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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 10 December 2018

How Ajar Online is streamlining payments in Kuwait's real estate market

Frustration at the challenges of arranging monthly meetings with landlords led Shaheen Alkhudhari to look for a smarter solution

Ajar Online chief executive Shaheen Alkhudhari (right) has plans to replicated the company's success across the Arabian Gulf and wider Mena region. Gustavo Ferrari / The National
Ajar Online chief executive Shaheen Alkhudhari (right) has plans to replicated the company's success across the Arabian Gulf and wider Mena region. Gustavo Ferrari / The National

Ajar Online founder Shaheen Alkhudhari didn’t always see himself as an entrepreneur. After graduating in Management Information Systems at Kuwait University, the Kuwaiti national was happy to work his way up through a series of ever more senior positions across a wide range of sectors, including logistics, real estate, investments and IT.

Eventually however, he found needed a change in direction.

“After nearly 10 years of working my way up through various companies I eventually realised this wasn’t where I wanted to be anymore,” Mr Alkhudhari told The National from Ajar Online’s offices in Kuwait.

“I found that I didn’t want to work for a company any more, and I needed to find an issue to solve and create something for myself.”

But as any struggling entrepreneur will tell you, deciding you want to start your own business is the easy part. Finding the ‘big idea’ to build a company on can take months if not years to come up with, and then an even greater time to test in the marketplace, refine, and then sell to customers and investors.

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For Mr Alkhudhari, the "big idea" came to him relatively early during his search in late 2014, after getting married and moving into an apartment. As a first time tenant, he came face-to-face with the often-tortuous process of paying his rent, involving finding a convenient time each month to meet his landlord to hand over payment.

“As a tenant, it was a real hassle and a hectic process to pay my rent each month,” he said.

“Every time it was due, it was like a nightmare. I had to pay cash or cheque, often chasing down my landlord to come and collect the rental payment. So I really felt the need to solve this issue.”

His experience in management information systems, particularly as IT manager for logistics and engineering firm British Link Kuwait, lent itself to finding a technical solution to such a problem. Meanwhile his MBA from the American University of the Middle East got him thinking about how to monetise such a solution.

Mr Alkhudhari’s next move was to begin researching whether the rental problem was a large enough issue for a large enough number of people to turn into a business.

“I started asking my friends if they faced the same, and they all validated the long and mundane process of paying their rents,” he said.

“I wanted to do some further research, so I interviewed tenants and real-estate entities, and they too confirmed the hassle of paying or collecting rent. Seeing this opportunity, I seized it, and went on to find the right technical resources to turn my idea into reality.”

Convinced that the business idea was good enough, Mr Al Khudhari brought on board two fellow Kuwaitis, Ali Taqi and Talal Alyaseen, both of whom brought similar experience of working as software developers at organisations including Kuwait’s Ministry of Finance, the Kuwait National Petroleum Company and Citibank.

The three entrepreneurs founded the company in January 2015; while all three put in money, Mr Alkhudhari provided the lion’s share of funding in the early stages, dedicating 50 per cent of his salary to fund the company’s start-up costs.

Ajar Online’s cloud-based rental payments service was formally launched in Kuwait City in August 2015. Landlords looking to make use of the service register the details of their properties via the company's online portal, together with the details ofwhatever tenants may be living there. The company is working on a mobile app to further simplify the process.

Tenants subsequently receive an automatic SMS and email from Ajar Online at the start of the month with a link to the company’s payment section, enabling them to pay the rent with a few clicks via Kuwait’s widely used K-net electronic payment system from anywhere in the world, in less than 60 seconds.

Ajar Online makes money out of the process by charging landlords a small transaction fee for each payment.

While the company initially had a hard time selling the service to often technologically-challenged landlords, the service eventually began to take off, as large real estate firms began to see how such a system could vastly simplify rental collections.

Tenants in turn also began to appreciate the service, which reduced the need to arrange meetings with landlords on a monthly basis to pay the rent.

Ajar Onine received a major boost in October 2015, when it signed a non-exclusive partnership with Warba Bank. Not only did the deal with Warba bring credibility for the company, but the bank also agreed to promote the company's services to its corporate clients.

“We needed to build trust around our product, and that partnership gave us a good push,” said Mr Alkhudhari.

In the two years since the service officially launched, Ajar Online has signed up over 70 landlords in Kuwait. While some of these may own one or two properties, it has a number of large real estate firms on its books, using the service for hundreds of properties, Mr Alkhudhari says.

“We’re seeing a positive growth month over month, which at times, exceeds our forecast,” he says, declining to give details.

Having started with three employees, the company now employees 14 full-time staff.

Others in Kuwait have cottoned onto the idea of electronic rental payments, with Kuwait International Bank among institutions to offer such services.

Mr Alkhudhari insists however that Ajar Online is able to retain a competitive edge, saying the company enables landlords to manage multiple properties via one account.

“What banks do is provide payment solutions,” he says. “We're a property management solution that has a payment feature.”

Ajar Online has already attracted interest from the funding community both within Kuwait and in the wider region.

In November 2015, Ajar Online was awarded first prize in Kuwait’s first tmkeen award, a collaboration between Kuwaiti investment firm Kipco and the country’s Youth Empowerment Organisation.

The award gave the company access to $100,000 worth of Kipco services including financial, strategic and operational consultation sessions, market studies, insurance coverage and advertising services.

The company also attracted its first formal seed funding at the end of last year, in a funding round led by a venture capital firm based in Dubai

Mr Alkhudhari says the company will disclose the full details of the ongoing funding round in the coming weeks, divulging only what has been raised is “a big amount.”

Such funding will be used to help Ajar Online spread its wings beyond Kuwait into the wider region. The company has opened an office in Dubai and is beginning to rollout services in the UAE. Its services are also being piloted in Saudi Arabia, with a view to a full launch in December.

Ajar Online is discussing partnership agreements with local banks in both the UAE and Saudi Arabia, he said, declining to give further details.

Mr Alkhudhari is bullish about the company’s prospects in the UAE and Saudi Arabia, and is also looking to spread the app further afield in the Arabian Gulf and beyond.

“We want to scale to be across the Mena region by 2020, with arrangements with the main local banks in each country,” he says.

“Our ambition, put simply, is to partner with every landlord and real-estate company in the region, to help them manage all their registered property units.”