Middle East comparison website Souqalmal.com , which is based in Dubai, aims to make the market easier for all of us to understand when it comes to financial and insurance products, schools and nurseries. Following an investment of USD 1.2m by Hummingbird Ventures in its second round of funding, it is set to take another grand leap.
We at Arabian Gazette interacted with CEO Ambareen Musa to understand the concept of Souqualmal. Wouldn’t you want to know at what stage of your financial planning can Souqalmal.com help you? Would it interest you if someone can help you understand the fine print of your financial products? Be with us and read on.
Tell us the story of Souqalmal.com. How did it all begin?
Souqalmal.com started in May 2012. It came from the realization, when I first moved here, that it was impossible to understand my own options when it came to personal finance products. It was obvious there was a gap in the market for both users and banks. There was no platform for banks to reach out to customers who were actively searching for their product vs. cold calling thousands of customers and hoping a few of them would be interested.
Where does the idea come from? The concept of comparison is nothing new. There are many very successful sites in the US, UK, India and Australia – but the concept had not yet reached the Middle East. Back in 2004, I was responsible for the online marketing for GE Money in the UK, where one of the most effective acquisition channels was moneysupermarket.com – the biggest comparison site in the UK, giving users the opportunity to compare all retail finance products in the country and also providing the banks with an economical platform to reach out to interested customers.
After two years at Bain & Company Middle East and two more at MasterCard, I decided to bring the concept to the UAE and launched the site in May 2012. The vision is to provide users with a platform to compare their options and thereby understand their choices and the fees and charges involved – and eventually make an informed decision. From a bank’s perspective, Souqalmal.com is a cost-effective acquisition channel where the customer is empowered to choose the bank he or she wants to talk to. It is a very powerful tool for both users and providers.
More than earning money, what is difficult is managing and growing it. How easy is it to demystify the monstrous job?
Setting up a company is one thing and growing it is another. It is not an easy job. The three attributes to success are perseverance, passion and patience. Businesses do not grow overnight but, with the right funding, team and leadership, you can quickly transform one into a very profitable enterprise.
The hours and the stress of cash management are not to be under-estimated. As a founder, it is common that you wear multiple hats in the early years, be they marketing, admin, IT or accounting. The real turning point for me was when I put together the right team, who share the same vision and passion to grow the business.
At what stage of financial planning should one visit www.Souqalmal.com?
Souqalmal.com allows users to search and compare over 2,800 products, from financial ones such as credit cards, personal loans, mortgages, car loans, bank accounts and insurance – to other expansion areas like mobile phone plans and schools and nurseries. We cover all the steps you need to get a financial product. Anyone looking for information should first visit our blog to read our news, analysis and guides to how banks work, what kind of products they offer, how the finances work (for instance, the difference between flat or reducing rates or fixed and variable rates), what the fees, charges and process are and, particularly, what’s in the fine print. We have many expats in the UAE and, too often, they overlook important information, assuming it’s going to be just the same as in their home country.
Users can then search and compare according to their own personal circumstances e.g. their salary bracket, the amount they want to borrow and whether they want an Islamic or conventional product, amongst many, many other filters they can use to narrow down the list. Once their choice is made, they can request a callback from the bank of their choice within the next business day. I have to stress, though, how important it is to understand the fine print of a financial product before signing the paperwork.
Are people ready for shopping financial products online? How many are actually buying online?
Currently, apart from insurance, customers cannot really buy a financial product online. Once the UAE Credit Bureau is fully up and running, this will be possible but it will require some development in both the banks’ technology and credit departments. There is a big need, however, to compare financial product online; UAE consumers want convenience and the time to look through their options. The other alternative is to call each and every bank and sit on hold until you get through to the call center. A recent survey we did on Souqalmal.com suggested, for instance, that 80 percent of customers were ready to buy car insurance online – but many providers simply did not provide the facility yet.
Any particular financial product that you would brand under a “do not buy this online” category?
I think everyone is different. It’s not that there’s any one category that should not be bought online but, rather, that the consumer needs to decide individually what they are comfortable buying online and when they would rather speak to someone before signing up. There are some products that are hard to close online, such as a mortgage that needs a valuation of the property before the purchase can be completed. However, doing your homework – the options and features available in the market – can definitely be done online. This is the stage where Souqalmal.com helps collate the fees and charges for, and benefits of, each product and lay it out in a simple, user-friendly way.
Do you have any tie-ups or are you an independent aggregator?
We are an independent aggregator and banks use us as a platform to reach out to their customers. However, we never recommend a product: we collate all the information the customer asks for into one list and then let them decide what is best for them.
So primarily, is it a pure editorial comparison?
We bring all the facts and figures together, so it is a factual comparison. The blog provides editorial know-how. And then we encourage users to review the products they already have, giving others insight into their experience and helping them reach their own decisions.
Souqalmal.com comes across as a friend of the investor, how does the company earn its money?
We need to make sure we build a service that is sustainable and we can continue to provide a free open platform to users to compare their financial options. Like moneysupermarket.com in the UK, our business model is based on adverts and leads sent to the bank.
As a customer, it is very difficult to get accurate information from the call centers of most financial companies. How do you manage?
We have worked very hard on this, and we now have direct relationship with the banks in the UAE who provide us with the information we require.
One very scary term in the financial world is “fine print”. How scary have the revelations of such fine print been until now?
The fine print is nothing else than the terms and conditions of a certain product. It’s all in the contract you sign with the bank. This can be a very long document, and many people skip Terms & Conditions to go straight to the signature page. The only advice I can give is to make sure you do not sign a contract only based on the information you received during the purchase process. Before signing, read the terms and conditions thoroughly and don’t be afraid to ask questions about any terms that do not make sense.
Any examples of fine print that as a customer, one does not know?
One of the common issues our users have is when they decide to pay off their loan early. Banks generally charge an early settlement fee. Very often, you’ll hear of zero percent early settlement fee promotions, which means the bank will waive the fee if you decide to pay back your loan early. However, in some cases, the fine print will specify that the waiver will only apply if the loan is being settled in cash, rather than another bank refinancing i.e. you taking out a new loan with another bank.
Your website has a “reviews” section. Now, our readers and your customers would want to know who reviews these and how do we know that these reviews are genuine?
We allow our users to log in and review their products. As with all review sites, nothing is published until validated.
As of now, Souqalmal.com is an informative website that educates readers about the various financial products. Don’t you think it would be a good service to the customer that as an aggregator or information, you allow them to purchase the product there itself?
Our services is the transparent comparison of all available financial products vs us selling on behalf of anyone. Purchasing the product remains between the customer and the provider.
The UAE has this image of a “tax-free” state and comfortable living. According to a recent interview, the country is not saving as much as it should be. What advice would you give to the people?
That’s true: Souqalmal.com did a survey which showed that one in four UAE residents save less than 10 percent of their monthly income. While enjoying a good quality of life is important, saving adequately for the future is even more so, especially as expats typically do not accrue welfare benefits while working in the UAE. Look through your expenses and check what is really necessary – are you confident you will have enough to support you through your retirement? If not, it is a good idea to start now by looking at ways you can save, from consolidating your loans to the savings, discounts and cashback you can get on your credit cards. Many of us have unnecessary expenses, which can be cut and redirected to increase our savings.
Any expansion plans? Are you looking at adding new verticals for comparisons anytime soon?
We are constantly expanding our products and refining our comparison engine. Our SME section, comparing all financial products for SMEs, will be launched in October, and we are working on a regional expansion plan too. Watch this space.