SME profile: Beneple a one-stop shop for SME admin

While many of us get bogged down by our problems, Tarig El Sheikh, the co-founder of Beneple, sees solutions and even an opportunity to start a business to resolve the issue.

When Mr El Sheikh started his last business, he found himself spending two to three hours each day doing administrative work for his employees – work that varied from managing salaries to writing non-objection certificates (NOC) or letters for his employees.

“I found myself just like 80 per cent of the SMEs in the UAE, and there are 80,000 of us, we all use spread sheets to manage our employees,” says Mr El Sheikh.

“Time is money, especially for smaller companies. The CEO is also the CFO and the head of human resources. We conducted a study that showed that on average there are two to three hours of admin work that are basically wasted each day.”

Eager to solve the problem, Mr El Sheikh created Beneple, a name that stems from benefits and people. Beneple is an online platform that enables SMEs to manage all their HR needs – payroll, benefits, leave, holidays and compliance for free.

“When we created this platform, we knew that SMEs are actually price sensitive. So we offered the platform for free,” says Mr El Sheikh.

“If you go to Oracle or SAP these [software] are worth millions of dollars literally. They are great solutions, but this is wonderful if you are Pepsi or Masafi, but what about 80 per cent of the normal companies SMEs that are from 20 employees to 700 employees?”

While most companies cannot afford Oracle or SAP software, their only alternative is spreadsheets.

“We know that SMEs are price-sensitive, so we wanted the HR part of our business to be for free,” says Mr El Sheikh. Beneple, however, makes money from all the providers that it has around its online platform. The company acts as a middleman that matches companies with banks and health insurance companies for a fee.

Beneple started off in AstroLabs, the Dubai-based tech hub for start-ups, before it was acquired in August by Finsbury Associates, a financial services group, in a US$15 million deal.

“[Basically] AstroLabs helps entrepreneurs fail quickly and cheaply. The costs are really reduced,” says Mr El Sheikh. “Most ideas do fail. When I started off with Beneple it looked nothing like how it looks today.”

Asked if the goal of all start-ups is to be acquired or sold, Mr El Sheikh says: “If I see an entrepreneur, a young kid, and he says my goal is to sell my company, he is in this for the wrong reason.

“Yes, we want to make money, but this is not what drives us. What drives us is to solve problems. The goal of every entrepreneur is to solve the greatest problem and make the biggest dent of the world.”

He explains that this is what Generation Y is all about – referring to those born in the ‘80s and ‘90s.

“It’s not about the greediness in the world, but to make an impact in the world. Making quick gains worked for the past 100 years in industrial society but it doesn’t work any more,” he says.

“We are running out of air, we are running out of space, we are running out of water, we have unemployment, so we need to solve our problems fast.”

In the span of six months, Beneple registered astronomical growth, or the equivalent of 30 per cent rise month-on-month. Currently, the company has 200 customers under its belt.

With a staff of just 12 people and plans to hire more, Mr El Sheikh plans for Beneple to break even in the coming two years and dominate the UAE market.

“We want to capitalise on the UAE market and then grow and leverage to other countries,” he says. “Saudi is on our list to expand. This is a big market for us to expand.”

Beneple plans to enter the Saudi market by the end of this year or by early 2017, as it regards the kingdom’s economic woes as a major opportunity. With oil prices falling below $30 per barrel, the IMF on Tuesday slashed its forecast for growth in Saudi Arabia.

The fund predicted that the kingdom’s economy will grow at just 1.2 per cent in 2016, and 1.9 per cent the year after. Both figures are one percentage point below the IMF’s October forecasts. Additionally, Saudi Arabia announced an austerity budget in December that should result in spending falling by 13 per cent this year. Government spending accounts for about a third of GDP.

“That’s perfect for us. That’s music to my ears,” says Mr El Sheikh. “[The] SME [sector] is what holds the economy in the good and bad, not much government spending – especially through the lower oil prices.

“I am giving an offering that is free, so I am saving them tonnes of money. So if they are worried and time-sensitive and cost-sensitive, we are the right solution for them.”

Mr El Sheikh says that the biggest challenge ahead of him is to redefine the norms and getting SMEs to do something new.

“Our biggest obstacle is creating awareness in the market. It is telling people, please, please, stop using spreadsheets,” he says. “It’s all about awareness, once SMEs know we are there and use our platform, it will be like where have you been all my life?”

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