Algeria: Meet Noureddine Tayebi, head of the start-up Yassir

By Quentin Velluet
Posted on Wednesday, 2 February 2022 19:59

Algeria’s Noureddine Tayebi, after an excellent university education and a remarkable start to his career, founded Yassir, a high profile start-up based in Silicon Valley. © DR

Bordered by pine trees, juniper forests and sagebrush steppes, with cliffs overlooking large, wild, sun-drenched beaches, some aspects of the California coastline are reminiscent of the Mediterranean coastline, where Yassir co-founder Noureddine Tayebi grew up.

Born in 1977, this child from Algiers chose to settle down in the emblematic Silicon Valley at the end of the 2000s. In 2017, he founded Yassir, a ride-sharing and delivery company that claims to have three million active users. Already operating in three North African countries, the ambition of this young start-up, which has been boosted by funds from all over the world, goes far beyond these services.

In November 2021, Yassir closed a $30m fundraising round to support its development. The goal of Tayebi, a self-described hustler, is to triple his staff – currently 100 – and expand rapidly south of the Sahara, particularly in French-speaking markets such as Senegal, Côte d’Ivoire, Togo, Benin, Mali and Cameroon. Tayebi, who holds a PhD in electrical engineering from Stanford University, is so eager to grow his business that it is already in the process of closing a new round of funding for early 2022.

Silicon Valley as a source of funds

So far, the young boss has managed to raise $67.6m from 30 investors. Fundraising is currently one of his principal missions, when he is not on the ground in Africa.

“Basically, Noureddine is a computer whizz who is only guided by data and leaves nothing to chance. He knows where to find the right information and who to contact to fulfil his needs,” says Sofien V. Sidhoum, a French investor who has been working in the field for the past few years. Sidhoum was Yassir’s mentor in 2019 and the founder of Vertis Capital, a venture capital firm based in New York.

The idea is to develop a relationship based on trust between the various stakeholders in order to develop more sophisticated payment services…

Today, Yassir brings together investors such as Y Combinator, Unpopular Ventures (US), DN Capital (UK), Kismet Capital (Russia) and VentureSouq (Dubai). The company also has some prestigious ‘business angels’ on its board, such as China’s Cleo Sham, Uber’s former director of operations in the Europe, Middle East and Africa region, Indonesia’s Rohan Monga, a former international director of the e-commerce platform Gojek, and Sweden’s Hannes Graah, vice-president of the Lithuanian neo-bank Revolut and former director of new markets for the music streaming platform Spotify.

Premium products

The 44-year-old boss has been taking more of the spotlight since the last round of fundraising in 2021. However, he is doing so in the hopes of changing the image of his company, which is often described as yet another ride-sharing and delivery service. According to him, these services have been nothing more than appealing products that conceal a greater ambition focused on fintech. His ultimate goal is to help African populations overcome their mistrust of traditional banking systems by offering an alternative.

“The idea is to develop a relationship based on trust between the various stakeholders (drivers, traders, supermarkets, consumers, etc.) in order to develop more sophisticated payment services,” Tayebi says. “We build this trust by developing on-demand services that make people’s lives easier and that unconsciously build trust between the players.”

In addition to a ride-sharing application, Yassir is gradually becoming more sophisticated by opening up to e-commerce (Yassir Market), driver fleet management for professionals (Yassir Business) and establishing relations between small traders and large-scale distribution chains to manage orders (Yassir Express), just like what MaxAB is doing in Egypt and Morocco, and Sokowatch is doing in East Africa.

Eventually, these different stakeholders (40,000 delivery drivers, 6,000 merchants in addition to the three million users claimed) are expected to interact within the context of financial transactions. Delivery drivers will gradually become mobile agents, responsible for depositing or transferring cash on their customers’ behalf at small traders, bank branches and partner post offices. Tests are underway and the collection system is being developed so that Yassir will eventually become a fintech with an alternative banking network.

Even so, such a journey is not without its pitfalls. In March 2020, Algerian media spread a rumour that Careem, Uber’s Middle Eastern subsidiary, was about to buy Yassir. The hearsay stems from a notice that a former Yassir employee wrote and sent to all the service’s users.

The individual, whom Tayebi described as “dishonest” in an interview he gave to the newspaper Le Soir d’Algérie, still had access to the system. The company took legal action after the same former employee sent a second notification, celebrating the election of Algeria’s President Abdelmadjid Tebboune the day after the 2019 vote.

Journey of excellence

Well known throughout certain regions of the Maghreb where the start-up has a strong presence (Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco), Yassir, which is also active in France and Canada, has remained – until now – almost as discreet as its CEO. Nevertheless, Tayebi has had an impressive journey.

In the 1990s, in the middle of Algeria’s ‘black decade’, the engineering school student was encouraged by his elder brother to apply for scholarships from US universities rather than follow the path of his friends at the time, most of whom were destined to enter the best French schools. Tayebi began taking intensive English courses and set his sights on the American dream.

In the fall of 1998, he moved to Champaign, Illinois to pursue a master’s degree in electrical engineering at the University of Urbana-Champaign. After graduating, he applied to the country’s top universities. “I was lucky enough to be accepted at several institutions such as MIT and Cornell,” says the eclectic music lover, a fan of chaâbi as much as of the very fashionable Algerian rapper Soolking.

The lover of statistics quickly chose Stanford for a number of reasons, one of them being the climate. “Since 1930, the university’s students have helped create 39,000 companies that were still generating $2.6tn and employing 5.4 million people. If Stanford were a country, it would be the 10th largest in the world,” he says, paraphrasing a 2012 study published by Stanford professors Charles Eesley and William Mille. There is no doubt that during his years at Stanford, Tayebi periodically reminded himself that he was following the same path as illustrious predecessors with the same degree, such as the Cameroonian consultant Acha Leke and Marcian Hoff, father of the first microprocessor produced by Intel in 1969.

A laboratory of ideas

The young graduate began his career in the laboratory of the US semiconductor manufacturer Intel. “The department was structured like a start-up accelerator,” says this father of two, who is married to an American of Algerian origin. “We started with an idea that a small team had come up with and then presented it to management. If they liked it, they financed it, and we moved on to the production stage.”

This is precisely the route that the PhD student followed during his eight and a half years at Intel. “By progressively moving from research and development to the product, I acquired skills in product management and marketing, and I had a real start-up experience within a large group,” he says.

Tayebi’s 23 patents and mission

In addition, the entrepreneur’s research background has enabled him to file 23 patents since 2011. Two of these were filed with his first company, InSense. Developed from 2014 onwards at Stanford, it specialised in motion nano-sensors, whose properties have notably found applications in medicine and can be used to detect possible diseases. Launched with two federal grants totalling $1.6m, InSense has since been sold to a Silicon Valley company.

Resident in the emblematic Californian enclave for more than 20 years, Tayebi has adopted all the distinctive signs: from the network of friends and neighbours composed essentially of entrepreneurs and venture capitalists with three-day-old beards, to either an eternal plain t-shirt – Mark Zuckerberg style – or hoodies, preferably adorned with Stanford’s colours. “He’s settled in California, but he hasn’t picked up any quirks and is far from exuberant,” says the Vertis Capital’s Sidhoum.

Rather than media attention or the thrill of dividends, Tayebi seems to be driven by a mission that he was unaware of until he created Yassir. “The idea of a mission is not a marketing hook,” says Sidhoum. “What makes him tick is doing something wondrous that is growing and which allows him to recruit and train the best employees in the country. And if he makes money out of it, that’s even better.”

In fact, Tayebi is happy to give advice and support to peers on the continent. Before Yassir, his contribution to the region’s development was limited to mentoring and a few rare investments. “I had a desire to contribute from afar, but not at all to return regularly and have my main activity there,” he says.

What makes him tick is doing something wondrous that is growing and which allows him to recruit and train the best employees in the country, and if he makes money out of it, that’s even better.

Yacine Oualid, the Algerian minister in charge of the knowledge economy and start-ups, has hired Tayebi as a consultant.

At Yassir, Tayebi tries to instil a culture of entrepreneurship in his employees. “Learning by doing works best,” says the engineer, who prides himself on the fact that all of his staff –soon to be 300 people – are from Africa. Among them are Mahdi Yettou, Yassir’s co-founder, who manages the Algerian and Tunisian subsidiaries. Aziz Jaouhari is the general manager of Yassir Morocc. Oran’s Djamal Ouddane has held this position in France since 2020.

Although focused on his company’s regional expansion, the entrepreneur is nevertheless on the lookout for his next move. When asked about its positioning in relation to the competition in e-commerce and fintech, Tayebi admits that he has already been approached by big names and assures that consolidation must come at some point. “But I would like to be in the buyer’s position at that time,” he says.

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