In the early days of the internet, the author was studying electrical engineering at Stanford, excited by the possibilities of the new technology. Later, working in the San Francisco office of the investment bank Alex. Brown & Sons, he gained an in-depth understanding of how to transform an idea into a corporation. Obsessed with the notion of starting a venture in his native Middle East, he moved to Dubai at age 23. There he saw that Arab youths were having a hard time finding work, while business owners were having a hard time finding workers—and he decided to start an online jobs marketplace to connect them. Fewer than 1% of people in the Arab world had internet access at that time, so clients had to be educated in the smallest details of the online universe. That meant installing the first web browser on many of their computers, training HR managers to dial into the internet, and printing and hand-delivering CVs.
Today, with tens of thousands of registered companies and more than 36 million job seekers, Bayt has expanded within the Middle East and beyond, offering solutions including applicant tracking systems, video evaluation programs, and virtual event fairs. And in most of the Middle East, the internet culture it helped establish is thriving.
In 2018, during one of my frequent visits to Saudi Arabia, I met with a director of a large transport and distribution company. I described the services my online recruitment company, Bayt.com, could provide, but he was unconvinced. He could understand Bayt’s utility in attracting and hiring white-collar workers, he said, but he didn’t see how the model would translate to blue-collar workers like the drivers his business depended on.
I changed the director’s mind with a simple demonstration: I logged on to Bayt’s website and typed saeq—the Arabic word for “driver”—into the search field. Up came several suggestions for related keywords, including slang terms and the English word. And the results showed that we had 95,000 Saudi drivers registered on our site.
Overcoming the director’s skepticism was just the latest of numerous challenges I had faced since founding Bayt.com, in 2000. Although the internet was well established in the United States and many other Western countries at the time, fewer than 1% of people in the Arab world had online access. Employers and job seekers generally found one another by trading favors and exploiting contacts—an inefficient method that limited choices, drove up costs, and meant that business owners struggled to find talent even as the unemployment rate soared.
To Palo Alto and Back Again
I belong to a Lebanese family with Palestinian origins that settled in Kuwait in the 1960s. I lived there until I was 17, when I began my studies in electrical engineering at Stanford University. It was an exciting time to be in Palo Alto: Larry Page and Sergey Brin, the founders of Google, were students there, as were Jerry Yang and David Filo, who would go on to start Yahoo. I remember the thrill of using early versions of the internet—this was before the advent of web browsers. I spent many hours wondering about the possibilities of the new technology and imagining how it might change the world.
After earning a master’s degree in engineering economic systems—a credential that brought together business and advanced mathematics—I went to work in the San Francisco office of Alex. Brown & Sons. The oldest investment bank in America, it focused on only a few industries, one of which was technology; for example, it had underwritten Microsoft’s IPO. I joined the technology team, which worked on several notable M&A transactions and IPOs. That experience gave me an in-depth understanding of how to transform a mere idea into a corporation. I soon became obsessed by the notion of starting a venture in the Middle East.
To pursue that dream, I decided to return to the region; I moved to Dubai at the age of 23. My family had relocated there several years before, knowing it would be fertile ground for my father’s construction business. I worked at his company for about a year. It was 1995. Dubai had embarked on a period of intense development, and projects and companies were flooding in from around the world, all accompanied by critical documents and files. That provided the inspiration for my first company, InfoFort, which offered document storage, management, and retrieval services. The seed of the idea had been planted during my days at the investment bank, where at the end of each project we would box up all our files and ship them to a records storage company. When we needed to consult a document, we would give the company the date of the file we were seeking; a day or two later it would arrive from the warehouse. That retrieval process was much faster and easier than it would have been if the files were stored on our premises, where we might have been hard-pressed to put our hands on even a document that had been in recent use.
InfoFort quickly acquired banks and other companies as clients, and it was profitable within a year. Within three years we opened offices in Abu Dhabi, Riyadh, Khobar, Jidda, and Cairo. Energized by my first entrepreneurial endeavor, I pondered the region’s other needs and how I might meet them.
A Difficulty and an Opportunity
One of those needs, as I had learned firsthand at InfoFort, revolved around employment: We had struggled to locate great talent. Our recruitment issues pointed to a broader difficulty and also to an opportunity. Arab youths were having a hard time finding work—and business owners were having a hard time finding workers. How could I connect them?
I decided that an online jobs marketplace was the answer—not just to address unemployment but to advance internet use in the Arab world. If people in the region were going to go online, I reasoned, it would be in pursuit of a livelihood. I envisioned Bayt—the Arabic word for “home”—as a central location where millions of people could find meaningful work and thus be empowered to lead better lives.
Arab youths couldn’t find work—and business owners couldn’t find workers.
I immediately encountered a formidable obstacle: the dearth of people qualified to build a website. At the time, the region had very few specialists in the field. I also needed a marketing expert—someone who could reach a populace that lacked experience with the internet, persuade its members to go online generally, and steer them to our website specifically. And I needed a sales leader—someone to assemble a team that could reach out to business owners and convince them that our site would bring them a larger and better selection of recruits than other methods would, saving them time and money. I turned to my personal network for those initial team members. Our CTO had worked for Accenture and Oracle in the region and had developed a reputation for technical wizardry. For the CMO, I looked to my sister, Mona, who had global experience in marketing, including with Procter & Gamble and Johnson & Johnson. Our sales team was headed by our COO, a serial entrepreneur and a close friend. By June of 2000 Bayt was officially in business, with four employees, including me.
In one sense our timing could hardly have been worse. The dot-com crash had begun that March, and internet stocks were in free fall. But in another sense it was fortuitous: The previous autumn Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum had announced an ambitious new initiative, Dubai Internet City—an information technology park intended to serve as a free economic zone and a strategic base for companies targeting the region’s emerging markets. We were among the first to apply for a license to work within it, and our request was granted in just two days. Office space was not yet available, however, so we set up operations in one of InfoFort’s warehouses and began to map out our course.
The Road to Profitability
Bayt’s launch followed those of a handful of platforms in Arabic, including Planetarabia.com (a web portal), Ajeeb.com (a site that translated other websites into Arabic), and Maktoob.com (an email provider and content portal). Each of them had obtained substantial VC financing before the crash. Companies that had missed the window were much less fortunate in attracting investors—and we were no exception. We raised $400,000 in seed financing from our friends and families and then traveled to New York and London and throughout the Middle East in an effort to raise an institutional round. After speaking with hundreds of potential investors, we got a term sheet from only one, for $1.5 million. Without the option of drawing on more venture capital, we knew we had to become self-sustaining soon. We were cash-flow positive within 18 months. Eventually, as Bayt’s star began to rise, we drew the interest of global investors, and a major investment firm bought some customers’ shares in the company. But we have since reclaimed those shares, and Bayt is fully owned by its founders, with only one round of financing in our 19-year history.
Amena Al Hammadi
Ataya with colleagues at Bayt.com headquarters in Dubai.
Establishing the business wasn’t easy. Not only did we have to sell our services to companies that had no experience with the internet, but we often found ourselves communicating with HR managers who had never so much as used a computer and were wedded to traditional recruiting methods, despite the exorbitant cost. So we took it upon ourselves to educate clients in the smallest details of the digital universe. We installed the first web browser on many of their computers, trained HR directors to dial in to the internet, and printed and hand-delivered CVs, all to facilitate engagement with our services.
Reaching prospective job seekers presented another challenge—and not just because they, too, needed to get up to speed with the online world. Workers were wary of making their applications public lest their employers find out they were job hunting. So we created features that gave people tight control over their privacy, allowing them to publish their résumés minus identifying details such as name and current company. They could hide their résumés from view while searching for open positions; if they came across something that interested them, they could apply directly through our website while remaining invisible to and unsearchable by companies. This placed the power to find and contact prospective employers squarely with the job seekers themselves.
Because the concept of an online economy was not established in the region, and because many countries there had yet to draft legislation governing internet companies, we faced additional hurdles from both business owners and job seekers. Some tried to steal our data. Others posted content on matters unrelated to employment and communicated inappropriately with fellow subscribers. Still others fabricated details of their résumés. In response we set up certain guardrails: We asked job seekers to notify us of any violations or inappropriate actions they encountered, and we asked companies to inform us of fraudulent résumés or harassing communications.
Today, with tens of thousands of registered companies and more than 36 million job seekers, we have a database larger than that of many governments. Those who post on our site are trusting us with their personal and professional information, and we are committed to preserving their privacy.
That’s how I went from securing physical documents at InfoFort to securing digital ones at Bayt.
Our plan was always to expand outside Dubai, and within three years we had opened 12 more offices, including ones in Abu Dhabi, Riyadh, Kuwait City, Amman, Cairo, and Lahore. That meant I was frequently on the road—a circumstance on which my father, puzzled by why a digital company would need so many brick-and-mortar locations, often remarked. As I explained to him, our goal was to establish a new kind of work culture that placed people at the heart of our operations; that would require a new level of customer service. To persuade companies of the value we could offer them, we needed to be on hand to orient managers and train them to maximize their return on investment. We were committed to providing service on a daily basis; our model was not to solve specific problems and then walk away. We wanted to cultivate genuine relationships that would enhance employment in general. Developing on-the-ground operations also gave us a critical strategic advantage when global corporations noticed our success and tried to muscle in; none were able to gain traction.
Having a significant presence across the Middle East positioned us well in another regard: We could identify and capitalize on fundamental differences between markets. For example, in 2011 the Saudi government announced Nitaqat, a “Saudization” initiative that required enterprises in the kingdom to staff their workforces with a certain share of nationals rather than foreign workers. Had we not understood that requirement, which applies to the highest levels of executive management as well as to occupations requiring manual labor, we could not have effectively helped our clients hire in that country.
The next step in our expansion involved transforming ourselves from a regional recruitment tool to a global technology platform. One service we added to that end was an applicant tracking system, or ATS. Most companies now announce job openings and collect applications on their own websites; an ATS allows them to automate and better manage all the associated tasks, from establishing job requirements and identifying promising candidates to scheduling interviews and circulating interview notes. Today we operate applicant tracking systems for hundreds of companies and government offices throughout the Middle East.
Our site has more registered users than the population of almost any Gulf nation.
We also added Evalufy, a video assessment platform tailored to employers who find themselves swamped by hundreds of applications for a single position. Many managers told us that they can often rule out an incompatible candidate with a two-minute phone call—a task that when multiplied can soon amount to a significant waste of time. Evalufy allows job seekers to submit a short video of themselves in which they answer several questions posed by the employer. Managers can quickly judge a candidate’s suitability from the video, enabling them to reduce the number of screening calls they make and the number of in-person interviews they conduct.
Next we broadened our geographic scope by launching and growing vFairs—an alternative to job and product fairs. Going to an exhibition hall can be logistically difficult and time-consuming for visitors, and crowds make it hard to have meaningful communications with the companies there. For their part, exhibitors find the format expensive, demanding, and often ineffective. With vFairs, exhibitors prepare digital platforms instead. Anyone can visit them, from anywhere in the world, to view videos and other content and download materials (much as visitors to physical fairs pick up brochures and other promotional materials as they go from booth to booth). Attendees can share their résumés with companies on the platform, exchange business cards, and use chat windows to communicate with one another. vFairs took off beyond our expectations, and we have adapted them for other types of clients: For example, universities can now participate in virtual fairs that let them present their programs to prospective students and collect applications for admission. Today the business generates more than 90% of its revenue from North America and has several hundred customers, including Fortune 500 companies and Ivy League universities.
The entrepreneurial spirit still runs strong in Bayt’s team, and because we’ve created a work culture centered on creativity and empowerment, we have become an incubator of sorts for entrepreneurs in the region. In 2010 we launched GoNabit, the first daily bargain site in the Middle East and North Africa, which was acquired by LivingSocial the following year. In 2012 our team members developed Yalla-Motor, a platform for buying and selling cars. In 2011 our CMO—my sister—left us to start Mumzworld, an online retailer for mother-and-baby products. That same year our sales manager, Dany Farha, left to establish BECO Capital, which has funded a number of successful start-ups in the region, including the transportation network company Careem and the real estate portal Property Finder.
Meanwhile, our path at Bayt has grown even wider with the application of data technology and artificial intelligence to online recruiting. If you were to conduct a city-by-city search of all the areas we cover, you would find that in any given locale, two-thirds of workers have posted a résumé with us; indeed, the number of registered users on our site exceeds the population of almost every nation in the Gulf. And in most of the Middle East the internet culture is thriving—a culture we helped build, brick by brick.