Lessons from Leaders: Maaz Sheikh co-founded Starz Play, the subscription video on demand service that streams to 20 countries across the Middle East and North Africa. AS CEO, he has led the company's corporate and operational activities since it was established in 2014
What’s the story behind your business?
Like most start-ups, our journey started with an idea. But we were very fortunate to find an experienced dreamer and an investor, Peter Ekelund, who seed funded this idea off the ground. Ekelund had successfully launched a similar venture in the Nordic markets. His track record and credibility gave us the head start we needed as a management team to raise capital and secure long-term studio partnerships.
We launched with an ambitious plan to make premium Hollywood and Arabic entertainment accessible and affordable for viewers right across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. We were able to take advantage of the changing economics in the television industry as consumer behaviour shifted from traditional TV viewing to online streaming.
What further enabled our success was the combination of an experienced team who had regional experience in MENA combined with former HBO executives who brought the hands-on experience of having launched successful streaming services in the European markets. The final piece of the puzzle came together when Lionsgate and State Street became strategic investors in the venture. StarzPlay was born in the region!
Our business model is based on local expertise and our content is tailored for our audiences. That’s why we’re number one in market share and growing fast. According to the 2019 IHS Market Report on the streaming industry’s performance, StarzPlay has been ranked as the region’s leading platform in terms of subscriptions for the second consecutive year.
If all goes well, where do you see the company going in the next five years? We operate in a very uncertain environment where we have to change and adapt our plans frequently to address the changing consumer demands and competitive landscape. We will live with this duality of continuing to stay focused on our core value proposition while adjusting and adapting to the unpredictable environment.
We are certain that we will continue to entertain our fan base in the MENA region with local as well as international content; we endeavour to create exceptional value for our customers through premium content and localised service experience. In the coming months, we have plans to enter the original Arabic production space to further differentiate our service.
We are a local success story and certainly believe a unicorn (or unicamel) in the making. We will continue to look for opportunities to expand beyond the MENA region into markets that offer similar opportunities in the media and entertainment sectors.
What is the single biggest challenge facing your industry today?
As a company we are experiencing very rapid growth. This is a phase where we have to prioritise growth over efficiency but do so in the face of a very uncertain environment and in head-to-head competition with global platforms. There is no playbook or set formula to balance this growth and efficiency at the same time.
From a consumer perspective, I believe viewers today find their favourite content across multiple services. They are being bombarded with sign-up requests from a whole host of different services, causing decision-making fatigue. The biggest challenge, therefore, is how to make StarzPlay the go-to service for all the favourite TV shows and movies that our fans want.
Where do great ideas come from in your organisation?
We welcome creative thinking from everyone. With such a diverse collection of people from various industries and backgrounds, creativity isn’t hard to come by. We have a long list of great features, born out of the inquisitive minds of our team that we’re eager to roll out to our members. Nascent ideas are nurtured and begin to take root as potential hits on our service. Local adaptation of a global platform is absolutely worth taking inspiration from and hence we do not shy away from driving inspiration and great ideas from not only players in our own industry and ecommerce sector, but global high-tech giants as well.
How do you encourage creative thinking within your organisation?
When all employees are shareholders in the company, as is the case with StarzPlay, everyone is extremely motivated to contribute. A creative and commercial mindset is intrinsically embedded into the psyche of each employee and I’m always proud to hear the team talk passionately about possible new features around the water cooler. Furthermore, as part of our hiring process, we consciously look for employees who are risk takers and creative thinkers by nature.
What is the most important in your company – its mission, core values or vision?
Well for a young company like ours I believe all three are equally vital. We are faced with the duality of consistently executing and innovating at the same time. The mission helps with the daily execution of our short-term goals while our vision and core values provide the framework for constant innovation. Ultimately, our vision is a function of creating long-term and lasting value for our key stakeholders, our shareholders and our fan base.
What’s your decision-making process?
At StarzPlay, any decision-making process starts with data and fact-based analysis. We tend to let our frontline employees and team members add context to that data and that usually turns out to be a very collaborative, team-based decision-making process.
We are not hierarchical; while there are centralised decisions that must be taken by the senior management to protect the best interests of the company, especially in terms of financial planning, we give ample leeway to our team members to make fast decisions. I believe that the success of our organsiation is the result of our agility and the ability to localise our service faster than the competition.
Do you believe social networking has impacted your organisation or yourself, personally? How has it done so?
Whether for or against it, there is no denying that social media has made a very significant global impact over the last decade. At StarzPlay, social media has evolved into a ‘must have’ simply because upcoming generations won’t even know a world where social media does not exist. We use it to recruit new hires, engage with customers, advertise our product, amplify our content and so much more. The possibilities are endless and we’re constantly adopting new strategies and embracing new tools and features.
For me, the most influential aspect of social media, at least so far, is targeted advertising. Never before in the history of the business world has it been possible to advertise to a specific set of parameters. It’s incredibly powerful as well as cost effective as a marketing tool.
In terms of consumer interface, social media gives us a great opportunity to interact and engage with them on the series and movies they love. Moreover, social networks are also where our customers first address any concerns they have, and it has become a critical channel for communication in understanding our fan base.
What do you enjoy the most about working at your company?
It is very inspiring to walk into an office buzzing with energy and to reflect on the fact that only few years ago this was merely a power point pitch deck. Fast forward five years, now it is a real company. I am motivated and driven to see thousands of our members use our service on a daily basis and I am driven by the fact that we have grown and hired colleagues in three different countries – contributing to the local economies in each of our markets and impacting lives of our colleagues and their families.
Can you name a person who has had an impact on you as a leader? How did this person impact your life?
My father has had the most profound impact on my personal and professional life. His work ethic, communication skills and empathetic attitude towards his co-workers left a lasting impact on my personality. He was also a dreamer and an optimistic person by nature.
What is the most important decision that you’ve ever had to make for your company?
There are always defining moments for a company in its evolution. For StarzPlay, there have been a series of important decisions that have defined our success rather than one big decision. Very early on we made the decision to expand beyond credit cards as a payment option and we are now available for our customers to subscribe via their mobile phone or broadband bill across the MENA region.
We also learned from our early mistakes and redefined ourselves as not only an entertainment company but rather an e-commerce platform as well. Finally, catering to local consumer demands, we pivoted our company to mobile-first service.
What would you say to a new employee about the culture of your organisation?
We are a dynamic team, passionate about entertainment, dedicated to digital and fun. We work together every single day to disrupt the status quo – shaking it up because we know it can be done better. We have offices in Dubai, Madrid and Lahore with a team of 17 nationalities who come from a variety of industries and global experiences. We foster the individual growth of our staff and recognise their contributions because their hard work and dedication is what has made us the industry leader we are today. We are a risk taking company and hence constantly encourage experimentation and micro improvements in everything we do.
When faced with two equally qualified job candidates, how do you determine whom to hire?
Beyond the domain knowledge and skills, we look for candidates who have the passion and energy for a highly demanding work culture. Demands from a fast-paced consumer facing company can wear people down, so we look for employees who are patient and persistent in their day-to-day job responsibilities.
We hire people who can connect their day-to-day jobs with a much more deep-rooted purpose that transcends the everyday challenges and keeps them self motivated.
What are three characteristics that you believe every leader should possess?
In my opinion, every leader should possess the qualities of humility, empathy and patience.
As much as confidence and conviction are important traits, I believe a good leader should also have the humility to accept mistakes.
As leaders grow they might become isolated and so it is important to have the empathy and ability to connect with colleagues, consumers as well as other people in the industry.
Lastly, a leader should have the ability to be patient with everything – colleagues, business decisions, business growth and the challenges that come with it.
What advice would you give to someone going into a leadership position for the first time?
Don’t try to do everything on your own. Whether making a big decision or just in the normal course of action, surround yourself with a strong team. Leaders are only as strong as the people around them.
What’s your greatest fear in business?
My greatest fear is the fear of failure, both on a personal level as well as professional level. The older you get the more responsibilities you have. The stakes get higher and downside of failure also increases. But fear of failure is also what motivates me. I look at fear like a renewable source of energy that keeps me going and motivates me consistently. I look at it as a motivation force.
What’s the best way to prepare for uncertainty in today’s market?
Create a culture where all employees listen to the voice of the customer. The most difficult trend to predict is that of changing consumer behaviour. Company executives should never let their belief in the product over-rule the changing consumer behaviour or feedback from employees.
What’s one thing most people don’t know about you?
I love taking naps during a movie in a theatre. My kids are annoyed with it, but most people do not notice that I am dozing off.
What did you want to be growing up?
Like my dad, I always wanted to be an engineer.
What’s one productivity tip you wish everyone else knew?
Get a good night’s sleep and start your day early!
What makes you get out of bed each day?
My kids are the biggest motivators in my life. Seeing my kids in the morning puts everything in perspective. It is a reminder of the deeper purpose and mission in my life.
Quote to live your life by?
“It’s never too late to dream big” –Saeed Sheikh, my father
Finish this sentence: “The world would be a better place if only…”
Everyone focussed on what is versus what should be.