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This article is a part of the 2022 edition of Entrepreneur Middle East’s annual Follow The Leader series, in which enterprise head honchos from the region talk strategy, industry-specific tactics, and professional challenges as they lead their respective businesses to success.
One business idea can lead to another, and another, and another again, and that seems to be the story of how Sinan Taifour and his team developed Maqsam, a cloud communication suite for MENA-based SMEs that gives them an alternative to traditional, more expensive hardware-based solutions.
Now, if you read that Maqsam recently won the first place at the Leap tech expo in Saudi Arabia, or that Her Majesty Queen Rania of Jordan recently visited Maqsam’s office in Amman to learn more about this promising MENA startup, you would think that the co-founders Sinan Taifour and Fouad Jeryes hit the jackpot with this business idea from the get-go. However, the truth is that it was a process of the two entrepreneurs discovering and solving a series of problems in the region’s complex market that brought them to conceptualize Maqsam. “We founded our first product together called Payhyper, a cash collection network that solves the problems companies faced with cash on delivery by introducing cash before delivery,” Taifour explains.
“The merchant works with Payhyper as if it is any other payment method, so through API (Application Programming Interfaces), and we collect cash on behalf of the merchant from the customer, and inform the merchant when the payment is made. However, a lot of merchants were interested but not fast enough to act, so we ended up eating our own dog food and building a merchant on top of our service.” That experience led to Taifour and Jeryes’ second startup CashBasha, an e-commerce website allowing MENA buyers to buy from international merchants, even when the items cannot be shipped directly to the region. “They would pay us with cash, and so, they did not have to worry about all the logistics and complications of regulations and customs,” explains Taifour. At the time, while Jeryes was building the business on the ground, Taifour was committed to CashBasha and was planning his exit from his Senior Software Engineering post at Google in Munich to join the growing team.
“While working on CashBasha, we ourselves suffered from the gap in infrastructure in the MENA region, such as in communication, payments, and logistics,” he explains. “We filled those gaps by developing a number of internal products. The communications solution we created caught the eyes of startup founders that were facing the same exact challenges we were facing, and that became Maqsam, dubbed the friendliest cloud communication suite in MENA.” In 2019, Taifour left his role at Google and came back to lead Maqsam as its CEO which he describes as “turning our company into a well-oiled machine.” He adds, “The part I like the most about my job is instilling a culture that empowers the individual to grow and contribute in their own way. We often find this is a part of our company the team really appreciates.”
The Maqsam team is currently 70-person strong and spread out between Saudi Arabia, Egypt, UAE and Jordan. “We started Maqsam from a need we had inside CashBasha to connect with our customers in a region that is wider than where we were physically located, and we found out traditional legacy systems were very costly and not flexible, and so, we built this for ourselves,” Taifour explains. “We understand our clients needs, so we are continuously improving our software with our clients’ input.”
Sinan Taifour and Fouad Jeryes, co-founders, Maqsam
Going forward, he aims to focus on natural language processing technologies in order to help Maqsam clients to better interact with their customers. “Particularly, we’re working on making leadership and management teams in a client’s company better informed by allowing them to learn what their customers are explicitly saying in existing conversations; it is achieved by transcribing the calls (which is challenging in Arabic), and exporting relevant information to the management and leadership teams,” Taifour says. “Our second goal is to turn our clients’ agents into super agents by shortening training time, easing evaluation, and providing real-time feedback to the agent while on a call.”
Once our conversation turned to assessing the current opportunities available to MENA-based entrepreneurs in their own region, Taifour gives an interesting insight into this area. “While there are many startups whose products purely exists in the virtual world, most startups have a leg in reality or require strong local cultural relevance, like a car hailing app or an e-commerce website that builds software, but also have a lot of operations on the ground,” he says. “Such companies typically cannot launch all over the world at once, which leaves a big opportunity for regional startups in the MENA, and examples of successes that covered such cases would be Maktoob, Souq, Careem, Anghami, and Jawaker.”
Another of Taifour’s tips for MENA-based entrepreneurs is to find a way to operate in multiple markets in order to enlarge their business opportunities. “It’s important to have a sizable market when you start your business, so you can grow fast and avoid a plateau, but in our region, we lack such huge single markets, like the European Union or the US, and the closest we have are the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (with a lot of buying power) and Egypt (with a huge population),” Taifour explains. “Part of what Maqsam is doing is to help achieve the benefits of such single markets in terms of communication. Your company can be in any place in the region, and you can serve your clients all at once, without having to worry about creating different setups for different countries. This allows you to unlock economic opportunity within a complex region, accelerate growth and reach new frontiers more effectively.”
Before I ask him to share more of his tips for MENA entrepreneurs, I’m eager to hear Taifour’s opinion on the region’s tech talent. “Studying electrical engineering [Taifour holds a bachelor’s degree in the subject from Jordan University, and a master’s degree from the Technical University of Munich] was useful in building sound thinking, but I learned software outside of my formal education through self-learning, and by surrounding myself with people I could learn from,” he says.
“The internet helps you to get halfway, but you need to be part of a team to unlock the next level. We try, at Maqsam, to provide such internships, but also, we see ourselves as hiring great talent, and helping them become world-class. As rarely as it happens, when someone leaves us to a more prestigious or ambitious role, we consider this a win, unlike many companies that feel hurt- we see it as a win since we were able to act as a springboard for that person. Some people leave the region for opportunities, but end up mentoring others or coming back later, which is a win for the ecosystem.”
Taifour adds that in his opinion, the MENA region’s problem is not in having enough tech talent, but in retaining it. “For that reason, regional tech companies should create more interesting opportunities for people to come back,” Taifour says. “Really good technical talent typically evaluate opportunities on two parameters: whether it provides interesting technical problems, and whether their technical skills will grow with time. To attract and retain technical talent, a company has to try to hit both those points.”
In addition to keeping local talent at home, Taifour and the Maqsam team are also working on building bridges with MENA tech experts who live abroad. “We work a lot with our advisors who left the region and have gained knowledge elsewhere, and now act as advisors to us in Maqsam,” he explains. “This is one way we can utilize talents that left the region, and we should also design easy ways for people to contribute back; often, these expats want to contribute, but don’t know how.” MENA governments, Taifour adds, should work together on mitigating the risk of coming back to the region, or not leaving it. “They should lower the risk of starting a company by creating more stable regulations and concepts that are closer to single markets,” he concludes.
‘TREP TALK: Maqsam CEO Sinan Taifour shares his tips for entrepreneurs, aspiring and otherwise
1. Don’t delay, do it now. Don’t accept mediocrity “If you find that your job or employer is not up to par, there are a lot of companies out there that are, and if you are good in your field, they will be happy to have you, so never stay in a place that isn’t helping you grow. The culture of a company is as important as what they do, and pay attention to their culture.“
2. You don’t need to start a company to have the experience of a founder. “If you join a company early enough, your experience will be similar, and you will wear many hats, and get to contribute to the future of that company and grow with it. Many companies these days offer stocks for employees, so you will likely do very well. This will also help you if you plan to start a business in the future.”
3. Become a T-shaped person. “Have depth in a few things, but also have some breadth. If you have a lot of breadth and you do not have any depth, you are easily replaceable. If you have a lot of depth in something and not enough breadth, you are not seeing the big picture. You have to try to combine both. If you have a bit of breadth across non technical topics and depth in something technical, you’ll be a desired part of any organization.”
4. Join communities to learn and get motivated. “Figure out which communities you want to be part of, whether online or offline, as being part of them will open your eyes, and will help you realize the available opportunities you could join. You can also create your own community of similar people. Look for mentors, people willing to help, and if you find a good mentor, it makes a big difference in your life.”
5. As The Legend of Zelda put it, “it’s dangerous to go alone!” Take a co-founder with you “If you are starting a tech company, consider having a co-founder. It’s full of ups and downs; you’ll need someone to help you, and by doing it alone, you are less likely to succeed. Starting a company requires a skillset that is unlikely to be in a single person, so look for someone who has a complimentary skillset or a willingness to learn.”