1. Tell us about one of the toughest situations you’ve found yourself in as a business owner.
I learned about market development the hard way. In 2010, our initial plan was to take the route of the freemium model and we started offering the desktop version of our school management software for free. Our projections were very optimistic and we were hoping to get hundreds of sign-ups as quickly as possible.
To test our model, we participated in an event organised for school owners. We presented and offered our free software. We got the biggest shock from the response. There was no one single school that showed interest in our “free software”.
Considering the fact that we already had a handful of customers that paid for the software, we realised that making it free is not what will necessarily make it successful.
In just a few weeks, we had implemented a log-on page that could be accessed online by parents and introduced it to schools. That was the genesis of our software as a service (SaaS) model which has proved to be working till date.
The SaaS or “subscription” model simply lets us provide access to our software online in such a way that the customer does not have to worry about investing in servers, providing power backup to run the servers, managing the servers, etc. We host and manage the servers on the cloud, provide constant upgrades to the software and improve the end-user experience greatly so that they only focus on their business needs instead of worrying about the technical stuff. We charge the schools a recurring fee per term for these services.
2. What business achievement are you most proud of?
I have seen many startups that make the mistake of thinking that their idea is unique and original. Over time, it will become obvious to any successful entrepreneur that execution is one of the most important business drivers and not just the idea.
And to execute effectively, it is all about the people on-board that believe in the vision and commit to it. Today, what I am most proud of about FlexiSAF is the wonderful team we were able to build. The spirit is very encouraging and is what drives me to wake up every morning looking forward to re-invent learning and inspiring people to make a lifelong positive impact.
3. Tell us about your greatest weakness as an entrepreneur.
I am a precisionist who likes things to be in an orderly and predetermined manner. I look out for accuracy and may pay attention to details. I also try to be diplomatic and avoid hurting people’s feelings. Because of these personality [traits], I can be indecisive sometimes.
I have tried to minimise the negative impact on FlexiSAF by having the right team to complement my weaknesses, ensuring that our decision-making process involves different stakeholders, and make our teams as autonomous as possible in their operations.
4. What conventional business wisdom do you disagree with?
I am a believer in data analytics and using data to make informed decisions but I generally don’t align with the traditional MBA style thinking, where strict financial numbers drive the decisions. The humanness component is important and should be a major factor in making business decisions.
This philosophy has helped us to be resilient and to grow naturally in FlexiSAF. We were able to make informed decisions and reposition the business to perform very well which would have been a different story if we relied on the financial numbers.
Fortunately, things are changing in the business schools and there is more alignment with the humanness component as well.
5. Is there anything you wish you knew about entrepreneurship before you started?
I recall the feedback my uncle (and mentor), Eng. Aziz gave me when I shared our first business plan. He explained that the projections for customer acquisition and revenues were too linear. Eventually, we found ourselves not referring to the business plan and approached the market based on the realities on the ground. This approach is necessary for business in new markets to succeed. It is called the “customer development” model which was the genesis of the “lean startup” approach.
We were fortunate not to derail too much, but nonetheless I wish I knew that the traditional business model is not practical for startups and there are many unpredictable things for new markets. I would have taken different approaches for some of our strategies and execution.
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