Part of our “How I Did It” series, featured in the January 2017 issue of Inc. Arabia. Insider stories from from some of the Middle East & North Africa’s most innovative companies; and the grit and wisdom from their founders.
I clearly remember that moment. It was 2012. I was working at the web game production department at Wizard (one of the first MENA gaming studios). One stat had caught my eye: Arabic is the 4th most spoken language in the digital sphere, and yet only a tiny percentage of the web content is available for Arabic-only speakers.
There was a lot of untapped potential no one was really taking advantage of. I couldn’t ignore what this was telling me.
Not long after that, I founded my gaming company, Tamatem. What we do here is pretty unique, yet simple: We ideate and find successful gaming concepts, and give them a local twist so as to create a product that’s culturally appealing for MENA users.
Many such games have already topped the charts in the MENA region.
Jordan is a really good place to start a company from the ground up. The tech community is small, but growing. However, when Tamatem was still a rough idea, I applied to the 500 Startups (US-based seed fund and accelerator) program.
I was curious to see what entrepreneurship was like abroad, and wanted to widen my business horizons.
Needless to say, I was overjoyed when I found out I’d be the first representative from an Arab company ever to join the accelerator. I packed up my stuff pronto and headed to sunny California. Those six months in Mountain View, where my initial idea garnered some traction, allowed me to gain the necessary tools to piece together a small team and start Tamatem in early 2014.
It’s true what they say: Silicon Valley is special. It has these distinctly positive vibes. Every day, I would sit down with tech veterans and they would always be there to listen to our stories and problems, and provide strategic advice. It was incredible to have this access to such reservoirs of experience and knowledge.
Probably too much of a cliché to say this, but I was aware that being Arab isn’t immediately associated with creativity or business merit.
As a proud Jordanian, who has studied and lived his entire life in Amman, I was afraid that I’d be the victim of such cultural stigma.
Much to my surprise, I soon realized that the two mentalities, the Western and the Middle Eastern one, are much closer than you’d think. My experience and the challenges I had gone through were fully relatable to those of the other participants. I discovered that we have a very similar mindset and common needs too.
On the other hand, a big issue in the Valley was to do with Western investors who, unfortunately, didn’t know much about the Middle East. I talked extensively about our market, providing regional examples to investors to emphasize the region’s exceptional potential.
Making investors believe that the Arab world has potential, that we had a business model and also, that I was trustworthy, was like shooting an arrow in the dark, but I eventually did score seed funding (from 500 Startups).
The Silicon Valley experience was incredibly eye-opening. Today I use that experience to make young locals understand what’s happening in other parts of the world, which is incredibly fulfilling. I feel privileged every time I pass my knowledge along.
I owe the Valley another really important life lesson. At Mountain View, I learnt how to discuss a hazy topic most founders tiptoe around: Money.
Because of cultural attitudes, most Arab employees don’t appreciate the need for financial transparency from their employer. But when you don’t know the financial health of the company you work for, it can instill a nagging doubt, that can eventually cause dissatisfaction, if not the desire to go look for another job.
This is part of that roller coaster journey every startup everywhere goes through.
Yet such resistance among employees can be toned down by cultivating a culture of openness since the very beginning in a company.
That’s exactly what I did with my startup once I came back to Jordan from my American adventure.
Today, every employee at Tamatem knows the financial situation of the company from A to Z: How much money we are making and spending this year, the estimated amount we foresee to spend next year, who are our investors, and everything in between.
Talking about the fiscal year and long-term financial goals isn’t a taboo for us. After all, every detail of a company is shaped by money.
It’s probably because of adopting and holding on to a ‘culture of honesty’ that we have faced no major issues in taking the company to new heights. Of course, validating the business model and finding a winning formula to attract the right talent has been quite a lengthy process, but the wait has definitely been worthwhile.
If you have a good product and a handful of people who are truly passionate about it, you will be rewarded generously. And sooner or later, if you create the right culture, the success you seek will follow.
Photograph by: Hussam Da’na