As part of my application to the Founder Institute, I was posed with the question: “Why do you want to be an entrepreneur?”
Considering the way I have, and continue to live, the answer for me was simple: “What else can one be?”
This is a retelling of some of my adventures growing up in Syria, up until arriving in Canada.
An Early Start
From the time I was 10, growing up in the capital of Syria, Damascus, I have found myself always thinking of different ways to change the world, including my own. When I was in the fourth grade, I observed that the other students had limited access to certain candies and treats in the school cafeteria. Realizing a market opportunity, I would every morning hop into a candy store near my home while waiting for the school bus, spend all my money on candy and treats, then resell them to my classmates during break at a markup.
Unfortunately (Fortunately?), I spent most of the profits on buying Superman + Batman comics!
At 11 years old, I was one of the lucky few in all of Syria to get the first generation Sony PlayStation.
However, I wasn’t content to just sit in front of the TV and allow all of my brain cells to rot (or grow, depending on your perspective of gaming), so I sought out gaming magazines from which to learn more about the fascinating world of gaming and consoles.
Unfortunately, Syria had access to no such publications back in 1994, due to politics, sanctions, embargoes and such… At the time I only had access to the Arabic version of PC Magazine which helped shape a lot of my early experience and expectations with computers and technology.
(thank you PC Mag!)
One time on a family trip to Lebanon, I found a gaming magazine aptly named: PSM (PlayStation Magazine) of which I purchased a couple of issues. Upon returning to Syria my very accommodating parents would ask friends to buy me the magazine on their travels.
PlayStation Magazine featured a “cheats” section, which listed hundreds of video game cheat codes. This was when I recognized I had another opportunity here. I knew kids my age who had gaming consoles would gladly purchase codes from me as they had no access to such magazines. Even if they did, these magazines were in English, and unlike me, their grasp of the language was too poor. I was fortunate in having advanced English tutoring and hung out with native English-speaking kids which helped me gain some mastery of the language.
Even at the hefty cost of 5 Syrian Pounds (SYP) per cheat, gaming-addicted kids would seek me out and pay, for more often than not they would find themselves stuck on a level and needed an edge.
In The Year 2000!
It wasn’t until the year 2000 that the internet came to Syria. Prior to that, it was highly illegal, and the only method of accessing the internet was to long distance connect to a Lebanon Dial-Up ISP.
That of course, did not stop me. I proceeded to create an account with Cyberia, the Lebanese ISP, and once I gained access to the content riches of the internet, I was able to expand the cheat code business tenfold.
Access to the Internet changed EVERYTHING in my world.
All of a sudden, I had access to interesting topics I would have never thought existed! This of course, produced new business opportunities!
There were no copyright laws in Syria (a communist, third-world country) so naturally, any access to digital content such as music, movies, and software was pirated. With access to the World Wide Web in my pocket (illegal at the time) I became the go-to guy for acquiring new music releases, movies and software!
I made a lot of money by partnering with local shop owners and delivering CDs for them to mass-copy and sell, beating the slower methods of importing from Russia and Asia (where much of Syria’s pirated material came from). I remember downloading Microsoft Encarta which took days to download over dial-up; Once it was finished though, my local store partner was the only store in the entire country that had it available for months in advance of any other shop owner. I was only 14 years old and making more money than my father did.
By mid-2000, Syria finally allowed the Internet into the country and the first ISP (government-operated) was launched. Come 2002, Nokia launched the Symbian Series 60 (now S60) platform, one of the very first smartphone platforms (despite what Apple claims!).
With the S60 platform, the concept of mobile apps first became a reality with the release of the first true smartphone: Nokia 7650. Almost a year later came another first in the form of the first mobile gaming platforms: Nokia N-Gage.
All of a sudden, my early years of selling video game cheats and later software & music came all together in the mobile world. I partnered with a friend and opened up a cellphone store where we started selling smartphones, apps, music and games. No one else was doing this in Syria and I had access to all the S60 apps and games online, at a time when no one else even knew that apps could be installed on these devices! I would use audio editing tools to create custom ringtones of whatever the latest hit song was, then charge a premium to customers for manually cutting their favourite part of a song for their own use.
Entry to Programming
Although business was good, it wasn’t challenging enough.
At 17 I got into web development, and as the internet matured in the country, I started building websites for local businesses that needed an online presence. I then proceeded to start building my own websites as I was experimenting with various ideas. The first of my experiments was a local classifieds website, which ran for some time, but failed to get high enough traction as people were not familiar with selling content online back then. Realizing the local market was not caught up with the technology yet, I made some research into what people really wanted and how the internet could help.
Once I started university the answer clearly presented itself. It turns out people’s needs were simple: People wanted to date!
I’m not a Zuckerberg, and I had different motivations. I recognized a business opportunity and I went for it. I operated an online dating site for two years and it turned out to be moderately successful in terms of signups and usage, but hardly generated meaningful revenue.
University introduced me to even more opportunities. Students in Computer Science courses had little or no prior knowledge to the industry, and most did not even have a computer for more than a few years prior to starting their courses at university. Since I taught myself programming and software development (thanks to my early access to the internet) I had an advantage that I could leverage here, so I started tutoring students.
I partnered with a couple of other advanced students who also had an edge in mathematics, computer science, physics and English, along with a local internet cafe owner. We expanded the internet cafe and converted it into computer classrooms, where every student would have a computer in our little college, where in the University they only had books and had to practice programming on paper.
Our college turned out to be so successful that even with 15-20 students per class, we had many more we had to turn away as we couldn’t keep up with the demand!
In 2004 I dropped out of university to focus on my businesses: The Smartphone Shop, The College, and Web Development Services.
A year later, my family received a letter in the mail that we were not expecting, and something they had given up on years ago. The Canadian Embassy in Syria had just notified my parents that their immigration application filed 12 years earlier, had been approved and we were now welcome into Canada!!!
Opting into the Matrix *
As much as access to the internet had changed my life as a kid, landing in Toronto back in July of 2005 had as big of an impact on my life as a 20-year-old adult.
Life has been a whirlwind since then, my story continues, and more adventures undoubtedly lie ahead; Some will prove crazy and many more extraordinary, but all shall certainly prove beyond my wildest imagination as a child born in a third-world country in the Middle East.
Continue the story in Part 2.