Product and A Community While Maintaining Our Remote Work Culture

I work for Melltoo, a startup based in Dubai. I live in Tunis. I work with people who live all around the world, UAE, India, Pakistan, Egypt, Ukraine, France, UK, from so many nationalities, Singaporean, Algerian, French, Pakistani, Indian, Ukrainian, Russian, Egyptian, Spanish, Moroccan and American. We represent a diverse group of people working toward a common goal of building the biggest peer2peer marketplace in the Middle East. We dubbed it the no-meetup classifieds.

At Melltoo, we work as a distributed team. It was not the plan, but we started out this way and kept growing from a team of 2 to 25. And in this time, we have not felt like we are disadvantaged, in fact, we have executed and grown much more rapidly than our peers.

Most people don’t fully understand what working remotely is about. Great ideas don’t always happen in closed spaces. We live in a world with excellent communication technologies (slack, hangouts, appear.in jit.si Meet, etc.). Idea generation takes place when there is communication, it really doesn’t matter if it’s spoken, written, in-person or asynchronous.

How to successfully execute ideas when working remotely

Yes, we probably have too many google docs we jam ideas into, but we shelve each one as soon as we’re done with it. As a team, we’re task-oriented and we rally behind the ideas of any team member and accompany them to execution. Our workflow is managed with objectives and deadlines.

At Melltoo, we have iterated on our product, operations, and processes unceasingly over the past 3 years. We’ve also launched scores of different marketing campaigns. Typically, someone comes up with a new idea, perhaps from something they read or heard about that makes sense in our context. The idea is pitched on slack generating a lot of discussion and feedback, then the DRP (direct responsible person) drafts an extended pitch on a Google Doc and asks for contributions as a follow up. Objectives, a timeline, and a to-do list are key components to any pitch. Finally, a team call takes place and doubts are clarified and voilà: From idea to plan to execution.

This process allows us to distribute tasks across various teams within Melltoo, from tech to marketing to operations. To date, this has been very successful, evidenced by the weekly flash sale campaigns last year that we revamped into seller-focused campaigns (rather than category-focused); or the “guess and win” campaign during the Dubai Shopping Festival this past January.

Good communication is key

My daily routine includes checking slack every other hour to read conversations across various topics. I chime in if I have a question or something to add, otherwise let people speak uninterrupted when they need to. This is different from the office spaces which I have some modest experience with where other team members will need to constantly interrupt my work and concentration to tell me something (relevant and irrelevant).

Communication is different between different team members and departments. To each their own.

Rahul Choudhary, our technical team lead, relies on direct communication to get things done which includes fixing bugs and launching new features on time.

“One of my most important roles is to communicate with the team and get things done. I usually talk with the team on phone or skype. Text chat is only used to keep records. So, if there is something that needs to be present as reference, then I put it on Slack or email. Voice calls makes it easier for everyone to explain and to understand,” he told me in our conversation.

Personally, I prefer texting which may be is due to my generational obsessions with looking into screens, but I will admit that text often distorts the message and takes more time than necessary.

In a private conversation about this very post, the head of our operations also told me that he calls people outside of work to check on them. It’s a recurrent theme.

“I use phone calls and whatsapp for social communication outside of work with my team members. We share jokes of the day and have a good laugh among each other. We are not missing out [on social interaction].”

Mostafa Mohammed, our head of operations, joined our team in Jan 2016 and has gone through different stages of growth, hyper-growth and the slower growth of the summer. Like many of our team members, including myself, who enjoy working from multiple different locations, he is attached to his job at Melltoo not only because of the learning potential and missions he is tasked to execute but also because of the “remote” part.

“I like my job and am self motivated since I can travel anywhere anytime and work in new places from time to time,” he also added.

In essence, our daily work at Melltoo has as much shaped our experience with work in the 21st century as we have shaped the company culture. Like Hesham Mustafa (our Operations QA Manager from the previous piece) puts it, our team does not have to worry about benign problems such as commuting to and from a job and the waste of time and energy that comes with or figuring out food options and other related costs while away, enclosed in a space at work. This very nature of our work has sustained our business and our growth for the past three years. We invite you to try it too, perhaps for few days at a time!

Building a product through iterations

Vitali is a UX designer. He is from Ukraine. Vitali joined Melltoo to revamp our design and help us communicate better with our users. The role of a UX designer is to figure out the best flows and processes while minimizing user interfaces, the best UI is no UI.

Among Vitali’s first projects, was a revamp of the Melltoo referral program, a strong engine of growth for us. Vitali implemented two new flows to the process that did not exist before. User can now check if their referees had indeed accomplished all the necessary steps to receive their reward or remind them to go through these steps.

These two simple actions in-app have helped lower the inquiries about referral tech bugs and referral programs and consecutively freed our CS time to focus on operational inquiries which are more complicated in nature.

“We need to be aware of the limitations that we have. Limitations of time, limitations of people, and limitations of technology. And, one of the most important work we do is to prioritize what we need to do,” says Vitali.

 

Vitali works directly with the technical team. He prioritizes direct conversations and calls to clear out detailed plans before the UI team starts to draw new screens. We regularly prepare multiple versions of any given flow, get user feedback, before we decide on which one to implement.

 

Raghvendra Pandey is a backend engineer at Melltoo. He is also the hero of our user support team. When I was part of the CX team, we often communicated through a project planning tool in writing on a user case basis. Raghvendra works on the server team and specializes in database optimization. He has been with Melltoo since the early days. He interacts with all members of the Melltoo team (leadership, user support, operations, UX and frontend development).

 

“Communication among the team is very nice. The team is highly co-operative and collaborative. Management’s communication with the team members is also very good, it helps us understand our role in the greater organization. Melltoo is a great place to work and I have enhanced my professional development a lot since joining.”

 

In the end, becoming a location-independent business requires underlying commitment between staff and leadership. It is neither easily attainable nor too hard to pursue. It has become a trend in a new work culture dominated by millennials, who account for nearly 50% of the workforce today. The recipe for success begins with clearly communicating to every member of the team the company’s vision, mission and strategy. Distributed teams require a high level of independent decision making and good decisions cannot be made if the big picture is not well understood. Processes and workflows are also important since they will reduce  communication errors.

 

We are proud of being a part of this new work culture. We encourage you to get in touch if you and your business decide to give distributed work a try!