She moved to Dubai in search of a place where motherhood and entrepreneurship were not mutually exclusive. Today, her gifting platform MyList is one of the Middle East's leading e-commerce startups. In a talk with Valentina Primo, Julie Leblan explains why retail is not really dead.
When Julie started her business in 2012, Dubai's entrepreneurial bubble was something of a daydream. There were few incubators, networking was scarce, and the idea of pitching to an investor was still far-fetched. But for Julie Leblan, an investment banker who had just left her corporate job at an American law firm, Dubai was the promise of a different life, where being a mother and an entrepreneur would not collide.
“In France, it was impossible to work in a big city without getting help to take care of the kids, and I didn’t want to give up my career,” she tells Startup Scene, recalling the conversation with her husband, who was fond of the Middle East and was immediately eager to embark on an adventure overseas. "I was pregnant and I didn’t want to stay there. So he told me: 'you have one month to find another job'.”
Indeed, it was one month later that they landed in Dubai, where Leblan, pregnant with their second child, began plotting her e-commerce venture. "I have always been frustrated about working in corporates; of advising instead of acting,” says the entrepreneur, a confessed geek who is passionate about tech. "In 2010, there was hardly any e-commerce other than Souq, and as a friend of mine had trouble sending me a gift for my son, the idea of creating MyList came up,” she says, recalling the inception of her startup, which serves over 25,000 users only in the UAE, has raised a total one million dollars, and has tripled its valuation in the past year alone.
According to research platform Magnitt, e-commerce is one of the fastest growing industries in the Middle East. Only in the first half of 2017, the sector has seen 16 percent of the region’s investment rounds, as well as the massive acquisition of Dubai-based Souq.com by Amazon for an amount estimated well over $500 million. In fact, a report published by BMI Research indicates that the Middle East is one the fastest growing e-commerce markets in the world, with $22.3 billion sales in 2016 expected to skyrocket to $4.3 billion in 2020.
And opportunities are huge particularly in the UAE, a country that has one of the highest numbers of shops per capita - there ere 4.7 million square metres of shopping centres in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, according to Forbes. “Dubai has an 80 percent expat community which hails from all over the world, so at that moment I thought 'let’s try to find an easy way to send gifts, instead of importing them from abroad,” Leblan explains. “In France, wedding registries are common, but they didn’t exist here. I wanted to facilitate the gifting experience from here.”
The idea is only 10% of the startup, but you need to understand the market; what’s working around the world may not work in Dubai or the Middle East.
Navigating uncharted territory in a foreign land, the entrepreneur set off to build the website and take on yet the most challenging step: partnering with retailers which she didn’t know. “It was hard because in order to have stores on board, you need to have clients; but they won’t come to you if you don’t have enough stores, so it’s a chicken and egg situation,” she says. It was five stores at the beginning; today they are 100.
Navigating the Middle Eastern market
How did she do it? ”When I started there were no shared networks or websites. Now it’s very common to network; back then just getting information was impossible. I read everything I could find on Google, I went to speak to companies, and found that people here are very keen to listen to new ideas, which is not always the case abroad. I can contact a CEO in LinkedIn and connect immediately."
"If I had to give a piece of advice to someone coming to start a business here, the first thing I would suggest is to network; to listen and ask questions. The idea is only 10 percent of the startup, but you need to understand what’s going on in the market; what’s working around the world may not work in Dubai or the Middle East."
The startup’s turning point, she admits, was adding 20 stores and the B2B focus."Our main competitor in the market is cash, because according to the Arab mentality, you give cash for special occasions; so we needed to reach that point where they have so many options - spas, cooking classes, trips, even if they are not traditional wedding wedding gifts,” she explains.
Today, the company operates across nine countries in the MENA region - including Jordan, Kuwait, Bahrain, and a recent incursion to Egypt. "In these countries we do B2B, as we started to attract corporate clients who want to use us for customer rewards. So we work with companies that may have their HQ in New York, but have employees in the Middle East,” she says.
The trend in the US or Europe is to do everything digital, but in this region it just doesn’t work. People don’t want a piece of paper, a voucher or a gift card.
Entering the Arab world, however, did not come at a low cost. Home to a unique culture, with a deeply embedded cash-based mindset and little trust in online payments, the entrepreneur had to relentlessly navigate the singularities of the region and adapt to the market. “People here are not so much into digital; They expect you to call them. For our customer rewards plan, we work with banks, and while the trend in the US or Europe is to do everything digital, in this region it just doesn’t work. They don’t want a piece of paper, a voucher or a gift card to cash online,” she says. "They want to see the product, touch it and compare."
In 2016, the company took its riskiest step yet, venturing into the Egyptian market, a 100-strong demographic that works with a culture and an a method of its own. But, against all odds and surpassing all expectations, the land of Pharaohs rapidly became the fastest growing market.
“It's been incredible,” she says. "We are getting the same revenue as Dubai in just six months since we’ve launched - and we’ve been in Dubai for five years,” she says, with a glow of excitement. "We started with few B2B clients and there is big traction, because we are coming with advanced tech and we adapt our pricing to the market. I love the market; it’s definitely the future. It’s a lot of volume, there are different needs, and clients in Egypt are very skilled. But you really need to have a team on the ground, because people want to meet with you, it’s not like Saudi where they have meetings online. Competition is going to be though but I love the market because it’s fast,” she claims, adding that they have a partnership with Egypt’s mammoth FinTech company, Fawry, to collect cash payments without the need for a credit card. "I really want to say next year we relocate to Egypt; I would definitely move there."
Is retail really dying?
Leblan is adamant and straight-forward: the imminent death of retail at the hands of e-commerce is nothing but a falacy. “What will change is the customer’s journey,” she affirms. "You will start looking at a retail store by checking out social media, but you will probably go at the end of the day. So we will see smaller shops with less inventory, but with some more skilled people on the ground to be able to respond to the client’s demandsm,” she comments.
I have a respect as a mother in Arab countries that I will never have in France.
"In France, what drives people crazy is that you buy online and no one answers to you when you have an issue; and you end up hating the brand. I think retail is changing to go more online through different channels, and not just through the website of the retailer,” she recalls. "Retail is all focused on customer experience. The more services you add, like Youtube channels, social media, online outlets, the more customers you will have."
Now the mother of three small children, the entrepreneur found a little more than the work-life balance she was aiming for. "I have a respect as a mother in Arab countries that I will never have in France. I’m coming from Latin country, where men pretend we have the same right, but we are payed 25 percent less and you still need to compromise a lot,” she says, vehemently smashing down cultural stereotypes often rooted in the collective imaginary of both Europe and the Middle East.
"It’s a big hypocrisy, here I even negotiate and breastfeed in meetings and no one is judging. I never felt any difference in the Middle East, while in France people would ask me to make coffee at the law firm. That’s why I quit to start off on my own."
Photos courtesy of Julie Leblan.
To find out more about her startup, check out MyList's website.
Sign up for the daily Startup Digest.