When the Oil Wells Run Dry: The Industry That Can Save Us

This article appeared in Khaleejesque Magazine, INDUSTRIAL Issue, published November, 2015. It is published on this blog with the consent of the author and magazine. All credits and copyrights are reserved to Khaleejesque, 2015. Click here to subscribe to Khaleejesque, or follow them on Instagram @Khaleejesque 

Author: Hashim Bahbahani

Magazine Artwork: Reema Motib

5 min read.

On April 15th, 2015 there was an incredibly important global announcement that went unheeded by the Khaleeji mass media and general population. It was an announcement that could propel a series of life altering implications for every Khaleeji citizen.

The announcement, which was kept secret for months, was made by Tesla Motors CEO and founder Elon Musk. Musk revealed that Tesla had invented and commercialized the Tesla Powerwall, a new “home battery” powered completely by solar panels that could potentially power an entire house for a fraction of what conventional electricity would cost.

The goal of the solar powered home battery is to lessen the demand and reliance on petroleum and gasoline. In other words, with Tesla’s Powerwall, the world is a step closer to needing a lot less oil.

While Tesla’s battery on its own will never be enough to completely wipe out the demand for oil, it does signal the start of a realistic and feasible movement away from gasoline and into other more sustainable energy resources. The thing to remember about technology is that it grows exponentially, and there is no reason why that wouldn’t be the case with alternative energy. In fact, since President Obama took office, the United States “has increased solar electricity generation by more than twenty folds”, according to the White House official website. It is not unfathomable to think that the world could start harnessing alternative energy more efficiently, and almost completely move away from a reliance on oil in the course of the next twenty years. That is not as long away as it seems.

So what happens to our Gulf when our oil is no longer needed – no longer pumped – and all the oil wells dry up?

It is a predictable and daunting scenario. The Arabian Gulf is barren of valuable natural resources. The climate is unbearable, and the current infrastructure is unsustainable without a continuous influx of money and natural energy. Deprived of oil, the economy cannot support the current population.

We could be facing impending socio-economic extinction without even knowing it.

But there is still hope; there is still time.

Beyond investing in alternative energy, the Gulf must look to build an industry that is capable of surviving in a post-oil world; an industry that can vitalize an economy without depending on natural resources. But it also has to be an industry that is considerable and substantial enough to provide economic vitalization to the region.

The only industry that fits into that mold is the software technology industry, or as it is more commonly known “the tech industry.” This industry is built fundamentally on human intelligence. When it comes to developing software, there are no substantial hard assets in play, nor is there any significant reliance on natural resources. The rise of any tech sector is almost purely dependent on the capabilities of the people involved in it.

Undoubtedly, a strong tech sector can invigorate an economy. Today, two of the five highest valued companies in the world are software companies, Google and Microsoft; seven of the top thirty are highly involved in software engineering. In the U.S., the software technology sector provides the highest paying jobs, and consistently beats new employment figures for all other sectors, including oil and gas. Jobs in the tech industry are high in both quality and quantity.

But above all else, there is one factor that makes the tech industry our best bet for economic survival: speed. We, the GCC Nations, need to start realizing that time is no longer on our side. The biggest danger we face today is that we are in voluntary oblivion of the ever accelerating possibility of economic demise. If the demand for oil drops significantly, the ramifications will hit us hard, and they’ll hit us very quickly. Will we wonder at that time how we could’ve been so oblivious to our collective fragility?

Successful technology companies can give rise to a strong tech sector relatively quickly. The nature of software products allows technology tech startups to scale and grow at lightning speed. Take, for example, Uber, the real-time ride request platform. After only six years of existence, Uber has reached a valuation of approximately $50 billion. To put that in perspective, Uber is already bigger than gigantic companies that have been around for decades, like Deutsche Bank, Sony, Phillips, FedEx, and many more. Another example is Google, which, only after sixteen years of existence, employs over 55,000 people, providing those employees with unparalleled pay and benefits. The examples are endless.

If the right steps are taken, there is a real possibility that over the next twenty years the Gulf can transform into a new Silicon Valley and a breeding ground for global tech giants. A Khaleeji tech hub will also attract entrepreneurs to establish their startups in the area, and thus increasing the possibility of more successful tech companies blooming out of the Gulf. The main economic value for the region will come in the tax revenue captured from the financial success of these companies. Another important economic value will be in job creation, as large tech companies can provide high paying jobs at different levels and across a wide variety of specialties.

So what needs to happen for the dream of a Khaleeji Silicon Valley to become a reality? The task of establishing a dynamic tech industry is monumental and complicated. But it is highly possible nonetheless. In broad terms, there are three fundamental steps:

–   The current surplus of money from the oil and gas sector must be invested in building a technological infrastructure – internet and network systems, mobile connectivity, etc – to support software innovation. Additionally, governments must systematically invest in startups that might appear too risky for private investors.

–   Governments must revise rules and regulations surrounding software technology companies and e-commerce to allow companies to scale and grow to their maximum potential without unnecessary barriers.

–   Most importantly, the private and public sector must take a proactive approach towards developing and cultivating software engineering talent. In other words, we need to invest in producing better coders. Remember, the success of any tech sector is mostly reliant on human capabilities and intellect. The best way to produce world-class programmers is to provide Khaleejies interested in coding with the right education and training. It’s simple, but imperative. Recently, I co-founded “Coded”, the first coding academy in the Gulf, with a mission of offering world-class software engineering education to aspiring young men and women in Kuwait. Our hope is that Coded is the first of many local coding schools that aim to cultivate a new generation of topnotch Khaleeji coders.

Today, the Gulf is ripe to be a new global tech hub. There is an abundance of private and public investment funds, high consumer purchasing power, and a plethora of market opportunities. But beyond that, there is an ambitious and daring generation that is passionate about turning their dreams and ideas into reality using technology and software engineering. Investing in that generation is our only true hope.

There is a dark cloud hovering on our Khaleeji horizon, edging ever closer to us. We have willingly chosen to ignore it thus far, unconcerned with the storm it carries within it. But if we act purposefully and quickly, we can prepare ourselves for what’s ahead. And we might – just might – catch a glimpse of a silver lining.

 

This article appeared in Khaleejesque Magazine, INDUSTRIAL Issue, published November, 2015. It is published on this blog with the consent of the author and magazine. All credits and copyrights are reserved to Khaleejesque, 2015. Click here to subscribe to Khaleejesque, or follow them on Instagram @Khaleejesque 

 

A Khaleeji View on Work-Life Balance

This article appeared in Khaleejesque Magazine, WELL-BEING Issue, published May, 2015. A PDF copy of the article is available here. It is published on this blog with the consent of the author and magazine. All credits and copyrights are reserved to Khaleejesque, 2015. Click here to subscribe to Khaleejesque, or follow them on Instagram @Khaleejesque 

Author: Hashim Bahbahani

Print Artwork: Anjana Jain

5 min read.

 

From underneath the warmth of his blanket, Abdulrahman Al-Terkait, eyes half open, stretched out his arm to tap “snooze” on his smartphone screen to silence the incessant nagging of the alarm clock app. It was 4:07 a.m., which meant he was already seven minutes behind schedule.

 

By 4:30 a.m., Al-Terkait was in his car, driving on an empty street with the windows down in the hope that the chill of the brisk December air would awaken his senses. His usual cup of coffee (double cream, no sugar) awaited him in his newly opened breakfast diner, The Breakfast Club. By 4:45 a.m., he was at the doorstep of the restaurant. As soon as he opened the door, the clucking of the kitchen clutter crashed the short lived silence he had enjoyed so far.

 

For the next nine and a half hours, Al-Terkait would have time to sit down for a total of fifteen precious minutes (on a light day) before the final order came in at 2:30 p.m. A quick pop into the kitchen to help with the cleanup was the final task of the day, and by 5 pm or so, Al-Terkait was driving back home. A snack preceded the daily phone conference with his partners, which was seldom kept brief. Before it was even 7 in the evening, Al-Terkait was already lying in bed, his alarm clock set to 4:00 a.m.

 

Such is the typical day in the life of a startup founder: hectic, overwhelming, and uncompromising.

 

It appears that the sixteen hour work day has become the paraded mantra of successful entrepreneurs. Work hard, work smart, and work some more. An entrepreneur must not let superfluous luxuries such as relationships, hobbies, or even sleep obstruct the unremitting march towards success. In the startup ethos, a balance between life and work is a myth: unattainable, nonexistent.

 

It is a philosophy driven by pressure. The startup world, especially in technology, moves at a relentless pace. Everyone wants to be first to market, fastest growing, highest selling, most downloaded, most engaging, and so on. It is competition at its most ruthless; blink, and you might find yourself behind the pack and obsolete. The pressure never ceases to accumulate, and it pushes founders to sacrifice every aspect of their lives in the quest for success and validation.

 

But that philosophy is fundamentally flawed. The most common and yet most unaddressed reasons startups fail is founder burnout. Founding a business is a marathon, and working eighty hour weeks is ideal for a sprint, but detrimental in the long run. A quick glance at startupanonymous.com (a support community that allows founders to post and ask question anonymously) is sufficient to grasp how common the “burnout and crash” problem truly is in the global startup scene.

 

In the Khaleeji world, however, there is a natural remedy for this problem. Khaleeji culture places high value on participating in social events, sustaining close relationships with family and friends, and being part of the community. It is a culture unbefitting to host the 80 hour work week philosophy championed by Silicon Valley et al. But it is that aspect that makes the Gulf a healthier setting for both businesses and their founders.

 

This has proven to be the case for The Breakfast Club’s founders, the Al-Terkait brothers and Bader Al-Omar, who exemplify an almost perfectly struck balance between life and work. I caught up with Abdulrahman Al-Terakit at The Breakfast Club’s downtown branch a month after his wedding to find out how he and his partners have been able to arrive at work-life equilibrium while continuously growing their venture.

 

“Three years ago (December, 2011), we, the founders, were working fifteen hour days, from 4 in the morning to 7 at night. It was exhausting. We started going on long stretches without seeing family or friends, and our social lives were quickly diminishing,” began Al-Terkait. “We therefore set and executed a plan around hiring and delegating to create a structure that allowed us to retain control without compromising quality. Building that structure effectively is what has allowed us to balance work and life.”

 

According to Al-Terkait, the cornerstone of an operative delegation structure is a strong and “synergetic” partnership.  In the early days of a startup, founders (often without a partner) might be tempted to bite off more than they can chew in order to retain as much equity (defined as stake or share of the company) as possible. It is a common founder cognitive bias to overestimate the amount of work that can be accomplished during a single day, which is often the catalyst that gradually pushes the work-life scale in the “work” direction. Hence, the burnout cycle is initiated, and such founder will often end up owning a very large stake in a startup that has crashed towards a value of zero; in other words: a large ownership of nothing.

 

To avoid such seemingly inevitable fate, an entrepreneur is best advised to seek, at a very early stage, partners that offer valuable complementary skills and expertise. Beyond the business benefits of having a diverse and multitalented team, a well-delegated partnership allows each founder to avoid the pitfalls of over-working. And upon that partnership foundation, founders can build a structure that allows them to delegate more duties as the company expands. Hence, the burnout cycle is avoided, and the founders might end up owning a significant stake in a startup that is growing towards a substantial value. (For advice on choosing the right partners, I strongly recommend reading Noam Wasserman’s “The Founder’s Dilemma”.)

 

Back at my meeting at The Breakfast Club with Al-Terkait, I asked him what he thought of the sacrifice-all, work-around-the-clock entrepreneurial approach.

 

“Forget the unavoidable burnout, and let’s assume that there exists an entrepreneur who can work 18 hour days without ever tiring. Even in that case, I still maintain that failing to have a social life is detrimental to a business, especially in the Gulf.” He pushed his half full cup of cappuccino to the side and leaned in before continuing, “Khaleeji culture is all about tightly knit communities, where everyone knows everyone. That in itself is a fantastic marketing tool for any business. As such, a healthy and active social life can immensely help a founder publicize their business, and I doubt that there is a place in the world where that is truer than the GCC. But if a founder works 24/7 on a business, they’ll end up killing their social lives and ultimately sacrificing a powerful publicity tool.”

 

That opinion, however, is not entirely shared by Kuwait based technology entrepreneur Mohammed Faris, who believes that attending to the Khaleeji social lifestyle is incompatible with the level of dedication required to start a thriving technology venture.

 

Faris, who is currently the lead programmer at mobile payment startup Next Payments, comments, “At some point, for an entrepreneur, the strain and time commitments of having a social life (to the Khaleeji standard) start to outweigh any tangible business benefits. I fully agree that there needs to be ample time allocated to close friends and family, and perhaps some recreation. But beyond that, real sacrifices must be made.”

 

“In technology startups, you are live 24 hours a day. It’s different; there is no time when you are truly “off”.  Regardless of how much work is delegated, startups in certain fields require a relatively higher level of dedication,” continued Faris, “The problem here [in the Arabian Gulf] is that people want to start a tech startup while still going to “Diwaniyas” five nights a week. That lack of dedication is the main reasons technology startups fail here; not founder burnout.”

 

It is valid that Khaleeji culture does create a social environment that can act as tempting (and rational) distraction for entrepreneurs. On the other hand, through societal and familial pressure, our culture works hard to prevent entrepreneurs from dedicating every minute of their waking lives to their businesses, no matter how strongly those entrepreneurs believe it will help them. In reward, our culture has set itself perfectly to allow business owners to enjoy a healthy work-life balance that is ultimately beneficial to the owners personally and to the business itself.

 

It is an advantage of building a business in the Gulf that is often mistook for a hindrance.

 

This article appeared in Khaleejesque Magazine, WELL-BEING Issue, published May, 2015. A PDF copy of the article is available here. It is published on this blog with the consent of the author and magazine. All credits and copyrights are reserved to Khaleejesque, 2015. Click here to subscribe to Khaleejesque, or follow them on Instagram @Khaleejesque 

How Company Culture Can Take Your Startup To New Heights

You’ve heard it a million times: a good company culture is key to the success of a startup. But what does that even mean? Sure, the free snacks, ping pong tables, and company-sponsored kickball teams are a nice perk, but is that the main benefit of a startup culture? I’m going to argue no, but feel free to challenge me on that at the end of this.

Company Culture Defined

Lets start by defining company culture. I’ve seen many people try to define company culture, but the best definition I have seen is from Entrepreneur magazine and it states that “company culture is a blend of the values, beliefs, taboos, symbols, rituals, and myths that a company develops over time.” Put plainly, its how the people at a company think, act, and feel.

Sure the perks are nice, but what if company culture led to something bigger? What if a great company culture helped people solve big problems? I work at a startup where this is happening every day. FindTheBest is a Santa Barbara Internet startup that equips people with the best information and research tools to enable people to think like experts and make confident decisions. We have the tangible perks of free snacks, ping pong tables, and cross fit at lunch, but the intangible perks are much bigger. The fact that our team is able to work together to solve big problems is the greatest aspect of our company culture.

Company Culture Helps People Solve Big Problems

Our team members are always ready to test, fail, learn, test, fail, learn, test, succeed, scale. In order to go through this process as efficiently and effectively as possible, our team works together at every step of the process. Every single day, people talk to people from other teams. The product team talks to business development who talks to marketing who talks to engineering. At FindTheBest, we sit in one big open room – there are no desks, and no barriers to finding whoever it is that you want to talk to. This physically open culture is just one of the ways that we facilitate our team members to be open with each other and collaborate on a regular basis.

If you want your startup to have a highly collaborative culture, you have to start at the beginning and hire people that are willing to collaborate and have a proven track record of success. You want to look at what university they went to and what they were involved in while they were there. You want to look at what companies they have worked at in the past and what success they have had there. It’s easy to think that people will adapt to the culture once they arrive, but that isn’t always the case, so take time when hiring new team members and make sure you find the best fit for your organization.

A good company culture is important on many fronts. It keeps your employees happy, attracts potential hires, and helps solve big problems. It’s important to remember that it’s not all about the free snacks and game tables. It’s about creating a company culture that facilitates open communication and collaboration.

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