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What I know about leadership: Rabea Ataya, co-founder, Bayt.com

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As co-founder of Bayt.com, Rabea Ataya has been at the forefront of the Middle East’s digital transformation. So what has he learnt as a leader?

At the age of 25, I was fortunate to found a fastgrowth business called InfoFort. The business had a predictable revenue stream, an impressive roster of clients, and a limited set of variables to manage. Yet, pre-internet, I also faced multiple challenges.

The first was locating great talent. I was dependent on three sources: Local newspapers produced a small number of applicants of generally sub-par quality. Recruiting agencies did not understand my business, its work culture or the type of candidate that would suit it. Word of mouth was slow and limited in its exposure.

The second challenge at InfoFort was a very personal one. While the business was successful when measured by typical business metrics, it did not fulfil my need to build an enterprise that had a social mandate. I felt strongly that a business should be able to enrich both the community it is in as well as its traditional stakeholders. My dream was to build a Middle Eastern institution that empowered people to lead better lives, and in doing so, became globally admired and respected.

This was particularly frustrating as I realised that, across the region, there was phenomenal talent that was either unemployed, underemployed, or unhappily employed who complained about their inability to find opportunity.

The combination of these two challenges, and the fact that I had had a technical education at Stanford and an insight into institutionalised entrepreneurship (my first job was in investment banking helping entrepreneurs take their companies public), prepared me to pursue an entrepreneurial path in a technical field that was socially responsible. 

Challenges we faced

The journey started with numerous challenges. The major one was that, in 2,000, there were limited internet users in the Arab world. 

Challenge: The nascence of the internet in the region. We were trying to offer a service online when less than 1% of the population was online. Our audience was very limited.

Solution: Patience is a virtue anywhere in the world. In the Middle East, it’s an essential part of survival. We had to pace our investment to spend as much as the market would absorb.

Challenge: The complexity of the legal environment. Setting up a regional internet business where the internet was brand new meant that the law still did not know how to deal with our type of company. Registering Bayt.com across the Middle East was a very complex process.

Solution: Often, the credo “ask for forgiveness not permission” was necessary particularly when there was so little clarity.

Challenge: The shortage of funding for internet start-ups. When we launched in November 2000, the internet bubble had collapsed globally and stock markets had lost trillions of dollars. People around the world were very wary of the industry.

Solution: At first, we had to selffund. Then we had to be reasonable about the third party amounts we wanted to fundraise and knocked on hundreds of doors all around the world until we found a willing and able investor.

Challenge: The shortage of internet specific talent. Given that the internet was just starting up in the Middle East and was relatively new globally, finding people with relevant industry experience was close to impossible.

Solution: Our solutions included recruiting globally for the best people and training locally to ensure sustainability.

On motivations as a leader

I want to build an enterprise that has a social mandate. What motivates me is continuing to build a Middle-Eastern institution that truly empowers people to lead better lives, and in doing so, becomes globally admired and respected.

Our success has been a story of hard work, persistence and an unwavering commitment to excellence, innovation and integrity, that is practised by each and every person working here.

We have invested a significant period of time in defining the values that determine our success as an organisation, and the behaviours that map to these values. We are constantly measuring where we’re improving, and the areas in which we need to improve.

It’s very motivating to empower our communities and work on better ways to empower them even further.

On legacy in business

I want my legacy to be building a successful institution that continues to be an indispensable part of people’s lives, and that has a life of its own, separate from those of its founders, shareholders, or executives.

We want to fulfil our mission and vision of empowering people to lead their lifestyle of choice.

On the best advice he’s received

A friend at university said “you owe it to yourself to be happy”, and this quote has stuck with me and formed an important part of my life philosophy. Business, and by extension, work, are important parts of our lives. Striving for happiness in our professional lives is often neglected but is as important as doing so in all other aspects of our lives.

On success and failure

One of our core values as an organisation is “strive to be the best”, and we are constantly striving to do better and better, whether we’ve failed or succeeded. The important thing is to learn continually, produce with pride, and be innovative, no matter the challenges.  

Karam Filfilan

By Karam Filfilan

Changeboard

Karam is Changeboard Middle East's editor and UK deputy editor.

Changeboard

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