Ritesh Tilani and Alper Celen are experienced investors who put themselves in the position of a start-up when they created JoiGifts.com. This is an insight into how the experts roll...
With prestigious business backgrounds that include McKinsey and MIT, coupled with high-flying corporate careers, Ritesh Tilani and Alper Celen are no strangers to the business world.
Independently of each other, they are both investors in start-ups in a VC capacity, using their investor expertise to assess business cases and determine whether start-up proposals are viable.
But using the full might of their start-up expertise, experience in technology, growth strategies and investment raising know-how, they founded JoGifts.com.
Walking into the offices of JoiGifts.com, I’m faced with a huge, wall-to-ceiling piece of brand art representing all the core aspects of the business. I got as far as merely laying eyes on a riot of colour and texture and depicted objects, with flying cupcakes mixed into a montage of subjects that symbolise life, happiness and giving.
As I was about to digest this gargantuan brand painting, I was distracted by a staff member who not only smiled, but also waved at me in an uncommonly friendly way. It was a happy moment before a single word had been exchanged and before I had even stepped into the office. This was very different to most experiences of visiting a premises - nobody else waves.
“We are striving to do something different,” says Celen and if anyone can be relied upon to create a start-up business with a difference, it must surely be these two. Here, we share their insights into how they have achieved start-up excellence and their brand position as the number one online gifting website in the UAE and Saudi.
Celen says: “We had been on this very corporate track career-wise, and at some point we decided to hang up our suits, start wearing jeans and move outside of that world to work for ourselves.”
For his part, Tilani explained: “For me, I wanted to build something I could call my own - and that was the desire that made me jump into entrepreneurship. The other driving force was wanting to make a positive change and impact in the community around me.
One of my first start-ups was based around social entrepreneurship. Continuing this desire at Joi, it was important for us to do some things for the sake of doing good, not for profit. For example, we were involved in something called the Pink Mango Project for labourers, which aimed to give these workers fantastic experiences. We had premium cupcakes for sale on our site that people could buy, not for themselves, but for labourers in Dubai.
These are people who don’t usually get to experience food items like these, so, when these cupcakes were delivered, we took a picture of the recipients with the cupcakes - usually with a smile on their face. We sent that picture back to the sender, so they could get a sense of fulfilment and with the hope that they would do more of this in the future.
“Being involved in spreading positivity and making a difference to people’s lives was a big motivating factor for us,” Tilani adds.
When asked how the business idea came about, both Celen and Tilani betray their laser-sharp investor mindset. Ritesh says: “We identified a massive gap in the gift market. If you ask anyone ‘where do you buy food online?’ they will tell you about Talabat, FoodOnClick, and so on. Ask them where they can buy electronics online, there is Souk; for fashion there is Namshi and Ounass - all of these are brands that immediately come to mind in those specific verticals.
But if you ask them where they can buy gifts online, people would be hard pressed to come up with a name. That automatically tells you that there is a gap in the market for someone to come in and build a brand that becomes a household name and becomes the go-to one-stop-shop for gifting, and that’s what we aim to be. Our gifts include cupcakes, unique gift items, balloons, singing telegrams, beautiful fresh flowers and a luxury range of gifts.
“Even though we are in the business of gifting, giving means many things - it could mean giving someone a smile, or a hug or some appreciation for what they do. So many of these things are part of delivering on our brand concept,” adds Celen.
We decided on the concept and in terms of branding, wanted something short, something friendly, something that speaks about happiness, but not something that implies specific gifts, such as flowers. We wanted something ambiguous to leave the scope to expand the offering in future with products other than gifts, so decided at the outset that the brand and the name should have flexibility.
We spell the name ‘J-O-I’ because we thought it would be memorable and felt that ‘J-O-Y’ was over-used. Nobody forgets that we are called ‘J-O-I.’ Also, when people see ‘joy’ written, it doesn’t automatically mean anything to them other than the concept of joy. But when they see ‘J-O-I’ in print anywhere, they immediately connect that to us and that’s why it makes sense for us to have a unique name. The name is hopeful and happy, but it is also high-tech. We are a mobile and a technology company, so we also wanted to reflect that in the brand name.
“The Joi experience is intended to be unique - for the employees and the customers. When people have had gifts delivered before, the recipient may have had an Aramex guy show up at the door, or at their office - and his mandate is very different to smiling and making people happy - he just needs a signature,” points out Tilani.
Our guys show up wearing nice concierge-style uniforms with a waistcoat and a side cap and they are trained to make people feel special. They have a smile for the recipient of the gifts, they make eye contact, they smell good, they’ll wish you a happy birthday and they will also sing for you, if the sender has requested this. At Christmas, they may sing Jingle Bells and dress as Santa Claus, they might sing Nat King Cole’s L-O-V-E for anniversaries and Valentine’s Day. One of our delivery guys also plays guitar in addition to singing. And our hiring strategy is to hire happy people who like to spread happiness.
From the multitude of choices available in Dubai to base their headquarters, the founders chose a reasonably priced, plain, open plan warehouse-style building. Celen explains: “We wanted to have a totally blank canvas to create the home of our business and give it the personality of the brand. We have a lot of symbolism in our office, so this place means something very special to us, as opposed to being a mere space to operate from.
We don’t have walls to divide people, the space is fully open plan and we like transparency. We do have some glass around our office and the meeting room, purely to limit sound so everyone can work efficiently when we have business meetings and visitors. Ritesh and I sit together as two co-founders in a small office and our desks are touching each other in an ‘L’ shape. Our door is always left open so our employees know that we are always available and approachable.”
Ritesh adds that they have left their team to decide where and how they want to sit, which the employees have changed over time to suit themselves. “They used to sit separately, but now they are more bunched up together, which was entirely their choice. It’s nice - they all get along well and have created their own little family dynamic.”
Demonstrating the kind of thinking you might expect from investors who have their eye on multi-levels of operational detail, he adds: “We’re trying to be the happiest company in the region. We are not there yet, but we have our eye on the small and larger details that can achieve this.”
What does it mean to be the happiest company in the region? “We want our people to wake up feeling excited in the morning about coming to work. We want to provide an environment that inspires creativity and initiative - and happiness is one way to do that,” says Ritesh. “That is one part of it, but when visitors walk into our office, we want our guests to see smiling faces.
We want our employees to enjoy being with each other at work. We want them to feel happy to be working for this company - we want them to feel proud that they are building something that makes a difference in people’s lives day-to-day. We may be in a warehouse, but it is lively, out of the ordinary, and it is the place that we have all created for ourselves – the team together.”
I told the founders at this point that when I walked into their offices, I received not only a very warm smile from the member of staff facing the door, but she also gave me a little wave too. They were delighted to hear about this genuinely happy intent, a sentiment that sums up the spirit of not only the workspace, but also the company ethos of spreading joy.
“We are very much in the trenches and there are a lot of details we want to work on and fix. Fifteen months ago there was nothing, now here is a company, there are deliveries, there is a brand, but there are things we want to fix in marketing, with technology, with the website - all sorts of details,” says Celen. But the reason why there are these details for us to fix is part of what drives all of us here and why people get up in the morning and want to come to work.”
It is about the ‘why’ of working here, I think everyone here likes that. Similarly, when we solve day-to-day issues and see good feedback, you’ll see high fives, you’ll hear cheers and there is a bell that the guys ring every time a big order that comes in. We may be a young company, but we have a culture with our own traditions and these things make this a happy place with happy people - in practice, these things do make people smile.
Building something from scratch with limited start up budgets is tough. In the past, we worked for big companies with big brands. Both of us were lucky enough to have worked with companies that were best in class, they were employers of choice, they promoted things like diversity, they had HR practices that promoted happiness, they provided training and professional development. We learned a lot from those experiences. There were things we liked, such as training opportunities, which is something we now do wth our business. Once every week or two, we’ll have a brown bag lunch and bring everyone together in ‘the living area’ and try to encourage our employees to learn something new.
Furnished with books and ornaments on the bookshelf, a TV, comfortable couches and art, this space is set up to look much as any apartment living room would look. The living area is even equipped with a karaoke machine that sees regular use. Alper explains: “JoiGifts delivers singing telegrams, so this ties in with what we do.”
We think it is important to make the sender of the gift feel good about doing so. We record a video of the sender as a link in the greeting card and the recipient can log in and get their personal video message. This has a real sentimental effect on them and makes them feel special. Right there and then, they can record a reply to the sender, so we are capturing the moment of joy for the sender to see how they made the recipient feel. This is something that is unique to us globally and I feel that one of our strengths as entrepreneurs is to identify where there are opportunities to do things better.
“We love Joi and we have successfully entered the Saudi Arabian market, with a strategy in place to continue to roll out our expansion. But it’s not the only thing we’re interested in. We like vertical marketplaces - gifting is a vertical market, but we don’t cut flowers or make cupcakes, we have many merchant partners and we supply gifts to our customers using these partnerships.
We want to identify more vertical marketplaces and we will launch more models like this, because we see a demand for them and know we can execute as necessary to make it happen,” said Alper. With a joyful smile.