Up until now, there exists a wide informational gap in terms of the development of online marketing practices among the MENA region’s  SMEs.  Salim Akil, a young entrepreneur is hoping to fill that void with his startup SearchInMENA.com. He recently spoke with Joumana Saad about the challenges of setting up shop and the potential for this startup’s future.

Salim Akil, Founder, SearchInMENA.com

In today’s world of e-Marketing, search ability is one of the most important criteria for brand exposure and business growth. In the region, a lack of knowledge in this area is a limiting factor for growth among SMEs. This informational gap inspired Salim Akil to develop SearchInMENA.com, an online business search engine specifically designed for SMEs operating in this region. Salim says companies in the region are not utilising the Internet enough to get noticed. “Today, companies’ presence on the internet in the form of a homepage or a website is not enough to achieve the expected results and a large number of viewers; companies must be listed and linked to an international and credible database,” he says.

Today, SearchInMENA.com’s database includes over 10,000 companies, with a majority of them registered in the UAE, Saudia Arabia, Egypt, Syria and Qatar. The website is designed around a basic business directory that also offers SMEs the option to reach their target customers and clients through its online advertising and online PR channels.

There is no charge for companies who want to simply get listed on the online directory and include basic details about their business along with contact information. Companies looking for more online exposure can either purchase a basic subscription for USD 300 a year (AED 1,300), or an advanced subscription for USD 1,000 a year (AED 3,750). These options allow companies to reach more clients by appearing in Google searches due to the website’s AdWords type system. With a basic subscription a company can advertise its products in detail, and also have unlimited access for publishing press releases, company news and events. Key benefits from the advanced subscription include unlimited products listing along with attached multimedia (product pictures and videos along with video interviews), and also ads that appear on the main website.

This brainchild of a website began in Syria in 2007, with  a previous Web project - SearchInSyria.com.  A student of communications technology engineering, Salim tells me he always kept tabs on eCommerce trends and watched as search engines like Google and Alibaba reshaped the global landscape for online advertising.  He noticed that the business community in Syria was behind in terms of knowledge of these types of online markets; while doing business online was not a big concern for most businesses. Part of the reason behind this, he says, stemmed from the political atmosphere.

In the beginning stages, Salim aimed to create a database to connect companies in Syria. “There was fear of being visible,  and a lot of people wanted to be low-profile.  So I worked hard to teach my clients how exactly to do business online,” he says. Salim started SearchInSyria with a very small team and after three years, was able to get 3,500 subscriptions. After creating something unique that was  non-existent in a place like Syria, his startup began receiving more attention. Salim was approached by Kompass, a global business-to-business (B2B) database, with more than three million international and domestic companies listed. He worked with the company on plans to develop the B2B Syrian database for Kompass.com up until 2011. Then came an unforeseeable life-changing event.

“Everything stopped when the situation in Syria deteriorated. That’s when we decided to move. We first contemplated moving to Lebanon, as Beirut was a gateway for the Middle East that was also not too far away. When the bad situation continued, we had to re-think our strategy and business model entirely.”

Startup Weekend Dubai   Although confronted with this harsh reality, Salim says the change in plans was actually a blessing it disguise. Without this series of events, there may have been no SearchInMENA.  The change allowed him to re-think his business plan to create something ever bigger and more valuable, and it also put pressure on him to re-locate.

Salim had long had his eye on Dubai, but always considered it too expensive. After moving to Dubai in September 2011, he has no regrets. “When you come to a place like Dubai, you need someone to guide you. Yes, it is an expensive place to operate, but it is a great environment for startups. Through events like Startup Weekend Dubai, we have made so many new useful connections. You have a lot of opportunities to meet and connect with these types here,” he said.

Some of the most beneficial opportunities Salim has had, were the regional competitions that he has participated in. His startup was listed in the top 30 Best Mediterranean statups category during MedVentures’ 2010 competition in Marseille, France. He has also competed in ArabNet in Beirut, MENA 100 in Bahrain. Most recently, he participated on The Entrepreneur reality show presented by du, which is set to air later this year. The process for participating in the show has been challenging but rewarding, he says. Once applicants were confirmed, they then had to put their idea into a formal business plan and a two-minute speech which they pitch to the judging panel. They also go through personality evaluations and other challenges that test their sales and problem-solving skills.

Salim had the benefit of connecting with Danat, a company that serves as its incubator. Danat provides Salim office space and online advertising and web development support, as well as technology that allows customers to pay SearchInMENA online.  Danat also houses four other entrepreneurs like Salim hoping to get their startups off the ground. Finding the right investor is no easy task, especially in a competitive environment like Dubai. Salim says there is an art to making connections that will help your business in its early stages. The process of getting his idea picked up by an investor can sometimes take longer than you imagine.

“To reach investors you need to be good at networking, it requires special skills. After pitching my business plan to my first investor we spent two months working together to prepare an action plan. We then put our issues on the table, made an evaluation for the business idea and finally formed a contract, “ Salim says. Because online investment is different in this area than other types of companies,  he says it was difficult to get someone to evaluate business’ visibility and value, without equipment and offices.

So, what does the future look like for SearchInMENA? After five years, Salim says he wants his startup to become the Alibaba.com for the MENA region, with a platform that covers the majority of SMEs. He plans to keep his website platform simple, but at the same time further develop its tools that allow companies to promote themselves online, specifically in online PR, providing a more cost-effective and faster option for companies.  In the near term, he is focused on branching out into social media, and using his database to build surveys and reports that would be of value to clients and the media.

Looking back on the hardships he faced, he hopes to one day give back to entrepreneurs just like him who are looking to get their feet off the ground.  For him, Dubai has been both a blessing and a challenge.“The advantage is business growth is very fast here. The financing structuring, however, is a challenge, and investors are only willing to pay for a short amount of time. So, finding a good match is hard.” Half of the battle, however, he says is surrounding yourself with the right people.

“You must choose the people you work for very carefully, and watch your expenses,” he says. “My team comes from Syria they have worked with me from the beginning they know my vision and believe in our business. You can’t put a value on that.”

About:

Salim Akil, is an entrepreneur in the MENA region and has a degree in communications technology and engineering. He has long focused on the e-Commerce and the online advertising landscape. This passion led him to create the startup SearchInMena.com, a business search engine and database designed for SMEs to advertise their products to customers across the MENA region. The startup aims to fill the void in the Arab e-Commerce market by creating new channels for businesses to build their own B2B networks.

Salim is also a member in IEEE and JCI. He participated in du’s The Entrepreneur reality show, which will air in the fall of 2012. He has also participated in a number of regional entrepreneurial competitions including Arabnet, MENA 100, MITEF. His startup project was also listed in the top 30 Best Mediterranean Startups during MedVentures’ 2010 competition in Marseille, France.

Salim first co-founded SearchInSyria.com in 2007, and later expanded the business model to incorporate companies across the MENA region and named it SearchInMENA.com. The startup is based in Dubai and also has staff operating in Riyadh, Saudia Arabia.

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