Digital Innovation Transforms the Middle East Online Car-Buying

An Interview With Tarek Kabrit, Seez CEO and Co-Founder

By Giuseppe Bonaccorsi and Chantal Chalouhi

Seez is the brainchild of Tarek Kabrit, CEO and co-founder of the company. The name, he explains, is a play on words, combining “see” which refers to the firm’s car image-recognition software with “seize the moment” as car buyers find their best deals in a matter of seconds.

Founded in 2015, the start-up aggregates listings of all new and used cars for sale in UAE, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Pakistan, and South Africa. Today, Seez has nearly 1.6 million users and almost 500,000 cars listed on its platforms, making the company among the world’s largest online sites for cars. The company boasts a meta search engine and consumer-facing app that can deliver car-shopping results in seconds and even a green mobility option to purchase eco-friendly cars. Forbes (USA) recently named Seez among the fastest growing auto startups in the region.

Innovation Talks with BCG Middle East

In this new BCG Middle East series, Innovation Talks, we interview leaders of key startups and innovative digital companies in the region, people who have built strong reputations as disruptors—leveraging digital technologies to address acute frictions in the market.

Innovation Talks focuses on consumer and industry trends, highlighting the ways in which digital and innovative companies tackle their most ominous challenges, and what they have to offer their local customers.

Our featured guests discuss how digital is enabling new business models and innovations that do not yet exist in our region—but will soon—and offer advice to young entrepreneurs who want to learn more about setting-up and growing startups in Middle East.

The impact of COVID on businesses is an important part of the debate as it has changed consumer trends and introduced new ways of working that are re-shaping their culture.

In our first round of Innovation Talks, we interview three leaders. Tarek Kabrit is co-founder and CEO of Seez, an innovative app to search, buy, and deliver cars throughout the region—UAE, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Pakistan, and South Africa. Gheed El Makkaoui, is the country GM of Careem, a one-stop hassle-free app designed to meet the needs of everyday life—from rides and ordering food to shopping and paying. Finally, Ambareen Musa, CEO of Sougalmal, joins Innovation Talks to discuss her financial products comparison site—offering an end-to-end process to apply for loans, credit cards, bank accounts, and insurance. The company was named #2 startup of the year by Forbes ME.

Thank you for joining us. We hope you find our Innovation Talks to be substantive, well-informed, and thoroughly enjoyable.

Seez is also the first automotive data analytics company in the GCC region, using more than 60 million data points to provide total market supply from aggregated car listings, car shopping behavior, and pricing. Seez also works with regional automotive dealers and original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) to digitize their businesses, offer subscription-based business intelligence tools, and produce data reports.

We recently talked to Tarek about the challenges he faces as a start-up, the impact of COVID on the company’s strategy, the future of mobility platforms, and his plans to grow the business.

What problems does Seez solve for Middle East consumers? How do you differentiate your service?

As more players enter the automotive market—whether OEMs, the classifieds, or startups—we are deploying the latest technology to optimize the customer’s car-buying journey, including aggregating all products in one place. For example, in UAE, our app has access to 25 plus car-buying websites to determine the fair market value of vehicles. The app has a valuation feature and the world’s first chat bot, named Cesar, who handles price negotiations via WhatsApp. We are exclusively on the buyer’s side, working to optimize the process and to find the best car for buyers in the fastest time possible.

Where are e-commerce and mobility platforms today and where will they be in the next 5 years in the region?

The global automotive industry has dragged its heels when it comes to e-commerce and digital platforms. In the U.S., for example, automotive is a $1.5 trillion industry, yet, it has only a 0.9% digital penetration versus 16% for general e-commerce. So, there is 16x potential growth for automotive moving digitally , and that’s just to keep up with other e-commerce and retail platforms.

A similar trend exists throughout the Middle East as dealers and OEMs launch their own digital websites. Most have basic, no-frills sites where customers go to select a vehicle and, in some cases, make a small payment. Unlike other e-commerce sites where you just need a website, a payment gateway, and some logistics for delivery—buying cars online also requires a system to provide car insurance, bank loans, and government registration. It’s a more complex process, which is why it is not yet fully digitized.

We are currently working toward partnering with one of the local governments to digitize the car registration process. Once in place, we will work our way backwards to digitize car insurance, bank loans, and ultimately the entire value chain. Our goal is to digitize the entire process—from searching dealers’ websites to customers registering their cars from their mobile phones. This is where we see acceleration in the automotive e-commerce space in UAE and throughout the region.

What are the main consumer car-buying trends in the UAE and GCC?

Consumer trends have changed significantly in the past six months. In fact, the whole world has changed. Prior to COVID, we had the sharing economy, on-demand cars, and Uber rides. Freedom for millennials meant being asset-light; not bogged down by “stuff” in order to move quickly. Now, we're seeing a shift toward car buying. In fact, 30% of millennials between ages 25 and 35 are first-time car buyers. In the post-COVID world, freedom means having your own car and the ability to go where you want, when you want, without wearing masks and without worrying about your safety.

We are seeing a definite shift toward buying cheaper used cars. On average, two used cars are sold for every new car sold in most Western countries. In the Middle East, it used to be two new cars sold for everyone used car. Now it’s closer to one-to-one, and we think it will continue and eventually match the Western world. The culture change goes hand in hand with a shift toward online buying, with 56% of car buyers preferring dealers with online purchasing options.

How do you stay connected to clients during the pandemic? Are new opportunities, especially digital opportunities, emerging?

I'll answer this question in two parts. There are two ways to stay connected to our clients—an ideal way and a less-than-ideal way. A less-than-ideal way is when brands push their products hard during times of adversity. During COVID, people were in lockdown and not buying cars. Pushing offers and harassing potential buyers is not going to get you anywhere.

The ideal way is to keep the lines of communication open. We did not market our products and, more importantly, did not leverage the crisis to upsell our products. We just kept our discussions with clients going, saying, “we're here for you and we support you whenever you are ready.” As the pandemic eased, we began pushing some offers and catering to consumers’ new-found digital needs. Contactless experiences became the new buzzword, which allowed us to provide home delivery of cars and online payments.

Seez was an early adopter of digital car buying. With a couple of projects underway and, post-COVID, most dealers found online sales were no longer a “nice-to-have” luxury but a contingency plan. If something goes wrong, then a digital distribution channel has to be ready to go. When COVID hit, we initially waited for the dealers to digitize and sell their cars online. Then, we thought, why wait for them to digitize, why not help them digitize? We had an opportunity to drive the industry online. Initially, we wanted to be an Amazon, until we realized we had to be a Shopify first and then an Amazon. That's what we're doing now.

What is your equity story? How do you plan to grow your business?

In February, we raised $6 million in a 5x oversubscribed Series A round. The round was controlled by several automotive players distributing nine brands in the UAE and KSA. The round takes our total capital raised to date to $9.2 million. We got lucky as we closed the round before the whole world collapsed under COVID.

Unlike Europe and the U.S., Middle East automotive players do not operate regionally. UAE’s biggest platform is Dubizzle, Saudi has Haraj, and Kuwait has Q8 cars. Seez is among the first companies to operate region-wide and to promote online car buying in different countries.

Our growth plan centers on the belief that a car buyer in Saudi shouldn’t have to look only at the 50,000 cars for sale in Saudi when another 80,000 cars are for sale in UAE. With this in mind, we launched our newest app, in which a buyer sitting on his sofa in Saudi will find his dream car in Dubai. He or she clicks on a button and our team takes it from there. We inspect the vehicle for quality, send the potential buyer a 360° video that includes a full report with pictures. The buyer says yes to the car. We buy it, register it, handle customs, ship it, and deliver it to his home in Saudi. Buyers can order a car online just like they order a phone on Amazon. We’re heavily focused on this area.

Our second growth area is true online buying with a concentration in two areas: (1) helping dealers digitize by capitalizing on government partnerships that we have built on the registration side, and (2) launching one of the largest online buying platforms, particularly for new cars. Today, dealers list used cars only on the classifieds, so new cars are either not listed or are only on dealer websites. Ours will be among the first new car platforms with online buying capabilities.

What do investors look for in a company like Seez?

What investors always look for: Profits. VCs (venture capitalists) typically want to increase their investments ten-fold. In theory, each deal should make up the funds, meaning if it's a $50 million fund, they'd like to make a $50 million profit. Seez offers that. Because we have scalability—having opened up in five countries in the first two years—investors expect profits. Growth used to be the Holy Grail of business as companies like Uber were growing at 100% per year. But that was before COVID. Now, as that bubble is bursting, having a clear path toward profitability with initially positive unit economics is what all VCs look for. Seez is positive on all key points. Some of our products are in their early stages when negative unit economics are normal. But our target is to have positive economics by year end.

What are the main takeaways from the crisis that have influenced your company culture and purpose?

We are an early adopter of working remotely. We have three hubs: an office in Dubai, an office in Beirut, and a tech team mostly based in Denmark, Germany, and Italy. As COVID expanded, the remote concept accelerated. At this point we thought it important to further develop our culture. We introduced a few fun things. For example, our tech team built a small algorithm that randomly matches people every week to join five-minute zoom chats. The app is designed to mimic those random water cooler conversations that occur every day in brick-and-mortar offices. We realized that our people were missing out on these moments.

We also wanted to make it easier to talk to our colleagues. Rather than schedule a formal zoom call or a meeting, we use Discord, a software used by gamers, to create an always-on chat room. People can talk via speakers rather than text or call. So, if Andrew is in the chat room, I can say “Hey, Andrew, what do you think about this?” I don't have to ping him, we just talk.

Finally, we launched therapy sessions for anyone experiencing difficulties. We brought in a psychiatrist to provide monthly sessions as mental health and mental wellness has become more important during the pandemic. We may continue these even after COVID.

What advice do you have for aspiring entrepreneurs who want a piece of the highly competitive startup business?

A lot of entrepreneurs, especially young people, jump into the startup game because it’s trendy—launch a startup, build it up, and make billions. And that’s great. They will gain profound experience. But, if you genuinely want to build a business, you must be able to solve a real problem (ideally, one that has been around forever) and the solution must be monetizable. This sounds obvious, but a lot of bungled startups had failed to tick these two basic boxes.

Also important is to find something that you're passionate about. Truth be told, I really don’t like cars and I don't know much about them. But I'm passionate about solving problems and, in this case, about making the car-buying journey more efficient. There will be days when you feel pretty low, so having something that excites you will help ride out the tough times.