By Ali Khaled
Karim Helal, the co-founder and CEO of Abu Dhabi-based ProTenders, took his idea and filled a hole in the construction business. Now he is ready to go global.
The construction industry in the UAE, as it is around the world, is like a slow moving oil tanker. Monolithic and not known for its flexibility.
Even before breaking ground, a construction project becomes mired in logistics and paperwork. One Abu Dhabi-based firm, however, is doing its bit to drag the industry into the future.
For Karim Helal, co-founder and CEO of ProTenders, necessity proved the mother of invention.
“We started the company eight years ago,” he says. “I grew up in Abu Dhabi in an architectural family. My father was an architect and three of my brothers where architects, while my thing was always business and IT. When my father passed away, we came back from Canada to take over the business. I was doing all the boring stuff, and part of it was tendering. So we looked at the way things are done -- and still done today -- and it’s mostly paper and pen, very much CD-Rom, very much stacks of paper.”
ProTenders started out as a B2B construction project to make life easier for his family’s firm, Helal & Partners, but soon developed into a separate venture.
“Our biggest opportunity was the financial crisis that happened in 2008,” Helal says. “Initially, we were just a tool, where people do bidding. What happened afterwards was that people started to expand out of the UAE, so people who were building here started to build in Egypt, in Morocco, in Jordan. So the questions they had for us was this: ‘we are going abroad and we don’t know who to work with, so can you help find companies to invite to bid for the projects?’”
Companies needed information on the companies they could potentially partner with, and ProTenders became a place where they could make connections, the “Linkedin of construction”, Helal calls it.
The company has a staff of 30 in its Abu Dhabi headquarters, and the service has grown at an incredible rate in recent years. Even the big players are taking notice. Damac is the latest developer to join. Today, with little marketing and relying mostly on word of mouth, ProTenders hosts customers from more than 100 countries, with almost 500 companies joining each month.
“The reason why people are signing in from outside is that they want to be able to participate in projects taking place here,” Helal says. “So we get customers actively looking at the GCC, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq. For us, it’s important to have all the data, all the companies and all the projects that are going on. We have two sales channels, one is going after all the developers and showing them the benefits and how they make their life easier. Once they come in, they bring with them all their suppliers.”
ProTenders offers three membership tiers. The first offers visibility through a company profile and costs $100 a month. The second lists ongoing projects and network connections for monthly fee between $299 and $599. The third provides the option of streamlined tendering and bidding with rates ranging from $2,000 up to six-figure sums depending on the size of the customer, their demands and any potential training for their staff.
These options has provided much welcome transparency in the industry, though Helal believes it is not the primary reason customers have joined the platform.
“People that work on projects want to know what the prices are, this is why they hire consultancy firms,” he says. “We give them information that they would otherwise have a hard time to find. So it’s not just transparency for the sake of transparency, but it helps you make better decisions.”
Helal mentions a case study involving Damac. Before joining ProTenders, the firm spent 90 percent of its time on a certain project managing the process, and 10 percent making decisions. That has now flipped, with just 10 percent of time devoted to tendering and 90 percent towards making better decisions, Helal says.
Anecdotally, the tendering for the new Abu Dhabi airport produced three tons worth of documents. This is something that Helal and ProTenders are hoping will be consigned to the past.
Convincing companies to join, however, was not easy in the early days, with many untrusting of the idea of cloud storage.
“Before we used to have discussions with big developers who said that unless the server is in their room, they are not interested,” Helal says. “That has changed drastically. People don’t care anymore, they understand the cloud, and we get regular audits to make sure everything is safe, and the system is built accordingly. What’s happening is that many from the older generations have stopped working, and their sons and new managers are coming in. They are much more used to working with computers and the internet. That, I think, is the shift that has happened in our industry.”
Another issue was raising capital because many investors perceived the construction industry as unglamorous, especially for an online venture.
“It forced us to scale in a proper way,” Helal says. “A lot of the start-ups end up getting too much money upfront and they end up not having a focus. For us, the fact that we could not raise money -- because investors were not interested in what we’re doing -- forced us to constantly innovate. What we have today is not because we got flushed with money, but because we were forced to listen to what the market wanted and to go with it. Otherwise, we would have been dead a long time ago.”
Not only has ProTenders survived, but it is growing at a rate that is stretching its resources. A new office will open in Dubai this year, and another 20 to 25 more staff hired as a result. Beyond that, the company is looking to expand into Egypt and Lebanon, before going global.
“We can’t answer demand anymore,” Helal says. “We’re getting pulled in so many directions that we have to increase our sales and marketing. In the last year, I’ve been travelling a lot because I like to meet our customers. What we built is something that isn’t in many of the countries, so even if you go to the US or Canada, they will have some specific solutions that do part of it, but the power of what we’ve done is in the combination of things.”
“Being able to find companies on the same system, being able to invite them for tendering, and how it reflects on your profile, will give you more visibility,” he says. “So the power is in the combination of the three things; business development, intelligence and tendering. Our plan is to spend the next couple of years focussing on the region, building up what we have today and then we will probably look to move to the US and be more of global company.”