Key to entrepreneurship: just keep trying

I remember attending a speaker event organized by our entrepreneurship club during my MBA at IESE. One of the speakers, a (very) serial entrepreneur, was telling us the story of how he got started. It was a pretty miserable story: each of the past five ventures he embarked on over the years ended in failure. Recently married, he was working on his sixth venture, confident that this was the one. It wasn’t. Another failure.

Having spent every last penny, he had no option left but to sell an apartment that was bequeathed to him by his family. He proceeded to build a website and advertise his beautiful Barcelona flat online in the hope that he would get a good deal with a foreigner looking to buy property. The response to his website was so positive that not only did he get a great selling price on the apartment, he had also just stumbled across his big idea. He went on to develop a real estate portal, and it took off. Boom! Finally a success! Seventh time lucky.

Here is how I got started…

As with many in the Arab world, I come from a family of entrepreneurs, so the idea of starting my own business was always floating around in my head. And if I ever strayed from thinking about it, my father’s consistent reminders “Son, there is nothing better in the world than doing what you love and being your own boss” kept me in check. Thanks Dad! But that dreaded question always remained: What am I going to do?

Getting accepted into an MBA program was the perfect opportunity. There I was, armed with an undergrad in computer science and 5 years of work experience in software and consulting. I was about to meet loads of new people, make great friends, study business and have the time to explore interesting new opportunities. The key was to keep an open mind and just go with the flow.

Luckily, my roommate and I shared a very similar mindset. Amongst other things, he was interested in entrepreneurship, read TechCrunch, and was also very keen to get into something new. Between playing PS3, working on cases, and learning financial accounting, we used to discuss everything going on in the world of tech: Facebook’s billion dollar valuation and Groupon’s (un)sustainable business model were evening standards. Then one day, a discussion on Rovio’s crazy success with Angry Birds went out on a tangent and we came up with a pretty neat idea. Ghemagames was born.

The idea was pretty simple: we wanted to add an additional element of excitement to mobile games by allowing players to bet against each other. I know what you’re thinking – it’s gambling. No, not really… as long as what you are betting on is your own skill, and the game you are playing does not involve chance (like blackjack or poker) then it’s technically not gambling. It’s the equivalent of paying 5 dollars to enter a weekend tennis tournament and winning the prize money after beating every other player – the more you practice, the better you play and the higher chances you have of winning. The best part about Ghemagames was that we would allow game developers to retain a percentage of every ‘transaction’, complementing their existing revenue streams, which would in turn offer better monetization potential for games and help them get out of their rut (that is 99.9% of mobile games are not profitable).

So we got started. The great thing about pursuing the entrepreneurial track in the MBA was the unlimited access to resources we had at our disposal. Professors were always ready and willing to listen to our pitch, offering free advice, raising red flags, and making suggestions on what needed more work. Discussing the idea with fellow classmates allowed us to see very different perspectives, ones we had completely over-looked at times. Furthermore, the courses we took, be it strategy, marketing, leadership, etc. all fed into the future vision of our business, so we were able to immediately put things into practice and plan for how we would make it work. Finally, and most importantly, the angel investor networks, business plan competitions, and various incubators that the school was partnered with made for a great starting point once all our pieces were in place.

In the span of a year, we had made some good progress. We had done a fair amount of market research, speaking to independent game developers and potential users of the platform. We also had a business plan ready, which we wrote as part of an entrepreneurship course that walked us through the entire process inch by inch. After looking into building a prototype, we were quite discouraged given the high costs involved and decided to seek seed funding first. Coincidentally, an incubator called Wayra, started by Spanish telecom giant Telefonica, had just announced a program in Barcelona. They were looking to accept 30 startups into the upcoming batch. Without thinking twice, we applied. After making it past the first few rounds, we ended up in the final 40, but unfortunately never made the cut. A couple of investor pitches on campus also didn’t bear fruit. Overall, 2011/12 was a difficult time in Europe, the financial crisis was in full swing, Greece was getting bailed out and Spain’s economic situation wasn’t any better.

As we got closer towards the end of our MBA, reality started to sink in. My partner got an offer to move to Miami after graduation and I was quite keen on moving back to the Middle East to find a job. Ghemagames was only really going to work in Europe (as there were some regulatory issues related to the US market) and it wouldn’t make sense pushing to start a company with each of us being in a different part of the world. It just doesn’t work that way. So, we decided to shelve it. No big deal, no hard feelings, at least we tried and learned a great deal along the way.

Lesson 1: Entrepreneurship is a journey, which starts with a first step. If you don’t take that first step then you’ll never be on your way.

Back in Dubai

My next attempt at entrepreneurial success was at home. Back from Spain, I was looking for a job and deciding what to do with my life when a close friend of mine approached me with an idea that he had been thinking about for a while. After numerous discussions, conversations with friends, family and a few industry professionals we decided it was worth giving it a shot and seeing what happens. We called it Flat Chat. It was a website that would allow residents to rate and review buildings and communities they lived in with the aim of providing apartment hunters with accurate information before deciding where to move to or what property to buy.

Once again, I was super excited – It was the same rush I felt back in Barcelona while working on Ghemagames. The more involved I got with the project, the more I believed in it and felt this was going to be a big hit. Things were going well between my friend and I, we had a comprehensive product roadmap in place, ideas on how to market the product and had already started working on our website design. But there was an important piece of the puzzle that we weren’t able to figure out, and that was a sustainable revenue model. Our initial plans were to monetize through online advertising and once we hit critical mass start offering various services for a fee – mainly to real estate agents. But there is a big problem with making your money from ads and that is you need a LOT of traffic to actually become sustainable. The more I read and spoke to people about it, the more I realized it wouldn’t work, unless we had enough funding to get us to that much needed critical mass. Furthermore, my partner and I started to have differing views on which direction to take the business, which led to heated discussions and misunderstandings – it was only four months into our business partnership. I figured if that’s how it is now, then it will only get worse later and given I was in business with one of my close friends, I decided the safest thing to do at that point was to take the first exit.

Lesson 2: You have to keep trying! But think ten times before going into business with close friends or family. Better yet, avoid it completely. These are important bridges you don’t want to burn.

When I least expected it

While I wouldn’t call my experience with Flat Chat a failure, it sure felt a bit like one. It took a lot out of me. I liken it to breaking up with a girl you were really into after only four months – just when things were starting to get good.

So, I was back to looking for a job again, and I hated it. I would read through endless, boring job descriptions and struggle imagining myself doing that type of work. It wasn’t me. Then one day, I got an unexpected LinkedIn message from Edmond, an old friend and classmate who I hadn’t seen since high school. He had also just completed his MBA and wanted to catch up… a month later we were already working on Kanari.

Kanari is my personal third attempt, and I have a really good feeling about it. We work really well as a team, we’re in the process of building a kick-ass product and we feel the market is ripe and ready for the picking. That said, while it may be premature to talk about success, what is the worst that can happen? We fail. But at least we tried.

And as the saying goes: if you don’t try, you don’t fail. You don’t fail, you don’t learn. You don’t learn, you’ve failed anyway.