Business Irish

Thursday 26 April 2018

Kenny AYMs for second tech fortune

Paul Kenny's new business aims to power online shopping in the Middle East, writes John Reynolds

James Whelton, Majed Al-Tahan, Paul Kenny
James Whelton, Majed Al-Tahan, Paul Kenny

John Reynolds

As philosophies go, Galway serial entrepreneur Paul Kenny's - to follow his own path in life - is working out pretty well for him.

Having made about €40m from an online coupon business Cobone, he's now on the way to making his second tech fortune in the Middle East, this time from a different aspect of online shopping.

And where many Irish tech emigrants gravitate to the US with their startups, Kenny and his company co-founder James Whelton - the 25-year-old tech genius from Cork who co-founded the global computer coding class organisation CoderDojo - followed their own paths and went to Dubai.

With some backing from outside investors, they've teamed up with Saudi Arabian entrepreneur Majed Al-Tahan, to form AYM, a tech and logistics platform to power online shopping, initially for Danube, one of Saudi's biggest supermarket chains.

The three first met in early 2015, but it took until last August for Al-Tahan to launch the new venture. With a year of hard work under their belt, the trio own the majority of AYM. "It's taken lots of coffee and some 36-hour days, for James especially," says Kenny, 33, on a Skype call.

It's now growing fast. "Some months our growth is in the triple digits [per cent]. I haven't seen a business grow this quickly before," the NUI Galway graduate says.

With a fleet of vans on the road in four cities - Riyadh, Jeddah, Abha and Khobar - that have a combined population of 10 million, the business already employs 150 people. "A few van dealerships are very happy, and we need more," he says.

Further expansion will see AYM cover the whole country by the end of the year. From their new office overlooking Dubai Marina, they plan to launch in a second country next year. By then they hope to have 1,000 employees, the majority of whom will be in picking, packing and delivering.

The business brings to mind the UK's Ocado and Instacart in the US, while Amazon - which paid €500m in April for 12-year-old Dubai-based ecommerce giant Souq.com - will be a rival if it expands its food and groceries offering in the region.

Ocado may present a cautionary tale. Its profits have come under pressure in the mature British market. As a result, despite a €1.4bn turnover, its margin is just under 1pc. Saudi and other countries in the region that AYM has in its sights could deliver healthier profits, in the short term. Especially so if a leaner business model means all it needs to operate is employees, the technology and fleets of vans, without costly warehouse infrastructure that the likes of Ocado operates. With items picked mainly from stores, there are no other significant overheads, Kenny confirms.

If AYM gets 5pc of the kingdom's 24 million smartphone users to spend $60 (€51) a week with them on their groceries, then a 2pc margin provides annual revenues of €64m. Even at every second week, it's €32m, and the spend in that example is fairly conservative, I suggest. "That's hypothetical of course. I can't discuss financials. There are other sources of revenue beyond just a margin that's a percentage of sales, which is the standard one. Saudi Arabia is among the largest and fastest growing ecommerce countries in the Gulf region. Buying groceries online is still a relatively untapped space, but we plan to redefine it."

A report by Statista indicates that online sales will amount to €4.7bn in the kingdom this year. They're growing at over 12pc a year, and are set to exceed €7bn by 2020. People aged 25 to 34 are driving the trend, though at the moment they're typically booking travel or buying clothes and electronics online, he adds. Ten million web-savvy expats in the country are also a lucrative customer segment to tap into.

"About 40pc of our customers have never bought anything online before buying some groceries from us. There is a cultural shift in that sense. You've got big families here too, as well as the under-35s, and they're among the highest users of the internet and smartphones in the world.

"A family might do their weekly shop with us. With top-up purchases, that might rise to 100 orders every year. Our repeat purchase rate is already very high." High potential sales - ARPU (annual revenue per user) - and good profits made the opportunity too good to pass up.

Every tech firm seeks it; many don't find it. "Back in 2014, the year after I'd sold Cobone, James and I looked at various markets, and how often someone would order a product. We listed about 25 ideas. With clothes, electronics or other goods, people might buy them a few times a year.

"Cobone involved selling restaurant or travel-related deals, boat trips, services and that kind of thing. Again, people tended to order from us a few times a year, so there was a cap on ARPU and the size of the market. With groceries, people will always need to buy them, so it's a lot bigger.

"Our strategy was to see a market requirement and build something to cater to it as quickly as possible. I'd do the marketing, and James would build the tech. We make a good team in that respect."

One market they passed up was bed mattresses. New entrants Purple and Casper in the US have been valued at $1bn and $550m respectively. But repeat purchase times are measured in years.

Some previous investments haven't worked out. "Our online travel firm, Triperna, which became Safarna, was one. The cost of acquiring a customer was very high. It needed a lot of investment to become profitable." Simply Golf, an app to match professional golfers to golfers seeking lessons, also failed to take off, despite having a few high-profile ambassadors such as Shane Lowry.

Kenny has lost money, but declines to reveal how much. "I'd invest to a point where we could validate a business. I don't want to quantify it. I had to fail at those to be where I am today. They led me here, through a process.

"They're the reason I'm here with AYM. So they weren't failures in that sense. Not to have tried would have been the biggest failure." He owns a small stake in Dylan Collins's Superawesome, a children's games and entertainment platform. "Other investments were in a variety of sectors including construction, advertising, PR and design. Many weren't public."

What makes AYM unique, and can he give us more insight into what it's taken to build it?

"We use best in class pieces of existing software that have particular functions. The art form is connecting those different components together. It's customised for the retailer, but also for the region. Arabic is read and written right to left, not left to right, so that adds another level of complexity. It took a lot of data entry work to make things searchable, including different dialects."

"The complexity is heightened by the region we're in. This is a first. We looked at existing systems in Europe and the US, but we had to improve on them. It was highly educational. Our platform connects stores, pickers, packers, drivers and a number of marketing tools.

"We're getting requests from local and international retailers that are interested in working with us. That'll keep us very busy. We're planning to expand across the MENA region as soon as next year. Other retailers can plug into our infrastructure. We'll support them in a variety of ways."

He hasn't learned Arabic himself, beyond pleasantries and greetings. Has being Irish been an advantage?

"There's a large Irish community in the region. We help each other and our reputation seems to be one of working hard to make things happen."

He and Whelton actually met through a mutual friend, American tech entrepreneur and now venture capitalist Jonathan Siegle.

"I'd heard about James's success with CoderDojo and was hoping to meet him at a conference in Ireland. But as it turned out we were both at Jonathan's house in California several years ago, got talking, took a road trip to Napa Valley, and have worked together since then."

They brought a quirky culture to their offices at Cobone and now at AYM, often devising and playing elaborate pranks on each other and their colleagues. The staff is made up of a number of nationalities, and there's an employee share ownership scheme.

"Some of us have worked together at Cobone, so we knew each other's abilities and what to expect with this new challenge. In business, you might have a great idea, but it's nothing without the right people.

"Culture is important. We try not to take ourselves too seriously. Anyone who worked with me at Cobone will know about our prank culture. Some involve actors we hire in."

Business is in Kenny's genes, as his family own Kenny's bookshop in Galway, which is now some 77 years old, with two decades of selling online under its belt. He worked in the shop, in various roles, and accompanied his parents on business trips, soaking it all in as a practical education. Former Jumeirah Group boss, fellow Galway man Gerald Lawless, has been a mentor and gave him his first job in Dubai.

Amid running AYM, somehow Kenny finds the time to work with Jetro, Japan's equivalent of Enterprise Ireland, advising their companies about expanding in the region, raising money and building teams. "It's been a huge honour and the quality of the companies is very high," he says.

"We feel AYM can be really, really big," says Kenny as our conversation draws to a close.

"We want to achieve an IPO or trade sale at some point. I'd like us to be a leader in this space in the Middle East."

Name

Paul Kenny

Age

33

Position

Co-founder, AYM Commerce

Lives

Dubai

Education

Masters in ecommerce and information systems, NUI Galway

Previous experience

Marketing executive, Jumeirah Group; Founder, Cobone

Family

Married with one daughter

Pastimes

Travelling, Netflix, running, reading, audiobooks

When I made my first fortune with Cobone...

I took a year off to travel around the world with my wife and daughter

Last box set

House of Cards

Currently reading

Several books: The Intelligent Investor; The Art of Not Giving a F***, and Mastering the Rockefeller Habits

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