The Pioneer

Cross posted from Business Today Egypt.

Ali Shaaban, the managing director of Icon Creations, a Cairo-based mobile applications and social media company, has made a career out of being one step ahead of the technological curve. When he was studying commerce at Cairo University in 1998, most Egyptians had never heard of the internet. Shaaban, however, had already begun to embrace its transformative potential.

His first exposure had come earlier that year. “I got on a computer, and one of my friends sat with me for five or six hours,” he explains. “It was a Pentium II — a very slow computer with internet access that was IDSC, dial-up, where the speed was 16-bit. It was very slow. But it was fun, when you think of it.”

Soon after, he started freelancing as a webmaster and developer for some of Egypt’s earliest websites before going on to work for two years at the Regional Information Technology Institute, a technological training and professional development center.

His chosen field remained somewhat mystifying to most of his friends and family. “Back then, no one really knew what I was doing. When I told someone that I was a webmaster and that I develop websites, they didn’t really know. They [would] say, ‘What exactly do you do?’”

But Shaaban was convinced that the future of commerce lay online. He went on to develop websites for several big-name corporations in Egypt. In 2004, he founded Icon Creations. “There were very few digital agencies in the market,” he says, “and we thought this is the future, and we invested lots of time and effort to build it.” The company, whose clients include BMW, IKEA, and Nissan, deals in practically all realms of the digital marketplace. It develops websites, manages social media content, and oversees online advertising and media buys.

Last year, Shaaban cofounded another company, called AppVenture. AppVenture has already produced several popular applications, including a news aggregator for iPhones and iPads that offers users a selection of all of Egypt’s major newspapers. Shaaban’s next goal is to expand the application to cover news outlets throughout the Middle East.

To hear Shaaban tell it, the entrepreneurial spirit is practically in his DNA. “The reason I like this career is it is changing every minute. All the time there’s something new coming out. And you need to run and get it and try to understand it and try to be the first to do it so that you have an edge in it,” he says.

Success has not come without setbacks. The last year and a half has been especially tough. Shaaban describes business these days as “a bit slow” and increasingly complicated. With each new hint of instability — whether renewed street clashes or government gridlock — investors get jittery. One client, Shaaban says, insisted that his contract includes an escape clause, allowing him to ditch the annual contract under any circumstances, for any reason.

At the moment, everyone is awaiting the outcome of the election. The launch of a marketing campaign for a new car model was just put on hold until after the new president takes power. Shaaban predicts business will pick back up again after that, although when exactly is anyone’s guess. That uncertainty has prompted Shaaban to look into expanding operations beyond Egypt.

“Things will definitely improve,” he says. “We don’t know if it is going to be this year or after, but we need to stay focused, and also what I was thinking was that we need to look to other markets. Maybe Egypt after this year will still have challenges, but there are other markets that are growing and have resources regarding online advertising…[and] agencies that work in this area. That’s why I was thinking of [expanding into] other markets, like in the Middle East.”

For all the problems it has occasioned, last year’s revolution was, according to Shaaban, the single-biggest shot in the arm to the internet in Egypt. People who had never before considered cyberspace a valuable medium for selling their goods or advertising their products witnessed firsthand its immense potential. If websites and social media could help topple an iron-fisted autocrat, surely they could be an asset to business as well, particularly in reaching younger consumers.

“I used to work with clients who didn’t really look into internet. They had a very minimal budget. […] Now they are thinking of online advertising as one of the most important channels to reach their target audience. Here in Egypt, the average age for online users is between 18 and 25. This is [approximately] 40% of the population. And this is where the growth is.”

In short, Shaaban isn’t sweating the future. The white wall in the corridor of Icon Creations’ chic Garden City office space is a testament to his outsized ambition. It’s plastered with the logos of the world’s most successful tech companies: Yahoo!, Google, YouTube and Twitter.

And while Shaaban — with his pressed pink shirt, black jacket, and jeans — could easily pass as a Silicon Valley executive, his focus is fixed on establishing the Yahoo!s and Twitters of the Middle East. For starters, that means breaking the Western-oriented, English-language monopoly over much of the internet. Shaaban has partnered with a company in Saudi Arabia to develop a religious application for Ramadan. He is also at work on a set of Arabic games for digital devices because, he says, “We believe there are not many games in the Egyptian market that cater to the Arabic language. Everything is in English.”

For young entrepreneurs and fellow tech geeks, Shaaban insists, the outlook is bright. He offers a little advice for those following in his footsteps, no doubt culled from his own experiences navigating the uncertain world of online innovation.

“Believe in yourself. Be persistent. Have a dream and always focus on [taking] one step at a time. Just one step and then the other step and the other step, and you will [get] somewhere. There will be lots of challenges, there will be lots of ups and downs, but I believe that persistence is very important in order to reach what you want.” bt

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