Having sold his first business for an estimated $40m, Irish tech entrepreneur Paul Kenny is back with plans to revolutionise retail in the Middle East.
The first time I spoke to Paul Kenny, he had just sold his first e-commerce company, Cobone, for tens of millions of dollars – and yet, very few people in Ireland knew much about the Galway native at the time.
A scion of the Kennys Bookshop family, proprietors of the legendary bookstore in Galway city for more than 70 years, young Kenny cut his teeth learning the ropes of retail in the family business.
‘I believe if you wake up every day with the right intention and work to that, you will succeed’
– PAUL KENNY
A lifelong love of the Middle East was sparked when, as a schoolkid, Kenny was on vacation with his family in Dubai and he vowed to return.
And what a return! After graduating from NUI Galway with a business degree, he went to work with the 7-star hotel chain Jumeirah Group where, after securing a hard-earned promotion, he took charge of digital marketing.
This led to a succession of roles for Kenny at Top Right Group and Emirates Airline. At the airline, he played a key role in driving $500m worth of ticket sales online.
Kenny realised that in terms of internet and digitalisation, the Middle East was behind the curve in some ways. He felt that critical evolutions in terms of deal purchasing and e-commerce experiences that had already grown up in the West could find a home in the Middle East.
Selling dots to the Arabs
In many ways, Kenny brought digital disruption to the Middle East after he realised that, despite the penetration of the internet, very few people there at the time had developed online buying habits.
He set out to change that with Cobone.com, even hiring 100 motorcycle dispatchers to deliver goods and collect cash. About 80pc of Cobone’s business was done this way at first and, by the time he sold the company, it had moved 80pc online.
In 2013, Kenny sold Cobone to Tiger Global Management for a sum (reported by TechCrunch at the time) of $40m.
Since exiting Cobone, Kenny has been back at work building a new business called Aym Commerce as well as becoming founding partner at Emerge Ventures, an investment firm focused on high-impact, early-stage and Series A investment in emerging markets.
In terms of Aym, Kenny has partnered with Middle East entrepreneur Majed M Al Tahan and fellow Irish technology entrepreneur and developer James Whelton to build an e-commerce grocery platform in the Middle East with the leading retailer in Saudi Arabia, the BinDawood Group, and its digital brand Danube.
Kenny explained that the plan is to work with partners such as the BinDawood Group and help them digitise. Danube is a case in point. The Danube app is a business in its own right, which provides full-circle grocery delivery whereby staff pick the order from any of the 60 hypermarkets owned in the Middle East region by BinDawood, and bring the groceries and fresh produce directly to the customer’s door.
“Aym invests in and operates companies in the region. It’s an exciting time to be active in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) because you are seeing massive evolutions of change. It was primarily an offline economy but now you have companies like Amazon active here, too.
“However, it is not that straightforward. Localisation is the art form. Many companies come here, hire lots of consultants and then shut up shop. When it comes to execution, you need to hire local.”
Another advantage is that most of the team at Aym are former Cobone colleagues.
“The mistake many companies and countries make when targeting the MENA region is, they just see a region. But they forget that there are over 350m people with high disposable incomes. Some 65pc of people are under the age of 35 and are extremely digitally connected and consume a lot of content. Irish companies have massive opportunities to come here, but don’t. The key to success is not just technology, but knowing the culture.
“There are two ways to come here: you can spend lots of money and end up with maybe one customer, or you could work with us and we will help you get into the market quicker.”
Pillars of wisdom
Kenny said that he would not have the insights he has if it wasn’t for Cobone.
“Working with BinDawood Group, we would put our tech into one of their supermarkets, and our staff, logistics and app would do the rest, enabling customers to order fresh goods and have them delivered within two hours.
“People always need to eat. With the Danube app, we are seeing a very high repeat ratio compared with Cobone. Our goal is to keep building and deploy this across the entire MENA region.”
In terms of funding, Aym raised a seed round last year.
“It was quite a large round of funding that has allowed us to accelerate the business to where we are today, and now we are growing the business from revenues.
“The plan is to build a very large, full-scale business that can serve the 350m consumers.”
While Danube has 260 staff, the core of Aym is a 26-strong team of tech experts that can build and deploy apps and digital platforms for strategic partners in the MENA region.
“We have operations in Dubai and Saudi Arabia, and we plan to grow to where ever the market opportunities allow.”
Now 10 years in the Middle East, Kenny plans to stay in the region for the foreseeable future. “I think being long-term focused is my biggest maturity. A few years ago, I was trying to achieve instant gratification. But now, I believe if you wake up every day with the right intention and work to that, you will succeed.
“Things will never come to you unless you are hungry and willing to work for it, and be put in situations where you have to figure out how to swim in the deepest waters.”