Archives for the month of: March, 2012

So Arabnet is here. If you are a regular visitor to the Beirut conference you are going to see a very strong Jordanian presence. For a country with less than 6 million people, few god-given natural resources, in a mostly desert kingdom, with very little water, Jordan is a superstar of entrepreneurship in the Arab world. So how did this happen? What is the story of Jordan and tech entrepreneurs? How can other countries learn from Jordan’s approach?

Here is my take as a Jordanian, an Arab that roams the world, and an angel investor that has been doing business in every single Arab country for the past three decades:

1. There is no safety net. When you know someone is going to pick catch you (hint: government) you have no incentive to jump. Strange, no? Well, entrepreneurs are risk takers. When risk is minimized and we are dependent on the generosity and grants of others, then we have no incentive to make it happen. “Father knows best” does not work here.

2. The private sector leads, thinks and drives the story. The public sector plays only as an enabler… this formula works and works very well!

3. Political will and policy are driven by clear vision. Back in 1999, a group from the private sector presented HM King Abdullah with a blueprint for launching the IT industry in the country, called the “REACH Initiative.” He adopted it and pushed his government to facilitate the plan, and the rest is history. When there is a will there is a way. Yes, the private sector can work with the public sector, and yes, good things can come of it.

4. It has open systems and no web censorship. Believe me, if you sensor heavily, you drive people away. Don’t even think about it. Innovative eco-systems require open systems. And Jordan does not censor!

5. Competition exists in the telecom sector. Jordan has a totally open and deregulated sector with an independent regulator. This drives prices down and brings service levels up, and thus broadband is available at reasonable cost. This is an essential element for driving the IT industry; without it you cannot compete nor start a business.

6. There are no foreign ownership restrictions, and Jordan boasts a free trade agreement. Being a member of the World Trade Organization (WTO) is important for any country with few resources, and in Jordan, it enables Jordanian companies to start in Jordan, learn, and make mistakes, then go global.

7. There is a substantial support community. Angel investors, mentors, incubators, venture capital, and Y-combinators like Oasis500, Queen Rania Center for Entrepreneurship, Endeavor, IV Holdings, I-Park, and Meydan among several others work to support entrepreneurs.

8. Last but not least, there is Maktoob, where it all started. A company launched out of Amman became the largest Arab internet company later to be sold to Yahoo, making it the largest deal of its kind in the region. This exit allowed many Maktoob employees to start companies afterwards, and the success story made other entrepreneurs feel that this industry is moving forward, so they could take the plunge and start a company.

The result is that now, in the spring of the Arabs and awakening of regional empowerment, Jordanians are busy building companies and finding markets, building and nurturing talent, and exploring the world.

These are my reasons. Please add yours, and feel free to disagree.

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So Arabnet is here. If you are a regular visitor to the Beirut conference you are going to see a very strong Jordanian presence. For a country with less than 6 million people, few god-given natural resources, in a mostly desert kingdom, with very little water, Jordan is a superstar of entrepreneurship in the Arab [...]

A Lesson in Leadership: my talk with Tony Fernandes of Air Asia

He walks in to greet us and starts cracking jokes. Full of passion and charisma, his knowledge of every single detail of his company is evident. Spending time with Tony Fernandes, the founder of Air Asia, is an education in leadership and management of a unique kind.

I ask him what is it that makes this company so different, so successful, and so passionate about everything it does, creating a culture that shows on the faces of every single person in the company. He says, “Our corporate culture is it. It’s what makes us.” And it’s what makes this such a powerful story; Tony Fernandes is not an ordinary CEO and Air Asia is not an ordinary company.

Walking with him across the one floor where the company exists is like walking with a rock star getting ready to go on stage, except that every single person he says hello to is not a fan but part of the band (or brand for that matter). Management sits on one huge stage in an open space office, where the chief pilot has a corner desk looking at the operations team, which is right next to the flight attendant team, which is right next to the reception area, and where there is no call center but an online chat customer service team.

(Tony says that he shut down the call center because there was no use for it and it was not doing what it is supposed to do. So his website, where the client comes, books, pays, and complains, or rejoices, is one big happy floor– all connected, all visible, and all orchestrated by Tony).

If you did not know this was an airline, you would think you were walking into a dot com company, with a chief evangelist living in Kuala Lumpur, not in Silicon Valley.

So what is this corporate culture that changes lives and makes this company one of the most successful airlines in the world? It asks the question, “Hierarchy, what hierarchy?” Tony is a leader and a manager, but he is one of the team also. So his office is smack at the heart of the company, with no walls and no doors. Everyone sees him and he sees everyone. He is Tony to everyone and he is in his polo shirt and with his famous baseball cap. His only vice is that he gets a special parking slot right next to the door of his building, for his two-door white Peugeot.

Stepping out of his car to his office, which is next to the passenger terminal, he is stopped by clients who want his autograph and to take a photo with him. He talks to them, carries their bags, checks them in and walks the aisles of the plane.

So, can corporate culture be the only competitive advantage of a company? You bet it can. In a business of people, people make and break companies, and their happiness is what matters most. You can buy the best airplanes in the world and they will cost you hundreds of millions of dollars, but if you do not have the people to make this investment in your planes worthwhile, you’re going to vanish. The airline industry is filled with brands that one never thought would not exist today. Yet Tony, with his simple idea that people matter, and his ability to walk the talk, has created the ultimate people’s company, with billions of dollars in revenue and hundreds of million in operating income. How many companies could achieve such incredible margins, and how many airlines could run 100 aircrafts, with over 300 takeoffs and landings a day, and still make this much money? It’s a rare commodity by any rubric.

Tony Fernandes throws Michael Porter’s theories about the airline industry into disarray. Tony defies MBA theory, and gravity, just because his corporate leadership and management is one that makes working for an airline as cool as working for Google or Zynga or Facebook.

After 4 hours with tony, eating airline food with him at the open air cafeteria with every single trainee, captain, and ground handling staff, I walked away thinking that I just went to leadership school, and learned what I have always known: walking the talk is not a theory, it is life itself in the corporate world, in the leadership world, and in the consumer world, where customers rule through instant feedback on Facebook, Twitter, and everything in between.

So while we may continue to look West to learn, sometimes the real lessons occur where East converges with South, mixes with “down to earth,” and is energized by the magic touch of a leader who makes working a pleasure and puts a smile on every face.

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A Lesson in Leadership: my talk with Tony Fernandes of Air Asia He walks in to greet us and starts cracking jokes. Full of passion and charisma, his knowledge of every single detail of his company is evident. Spending time with Tony Fernandes, the founder of Air Asia, is an education in leadership and management [...]