With Careem pushing approximately $1.5 billion in value today, it is easy to forget that not too long ago, it was a budding startup at the start of its lifecycle. That was 6 years past.
Today, the tech unicorn operates in 15 countries and more than 120 cities. The highly successful company was first launched in Dubai, and currently has more than 1 million registered ‘Captains’ (drivers), serving more than 25 million users globally.
When it first started, however, Careem had a mere 20 drivers in its service, give or take. The rest of their story is an astonishing one, and a tale shared with AMEinfo by co-founder Magnus Olsson.
Speaking with us at Tech Crunch’s first Startup Battlefield competition in the MENA region, hosted in Lebanon’s Beirut Digital District, Olsson shared the humble but inspirational story of how Careem grew from a basic corporate ride-hailing service to something much greater, rivaling companies 60 times its value.
In fact, the company’s mission statement is representative of their journey: “ is to simplify and improve lives and build an awesome organization that inspires.”
As always, it starts with satisfying a market need
When asked if they consciously sought to introduce a local ride-hailing service to the region, Olsson replied, “My belief is that you cannot build any business by trying to import something that you’ve seen somewhere else and then bringing it to another place. I don’t believe that is how you build a business.”
“To me, the path to building something is that you look for a problem – a local problem in the local community, and then you try to solve that. If you use technology to solve that, that’s fine. But you need to solve that problem.”
In their case, Olsson and his co-founder Mudassir Sheikha sought to create something “meaningful and big”.
“I had a life-changing experience… I almost died,” he explained in a matter-of-fact manner. Speaking with the spirited, youthful co-founder, you would not expect such a tragic background, but it was a clear driving force for him. “I really had this strong urge that I want to do something big and meaningful. So I quit my job, and I met my co-founder.”
Olsson and Sheikha’s partnership was the start of something great.
They considered going into healthcare, or education, as they seemed the most obvious choices in creating an impact in people’s lives. In the end, they decided on transportation.
He started his next sentence with a raised brow, “When you have a second chance at life and someone says why don’t you look at transportation,” a perplexed look formed on his face, “we were not very excited. I particularly was not very excited, because this doesn’t feel very meaningful.”
Upon further thought, however, they realized that they had stumbled on something big.
“Mobility is challenging in the region,” he noted. “We don’t have very strong public transport.”
“It’s not that people care about mobility. people care ‘I wanna take my kids to school,’ or ‘I wanna get a job.’ That’s what people care about, but mobility is the enabler.”
“Let’s do this”
Sheikha during Careem’s early days.
Olsson and Sheikha had extensive experience as business consultants in the region, and their job naturally required them to travel a lot.
From landing in an airport to meeting their clients, the life of a traveling business consultant in the MENA region was inconvenient to say the least.
He sighed, “You have to find the right place, and everything from finding a car, getting to the right destination, you know, some ministry that you’ve gotta go see, haggling on the price, paying in cash, getting hand-written receipts, coming back to file expenses receipts…”
“Like, the whole thing was… let’s just say it was not great.”
So, they sought to solve this rather common problem that many businessmen and women had suffered from.
And thus, Careem was born.
Enthusiastic, Olsson recalled fulfilling their first ride a mere 5 weeks after they had said to themselves: “Let’s do this.”
Greatness from small beginnings
Careem started small. Very small, in fact. At that point, it was still a corporate product, and the logistics of the service were very basic.
“It was only web-based – we had no apps. It was only prebooking, because the way it worked was that you put in a booking on the site ahead of time, at least 2 hours in advance, and then we’d get an email.”
It was rather rudimentary, which makes their eventual advancements the more impressive.
“We had a list of 20 captains (Careem’s term for drivers) we had met at the airport, and we’d call them one by one. We’d go like, ‘Khurshit, are you free?’ He’d be like, ‘No, busy, busy.’ ‘Hafiz, are you free?’ And he’d go, ‘Busy busy.’ ‘Mohammad are you free? You are? Ok, ok, we have a booking.’”
“You got an SMS that said ‘Hey, your car is here,’ and that SMS looked nice but we were sending it manually from the office. It was very, very simple from the beginning… This was how we started.”
The challenge lied in moving to new markets
When asked about the challenges they had faced, Olsson had a surprising answer.
“It’s been a very challenging journey,” he said. “That part, though, wasn’t challenging.”
It was Olsson and Sheikha’s extensive 5-6 year experience with constant airport travel for business that informed them about the needs of their customers, and ultimately secured their success in their early years.
“Over the years, we kept growing. More and more businesses were using .”
The true challenge, however, lied with expanding abroad.
“The reason, for example, we started expanding internationally … we always had this big vision, but the reason we actually pushed ourselves to do it was .”
“We started in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, and then one of our big clients – a big consulting firm – they said ‘okay, now you’ve solved our problem in Dubai, and this is great. But we have a really much bigger problem in Riyadh. Go to Riyadh and help us solve it.’”
At the time, Olsson and Careem were not sure they were able to make the transition to Saudi. So, they opted to solve their client’s transport problem in Qatar, which proved an easier beast to tackle, to set up there.
“Once we learned how to operate in a new city with a different currency, a different time zone, different legislation, we said now, let’s see if we can go to Saudi.” And so, they made the move into that market, and eventually branched out to more and more countries.
The rest is history.
Staying true to the entrepreneur spirit
Olsson wrapped up his tale with as much enthusiasm as he had started it with.
“So, the whole journey of Careem was not us trying to, sort of, come up with random stuff, but we were following what the customers asked us to do. I think that’s the key.”
“Sometimes as an entrepreneur, you get super excited about your own idea because you think it’s the coolest thing ever – the best thing ever – but no one really wants it.”
In the end, Olsson and Careem’s success hinged on hard work, first-hand knowledge of the market and customer, and the readiness to adapt to consumer needs and desires. Their success story is quite fable-like in its simplicity, and rather encouraging for other tech startups in the region looking to launch here.
“Going out and sharing our story – it’s a humble story. you can actually build a successful company from the region,” Olsson said.
Perhaps, Careem’s story can serve as a motivational anecdote for tech startups in the region to learn from.