This is our first post in a blog where Subhi (my co-founder) and I will talk about Kanari, our experiences building an internet business in Dubai as first-timers and our thoughts on entrepreneurship in the Middle East. We both continue to learn a lot from reading about other people’s entrepreneurial experiences and we feel like the time is now right for us to give something back (however small!) to the growing regional community of internet entrepreneurs. This is, however, the first time either of us is writing publicly so we hope you’ll bear with us as we embark on documenting our journey into the world of internet business.
A bit of background first…
My passion for technology is what spurred me to study engineering at university. I majored in Mechanical Engineering and because I was (and still am to a certain degree) a complete petrolhead I was lucky enough to get my first job in the engineering department of a world-class offshore powerboat racing team, Victory Team. I enjoyed those first few years of my career immensely – it was a stimulating environment and I loved the work we were doing. As an engineer on the team I was involved in a wide range of projects ranging from onboard and engine electronics development to CFD simulation and carbon composites manufacture.
In parallel to my job at Victory Team I was actively involved in my younger brother Sebastian’s ATV racing activities as well. Every year we formed a small team to take part in the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge where he did the racing and I helped out with development, logistics and track support. As a team we punched well above our weight and were quite successful… We even managed to nab the 2007 Cross Country World Championship title!
We were passionate about racing and both Seb and I dreamt of developing our own bespoke ATV for racing and military applications. We felt that if we combined Seb’s racing talent and experience with my engineering know-how and industry contacts we could build something that would outperform anything available off the shelf from Yamaha, Suzuki, KTM or Honda.
First entrepreneurial experience
Quitting my job at Victory Team and deciding to dedicate all my time and savings to work full time on this project was my first truly entrepreneurial experience – and it hit me smack in the face! By the time I realised that we had bitten off way more than we could chew it was already too late. By that point we had already exceeded our budget and postponed the project end date several times and at a certain point I was no longer comfortable with the idea of raising more money from friends and family. Though we did have a prototype that was close to being finished its that last 20% that’s always the most challenging to complete.
This put me in a position where I had to go back into the job market for a while but both Seb and I had been bitten by the entrepreneurial bug and felt like we had unfinished business with this project. Getting a ‘regular’ job for a while gave me the time to think deeply about why we were not able to achieve our targets and in hindsight I realise that I had made some classic rookie startup mistakes.
Though I still believe in the fundamental superiority of the technology we were trying to develop (relative to what was commercially available off the shelf) I underestimated the time and resources we needed to bring this project to fruition. We were trying to accomplish too much with our first prototype whereas we should have been trying to find ways to develop and test individual components and functionalities in a more iterative manner.
In addition, though we had a wide range of expertise on the team, the fact that we were so geographically dispersed (Dubai, the UK, California) made it difficult to collaborate efficiently. Don’t forget that we were trying to build a physical product here… This ability to work closely as a team is absolutely crucial for such an early stage business because when it boils down to it this ability is all you really have.
Though things didn’t progress as planned the lessons we learned gave us the confidence to change direction and try again. We felt that if we’d ever want to restart this project we’d need, at the minimum, a reasonably equipped workshop, some qualified staff and time to work on the project without having to worry about where the next month’s paycheck would come from. Starting SEBSPORTS in late 2010 certainly gave us the first two but we’ve never stopped worrying about the monthly paycheck! The first two and a half years have been so busy dealing with the day-to-day running and growth of the business that we haven’t had the chance to restart work on our prototype. At this point, though, we’re wondering if that would even be the right thing to do considering how much potential for growth SEBSPORTS has in its core business areas.
By mid-2011 I was sure that my career goals would always be to build my own successful business. As an engineer, however, I felt that I was lacking skills and know-how in core business functions like finance, accounting, marketing and strategy – skills I felt I would need to be successful as a business owner in the future. This is what ultimately drove me to pursue a year-long MBA at INSEAD’s Singapore campus in 2012. I was hesitant about leaving SEBSPORTS so early on its life but with Sebastian there to manage it I felt like it was a sacrifice that I was able to make.
Now I know that there is a lot of debate about whether or not an MBA is valuable (or even detrimental) to a person that wants to pursue an entrepreneurial career. There are certainly pros and cons to following this route that I won’t touch upon in this post. I, however, feel like the experience was very valuable to me and I have absolutely no regrets about that decision to go back to school. It gave me time to think about what I wanted to do and it exposed me to a huge variety of new people and stimulating ideas. More importantly, however, the courses I took forced me to generate, study and develop new business ideas and allowed me to refine them through constructive criticism and feedback from both my professors and classmates. That is how I came up with the concept for Kanari…
Finding a co-founder
After completing my MBA in December 2012 I came back to Dubai to figure out the next step in my career. I was considering committing myself to turning the concept of Kanari into a real business but I was being held back by the fact that I did not have a co-founder to work with. I needed a partner primarily because I didn’t want to build this business on my own and because Kanari would need someone with tech experience on the founding team. I felt like I needed someone as vested in the business as I was to brainstorm and generate ideas with and to offer a different perspective whenever it was needed.
One of the nice things about the MBA is that it teaches you to put yourself in the shoes of an investor and I knew that investors often put more emphasis on the team than they do on the idea. Good ideas are a dime a dozen but good teams that can execute are much harder to come by. And by definition a team consists of more than one person. Investors are very wary of startups with single founders because the failure rate of such startups is so much higher than for startups with multiple co-founders. If I ever wanted to give Kanari a good chance at raising funds in the future I’d need to find a good co-founder with whom to build it.
Finding a good co-founder is a whole subject area in and of itself, and plenty has been written about it. At the most fundamental level however a founding team needs to fulfill three key criteria. The first is that there needs to be a deep level of trust amongst members of a founding team. The reasons for this are pretty obvious – would you go into business with someone you didn’t trust? The second is that co-founders need to be able to work together in all sorts of stressful conditions. This also sounds obvious but often people don’t realise how hard and stressful it is to build a business from scratch. Finally, founding members of a startup team should ideally have complementary skill sets so that a large part of the required expertise is contained ‘in-house’. This is especially important in tech startups because of the many different areas that a team needs to manage. Design, development, marketing, strategy and fundraising are all areas that an internet startup will eventually need to be active in.
In early January 2013 Subhi posted a link to interesting article about entrepreneurship on his LinkedIn profile. Though Subhi and I have known each other for over two decades we hadn’t spoken to each other probably since the late nineties. I saw from his profile that he had a computer science background and that he was also an aspiring entrepreneur so I reached out to him to meet for a coffee to catch up. We met several times to bounce around different business ideas and discussed Kanari in great depth. The fact that Subhi quickly shared my belief that Kanari would, if executed correctly, have a lot of potential only served to reinforce my conviction that this is what I wanted to do.
We agreed that we’d both be willing and able to use the months of March and April to fully dedicate ourselves to developing the idea further and to carrying out early stage validation of the concept (both he and I are strong advocates of the lean method.) If, by the end of April, the feedback we received from potential customers and users about what we were offering was good we’d go ahead and commit to Kanari entirely and develop a first prototype of the platform to test in the market. The feedback we were given was overwhelming positive (we’ll talk about validation in a different post) so as far as Subhi and I were concerned Kanari was a go.
We spent the next month identifying suitable technology partners with which to carry out development and we’re happy to say that we’re now 70% of the way to having a first prototype to test with. We know that there are a lot of you who, like us, would like to build online businesses but don’t necessarily have tech-related backgrounds. We’ll write a post about how we went about selecting a tech partner, the challenges we’re facing and our views on the pros and cons of outsourcing at such an early stage.
Our next milestone? Well, if all goes according to plan we’ll have a solid prototype to test with a closed group of restaurants and users by the end of July so definitely exciting times ahead. We’re aiming for a full public launch sometime towards the end of September. Both Subhi and I suspect that things will get very busy very quickly from here on out!
PS – You’re probably still wondering what Kanari is… That’ll be the subject of a post in the near future.