Launched in 2013, Pricena is now a leading price comparison website in MENA which allows online shoppers in the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Kuwait make informed purchasing decisions by offering the most relevant information on the prices, product specs, shipping charges, delivery times, warranty and return policies of more than 120 stores.
This past November, Pricena was recognized as the Online Startup of the Year by Du Enterprise Agility Awards. In June 2015, Pricena partnered with Grid Dynamics and hired Alex, a mobile developer who helped build Pricena’s iOS and Android apps. The company has recently added another developer to its development team – a PHP developer also named Alex.
Last week, we had a chance to catch up with Haneen Dabain, Founder of Pricena, who shared valuable market insights, a number of tips for startups, and her experience working with offshore developers.
Daxx: Haneen, what challenges did you have to overcome when you were launching Pricena?
Haneen: Here in the MENA region, the market is still new to e-commerce. So many websites are only just starting to try selling online. In this business environment, the concept of a price comparison website wasn’t very clear.
Usually, price comparison websites ask stores to collaborate and get data directly from them. But that wasn’t the case for us because people didn’t really know what a price comparison website was, and no one was really interested in sharing their data with us.
Our first challenge was to prove ourselves to the market. We had to show businesses that we could bring benefit to them before asking them to collaborate with us.
At first, we crawled the publicly available data from the stores' websites and started sending them leads from Pricena. It took us about a year to start generating a lot of good traffic for these stores, and only after that they realized that our service was beneficial for their website and started joining our partnership program. Within this program, we charge stores for clicks, provide them with market insights, and give their brand more visibility on Pricena.
Daxx: What tips for successful startup marketing can you share?
Haneen: Marketing is a bit tricky for startups. It’s quite expensive, and startups usually don’t have a lot of money. So we had to come up with different ideas of how to reach users without spending too much. We focused on getting traffic from Google instead of advertising with AdWords and Facebook. SEO didn’t cost us that much, and it’s had a long-term effect, while with ads, as long as you’re paying for them, you have a lot of traffic, but once you switch them off, you lose all of it.
We also tried to get the word out there about Pricena. When building our website, we’d made sure we’d be able to capture as much data as possible so that one day we could turn it into valuable market insights. We started making these cool infographics using the information we’d collected. This is the kind of content people like to read and share, so we reached out to local magazines and newspapers, and three or four of them actually published our insights.
For example, one of our infographics showed that 60 percent of products were cheaper in local stores than on Amazon, and that was big news because it encouraged people to start shopping locally and promoted local e-commerce business. Newspapers brought us a lot of publicity, and we got it for less than we would if we'd focused on AdWords or Facebook.
Daxx: What features make Pricena stand out from the competition?
Haneen: What’s good about Pricena is that it’s very easy to compare prices for a single item. We have a very complicated algorithm that allows us to effectively analyse product data from all online stores. Users can compare all the offers in one place. We also automatically update product information on a daily basis so that offers are always relevant. This is what makes Pricena better than our competitors in the region.
We’ve also made it incredibly easy to search for a very specific product. Each store has a unique way of showing the specs of a laptop, a phone, or a dress. We collect all this data from different sources to create a unified product description. Say, you’re looking for a 60-inch LED TV whose price has dropped recently. Using a set of filters, you’ll be able to narrow down the results and find exactly the item you need.
Haneen Dabain receiving the 2015 Online Startup of the Year award
Daxx: Pricena won the Online Startup of the Year Award in November last year. What factors do you think played the biggest part in your success?
Haneen: There are a lot of things that made it happen. The first thing is that when you launch a startup, you have to focus on one goal.
Focus on your core offering and benefitting the users. Once you get enough traction from them, you can start thinking about expanding your services.
In our early days we had a sharp focus on a single goal, which was to provide the most accurate prices for products from everywhere they’re sold, and that gave us the credibility that made users come back to Pricena.
Another contributing factor is our great team. Each member has a unique set of skills – the technical expertise, the business expertise, the marketing expertise. Our business is very technically heavy, so the fact that we have people with solid technical knowledge has definitely helped us create a good product.
Daxx: Startups often have a lot of concerns about outsourcing some of their business processes. Did you have any trepidation when you started working with our developers?
Haneen: I don’t think of Grid Dynamics as an outsourcing company. I see Alex and Alex as my employees who’re just sitting in another place. They get involved in the day-to-day aspects of business, we discuss things with them and solve problems together – it’s not a short-term relationship.
A lot of outsourcing companies take up a project, deliver it, and then if anything’s not right, they just charge more. This is not the mindset that I found in Grid Dynamics.
At the beginning, we did try outsourcing some business processes to someone I knew, but it didn’t work out because there was a lot of arguing, and we couldn’t really control anything.
When you have dedicated employees that work on your project, they do their best to deliver high quality work.
Daxx: What features did our developers help you launch?
Haneen: Definitely the app. We used to have a very bad Android app, and Alex has improved it significantly. Now the app has 4.3 stars on Google Play. Since he joined, he’s also been working on the iOS app. It was a basic app when he took it, but now we’ve added new offers for Pricena users that grant a discount on certain products, a user management system which saves your favorites list, your recently viewed items, and allows you to get notified each time when the price for the selected products changes, and a ton of other new features.
Daxx: Have you noticed any cultural differences between Ukrainian developers and your local employees?
Haneen: Not really. Dubai is full of expats. There are a lot of people from everywhere. I didn’t notice any cultural differences when I started working with Alex.
Daxx: What tips do you have for managing an offshore team?
Haneen: The main concern for anyone who works with offshore employees on a full-time basis is whether those people are actually working full-time. So the first thing you need to do is to build trust between you and your employees. This starts from the leader’s side. State some common practices that you’d like to have at the job from the very beginning – this is how we work, this is how we report bugs, and so on – and make sure your new hires understand and follow these practices.
You cannot think of this as a 9 to 6 job because the visual aspect is not there. Don’t be very specific about when they start working and when they finish.
Make your offshore developers feel that they’re part of the product and that you trust their knowledge about what they’re doing.
Empower them to be more productive, and they’ll work even harder. Try to make them love their job so that they don’t want to leave the office as soon as they can.
Always keep your employees updated on what’s happening to you. If you’re going to be offline for some time, let them know. And then if one day they need to go to a doctor’s appointment and will be out of office for an hour, they’ll also notify you. Make a habit of letting each other know when you’re planning to be unavailable.
Another important thing is that when you’re selecting offshore developers, you have to make sure that you choose people who aren’t very dependent on someone to give them direction. You’ll be busy with meetings and other things, so you won’t be there to show them what to do at every single moment.
You have to find independent employees who can manage the job without too much guidance.
Daxx: What tools do you use to manage your offshore team?
Haneen: Honestly, we don’t use that many. We don’t have any time logging sheets. We just use Skype for chatting on a daily basis and Bitbucket for bug reporting, and that's basically it.
Daxx: What are your plans for the future?
Haneen: There are a lot of things we want to do. E-commerce is an emerging market in MENA, so we’re just waiting for countries to have enough online selling businesses so we could launch Pricena there. We opened in Kuwait in December, and Qatar is on the way, as well as other countries in the region as soon as they have more e-commerce websites.
We’re also planning to integrate with the offline market over time. There are many leading price comparison websites, and they have a lot of features we want to implement in the future, either when the company grows or if we get investment for Pricena.
Daxx: Finally, what blogs or resources can you recommend for people who want to stay up-to-date on all the tech and startup news?
Haneen: I follow a lot of resources. I read TechCrunch and VentureBeat to stay updated on what’s happening in the startup world, ArabianBusiness and Wamda to learn about what’s going on across MENA. As for tech news, there are also quite a few websites I visit. Of course, Twitter is a great source of news if you follow the right people, then there’s TechRepublic, CIO, and many other useful blogs.