Welcome to the first edition of Y-oung Entrepreneurs. I’ll always explain how I met them first, then showcase their project and experience as an entrepreneur. This edition features a variety of entrepreneurs each engaged in different industries; some easy to break into, while others aren’t.
Rayan Elzein: Communicating Health Records in Real-time
I first met this interesting person back in 2008. We shared the same nightmare class of Calculus 3 in university. Fortunately, it wasn’t the only dreaded class we ended up sharing and we’ve become good friends ever since. At the time of our graduation. I remember Rayan saying something extremely important to me when we started looking for jobs. “I’ve been looking at some opportunities here in Lebanon, and the best I can do is roughly $1,000 monthly salary. I refuse to accept such an offer when I’ve paid $1,500 per month for my own education.” Rayan has come a long way since then, and three years down the road, he’s managing his own business.
“Someone once told me what the real obstacles for entrepreneurship are in the Middle East; it’s the IBM problem.”
Inshalla (God Willing)
Menshoof (We will see)
“If I had to pick the 3 most recurring words I heard in all the meetings, presentations, and pitches during our journey as a struggling start-up so far, that would definitely be them.” Rayan doesn’t open our discussion in the best of ways, although he constantly reminds himself that this attitude does not apply to everyone in the Arab World. Each industry has its own attitude and part of the job is finding the right ones.
Rayan noticed that the more your business model starts resembling a start up, and that you’re out to change how business is done, they resist. Of course this attitude is normal; Rayan sees there is a common misconception. “The perception of your start-up instantly becomes as if you are a team with a cute science project rather than an actual business” he says, “there is constantly a layer of unnecessary stress because the general culture doesn’t believe very much in start-ups.”
Although there has been much support in the Arab world coming from VCs, incubators, competitions, and support programs, Rayan still has significant obstacles when it comes to his start-up. “ValleyFeed SAL in the business of creating a dynamic Electronic Medical Record from your fingerprint.” Meaning you’ll always have your medical record ready so that diagnosis and treatment is made easy for doctors anywhere. If, for example, an accident has occurred and the victim is incapacitated, paramedics can instantly access what they need to know about this patient through fingerprint. Information such as allergies to medicines, past surgeries and current health states all make for better informed decisions in such critical situations.
Rayan leaves us with this piece of advice. None of the aforementioned obstacles should discourage anyone from starting their own business in the Arab world. “I do not mean it in a way to demoralize any team looking to build their company now. At ValleyFeed, we learned that in the Arab World, it requires more patience and endurance in the meeting and pitching process, than in other parts of the world.”
Kimić Berly: Teddy Bears in Croatia
I had the pleasure of meeting Kim early on during my master program in Madrid. She and I were one of the few who met during our intensive Spanish language classes a month before the program started. Kim is a strong individual; assertive and organized, she quickly established “The Boss” as her nickname at our business school. While I never had immediate work with her, her reputation preceded her on many occasions; many of my classmates would jokingly ask Kim if they could take breaks from meetings.
Most Entrepreneurship professors introduce their classes with the question, “can you teach entrepreneurship?” Kim, like many of us, has repeatedly heard the common answer “Maybe.” Maybe the theory can be taught and applied, however nothing is like practical experience.
Kim has encountered both forms: A formal university degree labeled a major in “Entrepreneurship” and an opportunity to open a business.
Kim began her journey when she was in Chicago back in 2010. Visiting the popular “Build-A-Bear” store on the tourist Navy Pier, she left the store with a coconut colored furry friend. Kim’s stuffed the teddy, putting a heart inside her, dressed in bear clothes and even made a birth certificate. That’s when it hit her. A business that attracted a diverse group of people ranging from young couples, mid-life crisis mothers and elderly couples. Kim fell in love with the experience and set out to replicate it.
Her Location: Croatia’s capital Zagreb. Why there? It didn’t have the same Chicago flair and was 1/8th the size. During her studies in 2011, Kim took to the streets for good old-fashioned market research. She observed the culture and people, jotting down the differences between Croatian and American culture. Kim noticed that the children did have their own stuffed animals, but were not as cute as they should have been. The need was realized.
Research and hard work followed as Kim wanted to recreate the experience in Zagreb. Only 21 years old, she tackled her challenges with a “sleep when I’m dead” attitude. “I spent over a solid year on networking to finding investors, researching to finding suppliers, negotiating for franchise rights, pitching ideas, and networking.” However, Kim realized that the key to success was understanding the Croatian culture. “Market research was extremely essential in understanding the Croatian market and mentality in the lingering financial crisis.”
It was anything but easy. “While most my friends were concerned about partying as their legal milestone to drink alcohol, I was focused on meeting overseas executives over Skype at odd hours of the night to build my business plan.” Most of Kim’s nights were spent dwelling over her mental checklist and checking her Blackberry for emails. The job poured onto many places of her life. “School lectures were spent multi-tab browsing on the internet. This was my time. My life. My baby.”
In 2012, Kim made a hard decision to let go of her venture. “My Type A personality makes giving up extremely hard – mentally and physically shutting down shop was my biggest challenge.”
Kim didn’t walk away empty-handed; she walked away with the practical experience that entrepreneurship theory classes are built on. When asked if she’d do it again, Kim confidently answered “absolutely”.
Sydney Cohen: Risk-taking Redefined
We all read about big risk takers, people who gamble their companies and life savings to make it big.
Let me be very clear about Sydney. He gambles on his actual life. HIS LIFE. The one you only have ONE of.
Sydney possesses the biggest heart of any friend I know. While we’re off studying after class, he’s off skydiving onto some Meadow in Madrid. We decide to take a trip to relax in a city and take in the sights, and he’s in Val d’isere speed riding. This video might give you an idea and that’s just a taste of the other things he does.
Its only natural he wants to be an entrepreneur. Who could you be otherwise?
“I think what has been the most challenging for me in my past projects was to keep up with the project itself.” That’s Sydney’s main point if you’re deciding to start a business. “For any kind of project to take form it takes time to build it up; this is going from the moment you had the original idea until the moment you actually execute the idea or have something tangible to offer.”
Sydney points out the importance of sticking to your vision and overcoming the many obstacles ahead. “You will find tons of obstacles on the way, ranging from people, friends, family, founders, partners, and teachers telling you that your idea is not worth anything or that it is not likely to work for whatever reason.” Conviction and commitment is what you need and Sydney is very clear about that. “Executing the project will really come down to how strong you are in envisioning your project succeed, and finding the right motivation especially when you doubt your idea the most.”
Sydney, along with two of his classmates Paal Ringstaad and Prakash Senthilkumar started an interesting project during their master program in Madrid. TooLazyToSearch is a search engine that requires you to put information on what you are looking for, and the team will do the rest, providing you with the top 3 choices. Prakash focused on building the website from the ground up, taking care of all the technical details. Sydney and Paal would execute all the requests coming in to the website. They’re the ones researching for you if you don’t have the time.
Say you’re planning a trip. You want to research but you don’t have much time. Just plug in the required information (the location, duration, and certain preferences) and the team will do the rest. They will be able to gather different options; options you may have never considered before or knew even existed. Leveraging their experience in certain areas, the team can add value to what you’re be looking for, giving you relevant alternatives.
Sydney and his colleagues provided us with two tips they used for the projects:
Remember Why: Always document your idea, and what motivated you to start a project. What are the passions that drove you to push forward. A checklist will remind you of crucial elements and will help you when in doubt.
Avoid Negative People: You will inevitably encounter negative people. A negative person can be a downer and can inflate your minor problems, leaving you filled with uncertainty. “They can still be good for you, allowing you to dissect your idea” says Sydney, “but it is always important to keep your distance so you’re not demotivated.”
Karim Lahlou: Event Management in Paris
Karim was my final project teammate, and we spent a tiring week together along with another classmate of ours, preparing the last assignment before we were officially Master graduates. I got to know Karim more during that time, and he’s been a source of witty ideas and a pleasure to work with.
Karim started his own company in the event industry in Paris, back in 2007. Being in charge of Marketing Strategy and PR, Karim found it very difficult to get clients. He faced two reasons for this problem. “First of all, I was a Moroccan, breaking into the French market and secondly, my age.” In fact, Karim was only 19 years of age when he opened his company and the number alone is hard to convince clients that you’re up to the task or even serious about anything. Karim didn’t give up, and took on the challenge headfirst, competing with big firms such as Publicis. Finally, he got his first breakthrough and things got better; “after around a hundred interviews, I finally got the first contract” says Karim, “that was epic.” After Karim’s entrepreneurial experience, he realized that he needed to further his learning. His decision to pursue a master allowed him to expand on his previous knowledge, taking advantage of what the digital world has to offer.
Petros Alexander Kirakosyan: Navigating the Mobile Gaming Landscape
Apparently Petros played an influential role during my 24th birthday. He was assigned the critical task along with another friend (who I’m sure did all the work) of getting my birthday cake. Nonetheless, I’m grateful that I was able to celebrate my 24th birthday with him.
Petros always struggled with the idea of being his own boss. Petros weighed in the pros and cons of having your own business and was convinced he should go ahead with it. Petros’ personality is like that, he’s someone who wants to be independent and feel his work is his own. It came down to either having a stress-free life with a stable salary or choosing the freedom to do what you want; Petros chose the latter.
Petros was joined by his brother and two other friends who shared the same passion: gaming. They decided to create something that would stand out from the thousands of mobile gaming apps out there. Their game involves the conventional puzzle game, but allows players to play against random opponents. You’ll have to complete your puzzle faster than your opponent, while trying to deter their progress through special abilities. Petros realized the risks of such an industry and introducing a new type of multi-player game; it was all or nothing for Petros and the team. “Of course, we had a lot of challenges during the execution; we had to change the game logic twice until we found the right one for our target player.” Petros also points out the difficulties of working in things you have never done before, “I had to get involved with developers, designers and programmers; it isn’t easy to cooperate with them when you have little to no experience in that field.” Petros and the team are currently completing the game, and waiting for publishers’ reactions.