By Neil King
In the space of just two years Nabbesh has grown from a bold idea to a vital platform for freelance workers. Founder Lou Lou Khazen Baz discusses the rise of the company and how the region’s entrepreneurial ecosystem is changing
When Lou Lou Khazen Baz threw her hat into the ring for TV show The Entrepreneur, her fledgling business Nabbesh was a fraction of the company it is today.
Since winning the 2012 series, Khazen Baz and Nabbesh have seen their profiles rise exponentially, with a community of 40,000 people across 130 countries signing up to use the online marketplace which connects people with talent.
Nabbesh – meaning ‘search’ in Arabic – allows businesses to hire freelance professionals for a variety of jobs, using registered members’ skills sets to complete projects or individual tasks.
Digital, design, accounting, and photography are but four of the huge array of skills and abilities on offer, with thousands of jobs being agreed through the platform.
Building on success on The Entrepreneur, Nabbesh signed up with crowdinvesting platform Eureeca.com last year to raise $100,000, as Khazen Baz and her team looked to fund the next stages of the company’s development.
It was long before Eureeca and The Entrepreneur, however, that Khazen Baz first noticed the need for such a concept.
Her own experience of a lack of job opportunities straight after leaving university pushed her into the Gulf region, where she slowly but surely put together plans for Nabbesh.
“Growing up in the Arab world, I faced a lack of opportunities first-hand, which is why I left Lebanon and moved to the Gulf after I attended university,” she says.
“After working for more than a decade in Dubai, I began searching for part-time consulting work and realised there was no place for people to find these types of opportunities.
“In a region with massive unemployment, especially among women and youth, I knew there was a gap in the market for people who were looking for work outside the traditional nine-to-five job type, so I set up Nabbesh to fill this gap and create new types of jobs: felixible, online, and freelance work.”
The Entrepreneur catapulted the businesswoman into the public eye.
Pitting her wits against 10 other competitors on the weekly show, Khazen Baz became a viewers’ favourite as she excelled in a variety of business-related tasks.
Emerging as the winner, Khazen Baz won a cash investment of AED1 million for her business, along with office space, telecommunications service, management business planning, as well as invaluable exposure throughout the UAE.
It proved a fillip for Nabbesh, and since the lights and cameras were turned off, the company has gone onto greater things.
“We have come so far since winning The Entrepreneur,” says Khazen Baz.
“Nabbesh has gone from an idea to a community of 40,000 members in more than 130 countries, boasting more than 5,000 job posts.
“But we’re much more than our statistics. We are positively impacting people’s lives. Online work is changing the way people use their time and make a living, bringing jobs to people’s homes.
“A recent example was us hiring a young female translator from Gaza – something that was not possible before Nabbesh. We have helped SMEs and start-ups grow their business with freelancers, and we have provided countless economic opportunities where they would not other exist.”
She attributes these achievements and developments to the fact Nabbesh was there first – exploiting a genuine gap in the market, and filling it in an intelligent, user friendly, and meaningful way.
She adds: “We keep growing because Nabbesh is the region’s first online work marketplace.
“Unlike traditional job and recruitment sites, Nabbesh – which is completely free to sign-up to, search for jobs and post freelance jobs – also guarantees and facilitates online payments through bank and money transfer services.
“It’s the region’s first online work marketplace where you can hire or get hired online easily and pay for or get paid securely for skills or services almost instantly.”
Despite the run-away success of Nabbesh, Khazen Baz emphasises that it’s not all been plain sailing.
Indeed, she claims there have been – and continue to be – several challenges facing start-ups in the region, and offers advice to others looking to launch their own businesses.
“It’s difficult to start a company regardless of where you are in the world,” she says. “But it’s no secret that we have more challenges in the Arab world, including access to funding and beyond.
“The UAE is doing a lot to grow an entrepreneurial ecosystem, but success never comes easy.
“One of Dubai’s biggest advantages is access to a thriving online market and a multicultural talent pool.
“However, setting up in Dubai is extremely costly, as well as challenging to retain great talent for start-ups.
“This is why at Nabbesh we rely heavily on outsourcing specific functions in order for us to reduce the cost of operations. If it weren’t for outsourcing, we would have run out of cash a long time ago!
“We do face challenges on a daily basis, but we have learned very quickly to live with our challenges, accept them, learn from them, and move forward. We also learned that when the team has fully bought into the vision of the company, all challenges can be overcome.
“So our advice is to focus on building the right team from the beginning which can literally make or break the start-up.”
Having fully established Nabbesh in the market, things are going from good to better for Khazen Baz.
She explains that the company has grown organically, building to a community of 40,000 people, with targeted growth throughout the region’s largest talent hubs: the UAE, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Lebanon.
And while there are obvious benefits for her business, there are much wider-reaching plusses.
“We estimate that there are approximately 20 million people who could benefit from freelance or online work,” she says. “Particularly among the unemployed as well as university graduates who are not participating in the labour force – most notably the region’s women.
“Nabbesh is creating a new way of working entirely. With flexible, project-based jobs that are fully delivered and paid for online, most can be done for clients outside of one’s geographic location. Nabbesh appeals to an audience that perhaps couldn’t or didn’t want to work within the traditional nine to five work structure.
“All you need in most cases is access to a computer and the internet. Work is no longer a place you have to commute to. Now work can be done with a click of the mouse from virtually anywhere.”
The story of Nabbesh’s growth runs parallel to the development of the UAE’s start-up ecosystem, which Khazen Baz believes has “certainly flourished over the past three to four years”.
She suggests that the rise of incubators, accelerators, funds and other initiatives has changed the landscape from as recently as 2010, when “you wouldn’t normally hear the term ‘entrepreneur’.”
She adds: “Entrepreneurship is becoming increasingly recognised as a catalyst for job creation in the region. Governments are also mobilising to support entrepreneurs. For example, one of the major announcements of 2013 was made by the Lebanese Central Bank, which launched a $400m initiative to fund Lebanese start-ups.”
That being said, the founder believes there is some way to go before entrepreneurs see the true benefit of the money that’s in the region.
“Although funds are available in the Arab world, and the Gulf is awash with money, these funds have yet to trickle into the entrepreneurial ecosystem,” she says.
“There are a few angels and institutions investing in the ecosystem, and it is these few players who are currently building and enabling the ecosystem. It will take time and a few success stories to get more private funding into start-ups, so I would say that whilst we’re still in the early stages of building a thriving ecosystem, we are certainly on the right track.”
In terms of what improvements can be made by the investment community, Khazen Baz suggests “clear and standardised documentation”, as well as “better term sheets that enable entrepreneurs to regain control over their companies in the early days and give them adequate funds to reach their milestones, as well as be able to raise growth funds without being completely diluted”.
She adds that another important aspect is to provide entrepreneurs with access to mentors, in order to provide them with vital advice in order to make key decisions.
One relationship in particular that has helped Nabbesh develop is that with Microsoft.
Khazen Baz elaborates: “We have an excellent relationship with Microsoft and we are one of the high-impact start-ups to be part of their BizSpark Plus programme, which empowers start-ups like ours to grow faster than we would otherwise have been able to grow by providing us with access to software for either no cost or a heavily subsidised cost.
“Our entire platform runs on Microsoft Azure cloud, hence Microsoft provides us with the infrastructure to be able to empower our community.”
Discussing the importance of boosting start-ups’ opportunities in the region, regional director of Microsoft Gulf, Michael Mansour, says BizSpark is important for one major reason: Visibility.
He says: “The programme guarantees visibility of a new start-up’s profile, offers and events. By connecting with the BizSpark ecosystem, start-ups are given the opportunity to have access to investors, advisors and mentors.
“This is essential for new business owners and entrepreneurs as they may seek guidance and discuss ideas with industry veterans, allowing them to avoid certain downfalls.”
Mansour adds that Nabbesh, and other businesses using BizSpark, can benefit from its development tools for three years, giving them the best support possible in their early years. As long as a business is aimed at developing a new software and is less than five years old, it is eligible to join the programme.
A keen supporter of entrepreneurship across the region, Microsoft offers a range of courses, programmes and initiatives from student level up.
“We want entrepreneurs to realise and materialise their dreams through technology,” says Mansour.
“One of our main goals here at Microsoft is to enable companies to not only do more but to be more productive. Entrepreneurs not only take their business seriously but personally as well.In their efforts to be successful, entrepreneurs look at working with companies such as Microsoft to obtain the most value possible.
“Microsoft was founded by an entrepreneur. It is in our DNA. We want to ensure that these new start-ups that have a similar passion as we do can leverage the power of BizSpark and be as successful as Microsoft.”
No doubt Khazen Baz will count Nabbesh’s relationship with Microsoft as a key part of the company’s recent development.
Whatever the reason for her success, it is clear that things just keep getting better and better for the entrepreneur – not to mention the thousands of people she’s helping find work through Nabbesh.
Its exciting to meet new clients and build a network out of nothing as a Freelancer through Nabbesh. Usually us fresh graduates wouldn't have chance to meet, discuss and work for big clients but Thanks to Nabbesh.
Congratulations LouLou and Nabbesh. You have come a long way from the days of pitching at the Entrepreneur show...I remember the days well. I am glad the site is growing in leaps and bounds and am confident that it will be a true showcase of a company conceived, built and scaled in the Middle East. Good luck in your endeavors.