It wouldn’t be an understatement to call Careem one of the most successful startups to emerge out of the Middle East in the last few years. Co-founder Mudassir Sheikha himself says that the success of Careem has exceeded their expectations, “I still remember our first business plan that we sent to investors where we were supposed to be at a certain place in 2017 and 2017 is right around the corner, but we are 4 times bigger than what we proposed. This has exceeded our expectations in terms of growth and has pleasantly surprised us all as to how quickly this has happened. “  Ask him the reason behind the success and he gives us three, “Many factors have gone into it, we got the right team in place which was working super hard, and was super committed, the timing has also been right for a service like this, and there was a need that needed solving, and we found the solution to it.”


Originally from Pakistan, Sheikha moved to the US for his under graduation. After graduating in Computer Science and Economics from the University of Southern California, he moved to Stanford for his Masters in Computer Science. Following which he spent 8 years in Silicon Valley. Describing his time in Silicon Valley, he says, “I started working in a startup, founded a startup, and then founded another start up, after which I decided that it was time to move closer to home.” This was followed by a four year stint with McKinsey Consulting, after which Careem happened.

But for someone who started working in startups right after college, Sheikha didn’t always believe he would end up here, “For the longest time, I wanted to be a pilot and then when I was in college in California, I realized that this thing that I was doing was quite fun, so that is when I decided that this will be a great thing to do, and I started working in a startup which was the learning ground for me.” Ask him why he chose to start working in a startup over a more orthodox option, he responds, “I am from the dot com generation, and the only thing that you would do back then was work at a startup. Finding a hot start up to join in Silicon Valley was a badge of honor so that’s what I did; to consider anything otherwise was a failure.” Would he recommend the same to graduates today? “It really does depend on your aspirations. I have some very smart friends, for whom the corporate life was really the right answer, they wanted to spend time with their families, have a balanced life, so that’s the path that they chose, and then there are the others who are more ambitious and adventurous, and are never happy with the state of affairs, for them, yes, if they are okay with a little risk and uncertainty, then they can give startups a shot, because you learn a lot by doing things yourself and building organizations, versus in consulting or banking, where you are not as operational as you are in startups.”


It was the same spirit of ambition and adventure that led to the founding of Careem. Sheikha met his business partner, Magnus Olsson during his stint at McKinsey. Labelled as the ‘tech geeks’ at Mckinsey, both of them found themselves at a similar place in life in 2011, “Both of us were thinking of doing something different, both of us wanted to explore something entrepreneurial, and well, the stars were aligned.” They started problem solving together because as Sheikha puts it, “When you are looking for a business opportunity or a start up, you have to find a problem to solve, every problem is an opportunity, the bigger the problem, the bigger the opportunity so we started making a list of all the problems that we had faced in our time in the Middle East and this was ofcourse one of them. As consultants, we were always on the go, using a lot of cars to go from our homes to airports, airports to the office, office to hotels, so this was a daily part of our lives which is why we felt that it was broken and we could fix this with our technological backgrounds.”


But was the switch from corporate life to start up life as easy? “I understand where this is coming from because while switching you have a lot of insecurities about whether you’ll succeed or not. You have an amazing job that pays a lot that you will be giving up, but we realized after thinking through things that for people like us the perceived risk is a lot higher than the actual risk. What’s the worst that can happen if you don’t succeed in a year or two in a start up? You can always go back and get an amazing job because you are qualified, and you have the credentials, so there isn’t much to lose. “ Even if you don’t succeed, Sheikha says that entrepreneurship has it’s benefits, “You are probably losing a year or two of income but you are learning a lot in those years, and you become more valuable for whoever hires you after that.


While Sheikha has worked enough across startups, what is it that he looks for while hiring people for his own startup? “Three things: drive, problem solving skills, and comfortable with uncertainty”, skills that he believes anyone working in a startup needs to have. But if you pass the Careem metric test, employees have a lot to look forward to at Careem. Careem has given 15% of ownership to the employees, it’s a model that Sheikha believes that all startups should follow, “From the beginning we decided that we will make everyone at Careem, a partner in success, they are not employees that’s not a word we use at Careem, we use partner or colleague, that’s the way we want people to feel so it was important for us to give them equity in business, they have shares as well, which if Careem does well, they do well, which has done wonders for the organization as well. People who work here, join as owners, and work as owners.” He believes that as a model this has helped Careem hire the best people and convince them to make the shift to startups,“It has helped us attract people who were a little hesitant to make the shift from an MNC to a startup, as we are not offering them a job, we are offering them a partnership opportunity, and that really changes the dialogue and gets you the right people, and gets the right mindset from those people.”, he concludes.

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