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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 11 December 2018

A construction start-up well ahead of its time

Karim Helal created ProTenders to fill a gap, but the industry – and the internet – weren’t ready

Karim Helal, chief executive and founder of ProTenders, had to pivot his business as a result of being too early for the Mideast market. Mona Al Marzooqi / The National
Karim Helal, chief executive and founder of ProTenders, had to pivot his business as a result of being too early for the Mideast market. Mona Al Marzooqi / The National

Being first can be the same as being last if the market isn’t ready, something that Karim Helal understands.

The 42-year old introduced his company, ProTenders, to the market in 2010 to increase the efficiency of construction projects using the internet. Mr Helal wanted to create a bidding platform that would streamline the tendering process.

He drew on his family’s architecture business, Helal & Partners. The company had been in the UAE since 1968, during a crucial time of building the modern nation. Mr Helal decided to take a different path from his father and brothers. He moved to the IT sector and spent many years working for Stockholm-based telecommunications giant, Ericsson.

Mr Helal, and two of his three brothers, returned to the UAE to help his father’s company.

“This was during the boom years. We were doing US$1 billion in projects. But the problem we had as a company was the building process,” he says. “It was cumbersome and it seemed to be recurring.”

He describes the time it took to have forms stamped by different departments in locations throughout the emirate, a picture that was true for many sectors in the early days of the UAE.

“I stepped out of the company to instead launch a platform that would make a more efficient process for the construction sector,” he says.

ProTenders was ahead of its time.

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“We came at a time when the cloud was completely shunned,” Mr Helal recalls. “No one trusted the cloud back in those days.”

There have been several start-ups that came too early. For instance, before Google and Facebook there was AskJeeves and Six Degrees.

AskJeeves was a web search engine developed in 1996, making it the go-to source for all questions for the first millennials. The company used many techniques that Google later revolutionised. However, the technology just wasn’t there at the time and the core search component was renamed Ask.com in 2006. Four years later, it left the search business altogether.

The precursor to Facebook was Six Degrees, based on the game “Six degrees of Kevin Bacon” in which any two people in the world are six or fewer acquaintance links from each other. The website, launched in 1997, allowed users to create profiles to connect with friends. The site had millions of registered users, but the lack of internet penetration in those days posed a major problem.

Similar were the struggles that ProTenders faced: penetration and understanding. “The UAE is in a phase now where it is more accepting of technology,” Mr Helal says. “We could’ve saved ourselves a lot of headaches by waiting for the right time.”

The company was lucky that to keep its head above the water, Mr Helal was able to outsource his idea to help ADCB. The bank handled all of the applications for a government-established fund to help drive the construction sector. The financier was tendering hundreds of projects each year and faced difficulty keeping up with the amount of work. “They were ambitious enough to give us a chance, and we’ve been working together ever since,” he says. “We designed the platform and we’ve completely changed the way they do business.”

Yet the business still had work to do in order to make a dent in the market, and just as AskJeeves turned into Ask.com, ProTenders also made a pivot to become the “LinkedIn of construction”.

The company broke even after the first two years, but a lot was reinvested to build up the platform.

Mr Helal knew that the construction industry was all about keeping up with competitors and establishing connections. A company is only as “good as its last job” and websites just weren’t up-to-date with information. The process began to allow firms to build profiles, search other companies and make connections in a centralised process. “You can modify searches to show developers that have worked on hotels or suppliers carrying white marble from India,” he says of the search functionality of the platform.

Since adding that capability, ProTenders has grown 600 per cent over the past year. More than 700 companies are signing up every month from more than 100 countries. “We can’t support the demand that we’re getting – our current team just isn’t enough,” Mr Helal says.

After investing $3 million over the years, the firm is in a Series A round to raise $4.5m and expecting to close the funding exercise by the end of this year. The forward growth plan is what has helped entice investors.

One of Mr Helal’s earliest backers, says that he immediately recognised the potential in ProTenders. “Having worked in the construction sector myself for some time, I know how intensive the tendering process is and how critical connections and market intelligence are to win new clients,” says the investor,w who wished to remain unnamed.

He adds that Mr Helal was quick to capitalise on the initial investment to grow the platform from its initial form into what it is now, which is unique in the market. “It truly is the LinkedIn equivalent for our industry, with enhanced and bespoke functionalities to help companies grow their business faster,” the investor says.

The company has about 7,800 businesses registered on the site today, half of which are suppliers, up to 25 per cent consultants, 20 per cent contractors and the rest are developers. There are three membership plans available to the companies. A profile to help expand a firm’s visibility costs $1,200 per year, while those that want insights such as companies working on certain projects pay from $2,400 to $8,400 annually.

Lastly, for anyone who wants to issue a tender, a customised structure is offered starting at $12,000 annually.

However, the key strength in the firm is the verification process. A company cannot just register on the site and falsify information. ProTenders’ researchers conduct a two-step process to ensure that data is correct.

“Moving forward, we’re doing much more automated online information and we’ll be expanding the number of data points that we currently have,” Mr Helal says, adding that governments may have tendering platforms while other companies offer intelligence or a job search, “but we’re the first ones to put it all into one area”.

For instance, GetHub is the go-to source for any recruiter in the construction sector. “I would ask for a GetHub profile rather than a CV, but there weren’t any reference points to find a developer,” he says . “We have moved away from being a pure tool, such as a database, to becoming an end-to-end platform.”

ProTenders expects break-even in the first quarter of next year and has its eyes on regional expansion. The company’s largest physical presence is in the UAE, but it caters to the entire Middle East and North Africa region. ProTenders will open three offices in Saudi Arabia next year, in Dammam, Jeddah and Riyadh, as well as adding a place in Beirut.

“Funding is great, but the speed of funding is still an issue in this region,” he says.