Makkah: Ali Lijee
Every year, thousands of UK Muslims travel to Saudi Arabia to perform umrah and hajj. This new website ensures they can get their safely and securely
Tell us what your business does:
Makkah is a brand-new website and the first of its kind offering a one-stop-shop for pilgrims wishing to travel to the holy city of Mecca (Makkah) in order to undertake hajj (the major pilgrimage) or umrah (the minor pilgrimage).
The major features of Makkah are that it is a free service for both pilgrims and travel providers, and it is secure. Every travel operator is verified and licensed by the Saudi ministry of Haj and Umra, and each package is financially protected by the UK government-backed ATOL (Air Travel Organiser’s Licence).
The way we operate is that we are primarily a web-based quote management system. People wishing to find a hajj or umrah package just need to fill in a quote request form, and they will receive quotes from a variety of travel operators, based around their specific requirements. This means that potential pilgrims can choose exactly the right level of luxury or economy for this most important journey.
Once the pilgrim has selected the most appropriate package, they deal directly with the licensed travel agent, secure in the knowledge that they are dealing with a legitimate company, and that their interests (and finances) are protected.
Where did the idea for your business come from?
Travelling to Makkah to perform hajj is an essential part of being a Muslim; it is the fifth pillar of Islam, and it is expected that every Muslim who is able to complete the journey will do it at least once in their life. Umrah is similar to hajj, except the rituals are fewer, and it is not mandatory.
Among the conditions for completing hajj is that the pilgrim must not only be physically able to complete the journey, but they must be able to afford to do it, and it is this financial aspect which has attracted fraudsters.
I have always been saddened to hear about “hajj fraud” in the news. Because hajj is compulsory, it is relatively easy for unscrupulous ‘travel operators’ to sell non-existent or inadequate travel packages to pilgrims, often at unrealistic prices.
There are stories of rogue operators profiting by over £30,000 from a single family, and there must be even more of this type of fraud which goes unreported, because people feel embarrassed at being taken-in.
Our aim with Makkah.co.uk is to ensure that potential pilgrims are protected from potential fraudsters, and to provide a quote system that both sides can use in safety. For safety and security reasons, we insist that all Makkah travel operators are licensed by the Saudi ministry of Haj and Umra, and covered by ATOL.
How did you know there was a market for it?
Every year 100,000 British pilgrim’s travel to Saudi Arabia to perform Umrah and over 25,000 go to perform hajj. This is the last month in the Islamic calendar, and the only time when it is permitted to undertake the major pilgrimage of hajj.
Umrah, the lesser pilgrimage, can be undertaken at any time of the year. The average cost of a hajj package per person is around £4,700.
With the high incidence of fraud in the hajj and umrah travel business, there was clearly an opening for a safe and secure all-in-one travel quote system.
What were you doing before starting up?
I have previously been involved in a variety of IT and internet-related services. For about seven years, I was employed by UKFast, a major internet hosting provider.
Prior to that, I was working in web-related service sales, at a time when the commercial internet was in its infancy, and few businesses recognised the importance of the World Wide Web.
Have you always wanted to run your own business?
Undoubtedly – I have always been creative and a lover of challenges of all kinds. I am the kind of person who can’t stand by and see inequality and inefficiency in working practices, without wanting to get involved and make changes.
Setting up Makkah.co.uk was my way of trying to stop fraudsters from taking advantage of potential pilgrims, who are after all only trying to fulfil their obligations under Islam.
How did you raise the money?
I have always funded my business ventures myself, and have been fortunate enough never to have needed to borrow money. In my very early career as an entrepreneur, I was employed full time, and was working on my own initiatives outside my working hours and in my lunch breaks, which enabled me to get started. Since then, my businesses have been mainly self-funding.
Describe your business model and how you make money:
Currently, Makkah.co.uk does not generate income at present however once we prove the model works we will look at charging the tour operators a small subscription fee. I do this with other business ventures that I own, and my motto is ‘keep it simple’.
I have assembled a talented team of people who carry out digital marketing and lead generation, and network members pay a modest subscription (currently £75 per year) for access to our websites and the sales leads. This modest fee is sufficient to cover running costs, and everyone benefits from use of the network.
What challenges have you faced and how have you overcome them?
Every business venture has its own challenges, especially when you are moving into a new area that may be outside your own comfort zone. I have learned to take inspiration from the people who benefit from being members of my networks, and love to see them prosper, both as a result of my efforts, and the efforts of my team.
One of the biggest challenges I face is getting people who are comfortable with a service, to branch out and think a little more broadly. The temptation can be to settle into a routine that works, and resist all offers of add-on services that may cause a little extra work in the short term, but longer term will benefit their business.
My answer is always to work as hard and energetically as I can, and make best use of force of personality and enthusiasm. It is important to fully explain and if possible demonstrate the potential benefits of change, but even then, sometimes it is necessary to give doubters a bit of a push.
What was your first big breakthrough?
PR and marketing are essential to any business, and after starting off on my own, I decided to hire a company to do the PR and marketing for me. At the time, it felt really expensive, but it was a great investment. Through their efforts, we got great exposure nationwide, through BBC Radio, and publications such as GQ and The Sunday Times.
What advice would you give to budding entrepreneurs?
Pick something you enjoy doing, and then stick at it. A new venture should never be just about the money – it needs to be something you feel is worthwhile doing, and you need to enjoy it because it’s going to occupy you for a long time. Tenacity, patience and optimism are all necessary for success.
Sure, you will hit snags and issues, but that’s the most effective (and quickest) way to learn. Treat every problem as an opportunity to improve, and you won’t go far wrong.
Where do you want to be in five years’ time?
To be the go-to place for comparing and selecting hajj and umrah packages. To be a trusted partner to potential pilgrims and travel operators in the UK. To be instrumental in helping to prevent hajj and umrah fraud.