They say it’s tough to work in a startup, it’s even harder to join a European one starting your journey from Egypt, it’s difficult to transition to product management from engineering within a few years, it’s challenging to join one of the best accelerator programs in the world, and they also say it’s almost impossible to raise money for an Egyptian startup in London.
You can either listen to what “they” say and bury yourself in endless stats showing how weak the probability of reaching these goals is, or you can challenge yourself, raise your standards and take off the veil of being weak, young, inexperienced, and born in a developing country!
Today, I am going to talk about my journey between Egypt and London back and forth (the journey is still on by the way). I will talk about how the journey started after I joined an early stage startup in London — remotely — and how it looks now being the co-founder of Knowledge Officer, a London-based startup built by an amazing Egyptian team in Alexandria.
Why am I sharing the story?
I want to convey a message to the young youth in my country that they can do it, and a message to the wider community of entrepreneurs over the world about my learnings in the journey so far. I have learnt a lot from the amazing success stories of people within my network, who have added a huge value to their community. These were the examples I kept following during my journey and these were the people who kept telling me unconsciously as they proceed in their own journeys that my dream to start a company in London in 3 years time of moving there is possible!
I had plenty of these amazing entrepreneurs and engineers on my radar including: Ali Faramawy, Wael Fakharany, Wael Ghonim, Osman Ahmed Osman, Adel Youssef, Ahmed El-Helw, Mohammad Badrah, and many more. I was also inspired by other Egyptian startups that have made it outside the region including: Instabug, Kngine and others. I am hoping after a few years, I would be able, together with Knowledge Officer’s team, to inspire others the same way we were inspired by these examples.
Now, Let’s get into the details and I will start from the beginning.
Taking a huge risk
Egypt, January, 2014
“Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far it is possible to go.” — T.S. Eliot
The journey started when I decided to leave my current stable job at one of the best startups in Alexandria during that time, and join an early stage London-based startup named Onfido. At that time, there was no solid promise that I was going to join this company in London, the company had only few thousand pounds in the bank and was hunting its first seed investment. I was working on a side-project called Fretsi in the knowledge management and discovery side, and I thought that an experience with a european startup would be beneficial to me so that I can build my own startup one day.
After almost 6 months of searching and applying for remote jobs, I got a reply from Onfido and passed through their long series of interviews and tests till I landed the job. In less than a year, I managed to reach out to 2 other senior engineers in Alexandria who joined me and we started the initial engineering seed at Onfido working together with the CTO and other talented engineers in London.
Jumping out of my comfort zone
London, October, 2014
“The best things in life are often waiting for you at the exit ramp of your comfort zone. “ — Karen Salmansohn
Onfido started to grow, they raised their first round of investment and I went to London to join the company on site. This was my first time to stay away from my family, friends, and everything I left behind in Egypt. It was a really tough period at the beginning, but I got mixed up with my colleagues so quickly and this made it easier for me to cope with my homesickness. What also helped me is that I used to work with US and UK based clients in my past jobs, and I had already passed the initial shock of dealing with people of different background and culture. It was still very challenging and I remember working 10–12 hrs a day and even in weekends during the first few months, especially that, as a young company, we were under a great pressure to deliver as fast as we can to penetrate the market quickly.
During my first week in London, I was accepted in TechCrunch disrupt and joined with Fretsi to gather more insights from real users and validate the problem more. Again, a totally new experience to me, having a booth in one of the most famous startups showcases in Europe, but I learnt a lot from that experience, made good connections, and understood that I still need a lot to be ready and a lot to learn about building startups and launching successful products.
A personal and professional growth
London, March 2015
Things started to get crazy at Onfido, the company was scaling so quickly and they were almost doubling the team every quarter, and Fretsi did not get the required attention or traction to put more efforts into it so we decided to put it on the side. I learnt a lot during this year on the engineering level, and also a lot about building a business from nothing. In addition, I got to witness a complete organisation of sales, marketing, product, engineering, and management working together towards a common goal and a well-aligned theme. Of course, things were messy as in most startups, but quarter after another, the company was learning and changed direction to get better and better. I was enjoying my time but my passion towards building my own startup was always driving me towards accelerating my learnings in the shortest period possible to be ready for that step in 2017. Yeah, I had set a deadline and target timeline to hold myself accountable and ensure that I am focusing on the right things that converges towards my defined goal.
Are you crazy! Are you out of your mind?!
London, March 2016
“People should pursue what they’re passionate about. That will make them happier than pretty much anything else” — Elon Musk
I made a crazy transition to Product Management, leaving all my years of development experience and jumping into a new and challenging field, learning my first steps like a baby. I was aware that my technical background and lack of the deep understanding of business and product might reduce the probability of my success in building a startup; especially that, having great enthusiasm about building products, talking to users, and drafting business strategies, I was not going to be the technical co-founder in the team. I kept preparing for this transition for 6 months; I dedicated a daily reading and learning slot for almost every resource publishing product-management-related content; I followed famous product managers to learn from them, and to reduce the size of the gap between my current state and background and what I need to reach to fit into the new role. At that time, Onfido already had a team of product managers, so it was hard to join them unless I can be of a greater value than when I worked as an engineer. Early that year, I also started exploring the idea of Knowledge Officer but it was completely different from what it is today!
The birth of Knowledge Officer
London, June 2016
“Never ignore a gut feeling, but never believe that it’s enough.”
At this point, I had spent over 6 months exploring the problem of Knowledge Discovery for professionals, what are people suffering from, the existing products in that space, the business models they are adopting, and doing surveys and interviews to test my assumptions. I teamed up with my co-founder, Ahmed Eshra, and we decided to work on Knowledge Officer, while having our full-time jobs. It was a tough decision, and we both had family and life commitments, but we believed that we are up to something big. We trusted each other and we trusted our gut feeling.
Scaling our dream of Knowledge Officer
London, March 2017
“I can choose to let it define me, confine me, refine me, outshine me, or I can choose to move on and leave it behind me.”
I got to a conclusion that it’s hard to maintain my job at Onfido and work on Knowledge Officer at the same time. The amount of positive feedback we were getting on Knowledge Officer encouraged me to take the decision, especially that I have passed the interviews and was accepted to join Entrepreneur First accelerator program in London.
This was one of the hardest decisions I have taken in my whole life. I had an amazing position at Onfido, earning a very good salary, enjoying my time (Onfido is an amazing company, make sure to check their open vacancies) and I did not have enough savings in case things went south! Most people were telling me it’s risky and spreading the fear of what could go wrong and encouraging me to delay this step. My passion was much stronger than all those fears; this is what kept me going, along with my strong belief that we can do something big, and that the problem we are trying to address is worth the risk! Having a very talented and dedicated co-founder helped me a lot taking that decision as well!
The three months at EF were amazing! I learnt a ton of things and we made a huge progress on both the development of the product and our understanding of the market and the education space.
Fundraising mode: closing a seed round on the beach
Spain, September 2017
“Learning to embrace and savor rejection is one of the best things that entrepreneurs can do. Launching a startup is the time to find your ever-optimistic inner child again.” ― Alejandro Cremades
I have not managed to get an investment from EF, I was running out of money, and I needed to find at least a part-time job to survive with my family. I worked part-time as a product lead in Multiply.ai (an inspiring company with a great mission and an amazing team) and was fundraising in parallel.
I had the worst nightmares and my fare share of sleepless nights during that period! I was continuously pitching and seeking introduction to investors, while we were trying to reach better and better traction on our MVP. I had so many soft rejections (and hard ones too!) but I kept trying and trying.
Then, I was introduced to our current lead Investor, Abdullah Al-Shaheen — who was interested in what we do and knew us from a common friend and a former EF colleague and he asked me to come and meet him in Spain!
Well, I have to say that I’ve enjoyed the trip above all :D, and what’s great was that after a series of long meetings, we got a verbal confirmation from Abdullah, and he agreed to join and lead the round together with Ian Hurlock-jones, who have already joined us as the first investor a few months earlier! After that, I went back to London, we started the legal process and preparations of the paperwork, which took us over a month till we signed the round late 2017, and we finally started to form a team and the product that we recently launched to build personalised learning paths that help professionals achieve their career goals!
And, the journey is still on! We now have an amazing team and released our mobile app and website. This is just the start; we are aware of the enormous challenges that are going to face us in the upcoming months, and will do our best to tackle them one by one.
From that short yet rich journey, I advise everyone who is thinking about building his startup one day to:
- Make sure you are really into it! The journey is long, tough, harsh, and no one will pat you on the shoulder at difficult moments.
- Spend enough time researching the problem, understanding the market, and getting to know your customers. Don’t rush into building something before you do the three. Most importantly, make sure you are the right founder for this startup and you have the right team who can tackle this problem.
- Chase your dreams, aim high, but stand on a solid ground. Don’t listen to those who will tell you that you can’t. Only you can decide and plan for your future based on your ambitions and abilities.
- You can do a lot in 24 hrs so please don’t say that you don’t have time unless you are “Elon Musk” and running a few companies in parallel.
- You will fail A LOT. Learn from your failure, try again with a new approach and a fresh perspective, and don’t stop trying!
We will keep you posted about our journey and what we are learning everyday, and please feel free to reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org for any questions.
Knowledge Officer is a learning platform for professionals. Our mission is to empower a generation of lifelong learners and to help people, however busy, learn something new and relevant every day and achieve their career goals.