As emerging-market consumers gain access to smartphones and the internet, e-commerce giants (including Amazon) hope to make their mark. But they’re stumped by one problem: Billions of people lack a fixed street address. How, then, is a company supposed to efficiently deliver a package to its destination?
Joy Ajlouny (and cofounder Idriss Al Rifai) came up with a simple solution: Fetchr, a Dubai-based startup that delivers items straight to a customer’s smartphone. The patented app-based system tracks its customers through GPS. Last year, Fetchr raised $11 million in Silicon Valley venture capital, including New Enterprise Associates’ first Middle Eastern investment.
Now creative director, Joy talks about her experience as a pioneer in bringing Silicon Valley to the Middle East, serving as a role model to women in the Arab world, and the challenges of working in emerging markets.
How did you get started with Fetchr?
I’ve always been an entrepreneur. I opened up my first brick-and-mortar store when I was 25 years old. I’ve always been a person who likes to take risks and roll the dice and puts everything on the line. That’s always been my personality—I went to Catholic school my whole life, and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been thrown out. So, it’s just a natural DNA for me to be defiant and break the rules.
Living in the United States, you’ve got a postman who shows up at the door. But the notion of putting a stamp on a letter and a guy showing up at your door with an envelope is just missing in emerging markets. The UN estimates that there are as many as four billion people living in places where there are no street names or numbers, and those are largely in emerging markets. There are no addresses in parts of Brazil, India, China, and the Middle East, so it’s a problem.
In India, Amazon delivers a million packages every day and 250,000 get returned because they can’t locate the customer. There’s a big world out there for people who are hungry for product and can’t get the product because they have no addresses. And the way that they deliver in emerging markets is they literally pick up the phone and they call you and they say “Hi, Joy. Where do you live?” And I have to say “You know the grocery store that sells lemons and olives?” And you stay on the phone to give directions. Fetchr solves this problem.
How does Fetchr work?
Fetchr is, in a way, Uber for delivery. We use GPS coordinates to find you, so you press a button and we don’t need an address—we deliver to your phone. Wherever your phone is, you just press a button and we know where you are. So we’ve completely eliminated the need for annoying phone calls asking where you live.
In the United States, people buy bubble gum with a credit card, but in emerging markets, it’s cash. At Fetchr, 93% of our deliveries are COD. Imagine how important it is to find a customer, because if you don’t find the customer, the transaction doesn’t take place. Locating the customer and collecting the cash is essential in India, Brazil, Dubai and Saudi Arabia—it’s all COD. Whereas in the United States, the transaction takes place on your laptop with a credit card.
Do you work with companies like Amazon or other online retailers?
We partner with over 400 retailers and we are a last-mile delivery solution. We don’t do freight forwarding, we’re not into cargo shipments—we do one thing and we do one thing well. We do door-to-door last-mile delivery, and that is it.
We have the real solution, and that’s why we got the investors that we did. They see what we’re doing as a solution to a global problem. And as a woman, I’m so interested to see what will be next. This is a global thing, so I’m really proud of all the funding we’ve gotten in Silicon Valley. Only 2.7% of venture capital-funded companies had a woman on the executive team, and I’ve been able to not only do just once with Fetchr, but also with my previous company, Bonfaire.
That’s such a low percentage.
It is. I mean, those are the facts. To be in the 2.7% is a huge accomplishment, but to be able to do it twice probably puts me in the 1%. I’m very proud of that.
Why do you think this was a problem that no one else was tackling?
I think we were just at the right place in the right time. They’d been trying to tackle it, but they hadn’t really come up with a feasible solution. I think that people are not really focused on tech in emerging markets; they just kind of follow whatever Silicon Valley is doing. You see a lot of copycats, but there’s no need for finding addresses in the United States. No one delivers packages to your prom through GPS location.
With Fetchr now, we guarantee somebody at your door in five minutes, or it’s free. We’ve got the Pizza Hut model—if we’re not there, it’s free.
Wow, even in the US, people would love that.
We’ve heard a lot of people that say, “Are you coming to the US?” Nobody’s sitting at home any more for nine hours, waiting for a package. The world is mobile. We’re really seeing an opportunity in being local with the world. You live with your phone—why not have this as your address?
Where do you operate currently?
We’re in Saudi Arabia, we’re in Egypt—Egypt has 90 million people, Saudi has 30 million. We’re in Dubai, Abu Dhabi, and Bahrain.
Are there any privacy concerns surrounding accessing people’s GPS on their phone?
No, because it’s up to you. Most people are so desperate to get their package, they’re more than willing to give you their location. It’s like Uber, in essence—if you want to be picked up, you’ve got to press the button. If you want your package, you’ve got to share your location.
E-commerce is booming in emerging markets, and everybody talks about e-commerce, but e-commerce has boomed in America only because logistics has made it easy for e-commerce to boom. I mean, e-commerce is nothing more than “Is it easier to order online and get a package to my door, and return it” or “Is it easier to drive to the mall?” You can’t grow with e-commerce, and e-commerce is growing dramatically in this region of the world. So we see ourselves as the e-commerce enablers, and that’s what we specialize in.
Can we talk about how you’ve spent time in Silicon Valley and Dubai—the similarities and differences that you’ve encountered?
I think it is a hell of a lot easier to start a company in the United States than in the Middle East. Simply put, the infrastructure is not here. There’s a lot of licenses and regulations that need to be done. There’s a lot of bureaucracy—in the United States, you can do wifi in a garage, and start a company by applying for a license online, and you’re done. Here in Dubai, there’s a lot of red tape that goes in.
And what about in terms of how the industry responds to women?
Oh boy. It’s changing, and more and more women are getting involved in business. I think it’s getting better—we’re not there yet, but more women are coming up with successful businesses and putting this stake in the ground. It’s evolving.
One thing that is kind of associated with Silicon Valley and tech companies is a tech culture in startups. How do you shape workplace culture at Fetchr?
We completely brought Silicon Valley to the Middle East. I think that’s the cool thing, because nobody’s done that. We’re very un-Dubai. Everything here is gold and marble and platinum, so we’ve absolutely the opposite. We do not take ourselves seriously—our drivers drive motorcycles, they wear backpacks that say Fetchr, rolled up jeans, orange copper sneakers, orange T-shirts and baseball hats. People walk around the office barefoot in short-shorts, t-shirts—it’s completely Silicon Valley. It’s something that makes us stand out, and it really helps with the culture. Everybody wants to work for Fetchr, because they’re cool. We’ve completely brought Silicon Valley to the desert.
What advice would you give to other women who want to follow in your footsteps?
My biggest advice is if you care what anyone thinks, then step off. I cannot tell you how many doors have been slammed in my face. I think the number one thing that I can tell to entrepreneurs as women is to have thick skin, and don’t take no for an answer. I don’t think that success comes to the smartest person, I think it’s the woman who’s the most determined. I tell people all the time—I don’t have a PhD, I didn’t go to MIT, and I didn’t go to Harvard. At the end of the day, I’m just relentless. I think relentlessness is what causes you to succeed, and I believe that if you ask any of the other entrepreneurs, they will tell you that it’s just pure relentlessness.