A woman's tale: working as a female entrepreneur in a male-dominated world

An Iraqi entrepreneur with a special mix of engineering and marketing starts a one-stop platform for all household services.

Dunia Othman co-founder of the online marketplace

Dunia Othman co-founder of the online marketplace

Mr Usta / Handout via Thomson Reuters Zawya
04 June 2017

Standing on stage at an event in Abu Dhabi to celebrate International Women's Day, Dunia Othman was quizzed by members of the mainly female audience on why, out of all of the opportunities open to her, she chose a male-focused name for her product and even put a prominent moustache in her logo.

"Mr Usta, the name chosen for the business I co-founded, is simply driven by the fact that the online platform we’ve started provides services by handymen. Usta in Arabic means a master or a handyman, and the majority of workers in this field are men," Othman, the co-founder of the online marketplace, told the audience at an INSEAD business school event in March.

"The moustache logo seemed a perfect fit for the business and instantly clicked for us,” she added.

Start-up Phase

The mrUsta handyman platform was born when Othman was moving house in Dubai and needed someone to assist her with the curtain installations.

"A handyman promised to give a free quote for the job. So he came over and gave a quote which I refused. Shortly, it got to the situation where I was a women alone in the apartment in the middle of the yelling of a handyman asking to be paid, as the idea of a free quote did not pass his head," she told Zawya in an interview in March.

The stressful incident spurred Othman to decide that there must be a way to find a more trusted source of handymen, where you can rate them afterwards. Around the same time, a friend in Dubai, Ibrahim Colak, was struggling to find someone to repair his air conditioning unit in the middle of August.

Eying a gap in the market the two friends used their experiences to channel the demand for such services into a fast-growing online platform and in 2013 Mr Usta was born.

“We found that being able to find a service provider in Dubai is very difficult, because Google does not help much, yellow pages are out of date, and you can’t keep calling your friends for references. So we thought that we should have a platform where we have all of these service providers together, rated from previous customers, and making it is easier to let them find you and chase you for the jobs you are willing to offer,” she said.

Funding rounds

The platform now has 5,300 handymen registered, of which 3,000 are active on a daily basis, and provide services all over the United Arab Emirates to around 10,000 customers per month.

The duo managed to raise financing through two funding rounds. The first was in August 2015 and was seed funding of $350,000 from an angel investor named Amjad Ahmad. Following the first round of funding, Mr Usta re-branded itself in December 2015, and launched the apps in Feb 2016.

In October 2016, the founders closed pre-Series A funding – the stage between seed funding and the first significant round of funding - of $700,000 and are aiming to close another funding deal in the last quarter of 2017.

“If you’re 100 percent dedicated, don’t start a business. You need to be 200 percent dedicated because you’ll hit a lot of highs and lows,” Othman cautions. “We struggled a lot especially in the initial seed funding when the venture was just in the ideation phase with no revenue generated,”

The company also faced another basic challenge: the fact that handymen were not able to use the internet very well, so the founders had to educate the providers on how to operate the system.

“We now see 4 to 5 million dirhams ($1.08 – 1.36 million) a month being made on our platform from our Ustas in all the categories,” Othman says.

While the basic concept is not new and is commonplace to residents in the United States and Europe, Mr Usta was new to the region when it was launched.

“The street culture where you go downstairs to the tailor or the mechanic or the painter for a quick fix is vanishing in these fast-paced times,” Othman points out.

“Now, we have made our strong presence in the UAE, and we are looking at expanding into other countries like Saudi Arabia or Egypt.

The company now has 16 full-time employees in its Media Production Zone office. They left their initial office at the in5 incubator centre in December 2016 as the team grew after closing the second funding.

Career shifts

An Iraqi by origin, the ambitious young entrepreneur grew up and studied in New Zealand and started working as an electronics engineer in New Zealand and the U.S., in extremely male-dominated job conditions that included operating heavy machinery through to writing software code.

She later shifted her career and turned and became a marketing professional, before deciding to quit her job to focus on the new startup.

Othman’s friend, the one who struggled with finding a handyman to fix his AC and became her co-founder is now her husband and, in the midst of developing Mr Usta, they were blessed with a baby girl.

“You owe your family the best version of yourself, so you need to pursue whatever it is that brings out the best version of yourself. For me it’s to be a successful entrepreneur and to push my business forward,” Othman says regarding the challenges and incentives of motherhood, especially for a female entrepreneur.

“You need to find that and it’s different for all of us. Not every mother should pursue a career and not every mother should stay at home. Society needs to understand that there is no right and wrong when it comes to motherhood and a career, instead of setting expectations,” she says.

So while Othman may have chosen a male name for her company, it is one very formidable woman behind the scenes building Mr Usta into the e-commerce force it is today.

© Zawya 2017