Business Pin-Up: Gathering Mo-mentum
Mo Elzubeir is a tough cookie and he tells it like it is. He dons many hats – active blogger, serial ranter, occasional funny guy and the Managing Director of Mediastow, to name just a few. After a chat with him, Ketaki Banga ended up transcribing one of the longest interviews ever.
Its founder and Managing Director Mo Elzubeir moved to Dubai shortly after graduation, attracted by the possibilities that it presented.
“I had the idea after working on a development project with my former employer for a company that did the same thing. At the time, the idea of starting a media monitoring company was the farthest thing from my mind. I do remember, however, that I saw several flaws in how they did things and, despite my recommendations, they ignored it,” says Mo.
“I was just a developer for their software vendor and simply did what I was told. I met with one of their former employees who worked at my department and we started talking about the possibility of setting up a similar company in Jordan. I thought it was an interesting idea but didn’t believe Jordan was a viable market; so I went back to the drawing board, put together the business plan and then quickly proceeded to write the software that would drive the company’s system. It took me two weeks to write the code and get things started,” he continues.
Mo has had his fair share of failures. He quit his first job in Dubai, joined a start-up that failed, and then joined a publishing company where the entire dept was laid off. But by then he was ready with his business plan. “I was about to hand in my resignation when I found the termination letter on my desk. I was the only one in the whole department with a smile that day,” he grins. “I decided it was time to be in control of my own destiny.”
But he admits that starting out on his own was no cakewalk. Although his experience was in technology and media, he knew little about management and finances. “I made a lot of mistakes and learned along the way,” he confesses. “The thrill of going into uncharted waters excites me. The idea of building something from scratch is what keeps me going.”
You can tell Mo likes to buck the trend. His incisive and often controversial comments on Twitter are just the tip of the iceberg. Apparently he was a trouble maker (a smart one, in all fairness) right from the start.
“My elementary school teachers would tell you that I was a bright but troubled child. I didn’t always answer the questions even when I knew the answers. If I didn’t like the question, I would critique it instead. I didn’t care for conformity,” he reveals. “Maybe it was attention seeking; maybe it’s just me screaming look at me!”
In junior high, he started his first business with a friend selling pirated games to computer shops in Bahrain. “It was a good business and we were responsible for most of the games available in the market at the time. This was back when 3.5-inch disks were new,” he says with a straight face.
In high school (a different school, he clarifies), Mo started his first underground magazine with another friend. It was a satirical take on school which made fun of the administration, teachers and students. The magazine proved to be popular among both students and teachers. “In fact, it was written so well that even when we were caught, the principal found it difficult to punish us for it. We managed to put out five issues, before someone told on us. We knew we were going to get caught and did it just to see how far we could take it. It was a good run!” he beams.
While studying computer science at the University of North Texas, he founded Arabeyes.org, which was responsible for bringing Arabic support to Linux. He put together a team of volunteers and a platform for collaborations which resulted in applications adding Arabic support, translations for popular applications (like FireFox) and new applications, among other things.
Mo is of Sudanese origin and, unless prodded, he doesn’t like to talk about some of the hard knocks he took because he had to fight just that little bit harder at times.
“As a kid, we moved a lot. Only one of my siblings was born in Sudan; I went to Denmark, KSA, Bahrain, Qatar, Cyprus, back to Bahrain, then Texas, and back to Bahrain again. I don’t think there are any equal opportunity employers here. Even I have prejudices and cannot claim to be a completely fair employer. But the law allows it and so I can get away with it,” he admits.
“I am not cynical – I am a realist. I recognise what’s good and what’s bad. For example, I am very proud of Sudan’s ability to hold a referendum and allow the South to succeed but do I have to discuss my pride at length? Do we get coverage for it, because we are still considered a symbol of drought and war?” he asks.
Mo refuses to play the victim. “When I first started this business, everybody said you will never make it because you are not a certain nationality – and that is kind of true but it didn’t affect me and I didn’t give up. So I don’t understand the ‘poor me’ attitude some people have and I don’t like playing the victim. I don’t respect ‘victims’.
“I grew up in KSA and was beaten up plenty of times for being black and other times for being from Sudan, but so what! It didn’t break me. I may have become cynical, but I think of it as no big deal – they were stupid kids and I grew up and learned how to earn respect. Although there are prejudices, they are just challenges. That’s life – it’s not worth living without challenges.”
When Mo’s dad was dropping him off to his university in the US, his parting words were, “You know what, you’re black, you’re Muslim, you’re Arab and your name is Mohammad – good luck!”
But Mo just shrugs, “It didn’t bother me; I’ve grown a thick skin, so when people complain I simply think ‘deal with it.’ It’s just another challenge.”
Scaling it up
Speaking of challenges, what hurdles did he face with Mediastow?
“The first problem we faced was getting translators and editors who are working online and motivated enough to perform to their maximum potential. We initially implemented a flat pay scheme, which is also used by our competitor, but we found it to be lacking. Then we started to pay per article produced and show the earnings on the dashboard so the translators and editors could see what they were earning as they worked. This has boosted productivity by 37%,” says Mo.
He then continued to implement performance-based schemes where completing the target earns the translator a bonus in cash. “The results of these two measures alone allowed us to compete with our competitors not only on deliverables – and we were able to deliver faster and more efficiently – but also for the talent pool who preferred to work with us. The concept is simple: you work hard, you make more,” he explains.
Another challenge Mediastow faced was the original system, which slowed things down considerably.
“Our current system automates the entire process and removes a lot of the paperwork we initially had to deal with,” reveals Mo. “Our initial system was a Web-based platform where we would scan and then upload the images into a Web system, assigning attributes to each article clipping (keywords mentioned, date, source, and so on). This process proved to be very time consuming and did not scale very well.
“The other problem we faced was that as the customer base grew, the number of keywords needed to be memorised by the readers grew exponentially. Mistakes were easier to make. Another challenge was that it took approximately six months to train a reader. It was also very difficult to find if the candidate hired was actually capable of performing the job until much later on. We then decided to develop our own media system which would automate the process and allow us to scale it. A single reader can now produce 500 article clippings per day. This has created tremendous scale. Our system was also designed to let staff work from anywhere. This allows us to further scale and move the operations to any location worldwide, without compromising on the efficiency.”
All these measures allowed Mediastow to focus on its core task, which was the analysis of media content and brand perceptions. “We were the first company in the Middle East to receive an international award for our media research work. In 2008, we were awarded the Bronze Global Communication Effectiveness Award for the best use of integrated media evaluation/research by the Association for Measurement and Evaluation of Communication (AMEC). We were also the first to join AMEC from the Middle East,” reveals Mo.
“The competition was a monopoly and effectively had near 95% market share when we started out. We had to be lean and quickly shed any excess weight that slowed us down. Reaching profitability can be very challenging and you either need to have impressive stamina – that is the funds and appetite to lose money for years – or the agility to out-produce with fewer resources. We succeeded with the latter. We even comfortably survived the financial crisis,” says Mo.
Mo’s management style
What has their track record been with employee retention?
“We experienced a period in Dubai where jobs were very available, salaries were high, and people jumped around quite a bit. That contributed quite a bit to churn, not just in our organisation but in general. So at times it was difficult to retain talent,” admits Mo.
But it was on the operational side where they were really affected: “We were affected by the fact that you have to be in office by 4:30 in the morning. That takes a toll on you after a while and it’s difficult to maintain. We are changing that now and introducing shifts.”
Mo believes in incentivising, but throws in a caveat: “Personally, I feel incentives can be negative as well – for example, people don’t steal because of moral incentives; sometimes they refrain because they don’t want to be arrested.”
It’s not very effective to incentivise through equity either, according to Mo. “To be honest people prefer the cash rather than a stake on paper, especially when you’re a small company, though that might change when you’re bigger. Equity is interesting, but it has to be quick and tangible. If your company has nothing to offer except percentage – 5% of zero is still zero,” he doesn’t mince his words.
He believes that honesty is the best policy: “I always tell my staff that they have to think about how I am thinking. Don’t think I’m doing it because I’m a nice guy; it’s because I’m being selfish and my selfishness ends up being to your benefit. So I’m giving you a raise because I don’t want to lose you. Then I’d have to bring in someone new and train them, and then find out if they are good enough. That’s a very expensive process and it’s in my benefit to give you a raise.”
But honesty works both ways, so he’s not averse to also pointing out, “And I also know the job market is not so great, so it’s in your interest to do a good job because even though it’s expensive, I will not hesitate to let go of anyone who is not performing. We have a very clear understanding in the office.”
Being so incredibly blunt means Mo isn’t exactly in the running for the “Miss Congeniality” crown. “I have had mixed reviews; I can’t say everybody loves me. There have been people who said you’re blunt but we respect you and then there are people who want to see me run over by a truck. But that’s life,” he admits.
Do it yourself
Mo isn’t a fan of outsourcing unless you’re just starting out. “It’s okay with non-essential things,” he feels. “It’s not about the money; it’s about how much control you have over it. I want to be able to improve and optimise to the best of my ability. When you mention donkey work, I have technology to take care of that. For anything that needs a human factor, I’d rather have a person within the office.
“I have the advantage of being tech savvy. That helps. Sometimes you overdo it and bring in systems that no one understands, so we scrap it and start over.”
Mediastow even has an internal wiki where employees can look up everything from policies, to procedures, manuals, company information, client information and more.
“We are now at the point where we can either be another media monitoring company, or truly innovate and create new and creative products leveraging all the content that we have compiled throughout the years. The next five years will see Mediastow reinvent itself, adding B2C to its services, and making it a policy to remain a first-mover,” informs Mo.
Expansion is also on the cards. “We are looking at Qatar very seriously,” concludes Mo.
Well, Mo is on his way and Qatar has been warned!