Top retail startups to look out for in 2021


January 14, 2021 | By Shruthi Nair

Every salesperson is taught to keep an elevator pitch ready to attract their client’s attention within a few seconds. In the past decade, the elevator pitch has been more vital for startups that are trying to sell their idea – not products – to potential investors, venture capitalist, or big corporations. At the Middle East Retail Forum’s Startup conclave, UAE’s up and coming startup founders were given much more than 30 seconds to pitch their ideas to a distinguished jury of established entrepreneurs including Naim Maadad, Chief Executive and Founder of Gates Hospitality, Ahmed Ragad, Group CEO of Barak Retail Group and Heba Al Fazari, Founder of Coveti.

The whole idea was to give home-grown startups and entrepreneurs that survived the challenges posed by Covid-19 and thrived in a tumultuous environment despite their resource limitations, a platform to share their innovations that helped them dodge the crisis. Six startup founders presented their initial business plans and their reformed strategies after having adapted to the situations in 2020 in front of the jury and best three were picked and recognized at the event.

Kristian Stinson, Hopi

Hopi has an ‘eye-opening’ personality

Charles Wright and Kristian Stinson

Kristian Stinson is the co-founder and CEO of Hopi, a premium daily contact lens brand selling directly to consumers across the GCC. Stinson co-founded Hopi, together with business partner Charles Wright, in December 2019 to disrupt the antiquated contact lens retail model and bring high-quality daily lenses directly to customers at honest prices.

“Covid sucked, but so did we”, said Stinson kicking off his presentation acknowledging how Covid-19 made them realise that it was time to change their business model. They used the Covid downtime to upskill, renegotiate supply chains and costs, and pivot to a subscription model offering greater flexibility with OTPs.

Grace Karim and Somia Anwar, Bookends

Bookends is the first digital platform in the UAE for buying and selling pre-loved books. It is a UAE-based start-up founded by mompreneurs Grace Karim and Somia Anwar. Karim is a mother of two enthusiastic readers Omar and Adam. While Anwar is also a mother of two avid readers Zoha and Abdullah. While their kids were growing older, they struggled to keep refreshing their book collections at affordable prices. Kids would outgrow the books quickly and always be ready to buy new ones. This is where the idea of Bookends came into being.

“We launched in January 2020. We have a fully functional marketplace and have 13,000 titles in our database”, they said. “Covid-19 was an opportunity for us as parents and kids were looking for an escape and everything shifted online. But our core value proposition is that we are directly in touch with our customers, using whose feedback we modify our procedures”.

Nawal El Masri, exhale

Nawal El Masri is the founder and storyteller of exhale, a mindful and conscious driven e-commerce brand that seeks to change perspectives through storytelling, art, visual journeys and clothing. El Masri believes that through exhale she can bring awareness for mental wellness and break stigmas in order for the society to use the tools they have at hand to heal themselves. Artists from around the world, storytellers, writers, painters, illustrators and poets come together to tell stories with exhale. The brand also teams up with educational awareness events such as The Global Teacher Prize to target and bring awareness to the millennials.

“We raised angel investment of aed1.8 million during covid-19 by focusing on our community, our consumers, our customer journey and sales-wise we focused on third-part websites because collaboration is the way o go during such times”, she said.

Shamim Kassibawi, Play:Date

Shamim Kassibawi is a publicist turned serial entrepreneur and appreneur. She identified a gap within her community where parents and children, especially expats, had very little or no access to playgroups and most importantly, no opportunities for socialising – an important contributor to a child’s positive development in their early years. She founded Play:Date in a bid to promote social activities for children, create a safe space for parents to connect with others to discuss trending subjects on children and develop a platform that offers discounts on popular brands and services with a conscious understanding of how expensive parenting can be.

“We’ve got 3,500 families, over 64,000 swipes and we’ve proved our concept as a result of which we are scaling. During Covid, we were pushed to do product seeding with Johnson & Johnson, Unilever, various F&B brands to look after a family. It is more expensive than ever to look after a family and we want to be there to support them”, she said.

Farah Emara, FreshSource

FreshSource is the region’s first tech-enabled agri-platform that aims to change Egypt’s agriculture industry by streamlining the value chain through technology, integrating small-time farmers and reducing food loss. It is a platform for fresh fruits and vegetables, connecting farms to businesses and providing last-mile solutions.

“We empower farmers to make 20% more for his income. We work with retailers for convenience and transparency while saving them 15%. And we average at around 2% food loss as against 45% in Egypt”, she said.

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