They are creators, innovators and trendsetters. They don’t believe that there is a limit to their skies and they just stepped out of their comfort zones to embrace their dreams. They dream big, shout loud and run their own projects with great potentials. These four young men work around the clock and give “Made in Egypt” a whole new meaning. Ladies and gentlemen, please meet Yahia Ismail (Bey2ollak), Bassel El Sawy (WIF), Mohamed Fouad (Stuffed Pigeon), and Basem El Hady (Kijamii & TEDx Cairo)
Being an entrepreneur in Egypt’s often tough conditions is no walk in the park. Nevertheless, Egyptians always find a way to evolve with the situation. For many young start-ups or projects it is not always easy to find a way in the jungle of red tape, corruption and outdated laws. Funding at a certain point of the business lifecycle is also a problem that needs to be tackled to encourage more young men and women to be part of the Egyptian economy as entrepreneurs.
The most common obstacles for the four entrepreneurs are clearly Egyptian red tape, no governmental support for entrepreneurs and in some cases the consumers and their awareness and perceptions towards Egyptian made products.
What are the most common obstacles young Egyptian entrepreneurs face nowadays?
Yahia: I think the best thing to do is to understand how people think in order to bring solutions to everything. When we first started Bey2ollak, there were lots of traffic apps worldwide but none of them suits the Egyptian society. In France, a driver checks a map if he gets lost, but here you call someone, who tells you totake a right after the speed bump next to the kiosk. So Bey2ollak is an application that speaks our language and knows how to cater to the Egyptian society.You need to put in mind that there is a huge cultural difference. We can’t just keep blaming society. The last time Egypt designed anything was in the time of the Pharaohs and anything we do recently is based on design books we buy from other countries.We are blaming ourselves and we keep talking about “abroad”, that’s totally wrong. If we live in a barn we need to understand the nature of this barn and know its requirements and needs. I always blame myself that I’m the one who doesn’t understand what society needs. You need to educate people first and then pull them towards your brand.
Fouad: Here in Egypt, the older generation appreciates handmade products and its quality. We need to start buying ideas, not products because anyone can do anything. I like products that have a function not just be decorative.I work as an Associate Creative Director in Leo Burnett and we get to travel a lot. So in every country I see how people appreciate the effort of my Stuffed Pigeon work. The biggest challenge for me in Egypt, is that customers don’t have a problem to pay 35.000 LE for a chair if it’s a high end brand with the brand’s logo printed all over it! I once had a booth at Designopolis and most people who showed interest were foreigners. Egyptians would tell me that a 3.200 LE bicycle is too expensive and asked me for a discount! I’m not in Souq El Gomaa I’m at Designopolis! Once in London, I was buying a tire for my handmade bicycle, and the sales person would tell me that 320 Sterling is a very little price for my piece compared to the 1600 Sterling that a handmade bicycle, similar to mine, is worth in the UK.
Bassel: My product is a bit luxurious, so its obstacles differ. WIF is American cuisine but it’s a 100% Egyptian brand. Even the furniture is from Egypt.We are proud of that. It is much easier for me to get a franchise from Canada or the US but I prefer to create an Egyptian brand. Sometimes people perceive that an Egyptian brand shouldn’t charge certain amounts, although they offer the same quality of a franchise. I find that very outrageous.
Bassem: There is another problem in Egypt, which is the whole concept of entrepreneurship. We have lots of micro entrepreneurs; it’s very rare when you see a huge project of young entrepreneurship like a factory for example. The trend is that we give it a shot in apps and websites; projects with minimum budget, to avoid big financial risks.
What about productivity, do we actually work at work?
Bassel: A lot of people tell you I work 9 hours a day I’m totally overwhelmed! That’s not true because they spend a few hours on social media, another couple of hours on the phone, having a cigarette and to sum up they actually work for 2-3 hours.My job is a bit different, I have a target and I do it, it doesn’t matter how many hours I spend working,only when the target is done I’m done. You make a plan and you stick to it. In Egypt, we have two types of employees, those who think that work is like school homework, like all the government clerks who torture us with their red tape, and they are in return tortured with ridiculously low wages. The other type is the really high paid corporate employee who starts becoming the computer he is working on. Passion is reflected on people’s faces when they are doing what they really love and enjoy.
Yehia: Having passion towards your work is the best way to a great outcome no matter what the return is. A few months ago, I decided to quit my job as an Associate Creative Director at Leo Burnett, after a decade of working in the advertising industry.I entered this industry when I decided to get married and needed money to provide for a family.Year after year, before I knew it, my career stretched to 10 years. It’s sad when at a phase in your life you make a compromise and it stretches to a decade! I’m over 30 and I don’t want to compromise again. The good part is, all of the Bey2ollak Co-founders come from very good corporate backgrounds working in diverse fields like marketing, development and communication, which of course added to our product’s success.
A lot of people lately decided to leave the country; do you think we still have potential in Egypt?
Bassel: Most of the people stopped working on themselves recently, focusing only on the news and the current situation of Egypt became the main concern. I am astonished that the corporate world,which used to discuss loans, are only discussing political events non-stop instead. Maybe I am too focused on my work.We have so much potential in Egypt, yesterday I didn’t know any of these three entrepreneurs,I thought I was swimming all alone in all this pool;today we are sitting together and discussing our careers.
Bassem: I think all of us need therapy (laughs).
Do you think we still have the culture of raising children to become doctors and engineers because these are the best jobs?
Bassel: We only import the bad habits. Abroad, young people have absolutely no reserves working as waiters and studying in parallel, even in Lebanon they do that, but here it’ll be a shame in “elevated” social levels.
Yahia: Our parents’ generation didn’t have many choices than to work as an employee in a stable company. So they think that our work as entrepreneurs isn’t stable and it’s better to work in a private sector company. All the successful decisions in my life were the ones where I didn’t listen to my parents.When you start thinking about quitting your job and doing another project, everyone tells you that you’re doomed and you get surprised that everything is still ok and life goes on. What’s really important is to try and even if you fail you can be ok and try again.
Bassem: I had the option either to become an engineer in any reputable company or to do what I really have passion for with the support of the girl I love and the people whom I made believe in what I’m doing. When I compare my company that is one year old and the money I make of it to my friend’s who have bigger salaries at multinationals, I could easily wonder what the hell did I do to myself (laughs), but I don’t. What keeps me from thinking that is the deep passion I have towards what I do and I know that in the future things will change to the better.
How easy or difficult is it to get funding as a start up?
Bassem: It was hard and it took time for me. My investor wasn’t the first one I reached out to, there were severa others, but fortunately I had a well-prepared business plan.
Yahia: Even if you and your partners have the same mentality, you need another more powerful partner at times. Vodafone wanted to buy 25% of the company yet the deal didn’t go through and we were seriously afraid of that step. Then we won Google Ebda2, which gave us the boost we needed and thank God the company is still all ours.
What are your points of weakness and points of strength?
Bassem: I am eager to learn I guess that is my strength and my weakness is that I sometimes become mentally numb due to all the hassle and problems that occur with taxes, clients and so on, but as long as we do the homework all will turn out fine.
Bassel: I’m a perfectionist so I get tensed easily; sometimes I lose it completely so it becomes a weakness,while it could be a point of strength at other times. I can’t do two things at the same time, which makes me miss out on friends and family because I am too focused on my work. My point of strength is that I’m a very easygoing man. No matter where you put me I can adapt easily.
Fouad: I’m short tempered, if I ruin a piece while working, I take it outside the room and smash it, but that’s because I can’t compromise quality. When I go to the studio, I like to be left alone and it’s my happiest time when I’m filtering my entire mind and setting it to serve my creativity. The strength of my work stems from the idea of creating a real useful function to every product I make.
Yahia: My points of weakness are also my points of strength and that is practicality. Sometimes I think about the solution before I think about the problem. On a personal level it’s not a good thing, but I changed and became more considerate to people’s emotions.I’m also a calm person sometimes it’s a negative thing because people expect more from you in certain situationsand sometimes it’s good because I can handle issues calmly. Part of being practical,is my disbelief in superstition, so when my car gets hit I just fix it without thinking I am being given an evil eye or so (laughs).
What’s on your to do list in the next 5 years?
Fouad: I want to have a shop for Stuffed Pigeon. You go to the shop have something to drink and watch me while working. You are welcomed to ask any questions and I will never be stingy when it comes to sharing design how to’s. I want it to be a design hub, I don’t want a new idea and that’s it. I also hope to sell abroad.
Bassel: I hope after a couple of years WIF becomes a franchise. We have very few 100% Egyptian brand franchises; I think Cilantro is the only brand that went abroad. I would like to see the signage of Egyptian Entrepreneurs in London, as I was told before that Egyptians don’t know how to make business!
Bassem: Within the next two years I want to build a strong and concrete structure to Kijamii. Now that I have my own company and TEDx Cairo, I want to apply for my MBA and masters. One of the best things about my relationship with my fiancé is that we both share the same plans. I have a far future plan of 20 years when I want to make a knowledge hub and give the opportunity for young people to speak and present their projects. It should be an advanced version of Sawy Cultural Wheel.
Is there anything at work that you keep confidential from your partner?
Yahya: Doesn’t have to be literally confidential but I’m not a person who talks a lot naturally, but I don’t see anything that should be confidential, at the end of the day I don’t work in a nuclear factory.
Bassel: I’m an open book, from the money I save to what I might be doing in the bathroom. The minute you start keeping things to yourself know that there is a black stain in this relationship, because your partner should be the only person who knows everything about you.
Fouad: I can’t ask for support from my partner while I’m keeping things from her.
Bassem: I don’t have a problem that my wife knows about my salary and stuff like that and I don’t see anything that should be confidential but if a client insisted that something is confidential then it will be, other than that, I’m fine with my partner knowing all about my future projects.
Do you know what women want?
Yahya: It’s actually more of what humans want. If you minimize the needs it becomes very personal and differs from a woman to woman, or human to human, but if you look at a larger scale it’ll be security and means to express themselves and feel that they are doing useful things in life.
Bassel: She wants a real man with everything a real man must have. Women are creatures that must be taken care of. Men shouldn’t be either filling their shelves with Teddy Bears or treating them badly, they need to be moderate. Relationships are like seesaws and require effort.
Fouad: Women aren’t more important or less important than men, both are equal. Women want someone to love and when they find him, they embrace him with their lives and he becomes their first and main focus to them.
Bassem: Making women happy is the best thing ever.