By Sekka Editorial
If you are from the Gulf region, then you must have experienced ordering something through Instagram. The social media platform isn’t only a channel to share our photos and videos, but it has also helped connect entrepreneurs and costumers, and has resulted in many businesses being set up there.
Research by Dubai Economy and Visa, published last year, has estimated that the e-commerce market in the UAE will be worth 48.6 billion USD in 2022, up from 26.9 billion USD in 2018.
But ordering through Instagram has its challenges. You don’t always get the order as you expected it, there can be delivery issues, and sometimes there is poor customer service on the small business’s end.
Faisal Falaknaz, Yahya Mohamed, and Kamal Al Maazmi are three Emirati friends and entrepreneurs who saw a gap that could be filled to empower female entrepreneurs in the UAE, and provide customers with their desired products but in a professional manner. Hence, Boksha was born in Dubai, on January 2018.
Boksha, which is a colloquial Arabic word that is used to refer to a piece of cloth that female sellers used in the past to hold their merchandise , is a website that displays the latest fashion designs of independent fashion designers based in the UAE. The platform allows customers to order directly from those independent designers, without the hassle of going through their Instagram pages and ordering through there. Through Boksha, customers are ensured a swift payment process, quality check, and confirmed delivery dates. What started with only three founders, has now expanded to a team of 14 that is serving customers in over 16 countries.
Though e-commerce has become a staple for many of us, the COVID-19 crisis has crowned online retailing as king. Retail giant Amazon is one of a number of e-commerce businesses that are witnessing a surge in growth as a result of the recent crisis.
We speak to Yahya Mohammed, who reveals how they are navigating an e-commerce business in a COVID-19 context at Boksha, whether customers do shop more while staying in, funding, and their future expansion plans for this Emirati platform. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How many retailers do you have onboard and are they all Instagram businesses?
Yahya Mohammed: To date, we have about 400 designers registered. Almost all of them are present on Instagram. The majority of the businesses are owned by female entrepreneurs whose main language is Arabic, and are between 20-35 years years of age.
Why shop through Boksha when people can contact retailers directly through Instagram?
Yahya Mohammed: We provide an end-to-end solution for both our designers and shoppers. Our goal is to empower our designers through technology. Through our custom-built platform, our designers can easily track orders, initiate pickups, upload their new products, review their financials, and more. We also provide a one-stop-shop for our designers, where we take care of all the operational logistics, from the point of placing an order to delivery, so that they can focus on what they do best: designing. We provide ancillary services such as photography, and even digital marketing.
In terms of shoppers, we provide them with a much smoother shopping experience than Instagram, where they can choose from different payment options, and browse through different businesses in one place.
We are also available through desktop, IOS and Android apps. One of our most important added values is that we act as an intermediary between them and designers, so they can rest assured that they will get what they have paid for. Before an item is shipped to a customer, it comes to our fulfilment centre, where we do the necessary quality check before it goes out in order to maintain a high standard.
What sets you apart from other competitors in the region?
Yahya Mohammed: Boksha is focused purely on independent fashion designers, with a focus on fashion today. Most of our items cannot be found at the mall as they are quite unique. In addition, we provide shoppers with the ability to customize their items, something that is not widely available today in the market.
Do you ship internationally?
Yahya Mohammed: Yes, we do. To date we have shipped to over 16 countries. This is actually one of our compelling offerings to designers. We tell our designers: “Act local, but think global”. There is tremendous global demand for the type of products our designers come up with, and we believe that we can provide our designers access to that demand through our platform.
The most popular category in your business…
Yahya Mohammed: Abayas, kaftans, dresses, and travel wear. Our offering is most appealing to both the Khaleeji and modest audience.
How are you maintaining business operations throughout the COVID19 crisis, and ensuring employees’ and customers’ safety and health when sending out orders?
Yahya Mohammed: In terms of our employees, given our technology, our employees can easily work remotely from home, which has been happening even before the mandate came out officially. As a company, we are already operating from multiple countries, so it’s important for us to be agile and flexible.
In terms of our shoppers, we already provide a much safer alternative given the current environment. For shipments, our team makes sure that packages are prepared in the most hygienic way possible.
Are people shopping online more now that they are staying in?
Yahya Mohammed: We’re already growing at double-digit rates. As you know, people are a bit worried about the future. However, once this crisis subdues, we think there will be an uptick across all online platforms, not only grocery and food delivery, as we’ve seen today. This will happen as people get more adjusted to the new norm of life.
What would you say is the main challenge you are facing?
Yahya Mohammed: Managing growth given our constrained resources being a founder-funded business. However, this has driven us to be cost- conscious and innovative in terms of coming up with solutions or new lines of business to subsidize our growth.
Do you think online retail is the future for the region? And are customers comfortable with ordering items online, especially abayas, which they cannot touch or feel the fabrics of, or be sure of their measurements?
Yahya Mohammed: This was a question we had when we started the business. Having been running with it for the past two years, we can confidently say that people are moving towards this direction. About 50 per cent of our orders are custom orders. Also, we have grown our sales more than three times in 2019, and are growing very strongly month-on-month in 2020. This tells us that the potential is there, and we’re just starting.
Will you be targeting male customers as well?
Yahya Mohammed: It’s not under consideration. However, never say never.
What are your future expansion plans?
Yahya Mohammed: We are currently in the process of closing an investment round with a number of investors. The funding raised will allow us to scale up our operations, invest more into our technology, and open up to designers in the region. We’re currently only working with UAE-based designers, even though we ship globally.
What is your advice for managing a business with friends? How do you not mix business and friendship?
Yahya Mohammed: It’s not only about being friends. It’s also the mindset of the other person you go into business with. Running a startup requires perseverance and making a lot of sacrifices, and between all of us three we’ve put a lot of our time and effort into making Boksha a success. Second, it is very important to have partners who do not take things personally. We get into a lot of arguments, however, in the end no one ever takes them personally as we all share a common goal: making Boksha a success.
Your advice to those wanting to venture into online retail…
Yahya Mohammed: Having an idea is great, however, it all comes down to execution. There’s surely a lot of opportunity in the space, and while there is a lot of competition, you have to think about how you will stand out.
To find out more about Boskha, click here.
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