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Two alums build the Gulf's first tech unicorn

24 million users; 800 thousand drivers; one values-driven mission. Mudassir Sheikha, co-founder of the Dubai-based ride-hailing platform Careem, explains how the company got to a $1B valuation in under six years.
Mudassir Magnus
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Mudassir Sheikha (DBB, DBI 08-12) and Magnus Olsson (STO, STH, DBI, ADH 06-12) are co-founders of Dubai-based Careem, the leading ride-hailing platform in the wider Middle East.

In under six years, Careem has established itself in nearly 100 cities in 14 countries, and built a customer base of 24 million – with a fleet of more than 800,000 drivers. The company has become the Gulf region’s first tech unicorn, with a value of more than $1B. (You know you’ve made it when you’re the subject of a Harvard Business School case study.)

We recently spoke with Mudassir, who discusses why building a values-driven company was so important, how the Firm influenced him, what keeps him up at night, and where he sees Careem going.


Careem logo
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You’ve said that you wanted to create a business that would improve lives. How did you settle on a ride-hailing app?

My co-founder Magnus had a life-threatening health condition, and he began thinking about what his purpose in life was. He wanted to build something meaningful. Transportation doesn’t at first seem like it could be meaningful, but we realized that there are two big problems that a platform like Careem can solve.

The first is that, in a region that has very high unemployment, a platform like this can create a model opportunity for people to earn a living. The more we looked at it, we realized that this could become a big source of employment creation in the region.

And the second is that, unlike many parts of the world where we take mobility for granted, in the Middle East most of our cities don’t have a public transport system that works, nor is there high car ownership. So mobility is a real, real challenge. There are at least three million women in Saudi Arabia – about 10% of the total population – who are not working because they don't have a reliable means of transport.

Careem can really empower and liberate people – especially women, who are struggling the most with that.

Speaking of which, women will soon be allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia. They’ve typically made up a big part of your customer base – but now they’ll also be able to be drivers for Careem. How do you expect Careem will change as a result of this societal shift?

This is super exciting. We were always rooting for this change because it’s the right thing to do. And some of our women customers will choose to get their own cars now, which is great. We are making a strong commitment to attracting more women to our platform to benefit from the flexible income opportunity and safe, respectful working environment we can provide. We publicly pledged on International Women's Day this year to commit to having 20,000 female drivers by 2020. In Saudi Arabia, we are gearing up to have training sessions for women across the country and to onboarding them with added safety measures suited to their needs.

But I think that it's important to put this change in the context of the broader social transformation in Saudi Arabia. We feel that the society is finally starting to open up and catch up with some other parts of the world in equality, mobility, and empowerment.

We believe that this extra mobility and openness that happens will drive a lot more need for transportation. Because more people will be going out, more people will need forms of mobility. So for our core mobility business, we believe our business will continue to grow.

And also, Careem’s aspiration is more than just mobility. Those other areas of the business will benefit even more from a society and a country that is more open.

Careem has experienced exponential growth since its launch. To what do you attribute your tremendous success? What, if anything, has surprised you about it?

I think the surprising bit has been the speed of it. We had big aspirations, of course, but we had no idea it could happen so quickly. I would put it down to two big things.

The first is that we were very, very focused on solving local problems. At the beginning, every trip was an experiment for us. When things went well, we would break it down and see what worked. When things didn't work well, we would look at the whole trip and understand where things fell apart, what we could learn from it, and how could we solve it. We learned so much. We had to build our own maps. We had to build call centers – not just for customers, but also for our drivers. We had to build systems through which customers' identities were not shared with the drivers, for privacy reasons. We had to build a way for us to work with cash, which is the dominant form of payment in this part of the world. All along, our focus was to understand the local problems and how to solve them. And that's how we have been able to compete with global players – because of our local focus. We simply deliver a better product because of this local focus.

The second thing, which I think is probably even more interesting and important, is that since we started out with the desire to build something meaningful, we were very focused on our values and mission from day one. The first thing we did, before we even knew what we were going to build, was to write down our values. We listed five core values at the time, which have since expanded to eleven. Then, in the following few months, we developed our mission – our purpose. The fact that we had this purpose from our earliest days, and that there was something larger than life that was driving our business, allowed us to attract some amazing people who were super-motivated and passionate about the same mission. They weren't necessarily joining for the money. The fact that we were not able to pay them a lot at first ended up being a good filter. They came on board because they were excited about our purpose. That still makes a difference to this day.

Careem means “generous” in Arabic. Why did you choose that as the name of your business?

Our name is a constant reminder of our mission.

“Careem” was one of the values that we started the business with. We promised ourselves that we would be “careem” to our “captains” (what we call our drivers), to our colleagues, to our customers, and to the communities we serve.

Being generous to our captains means not just looking out for them as far as giving them business. It’s more holistic than that. We want to make sure that the people who are working with us feel that we're looking after them and their families. On the customer side, it means delivering outstanding customer service. For our colleagues, it means that we look after their professional development – we want to make sure our people are growing and progressing in their careers. And for our communities, it means playing a leading role in creating progress.

We see things in our markets that need to be changed and improved. We don't want to be bystanders. We want to take an active role in taking the initiative and fixing those things through the Careem platform.

Those are the four "C"s of Careem.

What was the hardest lesson you learned in your first year of business?

The first year was interesting because Magnus and I both came from a consulting background. All of a sudden we were in an environment where we needed to move and do things, versus just analyzing things.

At first, we tried to solve every problem with a lot of talk, and a lot of thinking and analysis. And then we realized why nothing was happening – because we were just talking to each other. We had to make decisions and act on them. Direct action became the analysis to find the right answer. That was our most important lesson in the first year: that speed is more important than the best answers.

What do you see as your main business challenge?

There are two main things that keep us up at night. The first is scaling the organization and the culture as we grow so fast. We're literally growing two to three times in head count every year. There is a big risk that the new people will start evolving our culture and values in a direction that we don't want to be going in, and there are many other tactical things to think about as well – roles and responsibilities, accountability. The whole topic of organization scaling is a big, big challenge.

The second is building a technology business in the Middle East. Unlike many parts of the world, the Middle East does not have deep pools of technical talent natively available. How do we build that capability in a way that makes us world-class and competitive globally? That's a big challenge. We've done a few things to address it. We have a large engineering office in Dubai where we're recruiting people from the region who are currently working in places like Silicon Valley, London, and New York. We're trying to attract them back to the region.

We have also opened an office in Berlin, where we are able to attract European talent to work on some of the toughest problems that we're dealing with. And then we have an office in Karachi, where there's a decent pool of local talent. Becoming a huge technology company and building deep capability that allows us to be globally competitive is a huge priority.

Did you draw from your McKinsey experience as you began building Careem?

We learned how to build a values-based organization from McKinsey, and aspire to build something similar here at Careem. In addition to that, two things that McKinsey does really well are problem-solving and communication.

I came to McKinsey as an engineer. I hadn't gone to business school. So I really learned how to solve problems at McKinsey. I learned to take any problem that you have no clue about, break it down, and start solving it. That whole approach, and having done it so many times at McKinsey, built a lot of confidence when I got into something completely new. And as far as communication, when you are building a startup, you have to get other people excited about your idea – whether it's people that you want to hire, investors, or partners. Being able to communicate compellingly from the top down was another skill that we learned at McKinsey.

Where do you see Careem in five years?

In five years we want to be the leading internet platform in the Middle East, in addition to being the leading ride-hailing company in the Middle East. We believe the opportunity in the region – unlike many other parts of the world – is quite broad. Building on what we have done in the last five years, we can expand into new verticals and new forms of transport and other forms of e-commerce, beyond just ride-hailing.

I want Careem to be a masterpiece. We want to build a legacy – something that will improve lives in the region, will inspire others to do better, and will have impact for decades and centuries to come.