Muhammad Chbib is a serial entrepreneur, global thought leader and CEO at tradeling.com. Muhammad Chbib has international experience as a manager who has served several successful startups as well as large corporate organizations in Europe and the MENA region since the late 1990s. Throughout his extensive career, Muhammad R. Chbib has advised leaders at some of the most prestigious Fortune 500 companies during his tenure between 2004 and 2010 at McKinsey & Company in their Middle East and German offices.
2. Can you tell us more about your experience starting in Germany and moving from there to the Middle East? And also the cultural differences between these two worlds?
3. Can you tell us more about your experience working at an established company like McKinsey?
4. You have worked in both the corporate world and in the startup space. Can you tell us more about how you went from an established company like McKinsey to becoming the CEO of sukar.com, which was later acquired by Amazon?
5. What would be the advice and suggestions you would give to a startup entrepreneur?
6. You helped create the e-commerce wave in the Middle East. Then you moved to the travel industry, and now the Middle East is becoming important as a travel destination. So how did you switch from e-commerce to travel? How was your experience?
7. What is tradeling.com?
8. You have experience in research, creating online marketplaces, successful companies in different sectors... So with all that experience, what are the most likely scenarios, trends, etc that we will see after COVID-19?
An introduction from you - background, overview, education...
My childhood, with my parents, was my biggest influence. My father is a journalist, who comes from a political background, with an entrepreneurial mindset. As a kid, at the age of 12, I started trading bicycles and stopped taking money from my parents. With that money, I coded videogames, I assembled stuff and a lot of other activities I enjoyed. That made me realize being an entrepreneur gives you freedom and stability.
At 19, I left home to study business at a private business school in Germany. I did semesters abroad to get some sort of international exposure.
After I graduated I joined an online business in 2000/2001. I stayed in the startup space for a while. At 30, I realized I did not know enough. One often plateaus and realizes they want to change. In order to learn, I realized Mckinsey was the perfect place to do so.
Between 2004 and 2010 I worked at McKinsey in the Middle East and Germany. But then the entrepreneurial mind returned. An investor asked me to come to the Middle East and if I could help create sukar.com, so I did and went back to my roots.
Can you tell us more about your experience starting in Germany and moving from there to the Middle East? And also the cultural differences between these two worlds?
Germany is one of the most reliable and organized countries in the world and it has a great entrepreneurial heritage. And they promote that behavior during the whole educational process. Most entrepreneurs are born at university. And this brings a lot of value to a country. Entrepreneurs want to change the world, they want to do something different and bring value and innovation, and that is something that you can see in Germany happening right now.
In the Middle East, things are different. Some countries here have a lot of money but it's been wasted all these years. This touched upon my Arabic ego. I wanted this equity to not be drained out by someone who doesn't care, but to bring it back into the middle east economy and help develop the region.
I wanted to learn from a structured conservative entrepreneurial world i.e. Germany, and take it to the Middle East, and help them. And so when I decided to move to the middle-east, via McKinsey, it was because I wanted to reach out to the top people.
Can you tell us more about your experience working at an established company like McKinsey?
There were a few things about McKinsey that impressed me:
1. It's a secretive company. When the government approaches you, the information is sensitive. So I learned about confidentiality there. This is very important in the Middle East, which is highly competitive. When you research, analyze, make your strategy, you have to remain confidential.
2. It is a very value-driven company. No matter what, customer success is the most important. I have walked out of rooms, leaving money for the client, despite not being able to implement strategies for them. And we would do that. Money is secondary to them. Customer success is first.
3. It is a very people-centric organization. The HR process, the human-driven process is phenomenal.
These learnings made me realize the importance of long term success. When you're in a football team of 11 people, you cannot score and win the game alone. The focus on making sure people enjoy what they're doing is very driven.
You have worked in both the corporate world and in the startup space. Can you tell us more about how you went from an established company like McKinsey to becoming the CEO of sukar.com, which was later acquired by Amazon?
I left consulting, and at one point my wife got pregnant. And that's when we decided to reduce the travel time, etc. We moved to Dubai too and I started working in a company -sukar.com- that had 32 employees. Our growth was impressive and in 18 months we grew to 150 employees, whilst monthly sales rose from $200,000 to $2 million. And then we got acquired by Souq.com. I stayed there for a few more months and then I left because I decided I wanted to do something different.
One of the experiences I took from my time in sukar.com was about the recruitment process. McKinsey had top-notch employees, why? Because the recruitment process has 6-7 people filtering applicants. But then you come to the Middle East, and you don't have a brand name as big as theirs, so you don't get top people. So if you want to train people and have lower quality, what do you do? How do you sort this problem? That was a big challenge. Out of the 150 people, how many people would I have hired in McKinsey back then, I would have said zero.
Today, in my new company, out of 100 people, I would hire 10. So that is an improvement.
What would be the advice and suggestions you would give to a startup entrepreneur?
I don't think there is a secret sauce. The most important asset of an entrepreneur is sales. You need to know how to sell what you are selling. It takes a lot of effort to scale and to do so you need to have one leading guy or lady, who is a sales machine. Today, I spend 80% of my time guiding people, even working as a therapist sometimes, hiring people, finding talent, and making sure they are motivated and want to stay in the company. That, in fact, is the best advice I could give: focus your time on finding the right talent.
You helped create the e-commerce wave in the Middle East. Then you moved to the travel industry, and now the Middle East is becoming important as a travel destination. So how did you switch from e-commerce to travel? How was your experience?
Back then it was all about creating things from scratch in the Middle East, it was clearly not very structured. I realized that, if you really want to have an impact, you need to have access to resources, i.e. cash. One of the things I realized was that I wanted to make an impact, and I wanted to transform the ecosystem through digital transformation. If a person has cash, but may not have the knowledge to shift an offline business to an online business - that is your person. Before I started, the instructions were very simple. You all invest, and I will turn the company into a million-dollar company. Choose the right people, the right technology, make mistakes, learn from them, build yourself a reputation, and then people start approaching you. Creating companies in the Middle East needs more strategic cash resources as opposed to Europe.
What is tradeling.com?
It's a B2B e-commerce marketplace. Similar to Amazon or Alibaba. It's a trading platform for the Middle East to import goods to the Middle East, and to trade goods in and around the Middle East. We started with Food & Beverage, then we have been expanding our offering to lifestyle, office supplies and we are opening to other industries as well.
You have experience in research, creating online marketplaces, successful companies in different sectors... So with all that experience, what are the most likely scenarios, trends, etc that we will see after COVID-19?
I think there has been an overkill of restrictions in and around the globe. I would've done it differently. The amount of money raised and pumping it into the economy will harm at least the next 2 generations, if not 3. We are building a liability.
Likewise, many people were skeptical about digital transformation, and are now taking it seriously. For instance, I was talking to a food manufacturer who's been established for 30 years, when we started with tradeling.com he told me that he would destroy me because he was better established in the market. He called me 5 days ago and asked me to list him on the platform. This shift would have taken 6-7 years, but now is more agile.
Another problem I see is that we lack proper education, even in a developed country like Germany. If you get an ethical hacker for 2 days, they will destroy these companies. If I were a politician, I would go to primary school and teach the basics of cyber data security, risks of blockchain, risks of 5G, etc so that they don't get exposed to the risk when they are exposed to technology. This is something that has not happened yet. And thank god I’m old enough, but my kids will face this. The world will become a bad place if we are not equipped with the ethical use of technology.
Muhammad R. Chbib has international experience as a manager who served several successful startups as well as large corporate organizations in Europe and MENA since the late 1990s. Moreover, Muhammad R. Chbib has advised leaders at some of the most prestigious Fortune 500 companies during his tenure between 2004 and 2010 at McKinsey & Company in their Middle East and German offices.
In 2011 Mr. R. Chbib moved to Dubai where he took over as CEO of sukar.com which they successfully exited to souq.com in 2012 to form today's largest commerce company in MENA and which was acquired by Amazon.com in 2017.
From 2015 to 2018 Mr. R. Chbib and his team created the Strategic Online Business Unit for Saudi listed travel giant Al Tayyar Group, leading their two brands tajawal and Almosafer to a total of close to USD 1 billion gross sales within three years only.
Muhammad R. Chbib is a German national of Syrian descent, a proud father and husband with a passion for entrepreneurship and coaching young aspiring leaders.