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UAE Start-up Souqalmal: Compare Before You Say 'I Do'

02/18/2015 04:21 pm ET | Updated Apr 18, 2015

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UAE's Ambareen Musa was a little frustrated. She had just bought a new car in Dubai and when her payment was due every month, the numbers didn't add up. She was paying about $140 more than she thought she had agreed to, and wanted to know why.

She first called the loan officer, but after looking into the matter, he could not answer. Then she went to the manager, but he did not know. She went to the branch manager, hoping that he would definitely know why. After three months, she found herself finally going to the head office, and was referred to the London headquarters of what is actually, a very large international bank.

Eventually, she got an answer - which was that there was a difference between something called the flat rate and the reducing rate. In UAE, she realized there was a huge lack of financial literacy. "People did not understand the basics about money," said Musa.

And so a company - and a CEO -- were born. Many entrepreneurs see a need to solve a problem in society, and Musa was no exception. After spending 15 years focusing on the banking sector, with time as a management consultant, she realized that there was a huge need to educate the UAE market about money.

Initially bootstrapping with her own cash, she launched Souqalmal -- translated as "money market" in Arabic -- a comparison website that helps UAE residents save time and money by comparing credit cards, loans, mortgages, and other financial products. The company tagline is apropos to this marriage-minded culture: "Compare before you say 'I do.'"

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"We want to build awareness, to help people understand finances and have a vision. We want to be the number one financial educator of the region," she said.

"Comparison is non-existent here, unlike in the US. The goal is to put the consumer in the driver's seat," she said, adding that in America, there are sites that compare credit cards, loans, and other financial products, such as LendingTree, MoneySuperMarket, and Bankrate.

In the UAE, her goal is to create awareness where there is little financial transparency in a crowded field. For example, there are 50 banks in the UAE. "Many people don't understand the banking industry here, and the difference between certain terms," she said, citing the prior example between flat rates and reducing rates.

Her timing is on target, especially as there is greater focus on this issue as time goes on. In fact, there is also a push in the region to educate the public, such as in Saudi Arabia, where she also just launched Souqalmal. Her goal is also to educate, teaching people to read the small print about hidden fees. "You don't know what you don't know," she said.

Obsessed with customer service, she said that, "What you are getting into is empowerment of customers, and ridding them of the surprise factor. We are teaching them to be aware that there are costs when taking out things like loans. For example, there is a loan arrangement fee, interest, and other costs, such as the cost of the mortgage and valuation."

Musa listens to her customers by using surveys and research. "We learned there is a whole area around savings. One survey said people only save what they need, and others struggle to save. Credit cards are seen as bad, but used properly you can get two for one tickets," she said.

Now of course, there is the business model. Each lead she captures on her site is a potential new customer for the bank. "The bank's perspective, of course, is that they can reach out to customers using a new platform, and now customers can choose. Banks call them back, so it is a payment per lead in terms of revenue back to us. The banks call them back, but now there is an educated consumer base. Banks and customers don't waste their time, and so now it changes from a 'Please stop calling me,' to an 'I want you,'" she said.

From a technical side, she is focused on building services on the site. "We are listening. We do this by running data, and using tools such as social media. Our site has a "hot topics," section, and we are adding verticals," she said.

Yes, the company is growing the website, but it is also growing its staff, something aided by investors from a venture capital firm in Europe.

In addition to supporting individuals, her goal is to create an ecosystem, and now she has a section on the site for small and medium businesses, where members can talk to each other. Specialized content and three networking events a year help build relationships. "Consumers trust us. We need to be independent and have built that in the last two and a half years," she said.

The business community agrees. "The whole market has watched Ambareen grow this business. Dubai is a bit of a village, and so we all know her story," said Shane Phillips, Managing Director of Shane Phillips Consultants, and host of the top leadership and career show in the Mideast and North Africa region. "Her integrity can only be eclipsed by her tenacity, which of course fosters trust from her market and her audience," he said.

It has been quite a ride, though she said that female entrepreneurs with families have to manage work commitments, carefully considering how to manage work-life balance. She tries to be home for dinner at 6 p.m., and she said her daughter feels it if she is feeling stressed. Part of the reason she works is because she wants her children to understand the world of work.

Women-owned businesses present a challenge that is very personal, and it is important to ask what stage someone is at careerwise. "Everyone makes sacrifices somewhere, and some make a choice to grow their business slower and not compromise on other things. It is such a personal thing," Musa says. However, some might say that with childcare and home help affordable in this part of the world, more women can put efforts toward career.

In the world of entrepreneurs, she sees the real heroes as people who risk everything, leave cushy jobs, and truly have nobody to fall back on financially or emotionally -- family or otherwise.

As a woman, she said investors take her just as seriously as they do men, but it likely helps that she has a background in management consulting, 15 years of experience dealing with the banking sector, and an MBA from INSEAD, one of Europe's best business schools. Early on, she worked at GE, helping launch an educational product on money basics with the UK government. "My background plays a role, and it is the same for men. Whenever I approach investors, they look at me as a person, and as a founder. Everything about small and medium enterprises is about the founder, and they look at you as the company. Who you are depicts the future -- are you very passionate, are you on time, are you dependable?

Is there a difference between Dubai and Silicon Valley? Absolutely. "Here you have to look for good people to work in your start-up, because people want to work for a huge brand, whereas in the US, people are shunning huge companies and wanting to work in startups is the trend."

For more information, please visit: www.souqalmal.com.