As the first of the Step conferences kicks off in Dubai this week, the “experiential tech festival” will aim to bring together players in the technology startup ecosystem in the region. The company also has an online publishing arm, Stepfeed and Yallafeed which publishes articles and videos in Arabic.
Nizar Fakih trained and worked as a mechanical engineer before he became co-founder of Step. Working with Ray Dargham, Step’s chief executive officer and founder, Fakih has managed to build up one of the few regional new media companies.
Step has so far raised $3 million including from Wamda Capital. We spoke to Fakih about his journey into entrepreneurship.
Why did you become an entrepreneur?
I worked in the corporate world as an engineer for seven years and after a lot of thinking I realised I didn’t like being an employee so I quit without a plan B, I left my job and didn’t have anything to do and didn’t even know what I wanted to do next.
I am the kind of person that has thought of many different business ideas but didn’t take any into fruition.
Ray, who was a friend of mine told me he was planning to do this conference in Dubai and since I had nothing I thought I’d take this gig for a couple of months. I came to Dubai and I rented a car, I didn’t have a place to stay, I would put my clothes in the trunk of the car and sleep at my cousins’s or friend’s house. I did that for three months until the second Step Conference. After that Ray and I sat down and made plans. That’s how it started and we began building and hiring a content team.
What is it like becoming co-founder of someone else’s business idea?
It’s always clear Ray was the guy who started the idea, that’s not a problem there isn’t this rivalry that you might see with some other co-founders who have issues with who did this or that. When I joined Step, it was not a company, they’d only done one conference and we both understand there was a lot of value that we both brought to the business.
What have you learned along the way since becoming an entrepreneur?
Managing your own feelings and expectations when you first start and you’re doing something good, you tend to become too excited and you have to learn to manage your own reactions and expectations. Also the importance of managing your money. Sometimes we made mistakes and that’s linked to the whole excitement part. When you do have money, when you’ve raised, you still need to act like you don’t have any to build something sustainable. It is dangerous to always want to scale when maybe you should still be frugal with your budgets.
What is it like running a content and media business in the Middle east?
It’s tough. When we first started planning for that, it was always kind of very dreamy. It was a time when new media and digital media was exploding, you had Buzzfeed and Huffpost and all the buzz about these new media companies taking over the traditional media. We had projections to grow to tens of millions of users and take over the Middle East and be the new media player in town.
With time we realised that the Middle East evolved slowly when it came to digital. None of these budgets, internet adoption or readerships grew as we expected. It was much slower. With time you need to tailor your models to your market. Now we’re adapting to have more of a mix about how we approach the business.
What will your industry look like in the next decade?
I think when it comes to digital transformation it is inevitable, the rate at which things change may vary. Our expectations for change in the industry have been very different than the actual reality. I don’t think the market today is still where it could be.
There is a lack of transparency in the way media budgets are distributed, a lot of these things are being disrupted. In the next decade as people move more online inevitably, the whole industry will have to go digital, how much time that will take, I don’t know.