In the second of Startup Scene’s Starting Up series, the co-founder of one of Cairo’s oldest co-working space shares the crucial lessons he learned creating a company in Egypt.
Business makes profit. It's a very simple equation that encourages anyone to think of starting up a company and getting rid of the daily routine and maybe, one day, riding the Lamborghini Veneno. What most people don’t know is that the journey comes with a bag - a bag that is as heavy as lead.
I was in my third year of college when I really felt the urge to start up my own business. I was part of some active student groups and organisations, where we needed to have lots of meetings without fixed places to work from. Back then, every time I would visit a café or rent a room in an educational center, I’d discover that these places were not meant to host us. We didn’t belong in there. The physical facilities were neither apt - in terms of privacy, proper internet connection, or the availability of flip-charts - nor was there the sense of being among like-minded people. I wanted this. I wanted a place that not only provides a ready physical space with all the facilities we need to be productive, but that also accommodates and eases the process of getting things done amongst a community of like-minded change-makers. This was when the idea of AlMaqarr Co-working Space first came to life.
We kicked off in September 2012; we were four young passionate people who had nothing to start with, except some cars that might help if we sold them for cash. We knew nothing about business or the co-working industry – which wasn’t even really present at the time. Any sane person would think a thousand times before deciding what to do, but we didn’t. We took the risk and jumped into the abyss, starting a four-year learning journey that taught us some interesting lessons.
1. It’s never too early to start.
“Take your time and plan thoroughly, no one is running after you.” This is the most common statement anyone will hear as the first piece of advice to start up their business. Believe me, this is a cliché that you have to hear, this whole notion that the more you plan, the better the results you will get. It makes sense, huh? But not in the start-up phase - not in your first step. If you have an idea, just gather your thoughts and get it out there. Get your studies together and start forecasting. Once you can visualise the early steps of your project, it’s the right time! Don’t, don’t, don’t invest too much time in planning. The more you plan, the more useless your plans become. Once you hit the market, all your plans will have been in vain! Be as flexible as you can because plans are made to be changed. Testing your product or service on the ground is the best way to plan your business.
2. Flexibility is key, but don’t let it block your business!
Be flexible when it comes to re-planning and re-prioritising. In the first couple of months, you’ll be getting regular feedback about your product. Incorporate as many insights as possible, try to get what your customers say, and fit it in with what you really want to offer them. Being flexible is important, but over-flexibility might deviate you from your original idea and hide your competitive advantage. Don’t let the feedback unbalance your edge.
3. Not all money is good money.
As a physical business that provides workspaces, we still abide by the values we set in order to build the collaborative community that we always dreamt of. Sometimes you’ll find customers that can buy your product and cash in very good money, but here's where you need to ask yourself: why are you doing this? Is it just for profit? Answer this question honestly before starting, because you will face lots of untargeted customers. As for us, we always knew that we were not in this just for the profit. We don’t want to host popular tutors, marketing agencies, or anyone who will not bring real value to the community that we strive to build. Our community management perspective states that not all customers are worth it.
4. Trust the expertise of trusted advisors.
You don’t know everything and you never will. There are countless people who’ve been through the process, who have stories that can direct you, and who can offer you insights. Don’t miss the chance of listening to the people you trust and look up to. There’s always another angle you need to see, and this is what we needed to understand in order to know where to go. We owe everything to everyone who helped us determine our direction and understand the key elements of our business; we wouldn’t have sustained ourselves if it wasn’t for the expertise of our trusted advisors.
5. Your personal brand is as important as your company's brand.
In a country like Egypt, opportunities always go to those who can easily be remembered. Building a business is all about building relationships, so as much as you invest in your business' brand, you should invest in yours. A strong personal brand will help you with recommendations and referrals, will get people to trust what you do and, most importantly, can lead to a wealth of new opportunities stretching far beyond existing options. I don’t think AlMaqarr would have grown that much if we didn’t care about our personal brands. I still remember people walking into our space and asking about our names in order to know what and where AlMaqarr was, unaware that they were already there!
6. Collaboration, collaboration, collaboration!
We are a co-working space. We act upon this principle in everything we do, but especially in business, we've witnessed how collaboration and working together can bring in unexpected results. Collaboration can come in all different shapes, but what really matters is how you take advantage of everyone and everything around you. No one will ever lose; it’s always a win-win situation.
7. You are nothing without a smart team.
It took us 16 months to be able to hire a team. If we had the chance to go back in time, we would definitely have hired our team from day one. Even if you're investing your last pound, invest it in your team. A one-man-show can start up your business, but it will never grow it. To take off, there will always be people who are smarter than you. Be lucky enough to find them and transfer your beliefs to them. It takes time, because what doesn’t? But believe me, this will be the most valuable decision you make on your journey.