Complex Made Simple

Exclusive: This UAE startup allows online sellers to make transactions over Whatsapp, Instagram

AMEinfo spoke to Zbooni's two co-founders to learn all there is to know about the exciting new e-commerce startup that is making waves in the UAE.

Zbooni allows for transactions to occur through messaging apps such as Whatsapp and Instagram direct messaging The service is secured by Payfort, a Middle Eastern online payment gateway owned by Amazon The company is processing millions of dirhams in transactions monthly

Zbooni (translating to ‘my customer’ in Arabic), a Dubai-based startup that allows online merchants to perform transactions over messengers services such as Whatsapp and Instagram, is reshaping how merchants and customers do business online. Capitalizing on the surge in freelance sellers and SMEs taking their business online in the UAE, it was able to close a funding round of USD 1.1 million from Chalhoub Group and B&Y Venture Partners last month. 

Founded in 2017, the company is helping process millions of dirhams of transactions every month, and is witnessing 30% growth month-on-month. One of only eight companies across the world, and the only one from the Middle East, Zbooni took part in a six-month incubator programme at Facebook, giving it a competitive edge in the region. 

Currently, it has meal plan providers, travel agents, accessory designers, sports leagues, and even physical therapy among its merchant clientele. 

So how does the service work exactly, and how can customers be certain their debit/credit card information is safe? 

Looking to find out this and more about Zbooni’s unique payment solution, AMEinfo spoke to Ramy Assaf, Co-Founder and CEO, and Ashraf Atia, Co-Founder and Chief Commercial Officer at the startup. 

Ashraf Atia (left) and Ramy Assaf (right)

1. How do the Zbooni business model and service work exactly?

Zbooni is an app for merchants. It allows businesses to manage their customers on social and chat channels (i.e. Instagram/WhatsApp). The tool primarily offers merchants the ability to accept payments online and keep track of orders/customers. The unique cart software was designed specifically for chat based checkout.

The end customer does NOT need the Zbooni app, they are prompted to pay by Visa/MasterCard on a secure online browser. We offer the simple to use software with a payment gateway built-in. Merchants are quickly and painlessly enabled to accept online payment – without any technical or commercial obligation.

The flexibility of the system allows you to create bespoke orders and caters to a personalized mode of interaction, while the app is free to download. Merchants create an account and build their product catalogue with prices. Carts are shared with a customer via WhatsApp (or other messaging apps). We have a transparent fee of 3.5% for credit card processing. Money is collected on behalf of the merchant into a wallet, and is settled 7 days after a transaction is made, directly into the bank account of the merchant.

2. Performing sales through chat is quite the innovative solution to the rudimentary communication and sales that happen through platforms like Instagram for example, where Instagram stores make transactions directly with customers through basic direct messaging. What gap and issues were you trying to address? 

The gap in the market was that the advent of social media, and specifically Instagram allowed more businesses to emerge. The barriers to start a business were pretty much eradicated since you could simply create an Instagram page and use that as your “store front”. You can also clearly see now that consumer behavior has shifted, and the use of WhatsApp or DM as a B2C channel is not only normalized, but it’s becoming the preferred mode of communication. Commerce had moved into this new channel, but the tools to support a merchant’s back-end capabilities had not caught up. Traditional ecommerce sites are not fundamentally designed to capture messaging-based commerce.

Further to that, in the UAE and MENA in general, it is extremely complex to start accepting payments online. The barriers are very high. Our intention was to streamline the process while maintaining measures of safety and transparency to all parties.

3. Incorporating bank cards and financial information in chat messaging can be quite a daunting risk to consumers. How do you ensure privacy and security within your transactions? 

We determined early on that consumers needed to feel safe and secure. They wouldn’t want to share sensitive CC (credit card) information in a chat window. We partnered with PayFort initially to establish a process that was secure. If you’ve ever bought anything on Amazon, you will have used PayFort. The way the process works is the customer receives a link in WhatsApp from the merchant, it takes the buyer to a secure web page where they can pay (like on an ecommerce site). No sensitive information is shared with the merchant or with us.

4. Can you share with us some of your customers’ (merchants) experiences with Zbooni? Why do they prefer your service? 

Our customers range from home based businesses all the way to luxury retailers. The common thread is that they interact with their customers via chat and need a way to provide a seamless checkout experience. Some of our merchants are florist shops, like Blossom Tree in JLT, Dubai. They have a physical presence (brick and mortar shop) and a traditional POS terminal. However, most orders are coming via phone calls/WhatsApp and the customer isn’t visiting the shop. For that, they find it easiest to collect payment remotely via Zbooni and being able to track all the orders efficiently. We also have meal plan providers, travel agents, accessory designers, sports leagues, and even physical therapy clinics. It’s simply an easier way for them to manage transactions remotely.

5. What obstacles/challenges are you currently experiencing, and how do you hope to address them? 

As a startup, the first phase of our journey was about solving a problem for the merchant. We were doing something new and there was no clear playbook as to how it should be done, we had to pioneer the space. We were lucky to achieve strong validation from the market, and a very sticky user base. Now, we’re past the point of having a product market fit, and understanding how to scale this to more merchants effectively. Our challenge is to scale the existing product into the hands of more merchants, and ensure that the product is evolving to serve merchants with features that matter most.  We hope to address these challenges by staying focused on providing a world-class product and having real empathy with our merchants.

From a geographical perspective, we continue to grow at pace in the UAE, while Saudi Arabia is a very interesting market to help us scale up. As we have seen in the UAE, our research indicates there is a strong latent demand from Saudi SMEs for payment facilities that are easy to use for merchants and secure for customers. The economic diversification of both countries is creating a culture of entrepreneurship, and we believe Zbooni is the perfect addition to the SME toolkit.