Stories from Sarwa Part II - Advice for Entrepreneurs

This is part of an ongoing series of articles based on a Startup Grind Muscat interview with Nadine Mezher of Sarwa. For more reading about the lessons from her journey, please click here.

Nadine Mezher, Co-founder of Sarwa has been through quite a journey leading her to where she is today.

Last month, I sat down with her virtually for a fireside chat to learn more about her experience and what she's learned as Chief Marketing Officer at Sarwa, the region's first hybrid Robo-Investment Advisory Platform.

Nadine came to the Sarwa team from diversified experiences based on her varied passions. Her path took her from working in a bank to studying fashion in Italy and France. She worked in fashion management in leading couture houses in Beirut, and ultimately became a consultant working with the government in Dubai on fashion strategy and initiatives.

Eventually, she started working on strategic positioning for growth-stage businesses, and that's when she met her two business partners Mark Chahwan and Jad Sayegh.

This is what Nadine had to say in terms of advice for entrepreneurs and startups.

Meet a true need through your startup.

Nadine describes running a business as challenging, rewarding, and crazy. It's all about the hustle. Finding creative ways to grow without spending money is a constant challenge as well as wearing many hats all at once. But, she says, there's something about running a startup that's like nothing else.

When it comes to launching a startup, Nadine's advice is to make sure you're answering a true need. What excites Nadine about their mission at Sarwa is meeting a need for their customers. The region has historically been under served with accessible financial services, and there is a clear need to make investment available and affordable to everyone. Realizing that this mission facilitates building a better future for the people of this region is what keeps them going.

So for your startup, make sure you're meeting a true need. It has to be such a strong mission that it will drive you and your team to achieve it, especially when times are tough.

Another good piece of advice? Check that what you're offering is differentiated.

Ultimately what matters is being able to go-to-market and reach your customers. Build your case on what this need is, how you will be serving it and your go-to-market strategy. Then just go for it.

Her last piece of advice on this? Make sure you have a good support system around you because you will need it.

Working with Investors.

Nadine acknowledges that ideally when you approach investors, you need a clear pitch, business model and Minimum Viable Product (MVP).

However, when Sarwa approached investors, they were still pre-MVP. Yet they managed to get pre-seed and seed funding rounds. This is because they had built relationships with investors in the sector, who knew them and were familiar with their startup.

Coping with changing market landscapes.

In the past few years, there have been many factors changing in the market landscapes for startups in different sectors, but especially FinTech. There has been an increase in demand for online financial services in the past few years.

"Comparing the market to a few years ago, we see new consumer trends and habits. We're really happy we've been a part of the changing landscape of financial services in the region. Education is still needed, and there's so much still to be done, but we're already seeing a change in consumer behavior."

Along with a change in consumer trends and behaviors, there have also been new entrants to the market.

When Sarwa started, competitors weren't specifically financial advisor platforms. The biggest competitor was - and perhaps still is - real estate. Any traditional form of investment was seen as the most suitable form of investment, including saving accounts in banks.

But with the changing landscape in the region, new direct competitors have launched services as digital financial advisors. Nadine said: "We see new entrants as a positive trend. It lowers the cost of educating customers, in addition to the fact that the market is big enough for everyone."

Marketing advice for entrepreneurs.

Speaking with Nadine about Marketing, you can see that this is an area she deeply understands and is passionate about. She breaks down channels into the below:

Owned channels

All the channels you own are under your control. Make sure that you have the right messaging going out through your owned channels. This includes website, social platforms, newsletters and emails with relevant information. So make the most out of them.

Earned channels

These include press, PR and building relationships with the media. For Nadine, that's a great place to share the Sarwa story. They have focused a lot of effort on getting the word out there, making sure they get good coverage and profile the founders through different outlets. It's a key cornerstone in building trust as well. It's a free channel if you don't use an agency and do it yourselves.

Other strategies for earned channels could be using back links or having brand ambassadors. Back links include Writers, bloggers or journalists can write about your business in a positive way and linking back to your website. They would do this because they believe in your mission and want to spread the word.

Sarwa also has a group of brand ambassadors who all believe in the Sarwa mission of democratizing investments and making it easy for everyone. They worked with their brand ambassadors on community engagement and education through workshops and events to spread the word and educate potential customers.

Paid channels

Nadine's advice is to minimize paid channels as much as possible because the customer segment you're targeting is also being bombarded by advertising from every other competitor. So it's hard to stand out.

Differentiate yourself through the previous two channels. Sarwa works mainly on content, SEO and consumer education.

Develop your brand and it's persona

Another important piece of successful marketing is a strong brand.

Think about your own startups brand, if it were a person, what kind of person would they be? Is it someone you like, is it someone you'd want to be friends with?

If not, what kind of person would you want it to be?

Brand development is so important. It's what creates loyal followers that would support your business through your journey. If you haven't done any work on your brand yet, bring your team together and do a branding workshop. Explore what your image, tone and voice should be like.

COVID-19 and thriving beyond 2020

COVID-19 has impacted businesses large and small all over the world. The level of impact has differed drastically based on the sector you're in. As we all have seen, companies in e-commerce, digital and food retail have all faced a sudden surge in demand, while others have suffered greatly.

Nadine shares that Sarwa has been fortunate in more than one way since the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

They closed an $8.4 M series A round of funding early in 2020. This funding round was earmarked for expansion and operating costs for the coming years. So they are in better shape than most companies with their financial runway.

When the world shifted to working from home in March, their operations weren't impacted either, since they are a fully digital company. All their operations, customer on-boarding and customer service are all digital.

They also saw a surge in demand since new and existing customers saw an opportunity to buy stocks at a cheaper price point. Nadine says: "This is where customer education paid off. Our customers have learned that market volatility is part of the game, and the best approach, if you can afford it, is to buy more stocks when it's low.

Sarwa has also seen further change in consumer habits in the past six months that have led to more savings and investment. This supports the findings this McKinsey & Co report on how COVID has shifted consumer behavior.

Not having the opportunity to spend money on restaurants, shopping or outdoor experiences has meant more savings and more investment.

However, we know that most companies and startups have been struggling to cope with COVID-19. So Nadine is offering these two pieces of advice:

  • Pivot: The market has clearly changed, as evidenced by the report above. Figure out what change is going to stick, and what change is temporary for your customers. Then explore how your business can find new opportunities and meet the shift in consumer needs.

  • Liquidity: Finding and managing cash in these times is especially difficult. So if you're an early stage startup, and you're looking for funds, tap into you're existing networks. With the current climate, most investors will probably shy away from making deals with people they don't know. On the other hand, investors you have a prior relationship with, will be more likely to invest even in early-stage seed rounds. On the other hand, if you manage to survive this pandemic it's a sign that you're business is solid and VCs will be knocking on your doors soon enough!

"You have to find people willing to take the risk with you, and believe in you personally."

True measure of success

At the end of our chat with Nadine, a question that came in from the audience had Nadine opening up about her personal measure of success.

"Personally, I feel successful if what I'm doing is impacting the future of my kids in a positive way. To feel that I contributed to a small change in them, in some way."

She understands that success is subjective, and it includes being happy, and financially stable, but to her, success is all about feeling fulfilled internally.

I tend to agree. What do you think?

If you're interested in tuning into the full conversation, you can catch that here. Here's our first article with Nadine, on lessons from her journey. Stay tuned for one more on advice if you're a first time investor!

© 2020 by BeDo Summit

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