Angling for success: Fishfishme

When Abdullah Alshalabi cast his net into the fickle waters of entrepreneurship, he caught an idea which has revolutionised the way people fish for leisure in the region
By Neil King
Wed 05 Mar 2014 11:10 AM

For a region so dependent for so long on fishing to survive, it’s surprisingly difficult to charter a fishing trip.

Where the Arabian Gulf has succeeded in fishing for food and commercial purposes, it is incredibly lacking in sport fishing.

That was the conclusion, at least, of Kuwaiti Abdullah Alshalabi, whose own attempts to organise fishing trips for himself and his friends seemed to run aground on numerous occasions and for numerous reasons.

Rather that complain about it, he decided to do something about it. And so Fishfishme was born.

“I used to organise trips for my friends in Oman and other place, but it was a disaster to find charters or boats to take us out,” he says.

“One time, I found a fisherman to take us out but the waves were so bad that we crashed and nearly drowned.

“When I was in Singapore, it was a similar situation. Nobody spoke English or Arabic, so a Chinese friend of mine organised things for us, but it turned out to be a disaster as well.

“I couldn’t find one place to book everything online, and that’s how the idea started.”

From the nucleus of that idea, Fishfishme now spans 23 countries around the world, offering fishing charters not only in the UAE and other Gulf states, but far-flung corners of the globe including the Cayman Islands, South Africa, Mozambique, Thailand, and Costa Rica.

With ever-increasing numbers of bookings, and two successful rounds of funding under its belt, Fishfishme is becoming one of the UAE’s most talked-about start-ups.

But things could have been so very different for Alshalabi, whose career was taking a very different path a few years ago.

He says: “I was born and raised in Kuwait and studied mechanical engineering at Kuwait University. I wanted to work in the investment field, so worked for a company in the role, did the CFA [chartered financial analyst programme] level two, and moved to Hong Kong in 2010 to do an MBA at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.”

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It was during his time in Hong Kong that the entrepreneurial bug started to bite, leading him to his first foray into self employment.

He continues: “At HKUST I met a couple of guys and we did a business plan competition with a crazy idea called bangbanglab.com. After the competition some investors came to us and said they wanted to work with us. They offered us a deal and we didn’t like it.

“We wanted to do the idea but not in that part of the world, so we decided to go to Spain instead. We went to Barcelona for three months, then moved to Granada.

“Things didn’t work out between us, so we ended it and I went back to Kuwait.”

It was there that Fishfishme started to come together. Keen to recruit a technical founder, Alshalabi joined forces with co-founder and product manager Jose Gil Zafra, and soon recruited lead programmer Miguel Clamente and lead designer Christian Cabrera.

A first round of fundraising secured Alshalabi $250,000, and by the tail-end of 2012, the concept was ready to roll out.

But things didn’t quite go to plan.

“In the beginning we wanted to conquer the whole world, but it didn’t work that way.

“Four months in, we’d had no bookings. It was really terrible. I didn’t know what I was going to do - it was a tough time - my family and friends thought I was crazy to carry on with it.

“But then in February 2013 things started working. People were booking every day, we’d built good relations with captains, and things started to move quickly. It was actually become hard to do it from Kuwait, and we saw the need to move to a community with a stronger infrastructure. The UAE was one of our options, and we decided to go to Dubai.”

Despite the challenges of moving his life and business to a new home, Alshalabi was steered towards one place which was destined to make things much easier.

One of the company’s investors suggested he look at the in5 Innovation Hub in Knowledge Village - a community of boutique villas which serve as offices, meeting places and creative environments for tech entrepreneurs and start-ups.

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Designed to help new businesses through the challenges of the early stages of their existence, in5 turned out to be the ideal place for Fishfishme to set up.

With offices in Dubai and Spain, from where the Spanish contingent pulled the stings on their side of the operation, and with a steady flow of customers heading out on trips, the team decided to embark on a second round of fundraising.

Initially raising $150,000, Alshalabi and his team then received a phone call which would add extra momentum to the project.

“We hada customer phone us saying they wanted to go to Oman,” he explains. “He asked if we were in Dubai, asked whether we were thinking of expanding, and a few other questions.

“It turned out that the customer was Sim Whatley, one of the founders of Dubizzle. He loved the idea and said that he had the same problems in the US, and that he had been thinking of a similar idea for a business.

“He asked if he could come on board as an advisor, so we had some meetings with him, he went to see the guys in Spain, and after that he said he was in.

“He joined the funding round as an investor too, and so did his friend Saif [Zarouni] of Yadig, and we finally closed the funding round at $200,000, gaining both investors and advisors.

“It’s great - they all bring tremendous value, and they all love fishing, so they know what they’re talking about.”

As well as Whatley and Zarouni, the company’s board of advisors also includes the former managing partner of talabat.com, Abdulaziz Al Loughani, Abrar Ahmad of Travel Capitalists Ventures, and entrepreneur Mohammad Al Zubi.

Having recently returned home to the US, Whatley, in particular, could prove key to Alshalabi fulfilling one of his major goals for Fishfishme.

“The dream of going to the States was there from the beginning,” he says.

“The US is 50 percent of the whole market. Then you have markets including Australia, the UK, and South Africa, but the US is the big one.

“The US is heaven for us, but it was always so far away because I didn’t have a clue how to enter the market there. With Sim on board, it’s suddenly becoming a reality.”

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America might be the one he wants to catch, but for Alshalabi, the local markets are well worth fishing in.

He says: “The UAE and Oman are very good. Fujeirah is amazing - you can catch as much as you want there in the summer - marlins, tuna, and much more - lots of big game fish. People just don’t know about it enough - they don’t realise how good the fishing can be here.”

One thing that’s easy to realise is the direction that Fishfishme is going.

With some of the funding arriving late last year, Alshalabi was able to hire, and now has seven people working full time.

By his own admission, finding the right people for the jobs was a difficult process.

He says: “Hiring is hard. I spent three months looking for an operations person, for example.

“If you want to put it in numbers, you can look at it like this: If you put an ad on Dubizzle, you’re going to receive about 200-300 people’s CVs. Of those, there will only be about five you want. From five, three will turn up for an interview, and from those three you will have only one you like.

“And that means you have to make a proper offer to attract them, which isn’t always easy.”

While admitting that Dubai is a “great place to begin”, Alshalabi raises a concern over the expensive nature of the emirate, adding: “The cost can be a big barrier. It’s a very costly place to live and start a business.

“I’m lucky coming from Kuwait in many ways, as I don’t need a visa and can be here as long as I want, and I had some money saved that I could use as well, but I can imagine how hard it is to come here and be really lean.”

But, he says, there are plenty of other aspects which make starting out in Dubai much easier than many other places.

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“There’s an amazing community growing here. When I was in Kuwait, there was almost nothing going on. I actually started a blog called StartupQ8 to try to bring people together. Now there’s lots of good things happening in Kuwait as a result, but Dubai is on a different level.

“As soon as I got here I found things like Dubai Tech Nights, which made life so much easier. Also, in5 could out me in touch with anybody in Dubai, which was so helpful for us.

“I would definitely advise people to join an accelerator or incubator - I really think they are the best place to start.

“Places like in5, i360, Turn8, and so on - they are really affordable to start-ups, so study them and apply to them. On top of that, if you network you’ll become part of a great community, which can help you get exposure for funding, and other things.”

His final, and most heartfelt piece of advice, however, is to surround yourself with good people.

“Our board of advisors is brilliant. They are really involved and we talk a lot. They help tap new markets, give advice, act as mentors, and bring lots of value.

“You just need to find the right people for your business. If you’re passionate about what you’re doing, they will see that and want to be involved.

“The best thing they do is support you. I thought about giving up so many times. When nobody was booking I just didn’t know what to do - I was really depressed, but then you talk to somebody who tells you that you’re doing great, and that they struggled for years, not months!

“They encourage you when you’re down, and when things are going well they’ll keep your feet on the ground and tell you not to believe your own hype. Help doesn’t come much more valuable than that.”

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