Don't ask Omar Koudsi to chill out. The co-founder and CEO of Jordan-based Jeeran.com — the first Arab web-hosting community — says that after 10 years in the business, the rapid-fire pace of change makes it impossible for him to even think of standing still for a minute. It was this entrepreneur brimming with ideas who decided to strike out on his own after university and launch a business, despite the fact that being a young entrepreneur in the Middle East at that time was more the exception than the rule.
Jeeran opened for business in 2000 after Koudsi and his friends borrowed money from their families to fund the start-up. It was not until three years later that it hired its first full-time employee. But by 2006, it had become the largest Arabic blogging site. In 2007, Accelerator Technology Holdings invested in Jeeran, which expanded regionally with offices in Dubai, and in 2009, Intel Capital also invested in the company, enabling it to launch a French-language interface on its website. In March this year, it acquired Talasim, a Jordan-based online comedy community for the Middle East.
The Jeeran community has more than 1.5 million members, 650,000 active websites and 150,000 active blogs. With over 25 million monthly page views — half of which come from the Gulf and a quarter from the Levant region — Jeeran is ranked among the top websites in the Arab world. According to Koudsi, the community is 60% male and 40% female. Nearly 80% of the unique monthly users are between 19 and 35 years of age.
In an email exchange with Arab Knowledge at Wharton, Koudsi, 32, writes of what it's like to be a budding entrepreneur in the region today and how he thinks that could change. His advice to the next generation: C.F.I.M.I.T.Y.M.
Edited extracts of the interview follow.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: What are the major challenges to innovation and entrepreneurship in the region? Traditionally, the Middle East has been behind other regions. What happened?
Omar Koudsi: The number one issue is lack of human resources. The second is social norms. We are a very risk-averse society and it's not considered okay to fail, which are important factors for growth of entrepreneurship and innovation.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: How do you rate your achievements and what were the major hurdles?
Koudsi: When we decided to go it alone and not take regular jobs, friends and family, who thought in the beginning we were not going to succeed, criticized us. I am satisfied with what we achieved so far; of course, we always want more.
One of the biggest hurdles is funding. We got funding from friends and family after nagging and finding the people with the right attitude and skill set.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: What are some of the biggest entrepreneurship stories in the region? What differentiates them from others?
Koudsi: I look at examples that come from Jordan: Arab Bank, Aramex, Hikma Pharmaceuticals, Nuqul Group. What differentiates them is that they started small with few resources and ended up being global.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: Governments in the region are said to be like mothers and the citizens are their spoiled kids. Do you buy this?
Koudsi: There is some truth in that, but it is obviously more complicated….
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: While technology has boosted innovation and entrepreneurs, are there enough people in the region who believe in taking a risk in a new venture? What stops them from jumping into something new, failing, learning from it and doing better the next time?
Koudsi: The fear of failure and a desire to take the easy road stop many from taking risks.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: Is venture capital (VC) funding easily available for first-time businesses?
Koudsi: This is a major issue, but it is about to change. Five years ago, there were no VCs; now there are about five.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: Is it better to be debt free than borrow money to launch a business? What are the risks for an entrepreneur in getting a VC or VCs involved in a project?
Koudsi: It depends on the situation, but I would not advise anyone who has never started a business to borrow money. It is best to depend on rich relatives.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: How do you find the right idea?
Koudsi: The right idea is the idea that solves a problem.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: What is the biggest mistake that entrepreneurs make?
Koudsi: One of the big issues is not focusing enough on revenue and cash flow and not solving problems in a process-oriented way.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: What is the best way to kick-start a flurry of entrepreneurial activity in the region?
Koudsi: There have to be incubators and angel investors.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: How has the journey been? What have you had to give up to reach the point you have? Has the dream been realized?
Koudsi: The journey has been very demanding, more than the average person can imagine, but it has been worth it. The dream is not yet realized, but we think that we can take Jeeran much further than this. We always have to challenge ourselves. Doing that continuously is a matter of self-respect!
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: Do you believe that most entrepreneurs have only one good idea and once that turns into something, they lose their ability to be innovative?
Koudsi: The real good ones have to learn about execution, and if you nail execution, you can never run out of ideas.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: What lessons have you learned on your journey that you can share with aspiring entrepreneurs?
Koudsi: A big one — C.F.I.M.I.T.Y.M: Cash flow is more important than your mother.