Abdallah Abu Sheikh's entrepreneurial journey from his early teens to the helm of Astra Tech, one of the biggest technology investment and development companies in the Mena region, is defined by his “can do” attitude.
“Achievement is an addiction,” says the Jordanian, who plans to grow the company, which has more than 130 million users on its platform, after having raised $500 million in one of the biggest financing rounds for a start-up in the region.
“The minute you feel like you can accomplish something, you start wondering how much more, how much further can I push,” he says.
“If you really manage to stay on the ground and very close to users, you will always uncover bigger problems that you apply your experience to and find better solutions. I think this is what drives me, this is what gets me to do what I'm doing.”
Mr Abu Sheikh, 28, is building on the rich entrepreneurial legacy of his late father, who built manufacturing and procurement businesses in China from scratch.
Before he obtained his master's degree from London Business School, Mr Abu Sheikh spent many of his formative years in China and went to colleges and universities in the US and Canada.
In high school, Mr Abu Sheikh was not really keen on pursuing higher education or carving a niche for himself in the world of business. His father was “doing great” and he felt he did not really need to work.
However, “that paradigm shifted very quickly for me the minute” his father died, he says.
“My father's passing away at a very young age gave me the hard reality of life that if you don't work for yourself and you don't build for yourself, nobody's going to do it for you.”
Mr Abu Sheikh quit the family businesses and launched his first venture, a renewable energy platform developing utility-scale units in Africa, in his teens.
To grow the business, Mr Abu Sheikh entered into partnerships with people who were “subject-matter experts”.
His Chinese language skills helped to attract the Chinese talent pool and companies that had ample experience in similar projects, he says.
After selling the business to private investors a few years after launch, he ventured into technology with a government procurement management system in Jordan. Similar to his previous venture, he scaled it up and later sold it to a holding company in Saudi Arabia.
Mr Abu Sheikh, who had been a frequent visitor to the UAE, decided to put down roots in the Arab world’s second-largest economy in 2017 and launched several ventures in the country. Barq, an electric vehicles company, is one of the businesses, which he fully exited last year.
Rizek, a “super app” for on-demand home services was launched in 2020, which went on to raise $10 million to scale up its operations and drive expansion across the region in 2021.
The funding round that pushed its total financing to $15 million attracted investors such as UAE family offices and Abu Dhabi holding company ADQ.
He launched Astra Tech in early 2022 “with a much bigger ambition” to create a platform that will simplify the way people communicate, shop, pay and transact.
“We went on to put together Astra because of our successful track record. We've had success with a lot of the businesses that we had built and a lot of the value we created for investors and shareholders,” Mr Abu Sheikh says.
He aims to build Astra into something that is a “differentiator”, something that has not been seen in the region before, with a “massive amount of users and a massive network built into it”.
“This is what I envisioned two years ago, with our supporters and backers,” he says.
“There are not a lot of companies that meet that description. You only have Instagram, Facebook or WhatsApp. That's all,” he adds.
Astra Tech allows businesses and vendors to connect with customers across a variety of services and products in a single system, eliminating the complexity of using different apps for different services.
“If you were to put it in one line, Astra is consolidating the consumer technology services ecosystem on one platform. This, in very short, is what our mission is.”
In December, Abu Dhabi's artificial intelligence and cloud computing company G42 led investors in Astra Tech’s funding round of $500 million.
The start-up, which acquired FinTech platform PayBy and Rizek, said it would use the funds to expand and acquire other consumer platforms.
The following month, Astra acquired popular Middle East internet calling platform Botim, getting access to Botim's 90 million registered users, it said at the time, without disclosing the financial details.
Aside from voice over internet protocol calls, Botim offers money transfer and bills payment services to users across markets.
“Our investors have really bet big on us to put together Astra and today Astra stands as the biggest consumer technology company in this part of the world, with more than 130 million users,” Mr Abu Sheikh says.
Consumer apps have played a major role in people's lives, especially since the coronavirus outbreak in the region, as consumers relied heavily on them to access services, including finance, shopping, health, transport and home services.
Astra Tech, which is building an “ultra app”, will rival platforms such as Dubai-based Careem, one of the most recognisable super apps in the Middle East.
Careem became the region's first unicorn — a start-up with a valuation of more than $1 billion — when US-based Uber bought it in 2019 for $3.1 billion.
Mr Abu Sheikh says valuation is not a concern for Astra, which is many times the size of its nearest competitor in terms of the number of users on its platform.
This month, Astra teamed up with global payments company MasterCard to boost its digital payments services in the Mena region.
The partnership makes PayBy, Astra Tech's financial services arm, the first FinTech player in the UAE to obtain a MasterCard principal membership licence, which will enable it to act as an issuer of digital — prepaid and debit — and physical cards.
Mr Abu Sheikh says Astra's capital structure is robust and it has enough cash on its balance sheet. The venture does not need to tap investors for more funds in the medium term as its businesses are “cash flow positive”.
“We run economically viable businesses. We are a profitable business. We don't play the technology game of burning money for the sake of burning money.”
Mr Abu Sheikh has ambitious plans for Astra's future, and they do not include an exit.
Astra is primed to add more consumer verticals on its platform and Mr Abu Sheikh is willing to hire as many people as needed to achieve the company's growth objectives — both on the commercial and technology sides of the business.
“We started with about three people, today we're about 300,” he says.
Q&A with Abdallah Abu Sheikh, founder and chief executive of Astra Tech
Who is your role model and what is your mantra for success?
I have been lucky enough to work with many great mentors and partners, and I don’t usually try to model myself after anyone. I believe different people have different journeys, and what works for someone might not work for somebody else. As a personal role model though, I always look back to my late father, who was a very successful businessman. He started from scratch and built up a sizeable business that employed and supported thousands of people. He managed to maintain a positive impact on everyone that worked with him.
Are you a risk-taker or a cautious entrepreneur?
There are no cautious entrepreneurs. The word itself means “one who undertakes risk”. I am a firm believer in taking risk. New and exciting things have always been created by doing what has not been done before, things that are usually believed to be impossible. In my opinion, entrepreneurs should be the risk scouts of the community and should always be more daring and more willing to accept risk than they are cautious.
Which successful start-ups do you wish you had started and why?
I do admire the success of companies that have disrupted traditional industries and transformed the way we live and do business today. I am not really sure what companies I wish I'd started but definitely not a food delivery company.
If you could start all over again, what would you do differently?
I wouldn't change anything. Every experience, both good and bad, has shaped me into the entrepreneur that I am today.
Where do you see the company five years from now?
I do not think in five-year terms really. I do not believe that is realistic. Although the journey is long, we should keep looking at short-terms goals as well. I know in six months we are going to bring our users 10 times the value they have today, by enabling first of its kind solutions in communications and FinTech to empower users more than ever.
What are the mistakes that you would like to correct?
Mistakes are part of the learning process, and I believe they are opportunities for growth and improvement. The world is vast and the opportunities in it are plenty. However, unless you are proactive and ambitious, the potential cannot be tapped. I believe that the world is filled with geniuses, yet because they do not relentlessly pursue what they want, the world is losing out on countless innovations.
What skills have you learnt while launching the company?
Launching Astra Tech has taught me to navigate a fast-paced and ever-changing business landscape, build and hire the right teams, and identify and capitalise on new business opportunities. At Astra, we aim to challenge the notion that innovation can only come from certain parts of the world and build a platform that represents the capabilities of the Mena region. My life has been all about challenging the status quo and believing in change, and through Astra Tech, we are continuing to push boundaries and achieve the impossible.
What is your advice to other entrepreneurs?
Success is not just a destination, but a way of life. It's like going to the gym or maintaining a healthy diet; it becomes a habit that you can't stop. Once you experience success, you realise that it's a necessity, and it drives you to keep building and affecting people's lives.