Unifonic: Bringing procurement performance to a tech startup

Unifonic: Bringing procurement performance to a tech startup

Like many of the best business ideas, the beginning of Unifonic came from finding a solution to a problem

In 2006 brothers Ahmed and Hassan Hamdan were trying to contact a large number of people via SMS in their student club at a university in Saudi Arabia. This led to the creation of a website called Resalaty, where users could

input their contacts and bulk-send SMS messages to large groups of people.  This idea quickly began to gain traction with business clients and eventually the Unifonic B2B customer engagement platform was born. It has grown across the Middle East, Asia and North Africa to be a leading platform in customer communications technology.

Bringing procurement to a start up

As the business reached the next phase of development, the brothers needed toinvest in automation to help the organisation progress to further success. Zakaria El Rhezaoui was brought in as Senior Director of Procurement in 2022, following a career atmultinational companies like Nokia Networks, Mars, Unilever and Philp Morris. He was tasked with setting up an efficient procurement operation to drive performance and efficiency for the wider business.

“It was a new experience for me to move to a startup,” El Rhezaoui explains. “I had to dig deep onthe company, read about it, find the story behind it, get more insights from the company about its perspectives, its strategy, and what it wants to do.”

Today, Unifonic is a trend-setting customer engagement platform that handles morethan 10 billion annual transactions for millions of recipients in 160 countries, backed by a local corporate presence in five countries and a dedicated team of 500 professionals, serving clients at all hours of the day.

It has become an omnichannel solution that integrates customer communication channels – including text, voice, messaging and web – into a single platform that enables companies to create stronger customer relationships. Its customers include leading banks, financial institutions and government agencies throughout the region, as well as healthcare providers, retail and e-commerce, and transport and logistics providers worldwide.

Change management

The company is growing fast, and the Hamdan brothers knew they needed a proper procurement function in place to help with their transition. It was a challenge that appealed to El Rhezaoui: “I wanted to bring in all the experience I had in these big multinationals and implement it in a fast-growing startup,” he says. 

“I had to start everything from scratch. We worked on building the team, on putting in place the proper policy, processes, the training for people, working on a strategy for change management, because people had

the habit of doing things by themselves, bringing in a new function that will control all the spend and control all the purchases was very new to them.”

The key challenge, admits El Rhezaoui, was that embedding procurement in a startup is not just a technical operation, but a human challenge.  And so he began by communicating to the workforce that the value of procurement lay in it bringing efficiencies that would help the business. 

El Rhezaoui says: “We explained to them that we will not delay their work, rather, we will automate it. Automation was a keyword in our journey because if we just focused on savings and compliance, we’d not have had the support we needed to meet our goal of speedy change management,”. Communicating intelligently with staff was crucial to the initiative a user-friendly procure-to-pay system was the foundation for a series

of early successes for the team. 

“In the first year of the procurement function at Unifonic, we were able to achieve really great milestones, in terms of having a P2P system in place, which is functioning a hundred percent with an adoption rate of more than 90%,” El Rhezaoui says.

This was coupled with more than US$1m in savings in the first year, along with a review of supplier and contract bases, to ensure every relationship was fully compliant.

Finding early success

One challenge for Zakaria El Rhezaoui was moving from a multinational to a startup environment. 

“In multinationals, everything is preset, everything has been there for many years, so it is more of maintaining this process,” he says.” Moving to a startup gave me new perspectives because I had to build everything from scratch, and it’s added to my experience, especially the parts related to change management.”

The technical and automation aspects of the role came easiest to El Rhezaoui, but he admits the greatest challenge was delivering the change management needed to underpin the short and long-term success the company needed. 

“The part that you can never control is the change management and people,” he explains.How can you build a good relationship with people? How can you convince them of your ideas while they have their own targets and their own pressure, in terms of either product development or in terms of sales and business development?”

Knowing and empowering your customers

Asked to cite the guiding principle of creating a procurement function in a start-up, El Rhezaoui says: “Forget everything you knew from before. Get to know your customers, and what they need, because that is the starting point.”

El Rhezaoui adds that rapid growth brings its own challenges, and that being ill-prepared for this leads to wasted opportunities. This is especially true of scale-ups, he says, who typically undergo fast growth and have ambitions to expand their customer and geographical bases. Such businesses must have a proper procurement function in place, he feels. El Rhezaoui’s  hard-earned experience is that attempting to overlay past  experiences on  a new business is a mistake. Far better, he says, to approach things the other way around. 

“You need to understand the business and the requirements of your stakeholders,” he says. “You use your experience to implement best practices based on their perspective, their background, and their priorities.”

It is these best practices that are helping Unifonic deliver on its mission, to empower organisations to engage and communicate seamlessly with its customers.

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