4 lessons learned from failure: the story of an Omani serial entrepreneur

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Being an entrepreneur in a small and young market like Oman is not easy if you don’t go lean. With only some 3 million citizens as your potential clients, launching a new product without thoroughly studying the market needs is not a good idea.

Omani serial entrepreneur Qais Al-Khonji (above, image via Qais Al-Khonji) admits that he failed at his first startup because he did not research the market’s needs, and did not follow a lean methodology, which would involve testing and iterating his approach basde on market response.

But Al-Khonji has embraced his failure, and moved on to his next projects. “I try and learn even though this means losing. I consider the benefits to be in learning and failure a step towards success,” he says.

Al-Khonji is not your typical entrepreneur; you wouldn’t necessarily meet him at an entrepreneurship event, or watch him pitch his startups to investors.

He's started five startups in the past three years, and he's embraced failure with most of them, closing down four. But business is what he loves, and he's ready to get back up and do it again.“I want to be my own boss and work at what I love doing,” he confessed.

Although he first reached out to Wamda to tell us about the ecosystem in Oman, he ended up telling us a story that shows the importance of applying a lean methodology in Oman and reveals some of the challenges entrepreneurs from family businesses in the Gulf might face.

The son of a well-to-do Omani family that runs real estate business Mohamed and Ahmed Al-Khonji in the U.K., Dubai and Oman, 32-year-old Al-Khonji worked in banking for many years and now makes a living by advising four of his family companies. Yet in 2010, he decided to throw himself into entrepreneurship, starting by launching his first company, Qais United Agency, which imported and sold Chinese water filtration systems in the Omani market. After 18 months, in mid-2011, Al-Khonji closed it down because it didn't get the traction he was hoping for.

Then, in early 2012, he launched 4 startups at once, offering services in very different sectors, including education, health tourism, a electrical freezing technology, and digital meters for water and electricity. Three of them failed, he says, again because they didn't succeed quickly enough, and he wasn't motivated to stick it out.

Genesis Oman

Now, he is focusing on his digital meter company, hoping to build it into a “long term business," he says. "It will take some time to pick up and make revenue.” He's also working as a reseller for Thermax, an Indian engineering solutions company in Oman, and is in the process of launching solar energy products.

Shifting from a family business to a completely new entrepreneurial mindset is not something that happens overnight, but moving towards a lean approach could help him find better product-market fit. Here are a few lessons to take away from his story:

  1. It's important to focus. Al-Khonji is embracing what could be called the spaghetti approach: throw several things against the wall and see what sticks. “We want to start a new company every year in March, as this is when I receive my yearly salary. And we are always in the process of looking for people with the know how to launch a startup. This is our new philosophy,” he says. He's working hard to launch viable ideas, and embraces each failure as it comes, but perhaps could use a bit more focus. 

    Lean approach: Take it one startup at a time.
     
  2. Market research is critical. In the five startups that he already launched, Al-Khonji choose the sector according to his own skills (business) and his partner’s skills (education). He'll be the first to admit that he didn't study the market needs to determine if someone would actually use the products he is importing.

    Lean approach: Look at market needs. An exciting idea is not enough if the market isn't hungry for it. 
     
  3. Know your customer. During his work on Qais United Agency, Al-Khonji admitted that he imported products that ended up not surviving in the the market. Because the Omani market is very small, and monopolized by strong international brands, his Chinese products didn’t have a chance, he says, and it was difficult to convince consumers to buy them. At the time, he didn't realize how important the quality of the product was. Perhaps in Oman, a services company is a lower hanging fruit, he decided.

    Lean approach: Test the customer's appetite for your product or service before launching. 
     
  4. Know what you love. There's always a balance between launching something that the market needs, and something that you want to build; if you're too in love with your own idea, you might not listen enough to the market. However, it's also important to have a passion for what you're building. While chatting with Qais, I noticed that he is not building any of the startups out of passion. He's passionate about business, but not any of his specific initiatives. It's great that he's creating job opportunities in Oman and contributing to the economy, but as an entrepreneur he might not be able to stick to an idea unless he can put his heart into it.

    Lean approach: Find your passion.

Al-Khonji is, at his core, an aspiring lean entrepreneur; he advises other entrepreneurs to have patience, focus and have the courage to lose. “Try more than once before you give up, and be very focused on your work," he says. "I like to try and learn even though this means losing, the benefit is in learning and failure is a step towards success.”

By making the leap into entrepreneurship from a family business, and by not being phased by failure, Al-Khonji could be an example for others to follow who work in family businesses; he might be able to lead a generation into a new mindset in Oman.

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