After Slip-Ups, E-Commerce Gains a Foothold ; Wise with Knowledge of Others' Mistakes, New Firms Adapt and Thrive

Article excerpt

E-commerce sites based in the Mideast are finally finding success after a string of missteps. And those with the right business plans and infrastructure are actually attracting funding.

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Back in 2005, Souq.com was a new Web site modeled after eBay in the United States, catering to the nascent online retailing market in the Middle East. In the last week of October 2012, the fast- growing site received $45 million in funding from international investors, creating a new benchmark for the region's evolving e- commerce scene.

"When we launched at the end of 2005, e-commerce was still in its infancy, and getting started that early gave us time to find a business model that works today," said Ronaldo Meshawar, chief executive of Souq, which is based in Dubai. "It also helped us be an enabler in the region for businesses to sell their products online."

The $45 million deal bolsters an industry that is still relatively young and fragmented, extremely capital intensive, and facing logistical hurdles that have led many sites to shut down.

The large size of the funding shows that money, particularly from foreign investors, is available for the right kind of business. That means one that appeals to consumers and has the potential to grow.

There have been a lot of mixed messages for the regional e- commerce community over the last year. The sudden exit of LivingSocial, the global daily deals site, from the Middle East in August seemed put a nail in the coffin of the regional online retailing market.

The demise of other promising, local sites, including Joob, Nahel, Mizado and Jamalon, in the months preceding the abrupt closure of LivingSocial's regional operations suggested that e- commerce business models in the Gulf were not working.

But success stories are now starting to emerge from a handful of e-commerce sites that are figuring out how to run an online business in the area.

Namshi.com, a copycat of Zappos.com, which sells shoes online, has shown strong growth in its first year of operation. The site grew from three to 100 employees since it began in October 2011, and now manages 600 orders a day, according to Namshi's founders.

Backed by e-commerce veterans, including Rocket Internet in Germany, Namshi also received $20 million in funding from J.P. Morgan and Blakeney Management in September to further grow the business.

"There are challenges around delivery of product, setting up efficient distribution centers and making the right decisions about styles to keep in our inventory base," said Muhammed Mekki, one of Namshi's three co-founders.

"The initial funding was there to test and see if fashion e- commerce can work in the Mideast," he said. "Now that we've proven the model works, we'll focus on expanding."

MarkaVIP, a Jordanian site that provides discounts on luxury items, has also caught the eye of international investors, attracting $10 million in capital from European and American investment firms in April.

Souq is the latest and biggest in a string of new sites. The firm received funding from the South African group Naspers and Tiger Global, a New York hedge fund. …