Rabih Ataya is the CEO and founder of Bayt.com, which is the Middle East's #1 job site, connecting job seekers with employers for the past 22 years. Bayt, which raised $3 million (Dh11m) in 2000, was the only funding round – and the company has been profitable since then.
Rabea started Bayt.com 23 years ago, and the company employs 650 people with +15 offices across the region and serves more than 35 million professionals and 40,000 employers.
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Let's do it. Broadcasting from around the world. You're listening to the first 100. A podcast on how founders acquired their first 100 paying customers. Here's your host, Hadi Rodwan. Good to have you on the show, Rabia. How are you doing today? Let me just start with a quick introduction for our restamers. Rabia Attaya is the CEO and founder of Bait.com, which is the Middle East number one job site connecting job seekers with employers for the past 22 years. You're probably the first in the Middle East. And you've raised only 3 million back in 2000. And that's the only funding ground. And now you're profitable and thriving. So Rabia, you started this 23 years ago. very early in the dot com era. What inspired you to build the company? So a combination of things, I guess, a problem that I was personally facing together with a problem that I felt the vast majority of the region was facing. And so for me, in 2000, I was a 28 year old entrepreneur running a small but fast growing business. And my single biggest challenge was where could I find a talent to join me? And it was a pretty ironic problem because everywhere I'd looked, there were job seekers across the whole Middle East, North Africa region who were complaining that they couldn't find jobs. And so there was a massive mismatch in information between job seekers and employers. Both were seeking each other out, but both were having a difficult time finding each other. And so the intention was to build a great business that came out of the region that basically focused on helping people lead better lives and where better to start than helping people connect to their livelihoods in a region that had the highest proportion of migrant labor in the world and some of the most inefficient hiring practices in the world. Obviously, the internet switch came on in the region around 2000 and so the internet is the most amazing tool to bridge information mismatches because... everyone has access to essentially the same information. And so when the internet switch came on in the region, I saw there was an opportunity to solve my problem and what felt like everyone else's problem too. That's an amazing story, especially if you go back 22 years ago, it wasn't as easy as today to look out who's competing, who has created that. Probably there was, if I remember, I'm not the expert, but there was probably three, four companies worldwide, like Monster. Craigslist, Career Builder, I think. What sort of traits do you have to figure out that you can go early on a market that maybe information wasn't readily available and you're turning off a current job that you had and going into the startup world? If I mean, tackle that sort of in reverse order, the upfront, I didn't turn off my current job, what? I did was, again, my other job was an entrepreneurial venture that I had started that was doing extremely well and was scaling very, very rapidly. But in the early days, I felt I could do both businesses in parallel. And so I started Bait while continuing to run and grow InfoForth. And then during that process, I also got married and my wife got pregnant. And then I realized I had too many babies. And you know, I had to prioritize at some point. but the switching off happened a bit later. In the early days, I was running the businesses as well as my personal life. In terms of why I felt I could do it, so I had attended Stanford as the internet was essentially being invented, and my peers at Stanford... went on to create amazing things in the global ecosystem, most of them based out of the United States. I had made the conscious decision that I wanted to be in the Middle East. And so upfront, being in the Middle East, I obviously couldn't do anything with the internet because there was no internet to speak of. Even the regulatory framework for that didn't exist. But as soon as that regulatory framework did exist and the infrastructure came on, I realized this is the largest opportunity of our time. And it's a real opportunity to touch people's lives. And that attracted me. And so I guess I had some insight into what was possible. I had worked briefly in investment banking in the US too, taking tech companies public. So I knew what institutionalized tech businesses look like. And I understood the region fairly well because I had been born and raised in the Middle East region. And sort of knew what was going on there. So I felt I was able to marry that skill set well, a bit of the technology, a bit of the institution building and what a long-term tech company should look like together with my localized experience. And then I partnered up with some pretty phenomenal people who were able to compliment my skills and the group of us sort of set out to do this together. When you look back on your childhood, Were there early signs that John Gravilla was ever going to be an entrepreneur? I mean, I'm asked this a lot. And I think if we look back in the Middle East region, and I would say pretty much all around the world before sort of the industrial age, most people in the world were entrepreneurs. They were craftsmen or they ran small shops or there weren't people who were working for large organizations that employed tens if not hundreds of thousands of people. Those organizations didn't exist. And in our region, we sort of skipped the industrial age altogether, right? We went straight from that small business mindset to the information age, and we adopted to that. So, you know, my grandfather's an entrepreneur, my dad's an entrepreneur, probably as far back as I know the history of they were entrepreneurs. And the definition of entrepreneurship obviously differed. I mean, there was my great grandfather was probably a farmer, right? He wasn't reporting to anyone. He was reporting to himself and building out his farm. As soon as I left university, I did, as I mentioned, get a job and I very quickly realized that I made for a very, very poor employee. I was essentially unemployable. I had all the character defects that I would not hire someone for. I think to a large degree, me being an entrepreneur is the realization that that's probably the only way I could. earn a livelihood for a long period of time. Beyond that, I value my freedom tremendously. I value the ability to create, and I value the ability to wake up every morning and to decide for myself what's the most important thing to do today. And so all of these things drove me to entrepreneurship. Today, Byte.com employs more than 650 people in more than 15 offices, and you serve more than millions and millions, I think 35 plus millions with also 40,000 employers. If you were to pick two or three success criteria, what do you attribute the success of your dot-com company to last 22 years? Because that's a big feat when someone starts in the 2000 era when there was the dot-com bust at that time. cognizant of and we're continually reminded of is we are actually the longest running internet business in the Middle East North Africa region. I mean, when you think of the age of this business, it's significant by any industry scale, but particularly in the internet world where businesses tend to have much shorter lifespans, it's quite a long time to exist and flourish and to grow in. At the root of it, I would say perseverance has served us very well. I think we live in a region where the craziest things happen to us, things that aren't normal in the rest of the world. So at some point, for example, I was visiting two of my managers in a compound in Saudi and the compound that we were in was attacked and blown up and the building I was in collapsed on top of me. You know, you're... That doesn't happen to a typical entrepreneurial story, but in our region somehow it does happen and I had to stand up, bust myself off and decide whether or not I wanted to continue. The number of times governments change the regulations on us in the region entirely and we risk existence overnight after having served the region. I can't count the number of times. And then obviously we've gone through Arab springs and revolutions and. and all sorts of really interesting things over the last 20 years. So I think just being committed to what we're doing has been very, very important. Obviously, another thing has been focused. So when we started off, we were in one of the first companies in the internet city in Dubai. We came out to raise financing after the dot-com bubble of 2000 had burst. So dot-coms became globally known as dot-coms. bombs and here we were in a region that didn't have almost anyone on the internet trying to start an internet business when the whole world had become a bad word. And so we raised a modest amount of money. If I look at our peer set back then in the internet city buildings we were in, there were a whole bunch of businesses that had raised north of $20 million. And at that time, $20 million is a lot more than $20 million now. But because we had raised so much less, we realized that we had to stay very focused in what we did. And so we saw a lot of these people who had been financed with much greater amounts than we were fail very quickly because they kept on pivoting as soon as the first obstacle was met. In our case, we were committed to our course of action. We remain very, very highly focused on it and we remain very highly focused from the very first day. on monetizing it. So we weren't willing to delay the gratification of monetization very far off. So I think those three things were helpful to us. Large amount of persistence and dedication, a focus on what you're doing, not getting distracted in the internet. It's very easy to get distracted on a whole bunch of things. And then the third was focus on monetization from day one. We had every intention of being profitable early on. And so... that helped us tremendously because during the cycles of the region, there were many times when funding dried up entirely and many businesses had to shut down as a result of it. In our case, the fact that we had found a way to be cashflow positive and self-sustaining meant that we could live through the various ups and downs. The show is about your first a hundred paying customers. I know it's back 22 years, but If you were to think about your early days, what sort of acquisition strategies did you employ back then? And how do you think these strategies have changed today? So if you're setting up a new shop today, with those work, you think, do you think there's other probably good strategies people can deploy? It's a brilliant question. So we are first business in the business that... is most recognized as ours is a job site called Bait.com. Over the years, Bait.com as a holding company has built out a lot of other businesses. Some of them aren't in the job marketplace business. But if I speak about what we started with, which was the job marketplace, the big challenge of any marketplace is there's a bit of a chicken and egg problem. And particularly for jobs, the job seekers don't want to come on unless there are jobs to be found. and the employers don't want to come on unless they're job seekers to be found. And so you have a serious problem about how do you create enough liquidity in the marketplace in order to ensure both sides come on. And so for us, acquisition is a combination of both. It's how do I acquire the job seekers and it's how do I acquire employers to pay. With the job seekers back then, there wasn't digital marketing and that's obviously changed tremendously over the world. there wasn't anyone online in order to digitally market to the beginning. And so we used $1 million of our $3 million fundraising on a TV campaign very early on. And it was a teaser campaign, which was supposed to be followed by more. But what ended up happening is By the time the million dollars was spent on a teaser campaign on traditional media, primarily TV, some magazine, we had developed enough traction and found ways to create partnerships with the other internet companies that had, as I mentioned earlier, raised over $20 million that we didn't feel we needed to spend more money on that part. And then what we quickly started doing is figuring out how to bring on the employers. And we realized from day one and... part of what attracted us to this business was it's a, the monetization comes from B2B sales. And that helped us particularly given that in the region, not only were people not online, but there wasn't much credit card penetration. So if we had focused on the consumers, we would have never monetized our business. And so our B2B was a function of going out and knocking on employers doors, educating them as to what we could do for them. and then charging them on a much more success-based method where they could come search, advertise for free, but when they wanted to contact the candidate that they found relevant, they paid for those contact packages. And so that brought the barrier to entry for them down significantly. And that helped us create liquidity on both sides. And I guess, again, what changed back then, if I compare my sales process, the vast majority of the time, Our number one qualifying question to employers was, do you have an internet connection? And even when they said yes, more often than not, we'd have to go to the HR manager's office, download a browser onto their desktop because they had never used the internet before and teach them how to use the internet before we teach them how to use Bay. Today, obviously, it's a fait accompli that every company we speak to has an internet connection. And from a job seeker's side, between social media and digital media of all forms. And there are so many ways to market today. It's become a far more interesting, exciting, but also confusing acquisition tool. So the summary answer to your question is almost everything has changed about how we acquire, but we continue to have a sales force in place to do B2B sales. And we continue to do a lot of marketing across. all the mediums that make sense in order to attract both job seekers and employers. Amazing, amazing. You know, I've graduated from university back in 2005. And since then, I just know that bait.com is that go to site in the Middle East. It's very interesting for me to know why is that so why hasn't there been maybe competitors who have been successful? Is there any strategies, tactics, frameworks you've anticipated ahead of time? that prevented other companies to enter the market or if they have entered, why have they failed? It's a great question. So one, I want to assure you that we've had hundreds, if not thousands of competitors and they span the entire gambit. We've had highly localized competitors who are focused on a particular city in our portfolio of cities. We've had regional players who... came in and tried to replicate what we do. And over the years, we've had some of the largest internationals in the world trying to compete with us. And obviously, each of them has its own challenges. What's helped us? One is, I think, first and foremost, it's understanding the local recruiting environment better than anyone else. So recruiting in the MENA region happens in very unique and strange ways. And that's partially because there's talent that's migrant, and a lot of them are not citizens of the country. So we get applicants from all over the world, and then they have to get employment visas locally. And the laws for employment visas change all the time. And the laws will stipulate sometimes things like what religions are allowed, what nationalities, what age groups, what genders for certain jobs. And in some cases, governments have come up with interesting... point systems where someone who has a mother of a certain nationality qualifies them as getting certain bonus points in order to get visas, if someone with particular special needs, etc. So we built our tools to help facilitate recruiting given the local environment. And so, you know, something as simple as can you filter by nationality or gender or age? In the US, that would be considered illegal, but that's also because you wouldn't apply to a job in the US unless you're permitted to work in the US. But in the Middle East, you could apply to a job if you're living in America or China or anywhere else, and then what qualifies you is not actually where you reside or your pre-authorization to work, but things like your gender nationality. So we've had to do a lot of technology that works for the region. We also have to deal with the challenge of Arabic. And that's always a challenge. You know, our technology uniquely allows you to search in either language and come up with results in the other. And in fact, it even understands informal and formal. So if you searched on our database for a sawaq, sawaq is the informal Arabic word for driver. It's not, the formal word is sa'af, which is different. But... our system will automatically understand, oh, do you mean Sa'if? Do you also mean driver? Do you mean? And so it's able to play the Arabic and English extremely well. And then obviously we have boots on the ground in every geography we're in. So that high level of localization together with scale and scale matters because whether you're a job seeker or employer, you want to be in the marketplace that offers the greatest choice for you. And so it's very difficult for a late entrant to get that skill. And that ends up being a significant barrier to entry. And then I would say the third thing, if I may, is that the region is not easy on any entrepreneur. And so many of these competitors who came in on the first, you know, punch in the face, they quickly ran out. We've got accustomed to being blue-eyed and bloodied and still continuing on because... We understand that the long running commitment to the region actually is very rewarding, but most people can't see beyond that first punch in the face and that has helped us stay on top. Thank you for sharing these insights about the history of the company. What is a principle that you live by that has helped you over the past 22 years in running bait.com? A wonderful question. It's a set of principles. So when we started Bait. We were very deliberate in writing our vision mission values. And anyone who's worked a single day at Bay can still probably memorize and can still probably recite what those vision mission values are. We do a lot of investing in ensuring the fact that everyone is well acquainted with those. I think being driven... by a higher purpose and being driven by a strong set of values, ultimately lets you survive even when times are turbulent and things get tough. And so we have the basic values of being human values and we always reiterate those. So one of the things in our vision that we talk about always is we mention to everyone we train that our vision has no mention of money. but it does mention that we want to be admired and respected. And so we make it clear to every new person who joins the organization that if there's ever a trade-off that they see between being, making money and being admired and respected, they should always go to the solution that lets them be admired and respected, even if it loses this money. Because over a long period of time, that is the right solution to do. I think that clarity. of we want to do good, we want to be good, and we want to get better. And then as a result of that, hopefully we'll reap good benefits, I think has helped us throughout the years. What's the best advice you ever received? There's so much great advice I've received. So I think instead of recounting what the best, the thing that first came to mind, and I'm not sure if it's the best or not. is a very close friend of mine, very early on in my, in fact, educational career told me you owe it to yourself to be happy. And the deeper meaning from that, that I got was ultimately every person is responsible for their own happiness and their own success and their own life story. And you can't, if you're unhappy, you only have yourself to blame for that. You can't blame anyone else for that. And so I think what's helped shape my career always is less about knowing what I want, but always I'm very clear about what I don't want and the things that make me unhappy. And if something makes me unhappy, I remain very true to myself in the sense that I shut it out of my life. I'm not willing to continue to live with that. I guess that's one of the joys of entrepreneurship. In many cases, I find employees, oftentimes, just... Bear with it and they say it's my job. I'm not supposed to be happy in my job I'm supposed to do it and that's not true obviously, but many people think that I do I kill that every day I can wake up and say what are things in my life that are not bringing me happiness and let me Work to get them out of my life That's great advice. Thank you for sharing it. Rabie one last question If you had to write on a billboard one sentence that summarizes your journey and it's going to stay there forever. What would that be? That's an exercise that I'll note down and also make sure that I'll give some real thought to. Yeah, I think there are two words that come to mind, or three, and the three words would be learning, striving, and contributing. What I love about my journey, what I love about the world of tech and internet is the learning never stops. It's one of those few industries in the world it continues to move so quickly that there's always massive opportunity to learn. And obviously the more I learn, the more I strive to get better and to use that learning for something useful. And ultimately, I think my primary goal is to contribute. And if I feel that through my learning and striving, I am contributing to the lives of others, then I'm successful. And I think ultimately that's not itself. things are more. To me, sort of that's a formula for success. You're always learning, you're always striving, and you're always contributing. If those are the three words on the billboard with full stops in between the three, I think that sufficiently at least captures my intention, and hopefully it captures my actions too. Amazing. Thank you for sharing this, Rabia. What's next for byte.com and Rabia? So Bait continues to do really exciting things. I talked early on how focus was a key factor in our success. And I would say for the first eight years, we were entirely focused on just making sure that we were managing the growth of the day. And then we realized that we had built a sufficient capital base and know how that we could do other things and started building out a whole bunch of other businesses. So we built a business called Glow Nabbot, which was the first sort of group on clone in the region. We sold that a year later. We helped to incubate and build out a company called Momsworld, which became a leading e-commerce site in the region, and then that spun off and did its own thing. We launched a business called Yalla Motor, which is now the leading auto portal in the UAE. We have the leading applicant tracking system business, it's an HR tech business called Talentera in the region that continues to do very well. We launched a virtual event business that was primarily focused on the North American market and has an amazing roster of clients. If you go to sites like Capterra and G2, at least as of today, you'll find that DeFirs is the most highly related virtual event platform globally. And in that case, it's essentially data exporting technology all around the world and primarily to the US market and competing very well globally. And obviously that business ended up benefiting tremendously. from COVID because people increasingly didn't do face-to-face events and unfortunately. So we're continually learning, continually producing new things and continually striving to get better and to contribute. And there is no real end game. The intention is as long as we satisfy those three words that I mentioned earlier, many end games present themselves every day. different chances for exits, different chances for growth, different new opportunities. I feel too many entrepreneurs by virtue of the fact that they take so much money elsewhere are always running to an exit because that's the only way they can make themselves and their shareholders whole. We don't have that problem. We can continue to operate this for the next hundred years as long as the business continues to sustain that. And we're happy to do that. Thank you, Rabia, for stopping by. This was an amazing episode. and very insightful. You have a great story that can be taught in universities. So we wish you the best of luck. Thank you so much for listening to the first 100. We hope it inspired you in your journey. 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