In my search for Tunisian success stories in entrepreneurship, I was told I must speak with Mr. Samy Achour, the President and Founder of software company Integration Objects. Achour began his company in 2002 and has since become a leading provider of intelligent performance management systems for manufacturing plants in oil & gas, chemical, petrochemical, power, and utilities industries around the globe. He now has over 40 full-time staff in Tunisia and is nowhere near slowing down.
I chatted with him recently about his vision founding the company, his plans to expand, and the turn things have taken over the past year since the revolution in Tunisia.
How did you decide to start Integration Objects?
In my previous job at software firm Gensym, I progressed from being a Software Application Engineer to being the Vice President of Europe Middle East and Africa, specializing in artificial intelligence for the manufacturing industries, over 15 years. I was working very closely with customers on a daily basis, which granted me insight into the industry’s requirements and challenges.
My dream was to provide customers with a solution that would help them avoid business due to safety issues or human errors, quality and environmental non-compliance, and performance deviation. I wanted to deliver a solution that would allow the industry to run their plants to their maximum potential in the safest possible way. My decision to start Integration Objects came at a breaking point, when my ex-employer sold Gensym to a new owner who had a strategy that was not aligned with mine. I thought it was the right time came to launch on my own.
What was a key turning point in your approach?
Our first customer, a very large oil and gas producer in the region, represented about 80% of our business at the beginning, and was starting to take advantage of the situation by making us deliver more than our contractual commitment. I had to work extra hard to diversify our customer portfolio, and we succeeded. Now we have about 500 customers buying lower-cost products, and about 40 customers buying higher-end services and technology.
What is the biggest problem that you faced?
The biggest problem we faced initially was finding the right talent to hire. However, we were able to resolve this issue by hiring senior professionals specializing in human resources, who have reduced the failure rate of our hiring.
Where is your market and how do you generate revenue?
We currently base our operations in Tunis, with sales representatives in Houston, Texas, and Genova, Italy, but we plan to expand globally. We hope to open offices in Houston, London, and Dubai or Bahrain, to target the Americas, Europe, the Middle East region, as well as Asia potentially. We currently focus on selling to re-sellers, maintaining a few key accounts, but we’re also looking to build our sales team.
Did you take on funding to build Integration Objects?
No, I used my personal money. However, we have now reached a milestone; we have built up our references and technology, and we have a team in place that is well-trained to support our expansion. So we are ready to raise funds in order to expand, and we are primarily looking for venture capital or private equity from MENA investors.
What does your family think of your company? Has owning a company made you financially more secure?
My family has a lot of confidence in my ability to run our business, which in fact places more pressure on me, and but at the same time is encouraging. There are periods during which we made good money and others we lost money. So far, I have not yet taken more money home than what I did with my previous employer.
How has business been post-revolution?
We now feel more comfortable in expanding and being more visible. Under the old regime, when you were visible you risked attracting too much attention. Business declined to some degree in 2011 due to the economic slowdown, but our software export business, which represents about 75% of our business, has been fairly stable. Now we’re in a good position to do more work in Tunisia.
What advice would you give an entrepreneur just starting out?
My first suggestion is to have a clear vision and plan. Make sure you do not get into a market in which you have already well established players unless you have a very credible differentiated product.
Make sure you have identified the market and your actual customers.
Do not put all of your eggs in one basket.
Choose your partners in a way that complements you rather than pick those with similar backgrounds.
Make sure you have enough business experience before you start any businesses.
Have the guts to sustain losing money during several months without panicking. Have enough cash to cushion you.
Stay focused. Do not be opportunistic, and do not deviate from your vision.
Stay away from unclear and fuzzy business arrangements as far as possible. Highly encourage total transparency.