By Antoine Abou-Diwan
Five years ago, Loulou Khazen Baz quit her job at a venture capital firm in Dubai. Poring over hundreds of business plans and getting acquainted with the startup world, Khazen Baz decided she wanted to become an entrepreneur herself.
To mull over ideas, she gave up full time employment, but to keep busy and generate a little income, looked for part-time work. Despite job boards, such as Bayt and Monster Gulf, it wasn’t so easy. Freelancers still largely relied on word-of-mouth to get projects.
Khazen Baz didn’t land a freelance gig, but she found her idea.“This is when I started thinking, ‘why don’t I create something to connect these people with opportunities,”says the 35-year-old Lebanese.
Since launching Nabbesh (to search in Arabic) in 2012, her startup has amassed and vetted more than 100,000 registered users, and helped match designers, writers and software developers with jobs at ad agency TBWA\ RAAD, General Electric, and IBM, among other places.
The process is simple. Freelancers upload their portfolios, CVs and hourly rate. They’re also encouraged to highlight marketable interests and hobbies that don’t take center stage on a CV, like photography.
In turn, companies post their project and budget. Nabbesh’s algorithm matches freelancers based on keywords, location, ratings and other data. Once it narrows a pool of candidates, freelancers can submit a bid. Nabbesh collects a 15% commission when a job is complete. If there’s a dispute between the two parties, a Nabbesh job consultant steps in to resolve the issue.
Khazen Baz declines to disclose the number of freelancers who found work through Nabbesh, but the startup could play a tiny but critical role in addressing unemployment rates, which hover at around 15% in the region. Youth unemployment is significantly higher.
Nabbesh also caters to a worldwide trend, where the freelance or so-called gig economy is taking hold. The most prominent examples of companies built on freelancers are Uber and Airbnb. Software firm Intuit estimates that freelancers will make up a whopping 40% of the workforce in the U.S. by 2020.
Competitors to Nabbesh, such as Australia’s Freelancer.com and U.S.-based Up work, are growing. Freelancer.com bills itself as the largest freelancing marketplace in the world, with more than 20 million registered users and 10 million jobs posted. Formed in 2009, it reported a 48% increase in revenue in 2015 over the previous year, to nearly $30 million.
Coming up with an idea for a startup is the easy part; Khazen Baz now has to execute her plan successfully to have a shot at becoming a leading marketplace for freelancers in the Middle East.
A bit of a jack-of-all-trades, her independent streak ran at a young age. She left Lebanon at 17 to study in Sydney, Australia, where she enrolled at Blue Mountains International Hotel Management School to study hospitality and tourism. To pay her tuition, she waited tables and worked as a receptionist.
After graduating in 2002, she moved back to Lebanon, but the only job she got was that of a receptionist at a fancy hotel for only $400 per month. “Naturally, I ran away,” she says. “I wanted to make something out of myself and wasn’t going to settle.”
Dubai was turning into the land of opportunity and Khazen Baz accepted a sales and marketing job there with Accor Hotels. Although her $1,000 a month salary was a step up from the Beirut offer, it was still a pittance against Dubai’s cost of living. Not many in her office also had a formal education in tourism, which made her work environment less than challenging.
Khazen Baz’s enthusiasm for the business of hospitality began to wane. Just as she was about to pack her bags to return to Lebanon, a friend introduced her to an executive at Daimler Chysler’s financial services arm in Dubai. He would set her on a different career path. She joined the company in 2003 working on special projects, such as business plans for new financial products, and car leasing agreements.
Three years later, with Dubai’s real estate sector booming, she decided it was time for a new challenge. She became a marketing manager with Dubai Properties Group, a real estate developer. Khazen Baz had a role in launching major projects, such as Jumeirah Beach Residence, Business Bay and Bay Square. It all came to a halt in 2008 during the financial crisis, and Khazen Baz lost her job.
She was quick to land on her feet. Through contacts, she met in 2009 Salam Saadeh, an investment banker who was in the process of setting up Active-M, a venture capital fund. Saadeh became a mentor.
In-between jobs, Khazen Baz had contemplated starting her own company, in the food business. Her two-year experience at Active-M doing due diligence on tech startups gave her some insight into the entrepreneurial world, and she was smitten. “I decided it was time for me to start something,” she says. “I was convinced I needed to do something in technology.”
One inspiration was her neighborhood. “I used to live in a very big compound in Dubai,” she recalls. I thought it would be amazing if I want to work on a project, maybe there’s somebody else working on a project in the next-door apartment, and I wouldn’t know.” Using her savings, she hired web developers to create a rough prototype of a job search platform.
In 2012, she noticed a tweet about The Entrepreneur, a competition that airs on Dubai One TV, where entrepreneurs pitch their startups for a cash prize of AED1 million ($272,245). “It [Nabbesh] was still very early, early stage. It wasn’t at a point where I felt comfortable to go and raise money,” says Khazen Baz.
Out of 2,000-plus applicants, 100 were selected to participate. Nabbesh was one of them. Pitching her business over and over to a panel of judges over two months helped her refine her message, and to her big surprise, she won. “I learned how to face my demons when it came to public speaking, and also learned about pitching and being judged,” says Khazen Baz. The show generated publicity, and job-seekers flocked to her website.
For help on the tech side, she brought on board Rima Al-Sheikh, who became co-founder and chief technology officer. Al-Sheikh, however, left after two years. Khazen Baz declines to give a reason, but acknowledges that it’s important to have a partner in a startup. Collaborating on ideas and strategy with a teammate is almost always more productive than being solo, and investors have a preference for startups with co-founders at the helm.
Khazen Baz will not say who her investors are, but she has raised a total of $1.8 million so far.
By 2014, she had about 44,000 freelancers on her platform. There was a problem though—a cultural one. The concept of a contractor working remotely, as opposed to showing up at the office, was a bit foreign in the Middle East.
To increase the sense of trust and connection between the two parties, Nabbesh built, for example, a tool similar to the communication app Slack, allowing companies and freelancers to chat, exchange files and make payments, all on its platform. As an added security feature, it holds a deposit—30% of the project’s value—in escrow, and releases the funds when a project is completed to everyone’s satisfaction. “We’ve invested heavily in the technology, but we feel that people still want to meet,” says Khazen Baz.
Samena Capital Investments used Nabbesh for administrative projects involving customer relations management, graphic design, and presentation production. Ross Smith, an investor relations associate at the firm, likes the fact that the startup screens candidates who already have visas and work permits. “Nabbesh provides a solution which your typical recruitment firm will not be able to provide—a legal and compliant way of hiring skilled and vetted individuals on a short term basis,” he says.
Classifieds site Dubizzle relied on Nabbesh, when it needed to urgently hire a product designer to temporarily fill a senior designer’s position while he was on leave for one month. Dubizzle’s recruitment specialist, Sindhu Nair, discussed the position with a Nabbesh job consultant. Within three days, Nair recruited a candidate. He’s still with the company. “We were very happy with his work and offered him a permanent position,” says Nair.
Meeting and exceeding a customer’s expectations is ultimately the most important measure of success.
This story first appeared in Forbes Middle East, Oct. 24, 2016.