This week we speak to Ammar Akhtar, founder of Final Rentals. Final Rentals offers global car rental from a wide range of suppliers, not just the usual household names. It does that by franchising independent rental companies and providing them with the tools and market necessary to accept online orders. This is a real success story for Wales.
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HQ: Cardiff, Wales
The following is AI generated with some light editing. It is highly possible it contains errors. Please contact me if anything needs clarification.
Rob: Welcome to the Wales in Tech podcast. This week, we speak with Ammar Akhtar from Final Rentals. Final Rentals came to Wales a couple of years ago and has grown incredibly into what will soon be a household name.
Thank you, Ammar, for agreeing to do this podcast with us. I'm going to start with some basic questions which we ask everyone, all our guests. What is your company called and what does it do?
Ammar: Lovely. So, Robert, it's a pleasure being on this podcast and thank you for having me. So, my name is Ammar. I'm the founder and CEO of Final Rentals. We are a fintech platform for car rentals and we help local car hire companies become digital. So, what Shopify does for the world of retail is what we do for the world of local car rentals.
Rob: Oh, great. So, is that B2B or B2C?
Ammar: So, it's B2B and then B2C as well. So, we help the local businesses, local car businesses to get more out of online e-commerce space. So, we provide them with our fintech solution that gives them a booking engine, a CRM, and whatever they sell offline at the till, they can sell online as well. And then the B2C angle of our business is that we also then redistribute those prices, those offers, those cars on multiple platforms, such as Kayak, Booking.com, Skyscanner, VIP cars, and all these platforms. So, they also get business. So, we work in both ways, B2B as well and B2C as well.
Rob: Great. I'll ask more about that later. So, would you say you're SaaS or an agency model or a slightly like a hybrid mixed model?
Ammar: We are SaaS. We're a SaaS model with quite interesting pricing elements. So, of course we charge a subscription to our software, but then we also charge a fee on every commission, whatever happens on the platform. Plus, also we charge a yearly fee for all our partners to use our branding as well.
Rob: Okay, cool. And are you invested or bootstrapped?
Ammar: So, I've been bootstrapping it since September last year. That's when we raised our first funding round as we came to Wales. And in the last nine months, since we have raised funding, we have grown almost 11X. So, there was a bootstrapping phase that was validation, how our product works. We had many customers in B2B and B2C space. And since we have raised funds, we have seen incredible scale as well.
Rob: That's incredible. And do you think you'll be looking for more investment one day?
Ammar: Yes, we have a well thought out investment plan. So, since we have raised our first round, you can call it a pre-seed for example. And now we are looking for the next level, let's say late seed or a pre-series A, and then the series A and series B. So, we have been thinking about this, how we can scale this business even further. Because when you're bootstrapping, you're looking at to make ends meet, to bring in as many customers as possible, pay all the salaries. And once you raise funds, I believe in hardcore business model growth. And that's what we're looking at. So, of course, we have already opened our next round and let's see how that goes.
Rob: That's great. Okay. So, tell me a little bit about you, yourself, what's your background and really what brought you to starting Final Rentals?
My first job was a job, I cannot say a job, but internship in Microsoft in Pakistan that converted into a full-time job later. So, I became the assistant manager there, and then a manager as well. And then I resigned from Microsoft when I was 21 years of age and I started my own business. It was a games company. So, we used to create mobile games.
Rob: So, you did an internship after university or during university?
Ammar: During university.
Rob: Okay. And then they hired you full-time?
Rob: And then you thought, do you know what? I want to be on my own and I want to start my own business. So, you left Microsoft and started your own company at 21?
Ammar: Yes, that's right. So, at 21, I left Microsoft. I still remember when I left Microsoft, I got 90,000 Pak Rupee as you know, leaving, let's say, like a thank you sort of check. And with that, I bought my first ever laptop that I owned, the Compaq. And then I started our first business from my uncle's office. He gave me a room, very kind of him. And basically, from there, we started the business. I grew the business to 20 full-time employees in eight months. And then I sold that business to a local company in Pakistan. And then from there, I moved to Dubai.
So, Dubai was the place when I realized how powerful is the industry. This industry of car rental, the car hire business was very, very powerful. And Budget Rental Car was coming to Dubai as a franchise brand. And I was given the responsibility to create a website for them, create a backend, frontend, and everything. And when I finished the project, I realized that after eight hours of going live, we had our first booking. Someone actually rented a car online. I'm talking about 2006, 2007, when e-commerce was still coming into the picture, especially in Asia, in the Middle East. America was, of course, already doing it, but Middle East and Asia was still new to this business. So, when I built a website and it became such a big, big success, I thought I found my niche. So, then I went on making platforms for budget, pay less, $1.50, super price.
Rob: You became the go-to guy for car rental systems.
Ammar: I became the go-to guy for the car rental systems. And the best thing about me was that I knew the car rental business. I knew how it works inside out. I've worked in the operations, in the call center, every place, washing the cars, how you buy the cars, how you negotiate fleet and everything. And so, I understood the business. And also, of course, then I knew how to build a platform, how to build the technology part of it, front and back, and all the variables.
Rob: Do you think that there's a difference then between the Middle East in that respect, and Asia and Western Europe? Because for example, maybe they do exist. I can't imagine many car rental companies here in Cardiff, for example, which haven't got an online portal. So, was it the case that, especially in emerging markets, and you can't really call the Middle East emerging anymore, but maybe 15, 20 years ago, there were just a lot of people who had 50 cars, like you said, and they had no interface for the online. Do you think that there is a difference between Western Europe and what was the Middle East then? Or is it the case that I'm wrong and I just don't know about the small businesses that exist because they don't have an online presence?
Ammar: So, the thing is, having an online presence is one thing, and then making a business out of it is another. So, companies like Enterprise, Thrifty, Budget, Avis, and all these companies, the reason why they get so much business online is because they're also present on these platforms that we call them OTAs, online travel agencies like VIP cars, Discover, Booking.com, Holiday Autos, Skyscanner, all this platform. And they give them a lot of business. Maybe you can say 80% of the business that they do, they do from these platforms. But these platforms will never connect a Robert car rental. They will connect with Avis Budget. They will connect with the brand, but not with Robert's car rental or Simon's car rental, because it's too small for them to connect, too small for them to spend that money on integration and all those things.
Rob: The smaller people, basically.
Ammar: Yeah, smaller people and making a part of my ecosystem that we call Final Rentals Global Ecosystem. So, we are already connected on rent cars, VIP cars, Skyscanner, because they are connected using our global API. So, they don't really care if someone is behind the location in Cardiff and he is a Robert car rental, but he is Final Rentals Cardiff now. So, it's like a software franchising model.
Rob: Yeah, I love that. Okay. So, you've basically franchised or unionized all the smaller rental—
Ammar: Yes, under our umbrella.
Rob: Under one umbrella. And then that makes you big enough for the larger agency, travel agencies to notice you.
Ammar: Absolutely. Absolutely.
Rob: That's clever. Okay. So, how do you get from Dubai to Wales? Big jump.
Ammar: So, in the last 18 months, my home has been Wales. I haven't really— I have been to Dubai for a couple of times for a week or so. I haven't been to Pakistan. It's been almost 10 years now, so already left that place a long time back. So, home is Wales and it will be my home now. So, this was my last move and I love living here. I think I can live here. I can innovate. I can build a team. I really feel like this is a place. This is my Silicon Valley.
Rob: How much is the Welsh government paying you to say this?
Ammar: They're not paying anything, but yeah, they have been helpful. They're helpful people. I was—So, I started in Dubai after finishing my 15 years, let's say, a gig in the industry, and then I started Final Rentals on my own. So, when I started, I was working with 11, 10 local companies in Dubai and in Abu Dhabi. And in the first year, I lost 200,000 pounds because it was my first ever, let's say, shift from being this consultant B2B enterprise, solo entrepreneur to a full-time startup entrepreneur. I didn't understand the change, the difference. My methods were still old school. I was still buying billboards for my brand and yes, I was getting a lot of attention.
Rob: You were very much like an agency model before, right? You were [inaudible] and doing contracts and this is a different model.
Ammar: Absolutely. And I was getting a lot of attention because of those billboards and all, but I was not getting any traction. It was very limited, right? And then I realized this is something that we have to change, right? So, in first 11 months of starting Final Rentals, I went back to the drawing board. We started all over again, right? And from a very lean sort of methodology as a startup, right? And since then, I haven't really looked back. There was a time when I had to sit and think what we should do with this business because 2020 was a year when I discovered this idea of going global from Dubai. Because from March 2020 till September, October, it was all closed, shut down because car rental is not considered as an essential industry.
And when COVID was imposed on us, we were only doing business in the essential sectors, right? So, that's how it is, right? So, in that time, I realized that just being in Dubai was not enough. What I've built is great. It is highly scalable. It's web-based. Come on, it's mobile web-based. Why can it not be implemented in somewhere else, right? So, from there, we had a pivot. We built our B2B angle to help local companies. And then we also built the B2C, the separation between the two, right? And since then, Robert, I haven't really looked back. We have added 32 countries into our network after Dubai. We have seen incredible scale. Every 16 minutes, we have a booking on our platform. And that gap is narrowing month over month.
Rob: What you've described though to me so far is, a lot of people listening to this will have a tech idea. And a lot of people have ideas for startups. But when they actually go and build the product, selling the product is very difficult. But what you're saying to me sounds more like your focus is on expanding the network and therefore physically or virtually meeting new potential partners and signing contracts to be on that platform. Is that right?
Ammar: Yeah, absolutely. Yes, we do innovate every single day. We have new ideas, new features that we bring to our platform. We have a dedicated IT team, tech team. Everything is built in-house with our own dirty hands. There's no third-party component. So, it's very inventive. It's very innovative. So, we are building on a daily basis, we improve, right? And at the moment, we are just working like— Just Eat, for example. The platform is there. Now you have to bring in more restaurants because the demand is also there. We already have a network from where we will get the bookings.
Rob: So, is it just you doing that? Tell me about your team. What does it look like? How many people there are? Are they remote? Are they here in Wales?
Ammar: Right. So, we are a team of 15 people now, out of which six are based in Wales here from this office. And then the remaining are positioned globally, very, very strategically. So, we have an office in Dubai. We have an office in Poland. Dubai is looking after Middle East and Asia Pacific on the other side. And Poland is looking at Europe and the CEE Balkan region. And then we are here in Wales where we look after— It's our HQ. And we look after, let's say, the UK and the transatlantic links, America, South America, and beyond. So, that's how I've structured the organization. We have four departments, essentially. Of course, we have sales, we have marketing, we have support, and then we have technology.
Rob: Okay, great. So, when can I apply to be your biz dev for Latin America? Because that sounds fun.
Ammar: If you can speak Spanish, you're welcome. Hola.
Rob: Hola, ¿qué tal?
Ammar: Yeah, perfect. Sounds like a plan.
Rob: Yeah, sold. That's great. So, you said you do a sale every 16 minutes on your website. How are you driving people to your site? Or are they coming in via those— Are they called OTAs?
Ammar: OTAs, yes. So, you can say 80% of that value is coming from the OTAs. And then 20%, we work very, very actively on SEO, content marketing. So, we have very good traction also from the organic channels. We do not spend a single penny on any of marketing. It's coming from the OTAs, and then the organic traffic. We spend a lot on marketing, on content, writing PR, going to the events. It's human connection. I'm a big believer of human connection. And that brings also a lot of sales.
Rob: When you sell to a car rental in a new country, for example, and they don't have an online system to organize their bookings, is that part of your solution as well? So, do they get emails or messages that someone has booked their car on HolidayAutos.com? Is that what happens? You provide both sides, both the front end for us, the consumer, and also the backend for the car rental?
Ammar: Yeah, absolutely. So, we provide them a complete solution. We call it the FROS, the operating system. The FROS has two different angles. Some companies already have a fleet system where they're using their own billing system for fleet management and all. So, I'm not a believer in enforcing new laws on them. I want them to do business and prosper instead of dealing with a new system. So, our system has two different angles. One is Blade and one is Blade Plus. So, Blade is like an online booking system, like a very nice friendly CRM, where you will see all the bookings coming in from all these different channels, from all the APIs. You will get alert, SMS, and also email vouchers. You can see how many bookings you have for today, tomorrow, and you can plan your whole business. Some companies say, “I don't have a system. I want a system also”. No problem. We give them Blade Plus. Blade Plus works like a POS, point of sale, plus the e-commerce engine Blade. So, they have Blade Plus. Plus helps them to handle all the walk-ins, all the people coming in to the location. And then Blade helps them for all the online bookings. So, we provide them both, whichever they like.
Rob: Would you be surprised and would you be receptive if Hertz or Avis turned around and said, we want to take you out? In two years' time, we're going to buy you and just get rid of you, basically.
Ammar: There's a huge possibility of this. There's a huge possibility that they will come and they say, “you know what, here's a couple of billion dollars and you know what? Just give it to us”. And we will take them. There's a huge possibility. But I think the even bigger possibility is that, imagine if I can IPO Final Rentals.
Rob: Is your exit IPO?
Ammar: I would say, see, the ideal exit for me would be, of course, to sell this to a like-minded brand. But with the IPO, what I can do with the IPO is, when I go public, for example, with the money that I'll raise on the IPO, on the public offering, that money I can use to do incredible things for my network. I want to invest heavily on AI. I want to invest on so many things. So, my dream is to make it 100% automated without any human intervention. So, let's say you have a location in Jamaica, for example. You have 32 cars at the airport. I know that it's not 24 hours in your location. Here's my kiosk. Put it on there and let people come in, rent cars and drive out. This is just an example, right?
Ammar: Of course, there are so many things to handle here. The ID verification. Every country is still not ready with the digital ID verification. There are laws, they want physical signatures. There are things to consider. But I'm sitting on this huge opportunity where I can actually capture a very big chunk of this market, because the car hire industry is worth $120 billion a year. Out of which 56% of this industry is comprising of Robert's car rental, the local guys. That's 56% of this industry, right?
Rob: That's huge. I’ve never ever— I just don't rent from them, right? I travel a lot and I rent from O2A.
Ammar: And you won’t. But now imagine if you travel to Albania, if you travel to Romania, if you travel to Serbia, you might rent from Final Rentals. And the name Final Rentals is Joseph's car rental. And otherwise you will never get to meet Joseph because you would always rent from Enterprise and the big brands. But now you have a chance to rent from Joseph and get the same or even better experience.
Rob: Why Cardiff? You've got the whole of the UK, why Cardiff?
Ammar: So, before coming to Cardiff, I was doing my research in the UK tech ecosystem, right? And I was checking on all the lines, like in a political— How many startups are there? What are the grant programs? How busy or not so busy the ecosystem is? How active is the ecosystem? And I realized that Wales was a very open ecosystem. We don't have many huge companies here, not so many unicorns, tight knit, and still open for business. There's that Bank of Wales, there are many other angel network, still open, still haven't been used to their potential, right? And I thought I can do something here. So, that's how I used Cardiff. I was aware of London ecosystem, highly saturated, again, [inaudible] and very competitive as well. West Midlands also, very similar. Scotland, a bit too cold for me. So, I thought, let's try and see how it goes with Cardiff. And so, far it has been fantastic.
Rob: So, you mentioned FinTech Wales, and I'm a good friend with Neil Cocker, who I think was your incubator leader at the time. So, did you apply to that after you arrived in Wales or before you arrived?
Ammar: Before I arrived in Wales, I applied for that. I had my interview with Neil Cocker, a couple of them. Again, incredible person, great guy, very, very, very entrepreneurial, positive thinker, visionary. And it was Amazing to meet him and then work with him for three odd months. And it was fantastic. So, basically, I got into FinTech Wales, and then I came to the UK first on visit visa, because to finish my FinTech Wales program. In the meantime, the innovator visa was in progress because of the Ukraine war the work visas were taking like three to four months. So, I lost a couple of months last year, but all is well that ends well.
Rob: Yeah. And how was the incubator? Have you done an incubator before, an accelerator program before, or was this your first one?
Ammar: No. As I said, I did one before in Poland, the Techstars, TechSeed. Yeah. And TechSeed was a different kind of incubator. It was an accelerator, more on the tech side. So, the whole discussion was about tech, technology, what you're building, “what framework, what do you do?” It was all coding and technology and all those things. It didn't really talk much about business at all. Whereas FinTech Wales was basically about building your business. How you build a business, if your business plan is good enough, if yes, great. How to scale this, if not, why not? What you're offering makes sense or not, how you're pitching.
And basically, FinTech Wales for me is— The one thing that I was lacking in my business or in my thinking was, I actually had no idea how to raise funds. I was bootstrapping, but I had no idea how to raise funds, how to make my first fundraising document, how to get started, what's the first thing, what's the next, right? And the next thing and the next after. And FinTech Wales, that program made me this fundraising entrepreneur. So, if I was able to raise funds, it's thank to you, thanks to the FinTech Wales program.
Rob: Oh, they'll love you for that. I mean, I think they already do love you because I see your face everywhere. I actually watched— Because a friend of mine was in the program at the same time as you, Steve Talbot.
Rob: Everknock, Dan and Steve. And I watched online your pitch day. I think you were the first.
Ammar: I was the first, yeah. I always go first because of “Ammar, go first”.
Rob: Well, yeah, I watched it and of course I didn't know who you were and I didn't know what Final Rentals was. And I was watching it, I was going, “oh, this guy can present”, right? So, normally I've watched a thousand of these pitch things during the last 15 years. They're usually okay, good. But you've definitely got something there. Do you think that was a natural ability? Do you think it's because, and don't be offended, you're a little bit older than the usual startup founder at 21, 22 years old, and you've got that experience? Do you think the MBA helped? Or do you think, is it a combination of the accelerator and what that taught you how to present as well?
I'm trying to find out, is there a special personality trait that makes someone good at presenting their business and their idea, or is it something that can be learned through various different programs?
Ammar: So, it's a very interesting question because I think the first, let's say the first taste of presenting came to me when I was working for Microsoft as an intern. My boss was from Ivy League University, Philadelphia, UPenn, the Wharton Business School, right? And he was a guy, he was a Pakistani American guy, and he was a guy, and he used to say, “I want you to present like George Bush”. And I'm like, “what does that mean? And by the way, who is George Bush?” I didn't know.
Rob: Which one?
Ammar: Yeah, which one? Exactly, right? And he's like, “no, see, the programmers are good programmers, but if they cannot present what they're doing, then they're absolutely useless to me. And I want you guys to present”. And he will surprise you with these things that we will go into meetings and he'll be like— And you're thinking he's a boss, right? He will present, right? He'll go and sit and say, “Okay, great. So, we're talking about this, we're talking about SQL Server 2000. And from our side, we will let Ammar to take the lead”. And Ammar is like, “what? What's going on?” So, he'll put you into these situations. And I think that was great coaching from his side. I'm really grateful to him. Still have him on WhatsApp, we still chat, right? And he'll still give me feedback. So, he was my first boss. He has great contribution, especially I would say in learning English, more than the presentation itself.
Then what happened is, then for 15 years I was just working as a nerd. Tech corporate, tech guy, working from an office. Nobody asked me to present and PPT was fine. I had my assistants, they would present and I was not just saying anything. I was just sitting behind and just doing the job. And wouldn't even go out, not a social person, for 15 odd years, Robert. And then something happens. What happened is, I told you when I launched Final Rentals for the first year I lost a lot of money, a couple of hundred thousand pounds. And that was a phase when I was going through this sense of denial that, “how come I lost this money? What's going on?”
Because for 15 years, I was having the security of money in my bank every month I was earning. And it was the first time that someone just slapped on my face and said, “wake up”. And that was the time I was going through a very, very bad phase. But I didn't tell anybody. Nobody knew that I don't have money. Nobody knew that, for example, the ad was still there on the billboards. All the things were still running. So, I got a call from Travel Technology Conference Dubai, TTCT. They said, “Mr. [inaudible], we would like to invite you as a keynote speaker”. And I'm like, what? Keynote speaker? I'm going to go and speak? You're kidding me. But then my assistant told me, “You must do this. It will be fine. It's okay. We can rehearse. We can rehearse again and again. Don't worry. There's no need to be shy. You'll have a clicker in your hand. You can present. What's the problem?” Okay, that's fine.
So, it was September 2017. I still remember. So, I went there. There were many speakers. I was one of them. And they invited me. So, when they invited me, I didn't even know how to go on stage. So, what I did, I was wearing this mic. I didn't even go and say— I was presenting within the audience.
Rob: Oh, wow.
Ammar: And the audience thought that was my style. “Oh, this guy is like this. Oh, great. Let's see”, you know? Like a signature style, right? What happened is those 20 minutes changed my life.
Rob: Oh, wow.
Ammar: I don't know what happened. It went really well. People came to me and they said, “wow, that was natural. It was a talk. It was not a presentation. It was a talk. We enjoyed it” and all those things. And I felt, “wow, I can do this”. Then I started doing this again and again. And, you know—
Rob: The only way to get good at anything is to practice.
Ammar: Yeah, practice. 10,000 hours.
Rob: Yeah. Well, you know, you had that practice in your first internship job at Microsoft. And then, okay, maybe it went dormant for 10, 15 years. But you got the opportunity again. And I imagine since 2017, you've had quite a few opportunities to do speaking at conferences. We're running out of time. I'm going to ask you if you were to give a piece of advice to someone wanting to start a business. You've started several in your career. What would that be? So, they've got an idea and they don't know what the next step is.
Ammar: So, my advice is very, very simple. And that has been my mantra also. So, I always tell my friends that, see, idea is not enough. People have ideas. There are many, many people. They have ideas. We call them idea monkeys. They jump from one idea to another. And they never really finish anything. So, it's all about execution. And execution will come from the sense of purpose. And purpose is a very interesting word. It's used vaguely. “This is my purpose. This is what I'm doing”. But how to find your purpose? So, I have a very simple mantra for you to find a purpose. We use things on a daily basis that are created by other people. This mic, this MacBook, this keyboard is not made by me. It's made by someone else who was exactly the same as me. Same face, eyes, everything, maybe even less resources than what I have. But they have done something that people talk about, left a legacy.
If you ask yourself every day, what's my legacy? Like when I'm not here in this world, will people talk about this thing was made by this guy? Like today, how we talk about JP Morgan, JD Rockefeller, and all these guys, Henry Ford, they're not alive anymore, but they have left something, right? Whether it's big or small, do you know what you will leave behind when you leave the world? Right? And if you're able to answer that question, that's your purpose. And if you bring that purpose to your business, you will be unstoppable.
Rob: Brilliant. All right. Well, thank you so much, Ammar. Well, yeah, that was great. I've learned a lot from you. I've got two or three great tips there as well.
Ammar: It's my pleasure, really.
Rob: Yeah, no, thank you for taking part in the Wales in Tech podcast.
Ammar: Lovely. Thank you. Thank you, Robert. Such a pleasure.