Heidi Belal has tried out all sorts of tactics to keep her life ordered. A recent method entails using a weekly organizer with different colors assigned to each of her responsibilities, pertaining to herself, her two daughters and her work. “I think I am just addicted to multitasking,” the 33-year-old Belal says. “I can’t get things done unless I have a lot to do.”
That might help explain how Belal has survived as a serial entrepreneur in Egypt, having co-founded the web development firm, Code-Corner, and then the baked goods producer, Cookies ‘N More. The disparate enterprises whet her varied expertise and interests, and by extension, her penchant to stay chronically busy. She’s watched the tech provider industry boom and bust and now pick up again, while working to maintain her mid-size company’s competitiveness. At the same time, she’s seen the speciality foods market evolve, going from few folks knowing what a chocolate chip cookie was during her childhood, to now trendy cafes and cupcake shops lining chic neighborhoods in Cairo. Besides her offerings being tasty, she also focuses on healthy options, the kind of stuff she’d be comfortable serving her own family. Sometimes, Belal questions whether she’s taking on too much, but there’s pride in her toil and its worthwhile outcomes for others in a rough economic climate.
In 2001, Belal’s employer, an American web development company that had opened a branch in Cairo, shut down. Jobless, the computer science graduate began working independently. As things picked up, she and her husband decided to start their own company, procuring work to develop websites through word of mouth. Ultimately, her husband left his job at IBM. Sitting at home on their laptops, they built Code-Corner. They worked day and night while caring for their newborn daughter, Belal says. “Sometimes, I’d be nursing her in my arms and I’d be typing out an email. I’d put her to sleep and then finish the rest of the work and it was like any minute I could grab, while she was busy asleep or entertained, that I could actually get some work done.” Other times, she’d be cooking and answering a client on the phone, shuffling between the stovetop and her laptop. As a husband-wife team, she says they have learned to keep business and household affairs separate in their nearly dozen-year marriage.
When they made the transition from being freelancers to being an official company, their prices went up from the earlier rates because they had to add in taxes and other costs. That posed a challenge when clients questioned the higher prices. “We had to really like sell ourselves, for them to be encouraged to stay with us and continue.” Another difficulty came in the form of finding suitable staffers. Belal describes an arduous interviewing and hiring process. “It’s hard to find somebody that would work with you with the same mentality and give you the work that you want and have his heart in the job.” The company focuses on web applications, custom-made software, security solutions and consultation services. They have developed their own content management system and have an office with several employees. At Code-Corner, Belal serves as the project manager. Clients are her territory. With her understated and amiable air, she connects well with them. The company’s portfolio includes schools, NGOs, corporations, and individuals.
In the early days, she says they had to educate businesses on the need to have a website. But awareness of maintaining an online presence has caught on to such an extent that now, she says, people will create a Facebook page or webpage even before they establish a formal company. In addition, while many web developers died out after the dot-com boom, another generation of companies has emerged. Belal says those outfits are more graphic-oriented, offering plug-and-play type of websites, such as connecting social media tools to sites. But Belal says such firms lack the technical expertise of Code-Corner, noting her husband’s background in installing servers and setting up environments and architectures.
Her competitors, whose number she attests are many, merely create websites and host them elsewhere, whereas Code-Corner offers services such as building servers and longterm support. She says it’s not just about content on the website; clients must understand the importance of having a database in the back end. Moreover, she says because her company has its own content management system, they don’t rely on free CMS outlets like Joomla! or Drupal, as other developers might. If they need to add extra functionality like a feature to a client’s site, she says they have the knowledge in-house. Having their own CMS also allows them to keep their prices mid-range, if not slightly lower. And being a small company, they’re more attentive toward clients. “It’s a more personal relationship rather than a business one,” she says.
Growing up, Belal watched her father open several small businesses and enterprises. “I think that’s where I get it from,” she says. “I always have these ideas and like we should open this business, we should do this.” That might explain how in the midst of establishing Code-Corner, her next venture came about.
As a child, Belal’s American mother always involved her and her older sister in baking cookies and sweets, and during trips to visit relatives in the United States, she became further acquainted with baked sweets, especially chocolate chip cookies. In her short-lived initial job, she often made cookies and took them to the office. A coworker always raved about how good her cookies were and suggested that she sell them. Later, Belal met a party planner who said a client wanted 200 cupcakes with pink frosting for a birthday. Over the course of a couple of days, Belal tested cupcake recipes — frustrated that the mixture wouldn’t rise — until she finally got it right. Soon enough, other orders trickled in and she called her sister, who is a teacher. “And then we sat down and thought, you know, what shall we name it? And what shall we offer? What are the products we offer? And it just grew from there,” Belal says.
In 2006, they launched their enterprise as Cookies ‘N More. They attended bazaars and carnivals and handed out fliers to get their name out, although recommendations from one client to another built the bulk of their reputation. From receiving one to two orders every couple of weeks, they escalated to some 10 orders a week that include providing desserts by the dozen for special events and supplying cafes with their products. Their customers are generally mothers between ages 25 and 35. They offer delivery or pickup around Cairo. At first, Belal balanced the baking with her Code-Corner duties, with both enterprises based out of her house. On the upper level, she and her husband sat next to each other, working on their computers. “And sometimes I’d tell him, ‘I just have to check what’s in the oven,'” she says. “I’d run downstairs, check the oven, and come back up.”
They have since rented a workspace where they installed a kitchen for their operations, hiring an administrator to handle the orders and accounting, and a couple of workers to do the baking. Neither Belal nor her sister are chefs or trained cooks, so Belal spends her time researching, experimenting and developing new recipes and teaching them to her staff. Friends and family serve as taste-testers. Because she doesn’t want to import ingredients, which can be expensive, she adapts recipes from the U.S. and abroad to fit the Egyptian context. For instance, she uses sugar and molasses in place of brown sugar. The exception is the chocolate chips, which she gets from outside. “We just don’t have them here,” she says.
When she was young, Belal says most Egyptians weren’t familiar with Western-style cookies. Since then, increased availability of foreign products and demand has risen around areas such as themed-birthday cakes. “When we first started, it was very few people who actually did this kind of stuff,” she says. “And then like a few years into it, you’d find all these, home-baking pages on Facebook.” Add to that boutique baking outlets, such as the global cupcake shop phenomenon having taken root in the region, from Cairo to Dubai.
But Belal sees Cookies ‘N More as having an edge. From apple walnut to gingersnap cookies, to red velvet and carrot cakes, to muffins, zucchini loafs and olive basil bread, the company emphasizes every product is baked from scratch with natural ingredients, without chemicals or additives. “We kind of market ourselves as a healthier treat,” she says. “It differentiates us from the rest of the people. It’s something that I would eat, it’s something that I would feed my kids, and that is very important to me. I don’t want to make something that I am not convinced of and feed it to other people.” Their products are also made fresh, and their delivery service is a selling point, she says. They also cook up gluten-free, vegan and low-calorie options. Belal says a gym first approached them with a recipe to make a breakfast cookie for their clients and from there, they expanded into the specialty diet realm.
Recalling the origins of Cookies ‘N More, Belal says the two sisters’ initial investment was all of 300 EGP (US$45), to purchase their first ingredients. Any profit was then reinvested into the business, so that they wouldn’t have to pinch from their household or personal coffers. Starting small was a smart move. “A lot of companies invest in [their] office and nice furniture and a nice sign and then they don’t have enough to pay for the rest of it to continue, to sustain,” Belal says. “I think that my advice would be the most minimal investment you can put into it, and then see how it goes from there and then… reinvest into the business.” They have saved up and now have a good sum of money in the bank, she says, though the sisters still only pay themselves as owners a few hundred Egyptian pounds a month as their personal profit.
Nowadays, Belal devotes her days to Code-Corner and Cookies ‘N More, looking at where she wants to take the enterprises next. There was some crossover when Code-Corner created the Cookies ‘N More website, where customers can place and keep track of orders. From her experience with both companies, she’s gained insight on being a leader and member of a team. “I hate being tough and horrible on people. So, I like my employees or whoever is going to work with me to really have his heart in it and really want to do it. I don’t want to sit there and criticize everything he does and I feel really bad if I’m doing that,” she says. Criticism won’t make a difference, she feels. “I think praise is very important.” Belal explains: “I don’t like having the differentiation in categories like, I am the manager and you are the sub — see, I just like them to respect that there are things that need to get done, and they have to get done, if I ask them to get it done, they should get it done.”
There are struggles some days. A bottleneck forms when their single convection oven is full while meeting orders. And some seasons such as the summer and Ramadan are slow with cookie orders, and after the 2011 revolution, not as many people put in orders. They have to reckon with growing web development competition. At a personal level, Belal can be self-critical, thinking about how others do so much more than her, how she should do better. There are some products she wants to improve on and areas where she wants to expand. She’s always felt a mother should stay at home with her children. It leaves her wondering, which was the right way — hers or that of mother’s, with regular day jobs, where work and home are distinct domains. She says she’s not really a go-getter; instead her work has fallen into her lap. But then here she is, exercising both sides of her brain in vastly unique arenas. And despite uncertainties in Egypt’s post-revolution economy, she envisions opportunity.
“I feel very proud. When I was younger… one of the things that I felt like I would want to be was one of the big businesswomen. People [could] say, ‘Heidi did this’ or ‘Heidi did something,’ just to have people know my name and that I have done something worthwhile,” Belal says. “Especially with Cookies ‘N More, I am happy that I can employ people and provide them with a job, because people have a hard time finding jobs. And several times, throughout this year especially, we thought this is not really worth it, you know. But the thing that really pushed me on was that now these people are getting a salary from me, what are they going to do if we close down?”