“Let me ask you a question: If you are going to India tomorrow and you are looking for a hotel to stay in, where would you normally search?” asks Ambareen Musa, founder and CEO of Souqalmal.com, a website that offers consumers a platform to obtain detailed information on a range of financial products.
TripAdvisor is the first answer that comes to mind.
“That is exactly my point. So pretty much, if you take the same concept and apply it to credit cards, this is exactly what you get, Souqalmal.com, the TripAdvisor of the banking industry,” she adds.
On the website, users can search for over 700 products, analysing various credit cards, different personal loans, a range of mortgages and car finance products, all of which exist across the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.
“When you want to go to India, you would need to book a hotel. If you want to choose a good one, you look up prices, locations and people’s reviews. On Souqalmal.com, users [do the same thing], they look at the prices of, let’s say, credit cards, their different features, and what other customers think of each and every one of the products,” she explains.
Musa’s online business is, she says, the first comparison website in the entire region, but the concept exists elsewhere in the world. Souqalmal.com — Arabic for ‘money market’ — is largely based on sites available in mature financial markets around the world, including the UK and the US.
“I think the region got ready for this concept around a year or two ago… if you look at governments, they are all pushing everything online, a lot of campaigns, e-tickets, updating vehicle registrations, all of this is online,” she adds.
Musa and her contact management team have held talks with numerous banks in a bid to educate them about stepping on board with the website.
“It did take two to three months to educate them because it is a completely new concept in this part of the world. Some would ask me if they were even allowed to give out details of their services. I would always reassure them by saying it is public information,” she says.
Following Musa’s efforts to encourage these banks to make a move in her direction, many have shed their concerns over transparency. However, that should not come off as a surprise, given that Souqalmal.com serves as a fantastic platform for promoting products and services for these institutions.
“First of all, banks are very much moving online. If they want a very targeted customer base, i.e: customers actively looking for a certain financial product; there is no other site in the region that brings banks and customers who are actively looking together,” she says.
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“For example, we offer the call-back request service, in which customers go online and say, ‘please bank X, call me back about this particular product,’ so [these institutions] are actually calling someone who wants to talk to them,” she adds.
Most of the time, banks tend to call individuals who are not interested in their services. But the website’s platform provides these institutions with the right people to speak to; ones who actually want to be called.
“Secondly, banks have got this whole transparency trend going on. They want to be transparent to the customers, and that is what we provide,” Musa adds.
“They can learn what the customers are thinking, especially with the reviews being posted, without having to pay for research. So, they can see what people think about certain credit cards and products, in addition to what these products are being compared against,” she says.
“Thirdly, no matter how big you are as a bank, it does not matter online. You may have 20,000 branches, and some other bank might just have one, but online, it is about the product, the service, and what others think about you,” she says, adding: “It gives banks a completely level playing field to actually expose and promote their services.”
Musa’s business first dipped its toes into the online world last June, but it was only very recently that she decided to expand its operations.
“It was on the side for me. I wanted to see if it was even something that was required in the region, and very quickly, we were online. People were congratulating us for the great service we were offering and that is specifically when we decided to go full on,” she says.
It was not until May 2012 that Musa decided to re-launch her website — version 2.0 — expanding outside its base, the United Arab Emirates, into Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. In addition, she also launched the Arabic version at around the same time.
“Both countries are really just the beginning of our expansion strategy. The idea is to become the lead comparison site throughout the region,” she says, adding: “This was just our first step, and doing it only twelve months post-launch is incredible.”
Looking into the future, Musa has extremely aggressive targets, as she plans to be in six different countries across nine categories, meaning she will not only focus on financial products.
“It will not just be personal finance, but we will be adding new and different products. For example, we will look at remittances and insurance, mobile phones and broadband, just to name a few,” she explains.
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Musa is simply looking to move outside the whole money space, although it will always remain the core of the business: “At the end of the day, it is about saving people money. So, go online, compare your products, and look at what is best for you. No matter what it is you compare, what we try to offer is transparency,” she says.
With all that has been said about the website in the media realm, many have questioned how Souqalmal has been funded.
“Up until today, it has been privately funded by myself and my business partner. But, we are going forward now, as we are at a point where we require capital to continue growing,” she says.
Not only is the site on the rise, but it is running fast. To keep up with growth, Musa is now in talks with a few investors. Given a valuation north of a million dollars, everything appears to be heading in the right direction. “But having a website is not as small as people think. Your product becomes the online site and you would need to make sure that flexibility and scalability of the business is very well done, and that can cost quite a bit in terms of capital investment,” she says.
So the key question is: how does Souqalmal.com actually make its money?
“Our revenue model is completely based on banks, not on our users. For the users, it is a completely free service, they will never pay,” Musa says, adding: “Our revenue model is the general online model, which is based on cost per click and cost per lead. So, banks pay us when they receive customers due to products viewed on the website, or when they receive calls due to the call-back request.”
In the last six months, Souqalmal.com has tripled its number of visitors, meaning that the company has grown at around 300 percent from when it started to where it is today.
“What is amazing is the shift that has started happening. What was driving traffic when we first started was the cost per click from Google, which means it was all paid. But, in the last couple of weeks, my direct visits, which are people who directly know about us, has literally quadrupled,” she says, adding: “That is sustainable and that is the path I want to remain on.”
Being a woman in male-dominated field, Musa is already standing out from the crowd. Her career started when she obtained a bachelors degree in information systems in Australia, and she has also picked up a master’s degree at France’s Insead.
“You know, I have been living out of a suitcase since I was eighteen…which is when I left home. I have always been roaming around,” she says, adding: The reason I became who I am today is because my dad has always pushed me. He always thought that a woman should stand on her own feet… that was the basics of the basics for him.”
Don’t expect Musa to stop pushing any time soon.
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