Mona Ataya – How to create a successful e-commerce business

Mona Ataya, Founder and CEO of Mumzworld, shares her inspiration, insights and challenges at the Emirates NBD Global Business Series. 


Inspiration is central for developing an extraordinary vision and achieving entrepreneurial success. Who inspired you and how did they help your journey?

MA: Recounting inspirations is a difficult task at hand. Clearly, because in the early years everybody plays a pivotal role in shaping your future. Perhaps, one of the people I sought inspiration from was my father, who instilled the go-getter attitude in me. From the beginning, my parents urged us to discover our goal. Although, the journey was full of trial and errors. In an incident my English teacher culminated into a source of inspiration. She persuaded me to write a journal. I obliged, but, none of my posts impressed her. The raging curiosity forced me to explore her opinion on good journal entries. She told me that journal entries should exhibit experiences that the writer considers unique. This exercise opened a gateway to discovery and instilled the tendency of looking at situations in a different light.

Are there any golden rules you follow to integrate work and life? 

MA: Viewing situations in a different manner, making a difference and striving for excellence is how I lead my life and teach my children to do so as well.  It boils down to the notion of excellence. Leading your life in this manner, enables you to solve an equation or analyse a situation, perhaps in a different way.

You were business-oriented from an early age. Shed some light on your early experiences?

MA: When I was 9 years old, my father bought us a pack of Hubba Bubba chewing gum from the US. We were three siblings and we got one chewing gum each. Delighted by the experience, when we asked for more, my father asked us to earn it instead. I hatched a plan to sell the bubble gum to my friends in school. That was my first experience in trading. Today, oftentimes children get things easily. However, my experiences certainly taught me that in order to gain something, you have to lose something.

Which insights from your earlier experience do you utilise in your business?

MA: There are three pillars that form the foundation of any business: accountability, vision and strategy. Moreover, an entrepreneur needs to be resourceful, as it forms the crux of the journey. Being resourceful is the key factor in managing an organization. Generally, when an entrepreneur is quizzed about the failure of his vision, absence of the right people, insufficient funding, poor infrastructure and resources are known to be the reasons behind his downfall. In reality, such entrepreneurs fail to display resourcefulness. I learnt ownership, accountability and resourcefulness at a young age, which is translated into my business.

How did academics influence your inclination toward entrepreneurship?    

MA: My background is in finance and marketing. Interestingly, I was enrolled in a 6-year medical program in the US. My goal was to make a difference and save the world by being a doctor. I was studying economics, whilst interning in a hospital. Suddenly, it occurred to me that business was my passion and drive. From that day forward I followed my instinct.

Brief us on your entrepreneurial venture, Mumzworld.

MA: Mumzworld is the largest shopping vertical for mothers, babies and children in the region. We are a 4-year old brand, having over 100,000 product catalogues listed on our website. We have over 650,000 mothers listed in our database. Our vision is simply making a mother’s life easy. We want to empower mothers and help them make informed purchases for children. This is achieved by offering access to the widest range of products, providing transparent pricing and product information, and conveniently and cost-effectively delivering products to your doorstep within 2-3 days.

How did you conceive the idea of Mumzworld?

MA: I founded Mumzworld in November, 2011. In actuality, when a business is driven by an absent need, economic crises do not pose an obstacle. Fifteen years ago, I was working with Johnson & Johnson in Zurich. My work was utterly comfortable, with the office overlooking the Alps and the smell of fresh coffee. Every single day, I thanked God for blessing me with this opportunity. One fateful afternoon, my brother, discussed about revolutionizing recruitment in the Arab world with Bayt.com and it came into existence. Fifteen years ago, his idea seemed inconceivable as the Internet penetration amounted to only 2% as compared to the present scenario. With the Internet bubble bust, online entrepreneurs and investors hit rock bottom. However, we fundamentally believed that Bayt would make a positive social impact in the Middle East. The idea was driven by the need to offer right opportunities to smart and successful Middle Easterners. We wanted to create an effective way of helping employers connect with great talent. Within 9 months, Bayt was declared as a profitable business. As a mother of 3 children, I wasn’t satisfied with my decisions and short-changing my children. It was time to address the missing need, ergo, Mumzworld.

What cultural challenges does an ecommerce entrepreneur encounter when engaging with consumers online?

MA: According to Nielsen, 66% of the mothers in the Middle East, research products online before making the purchase. A mother-to-be is researching online for the best strollers, car seats etc. There are certain verticals, wherein the tactile quality of the product is crucial. However, online becomes a powerful and relevant tool when the buyer wants to compare the products through research and reviews.

E-commerce is a $1.6 trillion industry, with a 29% compounded annual growth rate. It is the fastest trend of the decade. The reason being that consumer has changed and demands convenience, transparency in pricing and information. The consumer battles with time constraints, therefore has no time to go mall hopping. Mumzworld offers over 100,000 products at your fingertips, which can be compared against prices, descriptions and brands. The products will be delivered to your doorstep within 2 days, free of charge. Moreover, if you dislike the product, it will be picked up, exchanged or refunded. This ensures a zero-risk experience. We have managed to fix the pain point of the busiest consumer in the world, which is, the stay-at-home mother.

Since the Mumzworld model was new to this region, we leveraged on the first-mover advantage as a start-up. However, this proposition isn’t a novelty around the globe. For example, Diapers.com was launched in the US and then sold to Amazon for $540 million, Babyo and Firstcry in India, Zulily went public for $2.5 billion. As a global concept, this proposition is doing phenomenally well, because the mother, no matter in which part of the world has the same needs. She wants to raise her kids in the best possible way and in an easier manner. Mumzworld helps mothers do just that.

Being unfamiliar with the trade proves to be a disadvantage. How can this challenge be effectively addressed?

MA: When I started Bayt.com, I had no knowledge about technology because I come from a traditional FMCG background. Building a recruitment website, payment gateways etc. was alien to me. Being resourceful is what assisted me on my journey. The lesson learnt was that hard skills are easy to grasp. An entrepreneur needs to understand the functioning of certain elements such as supply chains, logistics etc. and improve them. Technical skills comprise only 10% of the entrepreneurial journey and 90% of the journey constitutes the vision, grit and people.

When I joined Bayt, my weakness was technology, however this inadequacy was masked by the head of technology. In Mumzworld, I lacked knowledge on e-commerce operations, but I have a strong head of operations. My weaknesses is shielded by the strengths of my team. An entrepreneur needs to build a team of strengths that can complement the vision.

What are the key attributes you seek in a person when building a team?

MA: Once somebody told me that I don’t have to like everyone on my team. I strongly disagree with this idea. If you dislike someone, it is difficult to work together. While recruiting, firstly make sure the person shares the same drive and passion as you. If he/she doesn’t, they will never go the extra mile to achieve the objectives. Secondly, the element of excellence is critical. Doing unique things with utmost excellence is appreciated. For example, the customer care executive needs to understand the situation, be proactive, empathetic and think quickly. Skillsets needed for e-commerce are rare in this region. Therefore, it is safe to recruit a junior, who can be trained, instead of recruiting a seasoned individual, who will probably be poached later.

Why is ecommerce touted to be an upstream business and an undesirable venture?

MA: You cannot expect to sell products by merely creating a website. Just like the retailer or store merchandiser, the website needs to speak to the customer in a similar fashion. The website needs to function on multi-dimensions. For example, it needs to be equipped with smart technology. It needs to mobilize several touch points involved. E-commerce is a logistically complex endeavour, hence retail giants avoid penetrating the ecommerce channel. The DNA of an online player is different from an offline player.

Which aspects make Mumzworld standout from the crowd?

MA: There are many elements that differentiate Mumzworld. Firstly, pricing is a major influencer. Buying and shipping a toy or a stroller from Mumzworld is comparatively cheaper to Amazon. There are 100,000 products displayed on the website. Secondly, the products are delivered within 2-3 days. On the other hand, Amazon delivers products within a week or longer. Mumzworld allows the customer to return or exchange an item, unlike Amazon. The website is bilingual. Accessing customer support at Mumzworld is comparatively effortless.

Localization and customization are the core elements of differentiation. We have 50 million mothers engaging with us on a daily basis via Instagram. There are mothers who speak to us in Arabic, asking for advice and help even at 2.00 am, whereas access to an international brand is limited.

What challenges hindered your journey to 100,000 products?

MA: When we launched Mumzworld in 2011, it was a chicken and egg situation. The confusion was whether to attract customers or stock products. The challenge is to appease the suppliers as well the customers. We were carrying out all operations in parallel. We approached, convinced and listed big brands, then made our way to the distributors and manufacturers, hanging by a thread. With very little in the purse, we had the cheapest supplier provide the product without any payment. That particular pitch, perseverance and grit made my impassioned journey fulfilling. We are revolutionising shopping for Middle Eastern mothers. Mumzworld will merchandise and market a manufacturer’s catalogue. If the products sell, he wins, otherwise the products are returned, and hence he incurs no risk. In September 2011, our website went live with 15,000 branded products. Today we are 100,000 SKUs because of resource limitations. On an average, we acquire 3000 exclusive additions per week. Today, we cherry pick global best sellers and award winners, to fuel our growth strategy.

Which business model is Mumzworld based on?

MA: Basically, our aim is to become a go-to destination for mothers wanting to shop for their children. A mother needs to know that at Mumzworld, she can search, compare and buy products at the best prices. To achieve this an entrepreneur needs to work with retailers, distributors, manufacturers etc. Mumzworld is the entry point for retailers having insufficient funds to establish an online store or lack time to do so. At Mumzworld we do marketing, logistics, and leave no stone unturned to sell a product. It is similar to having an online forum wherein a mother can acquire everything she needs under one big umbrella.

Which key strategies should an ecommerce business leverage to win the race?

MA: Our objective was to own the largest catalogue of baby and child products in the region. This meant to execute the best strategies and achieve the peak of success. Success doesn’t happen overnight, therefore, we prioritized the objectives. If I were to be asked this question a year from now, I’d be proud to announce that I own 12 pants which are best sellers on Amazon and exclusive to this region. So expanding the catalogue is important, which is also our key strategy. Maintaining good relations with the suppliers is also a top priority in ecommerce. Being well-versed with the basics of online marketing can help you increase the gross revenue. However, focussing solely on gross revenue can make everything else go haywire. Earlier, we had approximately 300 sales but after a while we couldn’t deliver due to dearth of free resources, failed payment gateways, crashed servers etc. We had to learn quick lessons. For instance, we needed to understand that a server can take a limited amount of load. As an ecommerce portal, you don’t need to grow fast but smart. At every interval, you also need to check the balances and accounts. Since the ecommerce marketplace is in its nascent stage in this part of the world, an entrepreneur needs to target his efforts to retain and appeal to grassroots relationships, affiliations, partnerships etc. Grassroots relationships have the ability to anchor a brand.

What are the key performance indicators that you use to evaluate your business? 

MA: The first indicator is the gross margin. In ecommerce the average gross margin is 17%, which is termed as a success globally. It depends on the nature of the vertical, for example, electronics can result to 1% or 2% and fashion can elevate to 50%. In this part of the world the average gross margin is 10% and we have a gross margin of 35%. Our gross margin is vital because we are involved in a business which will never have deep pockets like venture funds. A good gross margin will allow us to scale and sustain the business. The other indicator is loyalty. In e commerce it is typical to buy products that the consumer demands. Often a buyer will see advertisements from a website you previously visited displayed on Google. The marketer is trying to reacquire your interest and convert the prospective consumer into a purchase. At Mumzworld, the touch points in the website are fully corroborated so that the consumer continues to buy regularly, discarding the need to invest in marketing. As the journey evolves with time, simultaneously the best practices are placed in order. The third indicator is conversion, so that every dollar is an ROI (Return on Investment). An entrepreneur needs to monitor his incomings as well as his outgoings and the duration each customer thinks his business is valuable. To pay our customer between 14 to 18 months is considered to be successful. We are able to pay our acquisition within 2-3 months than other brands globally.

Are you providing the mothers with value propositions? If yes, then are these propositions governed by control mechanisms?

MA: The personality of a brand reflects certain ambitions and values. Many a times a particular brand reflects the people managing it. Mumzworld places its importance on the core values. For example, after launching Bayt, I felt my children were getting the short end of the stick. I didn’t know how to purchase the best possible things to make my children happy, contributing young men. It was this question and value that drove and mobilised Mumzworld. Mumzworld aims to empower the mother by providing all the resources and tools to enable her to do the best for her baby. If we are unable to deliver, we accept our shortcoming.

How do you position your product?

MA: Firstly, Mumzworld doesn’t sell the products to kids. The psychographics of a mother of 0 to 4 year old kids is different from that of 5 to 12 years old. This is the reason that consumer feedback is displayed separately on the website. Today as a mother, I go to the 5 to 12 years old website and buy birthday gifts, gift registry etc. sorting each product based on price. However, if I had a newborn to cater to, I wouldn’t be searching by price but by the highest quality.A

What prompted you to become an entrepreneur?  

MA: I had a full-time job at Johnson & Johnson. It was a wonderful phase in my life, wherein I travelled across Europe, learned German, was surrounded by positive and smart people. All in all, it was a learning experience. However, the turning point was the element of social impact and accomplishment. A lot of people talk of success, in terms of money and assets. Personally, that is not considered as success. I undertake a responsibility with utmost passion and excellence, so that it makes a difference. In order to decide whether I should quit my job and embark on an entrepreneurial venture, I put pieces of paper in a hat and asked my brother to pick one. He picked up a paper that read I shouldn’t leave my job. I ignored the message because I had already made a decision. Mumzworld was a difficult venture than Bayt, as I had to juggle my personal as well as professional life. Today, I manage my household with three kids and constantly monitor my business as well. There are times when I wake up and feel tired. As I said before, nothing great comes without a journey of highs and lows. Often, women talk about the notion of balance. According to my experience, there is no such concept.

What do you aim to achieve through Mumzworld?

MA: I am building a business that will be a leading gold standard ecommerce platform for mother, baby and child in the Middle East and African region. I am building a business that adds value to a mother’s life. In 2 to 5 years, if someone suggests that the intrinsic value of the brand can be utilized to do better through partnerships and acquisition, then so be it.

Many a times, success leaves people with money but no relations. Do you fear the same?

MA: I am not driven by money, as it will follow by establishing a business. If you are driven by money then you defeat the purpose. It is all about my passion and drive. There have been times, when I have looked upon Mumzworld, looked up at the supplier and people associated with the organisation and thought that this isn’t my passion because I missed a parent-teacher meeting. My success lies in my children because they are my inspiration. Every entrepreneur needs a reality check after a certain interval.

Earlier, you mentioned having 100,000 SKUs on the website. How many of them are actually in stock? 

MA: We operate in a similar way as Amazon. Amazon has 80% of the products stocked in the warehouse. Our fast moving products are all in stock. In this part of the world, the landscape is under developed, therefore a challenge. For example, a supplier sends me a catalogue of the 10 best products. I display it on my website in the morning and someone places an order immediately. When I communicate with the supplier with regards to the order, he says that the particular product is out of stock. This is the part of the journey we are trying to fix. Bigger the brand, higher the leverage, therefore, the suppliers are more careful when dealing with us. As a market place we will never be able to stock everything.

How many people work in the company to serve these SKUs and how are you mentoring entrepreneurs to be?

MA: There are 50 people in my organisation and I am part of the Endeavor Group. Two years ago, Mumzworld and I was selected to be a part of the Endeavour Group and it was a great privilege. As a part of Endeavor, I mentor entrepreneurs.

There may be retailers whose products are not stocked by Mumzworld?

MA: Mumzworld is open to retailers, who want to merchandise on our website. Basically, we get their products displayed on our website, market it on their behalf and manage the entire supply chain. We allow advertising, so brands that don’t want to merchandise on our website can advertise or sample. Also, we have sampling exercises, which is, we prepare sample products in different boxes for moms of certain age.

Which social causes does Mumzworld support?

MA: When a person signs a contract with Mumzworld, by mandate he has to participate in one of our social causes. For this Ramadan we gave meals. We work with autistic and special needs kids, as well as with mothers who give birth to babies behind bars. All of them are provided with necessities. Last year during Eid, we donated about AED 100,000 worth of gifts to kids in Al Ain. Our social pages enlist the various causes we support.

In the year 2050, how are we celebrating your life?

MA: I will be surrounded with my sons, my husband, my siblings, my parents and my husband’s family. My sons will be sharing stories of how they have made a positive impact on the world. It would be my greatest blessing to see the passion and integrity in their eyes. I don’t need to have billion dollars, but my comfort and kids. I may be blessed to say that I have thousand or billion people whom I have given excellence through my achievements. This is success to me.

Is there any desire that want to achieve that will help to change the world and make a difference. 

MA: When you empower a mother, you are empowering a generation. This is one of the reasons why Mumzworld is important to me. If you give a mother the right tools that help her make the right decisions for her family, ultimately these decisions will impact her kids as well. I use to spend hours and hours researching on books to read to my kids, this is why my kids are great readers. This is why my kids love to learn, and are curious because of the decisions taken at an early age. So far we have empowered mothers to make right decisions because we cater to the new generation. Mumzworld is a tiny part of the transformation.Audiance

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