You might not recognise Rabea Ataya’s name, but it’s likely you have clicked onto one of the sites the Palestinian-Lebanese businessman has set up in the UAE at some point.
Since forming what is now the Middle East’s No 1 jobs site, Bayt.com in 2000, Mr Ataya has also incubated and co-owned majority stakes in GoNabit (which was sold to LivingSocial two years ago), the auto site Yallamotor.com and the doctor-appointment booking portal DoctorUna.com. And he invested in mumzworld.com, which is run by his sister and fellow Bayt co-founder Mona Ataya.
So now that Bayt.com is celebrating its 15th birthday, how did it all begin?
Mr Ataya honed his tech skills while studying electrical engineering at California’s Stanford University, at a time when the founders of Google and Yahoo were also students there. He graduated just as the strange new invention he’d heard about – the internet – was starting to come alive, in 1993.
Seven years later (in 2000) Mr Ataya decided to harness the internet’s potential, inspired by his own struggles to recruit staff for InfoFort, the Middle East’s first records management company he’d set up in Dubai in 1997.
“My biggest challenge was hiring people, which was ironic because as I travelled across the region, I kept meeting young people who were highly qualified but complaining that they couldn’t find jobs,” says the 43-year-old serial entrepreneur. “I realised – and it remains true today – that the single most pressing issue of our time was this burgeoning youth population that was having a very difficult time connecting to opportunities, primarily because information didn’t flow very freely.”
Mr Ataya says that at the time, job ads were all being published and distributed locally, while recruitment was happening pan-regionally.
“So if you were sitting in Beirut and wanted a job in Dubai, it was difficult for you to learn about that job, and the employer would have a hard time learning about you as a potential employee,” he adds.
It meant Bayt’s launch came in at what was the very early days for the internet in the Middle East – “perhaps too early on”, he now concedes.
Internet structure was so nascent, says Mr Ataya, that to bring up the home page of the leading global websites took 20 minutes on a dial up connection.
“It was a pretty crazy time to start an internet business and in hindsight, I often wonder – if I knew back then what I know now, would I have embarked on that journey? Probably not. But my naivety helped me to be brave and we felt very strongly that we’d be a compelling solution to help people to improve their lives.”
Those Mr Ataya brought onto his founding team are now part of the UAE’s wider tech ecosystem – his sister Mona Ataya, who headed up marketing and now runs Mumzworld, and Dany Farha, who led the sales operation, is now the chief executive of the regional venture capital firm Beco Capital.
Along with growing pains, there were also auspicious opportunities – such as the launch of Dubai Internet City the same year Bayt started.
“It couldn’t have come at a better time,” says Mr Ataya. “We had just incorporated our company in the Cayman Islands and were about to start working when Sheikh Mohammed announced the founding of Internet City. Within a day or so, we knocked on their door to apply for a license.”
But the company had no office to work from, as Internet City was still under construction; it took another year before the team could move in. Once they did, expansion came fast.
In 2001, the site became the first bilingual recruitment portal in the region; two years later, Bayt launched an application service provider enabling instant connections between relevant jobs and potential employees. It debuted its mobile application in 2012.
This year, the company crossed the pivotal 10,000 jobs-a-day milestone and welcomed more than 3 million new members across the region.
As the company diversifies, Mr Ataya says Bayt’s core focus now is the reinvention of the CV.
“There are so many CVs out there right now – on Bayt, there are more than 23 million – that your typical search will probably result in tens of thousands of results. It becomes difficult to distinguish between a great employee and the other 9,999 CVs that might not be so great.”
The company says it offers additional CV dimensions such as online tests and courses to help professionals stand out.
And Mr Ataya says it’s harder for candidates to lie: “Today with the social internet, there’s a lot more content being produced by the person and a lot more third-party substantiation.”
Despite its successes, the company is also fending off stiff competition from the likes of the professional social networking site LinkedIn, which launched its Arabic-language service earlier this year.
But Mr Ataya says Bayt has an edge over its competitors – its longevity in the region.
“We have been a cash-flow profitable business for more than a decade now,” he says, “and the beauty of that is while a lot of internet businesses continue to celebrate their fund-raising because they continue to burn through significant amounts of cash, in Bayt’s case, we continue to produce a lot of cash.”