By Faisal Chareuf
Every so often, we hear of friends and colleagues that have made a successful leap into the entrepreneurial world. When I stumbled upon a Facebook post of an old friend who recently made it onto the Forbes “Most Promising UAE Startups” list, it was only natural to call him and discuss his rise to prominence.
Meet Subhi Farah, the CEO &Co-Founder ofKanari. Born and raised in Dubai, Subhi graduated from high school in 2000 before continuing his education at the University of Toronto in Canada, earning a Bachelor Degree in Computer Science in 2004. His first job out of school was with a small startup company in Toronto. This was then followed by a 2 year stretch in a bigger “Corporate Canada” role. Once Subhi had gained his international work experience and exposure, it was time to return home to Dubai. Soon after his return, Subhi took up a job with a local business and technology firm, Shift Technologies where he spent 4 years.“We had clients from the public and private sector, mainly working on business process improvement and various technology transformation projects”. Subhi recalls.
In 2010, Subhi decided to leave his job to pursue an MBA in Barcelona,“It was always my plan to get my MBA. I wanted to complement my computer science degree with one in business management”. During this time, Subhi took courses in entrepreneurship and became involved with ‘like minded’ individuals, including his housemate at the time. “Those were the initial seeds of my entrepreneurial activity. I caught the entrepreneur bug!” Subhi recalls fondly. “We would sit around and discuss different ideas and business plans.” He adds. Subhi and his housemate used these brainstorming sessions to build a comprehensive business plan that formed part of one of their course projects. They then went a step further and pitched their idea to investors. The year was 2012, shortly after the crises in Europe and times were tough, especially for entrepreneurs who were seeking to get funding for their ideas.
The project ended up being put on hold, but Subhi learnt from the experience: “That initial taste of entrepreneurship was there, so I decided to come back to Dubai to find a job or start a business, whichever came first!”After finishing his MBA Subhi was back in Dubai looking for his next move and decided to contact and old schoold friend, Edmond Husseini.
Over the course of several catchups and numerous espressos, the two zeroed in on a few potential business ideas that seemed optimistic but had potential. Edmond brought with him a great idea for measuring and analyzing customer feedback, which he initially conceptualized during his MBA. It was the beginning of 2013 when the two decided to explore this brainchild through market research and customer interviews. By March, the duo had made the decision to dive in at the deep end! “We started in April 2013 after a month of business planning and selecting companies that would help us build version one of the product. Six months later, Kanari Version 1.0 was born!” Subhi says proudly.
When I asked Subhi what the story behind the name, “Kanari”, was, he chuckled as he braced himself to tell the story: “The name comes from a commonly used business expression, ‘canary in the coal mine’. It came about in the late 19th century when miners used to take canary birds down into mines with them. As long as there was enough air and it was safe to breathe, the canary would be chirping away happily. However, as soon as the environment became dangerous, the canary would give out early warning signals in the form of frantic chirping and visible nervousness. The Kanari concept is to provide clients with early warning signals and alerts for one the most important areas of their business: The Customer Experience.We wanted to be the canary in the coal mine for businesses. If businesses can get early feedback from customers about the customer experience, then they can take actions immediately to rectify the issues and improve their customer service.”
“The initial concept was simple. Kanari would be a platform for restaurants to receive feedback directly from customers in return for a small reward or incentive. Many customers perceive service levels to be lower here than in other places around the world, so surely there was something we can do to improve customer service!”Subhi explains. “Unlike Yelp, Zomato, and other online review sites and apps, Kanari offers businesses a platform where they can engage their customers and receive useful feedback in exchange for incentives and rewards.” He adds. In discussing the recent wave of customer engagement through the use of new business concepts such as co-creation, co-design, and other user generated content and design strategies, Subhi remarks: “This is an important component of Dubai’s Smart Strategy 2021. Co-creation and service design is a big part of it.”
Soon after rolling out Kanari with their first major client, the Shakespeare Restaurant chain, the team realised that their product had great potential across all industries. “A lot of businesses were using outdated methods for collecting customer feedback. Usually reliant on paper based surveys, comment boxes, and working with expensive customer research companies, businesses from a number of industries were showing strong interest in a better way to measure their customers’ experience.”
Based on the findings mentioned above, Kanari was able to adapt and develop into a cloud based service platform that can be delivered to any device. In summarizing what Kanari does, Subhi explains: “Kanari feedback surveys are delivered to consumers directly to their device at any customer touch point. It is important to get feedback as close to the customer’s experience as possible because the longer you wait after the customer experience, the more the bias in the results and the lower the completion rates.Our surveys are always very short. 30 to 40 seconds tops and this encourages people to complete the surveys.” He then adds: “This is just one side of the business. Arguably the more important is our backend engine. As soon as a customer submits their feedback, the data gets automatically uploaded to our database and the business can login into their dashboard and view, in real time, all the feedback received from customers across its different touch points. They can then drill down and analyze the data received to see where the issues are and start discussing ways to improve the customer experience journey.”
I went on to ask Subhi to tell us about his start up journey to date. He replies by breaking down the duo’s lean approach to startups: “We are big proponents of the lean approach to building startups. This means that we build the basic product features to start with, and build on that as our customers give us more insight into what they require. It’s an agile approach: Make sure there is a need for what you are building through constant customer feedback and product improvement loops.” In terms of funding, Subhi and his partner used whatever savings they had after their MBA to start work on their new idea. Once they had their first client on board, the pair were able to raise funds from their family and friends, who contributed 200,000 USD to further fund product development and ongoing resource costs. At the end of 2014, the co-founders got involved with the afkar.ae program, a Dubai based incubator. “We got some additional funding and some great guidance and support from the Afkar team, as well as office space which was a huge boost for us at the time!” Subhi continues. The team have also recently signed an agreement with another Dubai based startup accelerator, Turn8, where they expect to receive some additional funding and support. “We are quite involved in the startup scene, so we knew the guys there and they knew us. They have been extremely helpful and supportive and are always generous with giving advice, something which is always valuable especially given some of their experience and know-how in the field.”
Since their first big break, the Kanari team has landed several projects across the financial, food and beverage, and hospitality sectors to name but a few. They also currently have a number of pilot projects underway with some of the UAE’s biggest brands. When I asked Subhi what’s next on the agenda, he replies: “We are still focused on developing the business and tweaking our business model, working on developing the ideal pricing strategy, improving our service offerings and value proposition, as well as improving our sales and business development processes. Eventually, we would like to automate a lot of processes by identifying which tasks can be automated so we can focus our efforts on value added tasks.”
I asked Subhi to share what he considered to be the most critical success factors and challenges in starting a new business in the UAE, and what advice he has to offer for anyone considering the leap. Subhi offer this advice: “Once you stop relying on a day job, that’s when the real entrepreneur comes out. As long as you have that safety net of a full time job and the salary that comes with it, you will never give it 100%. Once you have committed to your business idea, then persistence I believe is the key ingredient for success. You have to keep following up, keep chasing people, and never lose focus. You are going to get turned down and fail many times, but without persistence you will never make it!” He then adds, “Building your initial client base is also crucial for any startups. Having your first clients as a reference is important in building your business and establishing a reputation in the market. Make sure you give your first clients all you’ve got! If you are persistent and show the client how much you care and how much you are willing to give, they will see it!” In terms of challenges, Subhi says: “Sales has been our biggest challenge, especially in the business to business (B2B) space. Businesses have never heard of us. They are not used to doing business with startups, even though we are offering innovative solutions to their business needs. That’s been a real killer for us! We have to put in the extra work to convince our clients, and this means running a pilot project to prove the value to the business, and this could take months sometimes!” “But on the flip side”, Subhi adds enthusiastically, “once we prove ourselves through a pilot, we are in business for the long term.”
To conclude our chat, I asked Subi what his thoughts were regarding the UAE’s entrepreneurship ecosystem and if the UAE was a good place to start a new business. Here’s what he had to say: “It is still a young and growing start up ecosystem. There is still some resistance from big corporate brands in dealing with startups, but mindsets are progressively changing and they are becoming more open to the concept and starting to appreciate the value that startups have to offer. The UAE is such a multinational and truly global business hub. This means that as entrepreneurs, we can test our products and services with so many different customer demographics, people from all over the world. We have access to so many different ideas and perspectives. In addition, some of the world’s largest companies have offices right here in our neighborhood, giving us direct access. Government support for entrepreneurs and innovations is also picking up fast and this really gives local entrepreneurs a boost. I believe that the more people we have taking a shot at startups, the more successful the ecosystem will eventually become.”
Just a suggestion, but perhaps here as a sign off you could include some info about Kanari or even Subhi himself, website details etc. It helps the article look like it doesn’t end abruptly and provides further info if readers desire to learn more.