Our latest guest on Ten2Two’s Talking SME podcast is Souky Arsalane, CEO and Co-founder of newly established ZING. In this episode we talk about the problems underrepresented founders face, what Souky has learnt as an entrepreneur founding ZING and her role supporting other female founders.
A bit about Souky
Souky is the CEO and co-founder of ZING, the platform for digital experiences designed for businesses who want to enrich the lives of their staff.
She was previously part of the management team and Head of Finance of Valuedynamx, a Collinson Group Company and multi-million pound conglomerate of marketplaces empowering Loyalty solutions, based in London. Valuedynamx is a global business with offices and customers in the UK, the US, the Middle East, and Australia. During her time at Valuedynamx, she was in charge of the commercial planning and the financial performance. Navigating through the COVID 19 crisis, Souky led contract negotiations with major clients such as British Airways and Accor Hotels, securing over £7m of revenue over the forthcoming three years. She also managed to deliver £0.5m of cost savings through supplier contract negotiations.
Souky has a deep understanding of marketplaces and a commercial though versatile profile that enables her to lead cross functional projects involving product, operations, and sales teams.
Prior to joining Valuedynamx, she grew through the ranks of PwC, L’Oreal and Coca Cola before joining Unilever for their development programme for young leaders. Acknowledged as being a top talent, she spent two years working in Sales and in Finance for the French headquarters in Paris where she was coached and mentored by the company’s top executives. She was then sent to London as a reward for her hard work and contribution, to work in a newly created role as part of the Global Innovation team.
Souky is also involved in diversity initiatives and is a mentor who helps underrepresented founders with their commercial plans. She works regularly with LSE and other founders of her network, helping them to secure accelerator prizes and present to investors.
‘Representing Female Founders’ is just one in our series of podcasts where we talk about a wide range of topics. We talk with business experts, and also offer broad insights to help SMEs become more successful.
Jane O’Gorman (00:00):
Hello, and welcome to talking SME our quick fire chat with business leaders. I’m Jane O’Gorman, director of Ten2Two, experts in flexible recruitment and consulting. And I’m very pleased today to welcome Souky Arsalane, CEO and co-founder of newly established ZING. The digital experience platform designed for businesses who want to enrich the lives of their staff. They’re here to disrupt and change employee engagement in our virtual working future. Hi Souky. Welcome and thanks so much for joining me today.
Souky Arsalane (00:42):
Hi Jane. Thank you. Thanks for having me. I’m very happy to be here.
Jane O’Gorman (00:46):
Wonderful. And on a lovely sunny day too.
Souky Arsalane (00:49):
Yes, absolutely. It’s beautiful.
Jane O’Gorman (00:52):
Hopefully we’ll get to enjoy some of it later Souky.
Souky Arsalane (00:55):
Jane O’Gorman (00:56):
Hope so. So Souky, you’ve had an exciting career path and are recognized for your commercial expertise. What does it mean to you to be the CEO of ZING and what is it about ZING that particularly inspires you?
Souky Arsalane (01:13):
Yes. So I think what is very exciting about ZING is that it’s a solution that is needed, you know, depending on the study, right between 50% and 70% of the workforce engage in hybrid working, and this new hybrid workforce, prefer and favour company culture over individual compensation. And the result is of course, this phenomenon that we all know about that is called the great resignation, but the problem for companies is that, when they can’t retain their staff they under perform. So we, armed with these four observations we have, designed, ZING to tackle, and to address this issue and to address employee engagement. And what have we done? We’ve done even more research to confirm that this was really, an issue that companies were confronted by.
Souky Arsalane (02:19):
And we were also trying to understand how they were trying to leverage this and the answer is that very often they leverage it with the amount of money that the budget that they spend on employee events. You know, so company already spends 250 pounds per head, on employee experiences. But the problem, is that that budget is not getting them very far because, sorry, events today are not very inclusive. It’s very, difficult to fit the diverse workforce. It’s difficult to accommodate all tastes, religious belief, all generations, geographical locations. These activities are often considered as forced fun. And with the hybrid workforce, it’s very difficult to build social capital with clients. So we’ve really designed ZING, to, answer all of the pain points that companies were facing, and to build a solution that was addressing employee retention.
Jane O’Gorman (03:27):
Interesting, different platforms now, as you say, can you tell me a little bit more about your USP?
Souky Arsalane (03:34):
Yes, absolutely. So ZING is powered by a marketplace. What we do is that we enable content creators, passionate amateurs, and professional businesses, that have developed a digital offer. To host and sell their virtual experiences on ZING to a global audience and simply using a phone, a laptop or a VR set.
Jane O’Gorman (04:01):
Wow. So what stage are you at Souky? What stage are you at at the moment?
Souky Arsalane (04:07):
So we are, early stage. We had, an alpha product and we are now raising money for beta. So last year in 2021, we trialed our alpha product, over a period of time of three months, and across 15 SMEs. We had an average of 700 monthly unique users and positive feedback as people, enjoyed playing the games and doing things together. So that was very promising. We are now, doing this capital raise to enhance our current platform. It’s a process that we started in early March and we’re half way through, seeking and raising, sorry, raising the amount of money that we’re seeking.
Jane O’Gorman (04:51):
Wow. So really exciting times ahead for you.
Souky Arsalane (04:56):
Yes. Yes, it’s very, exhilarating and very exciting.
Jane O’Gorman (05:00):
Excellent. And you say yourself that your profile is, very commercial, which must be absolutely crucial with what you’re achieving at the moment, and I’m sure you can relate, deeply to female entrepreneurs, managing their way through funding rounds. In spite of your busy work schedule and it sounds like things are very busy at the moment. You still take time out to mentor underrepresented founders, which is a wonderful thing to do Souky. What inspired you to become, a mentor?
Souky Arsalane (05:40):
So what inspired me is that, a couple of years ago I was looking for my next move. I’ve always had a strong entrepreneurial spirit, but when I started my career, my choice was very much guided by practicalities. So I started my career in France. I needed a visa. So of course, working with a large company gave me the employment stability that I needed back then. But a couple of years ago I was ready to follow my intuition. So I started to build up my network and ask for advice. As I was doing so, I just started to think well, instead of only asking for things, why don’t I also start sharing, my skills and what I’m good at. And you know, my area of specialization so far and, back then was commercial planning, and business modeling.
Souky Arsalane (06:50):
So I was like, okay, I’m gonna put it out there. I’m going to share that. I also knew that I needed to narrow down my audience. I can’t just say, you know, like post contact me if you need help. So I decided to, that my audience will be underrepresented founders, and companies delivering a positive social impact. And how I started, you know, it’s actually quite funny. So I did a Google search and I found, this LSC cohort of former alumni, and a founder. She was selling a marketplace. I really loved her project and her idea.
So I found her on Instagram, and I wrote to her and I was so scared and concerned of sounding and appearing like a weird person. So yes, I just wrote to her and I say, Hey, I’m Souky, this is what I’m doing. Maybe I can be of help, let me know. But she answered and we started to work together and she to introduced me to more, founders, to the people running the accelerator programs at LSC. So yeah, that’s how it all started.
Jane O’Gorman (08:08):
Isn’t that amazing, you know, out of that decision that you made and then to follow through and start having those really amazing conversations. And, the support and the sharing that you mentioned, but what do you see, as some of the greatest challenges for underrepresented founders, from the work that you’ve been doing?
Souky Arsalane (08:29):
There are two things I think. So as a mentor, from the, the founders I’ve helped. I’ve often observed a real fear, and reluctance, around the numbers in general. And regardless of the background. Could be, could be engineers, people with a finance degree, didn’t matter a real reluctance around numbers.
Jane O’Gorman (08:59):
Souky Arsalane (09:00):
That was great because, as the work that we were doing together was all about monetisation of the idea, business plan, you know, benchmarking like just all of the work that you need to put together in order to validate the pricing and the commercial of the proposition was great. Quite a strong basis to improve and to work on that. It was extremely important to do that because the founders were very likely to be asked questions from people from a financial background. You know, investors have often, not always, but often a financial background.
Souky Arsalane (09:35):
The second observation is now that I am a founder myself, I observe that, access to capital at pre revenue stage is not always easy. So there are lots of great initiatives and great things like loads of female angel networks, funds specialise in under representation, which is great, because things are moving. I’m not sure it was the case 10 years ago. And it needs to move because I think the latest stat is that only 1% of the UK institutional money goes to underrepresented founders. That’s really awesome.
Souky Arsalane (10:16):
It also feels like the hard part is to get things off the ground. The hard part is to, build and to, to have the resources before generating revenue and when you’re trying and testing it out there. And I think that there are lots of individuals happy to help, but I didn’t come across yet something that will enable to fund that scale, like, you know, bigger tickets. I just wonder, if there is like indeed like a gap in the market, or if it’s just my own personal journey with, what I’ve managed to achieve and, who I’ve managed to meet so far.
Jane O’Gorman (10:59):
Wow, and some of those figures in terms of that 1% as well, and it’s good that you mention that there has at least been a shift or there’s some change, but do you think more could be done to change the shift? What do you think could be done that might help?
Souky Arsalane (11:17):
I think so, going back to the, two things, that I mentioned, I think, for any founder who doesn’t feel comfortable with the financial, just ask for help. There are so many initiatives and support systems out there now from hatch enterprise, which are doing an extraordinary work to foundervine. There will be so many people trying to help volunteering, like mostly they are volunteers. So the only interest is to try to help you, and they will help, and provide support, to go through the journey of, owning the numbers and being more comfortable with it.
Souky Arsalane (12:04):
And after, when it comes to, access to capital, to be honest, I think like despite the gap that I’ve observed and that might be true or it might not it’s just my personal experience so far. Is that don’t give up, like to any founders who are struggling to raise money or anything don’t give up, because if you have a solid idea that answers a solid need. A well built proposition, a well addressed market, then you will be heard, people want to invest in investable, products.
Souky Arsalane (12:39):
So you will be heard at some point. Just keep on knocking at each and every door. And there is no reason why a great idea won’t be funded ultimately.
Jane O’Gorman (12:50):
Excellent. And can you tell us, cause obviously, you will have experience through the mentoring that you’ve been doing. Souky can you perhaps tell us about an example or some of the successes of those that you have mentored. That they have had and benefited from, by you being a sounding board?
Souky Arsalane (13:12):
Sure, absolutely. So, the first example that comes to my mind is these two female founders with some fantastic energy and super driven, and they started this company called <inaudible>. Sorry they changed the name. So I think now it’s called Peequal and, it’s a urinal designed by women for women. And so I’ve worked with them. They were part of the, LSC accelerator program, of last year, 2021.
Souky Arsalane (13:47):
So we worked together on their commercials and the way their financials were presented and it helped them considerably to secure the accelerator, first prize in cash. Which was great because having that first, amount of cash there helped them to build their prototype, which then subsequently helped them to raise money from angel investors. And they’ve recently announced earlier in the year that they’ve raised, a quarter of a million from private, individual investors to, produce more of their product and, start to launch in the UK market. So that was extremely exciting.
Souky Arsalane (14:30):
The second thing I think, I’ve also been involved with a, incubator program, called CREO and the aim of that program was to support female entrepreneurs, in Lebanon.
Jane O’Gorman (14:49):
Souky Arsalane (14:50):
And it was, I think between April and July. So kind of had the peak of very sadly, a very, big financial crisis for Lebanon where, you know, inflation went through the roof. And it was very difficult for funders to be committed and, they couldn’t even have access to their credit cards. It was a very difficult, situation that I can’t fully even fathom. But, on top of, getting the pitch deck ready with one of the participants. Her name is Marie and she’s absolutely incredible.
It felt like, just having a soundboard on a weekly basis, catching up and just like, you know, here, because at that stage, it’s not like mentoring, when it’s just like fine tuning and finalising a few things. For moral world support, it felt like it added like loads of value and enabled her to, just push and get the pitch deck done and, enable her to, welcome her next step.
Jane O’Gorman (16:05):
That’s amazing. And where are they at Souky?
Souky Arsalane (16:08):
I don’t have any updates from Marie, so I can’t really provide an update of where she’s at with her project.
Jane O’Gorman (16:18):
Okay. But really inspirational in terms of the support she’s had from you so far.
Souky Arsalane (16:23):
I think it was just like, she is an inspirational woman. And, it was just so great to work with her and, yeah, it just feels like being a sound brings also value to the founders. They feel it gives them their extra confidence boost.
Jane O’Gorman (16:38):
Amazing. And that must be so rewarding for you just listening to those two examples in terms of the, obviously the emotional support, as well as anything else. So that, must be such a positive outcome, and great for you in terms of the benefit that you’re bringing to them. If you could give any tips to aspiring founders and we’ve covered a few and it’s great, that you’ve mentioned, you know, don’t give up, if there were any top tips that you could give to aspiring founders Souky what would it be?
Souky Arsalane (17:14):
Sure. So to aspiring founders. I think, just give it a go. If you have an idea, build a business plan. I’m not telling you to leave your job.
Souky Arsalane (17:30):
People might be saying great. I have an idea. I can resign right away, but I’m saying, do it as a side hustle take, you know, a few hours a week. It won’t be enough, but it will like, if it’s just to build a business model, understand the market at the beginning. It’ll just enable you to assess whether or not this can work, you see what I mean? So just like, do something about it, I guess is my first advice.
Souky Arsalane (17:58):
And after if you feel that this can go somewhere, then you need to make the commitments to dedicate more time, to it. And join, idea stage accelerator programs. There are, again, like so many initiatives out there. Learn about like, how to build a pitch deck, what investors are seeking and just really get out there, see if it’s something that you wanna to commit yourself to. And, if it’s something that you can commit yourself to and see that monetisation is possible, then just like go for it. Because it’s just such a, growing experience. Ultimately, it just feels like this entrepreneurial journey. It feels like I’ve grown so much more in eight months than I’ve probably been able to grow in four years.
Souky Arsalane (18:56):
I don’t know what would be a comparative time scale. But it’s a commitment, and it’s a discipline as well, especially in early stage and while, juggling with other commitments.
Jane O’Gorman (19:11):
Very, very sound and good advice there. Souky and I’m sure you are very excited for the future ahead with ZING there’s a lot coming up for you in the future too. Thank you so much for joining us today and for this valuable chat, it’s been a pleasure talking to you.
Souky Arsalane (19:32):
Thanks. Thank you so much, Jane, for having me, it was really great to speak with you.
Jane O’Gorman (19:36):
Thank you. And I look forward to seeing what’s coming up soon for ZING too and to our listeners. I hope you enjoyed our talking SME. Look out for future episodes coming soon from Ten2Two, experts in flexible recruitment and consulting.