This is a condensed conversation with the co-founder of Melltoo, Morrad Irsane.
We’re discussing Melltoo’s beginning and ongoing strategy to become the largest “no-meetup classifieds” in the Middle East.
Ahmed Medien is a Marketing Aid and Customer Experience Manager at Melltoo.
The answers have been shortened for flow.
AM: Why mobile-first instead of building a mobile-responsive website?
MI: When we first started working on Melltoo in 2013, mobile-first was the only way to go. People were eager to download any new app and try it out. Today, in 2017, it is a bit tricky. People don’t want to download an app just to try a product. They prefer to try it on the web first and if it makes sense, they move on to the mobile app. If you are just launching a new product today, go with mobile-responsive web first, then launch an app if your product takes off.
Mobile-first, however, has a better user experience. The native mobile app experience is superior to the mobile-responsive web when it comes to realtime geolocation and push notifications which are very important in consumer-facing products. A mobile app keeps the product front-of-mind and allows a product to become part of a user’s daily routine, making habitual use much more attainable. A good mobile experience should make things easier for the user, hence the importance of both UI and UX for our business. Today’s users are pressed for time and impatient. We work hard to make Melltoo intuitive without a steep learning curve. We know people just want to buy and sell without complex signups, payment methods and other UI friction.
Why “social” classifieds?
A product will become a part of a person’s life only if it’s social. Let’s not talk psychology, but social interaction is a fundamental human need. My dream is to contribute to building a more sustainable world by making it easy for people to resell and reuse. To do that, we have to not only make it easy, but to make it fun, rewarding, and engaging as well. And nothing is more fun than interacting with people in a safe environment.
Classifieds is an inherently social experience. However, the traditional classifieds experience is fraught with risk and as much anti-social behavior as there is social behavior. At Melltoo, we set out to facilitate positive social interactions in buying and selling by being the referee and go-to if things break down. In some ways, we are creating a safe social arena where people build relationships on the basis of their roles as buyer and sellers; for lack of a better term, a social network for buying and selling.
There are practical reasons for keeping things social as well, establishing trust. Part of the experience in Melltoo revolves around building an identity and reputation in the community. Knowing who you’re dealing with builds trust, which is important for successful transactions to take place. Ratings and reviews for previous transactions further solidifies credibility, especially in this day and age where fakes and counterfeits have become a global problem.
We want our users to be engaged in our community and to build relationships with one another. Features like comments and chats not only allow users to discuss and exchange product information, it’s also allows them to build relationships, creating stickiness in the marketplace. When you’re using Melltoo, you’re not just an individual behind a screen dealing with another individual behind a screen, you are part of a community. We are often asked whether the private chat is a leak for us, a way for buyers and sellers to take the transaction off-app to avoid paying selling fees. It probably does happen at times, but we believe that the service we are providing is valuable enough that people will prefer to keep things in-app. Not to mention the fact that transacting off-app does not help users build their reputations in the Melltoo community, which is a key element to successful transactions.
Why do you limit yourself to making money off transactions rather than other more available revenue streams such as selling media banners or premium listings to users?
Our model is purely transactional, we take a percentage off successful sales. Melltoo is not interested in selling mellsters’ data and personal information to advertisers for money. Nor are we willing to compromise the user experience with ads in our app. We have different aspirations. We value our privacy and want the same for our users. Paid listings is not something we do either, we want users to pay us only after they have derived value from the service, not before.
On Melltoo, users only pay us if their item is sold through the app. We believe this is the best way to make money for now. In future, we plan on introducing other paid services that bring value to users.
Why the insistence on remaining peer-to-peer?
Peer-to-Peer is the most difficult business model to build and sustain, yet the most rewarding when you succeed. Think any classifieds, airbnb, Uber, eBay (in the early days), etc. There is no peer-to-peer transactional platform in the UAE and the region. We are tackling secondhand items with fulfillment for the first time in the region. What is amazing about the peer-to-peer business model is interchanging user roles: buyers become sellers and sellers become buyers. This is maximally engaging since users can participate on both sides of the marketplace seamlessly. It also means that peer-to-peer businesses are high-impact businesses since participation is afforded to large segments of any given population.
From a personal standpoint, my goal is to be an enabler, to enable people to help make the world a more sustainable place through resale and reuse. In this, power lies with the masses and hence the only way to do this is peer-to-peer.
What is the growth potential in the UAE and the region?
The average UAE household has about USD $2000 of unused consumer goods (e.g. an old iPhone, TV, furniture, toys and clothing) in storage in their homes at any given time. These can be resold and will inevitably get replenished as households continue to purchase. The population in the GCC and Levant is about 160 million or about 40 million households. Assuming about 10% of those households sell their stuff, that’s an $8 billion a year opportunity. If we succeed in our mission of making buying/selling second nature, we can increase the participation rate and the market opportunity will grow.
As you know, Amazon recently announced that they will be acquiring Souq.com. While this deal is great for the region in many ways, it is particularly important in validating the market demographics. We’ve had more than one outside VC questioning our market size. Compared to India, China, Brazil, etc, 160 million souls scattered across multiple countries seems small. However, about 40 million of these people are already online consumers and smartphone penetration is among the highest in the world. Currently, ecommerce represents 2% of total retail spend and the region boasts the youngest populations in the world, which means growth potential is huge. Anecdotally, I’ve spoken to founders of large Indian startups who find the region more lucrative than India in certain categories (restaurant, travel etc). While there may be many more Indians, online consumption among Indian consumers is still low. In addition, per capita income in the GCC countries are among the highest in the world.
I have lived in the region for over 12 years. This is my home and I have no plans on leaving. I’m committed to the region and I’m bullish about it’s growth potential. When I first moved to the UAE, the population was 3 million, today, it’s 9 million (tripled in 12 years). Where there were 30 skyscrapers on Sheikh Zayed road when I first arrived, today I’ve lost count, including some of the world’s tallest buildings and 25-star hotels. All signs point to growth.
How have you managed to grow and develop your product, your company and your team over the past 3 years while so many other startups die after barely launching?
Baraka (roughly translate to blessings), hard work and a low burn rate. In this game (startup) the only thing that is not forgivable is to run out of money :). Having said that , we have a great team that works with passion and determination. We all know that we are building something fantastic, something that will make a difference in our world, and that our time will come … We have the right product, in the right place, at the right time. These things are starting to align and we are seeing progress everyday.
It is also incredibly important to be aware of your surroundings and the context we are in. Knowing the users, the socioeconomic context, the funding environment, investor sentiment, other products making waves…these things are important in the decision-making process. A lot of founders just focus on internal data and metrics, that’s really not going to give you enough information to make good decisions. For example, we have the ability to grow very fast. However, considering the current economic and funding environment, growing too fast will mean that we shorten our runway at a time when fundraising is difficult. So these external considerations need to be accounted for when making internal decisions.
What is most important to you right now?
Our users have been and continue to be the most important thing to us. We are continually working to improve the user experience, be it via technology or operations or customer service. To this end, we need to execute fast and to keep ourselves on top of the game. It is all about pleasing the user by building the right features and improve operations to increase new users while retaining old ones.
As the CEO, I don’t do the actual work and all credit goes to my team. However, my job is to build an organization where everyone can achieve their objectives and goals unimpeded. I focus my attention on supporting and building the organization and creating a work environment where talented people can do their thing. Borrowing a page from one of today’s most successful CEOs, Jack Ma, if we take care of the customer and the team, everything else follows.