By Tamara Pupic
Social entrepreneur Kamel Al-Asmar, founder of Amman-based Nakhweh and Ideation Box, talks about what it means to be an entrepreneur who knows when it’s time to make a big decision
With so many entrepreneurs rushing from one project to the next, it’s a surprise to hear that one of Forbes magazine’s 30 under 30 Social Entrepreneurs took some time out “to pause and reconsider”.
Having already developed two entrepreneurial ventures, Kamel Al-Asmar, founder of online volunteer network for the Arab work, Nakhweh, and communications solutions provider Ideation Box, surprised the business community even more by becoming an employee.
Earlier this year he took up the role of head of communications and community engagement at online entrepreneurial platform Wamda – something he calls “another entrepreneurial trip”.
He elaborates: “It’s a new platform, needs a lot of new ideas and has a lot of challenges. That’s what entrepreneurship is all about.
“I think it’s a good learning curve for me to get into an industry or sector which I’ve never touched in my life. I can’t provide my services to commercial clients because I’m [still] not experienced in the field.”
Although both of his previous ventures serve a social need, Al-Asmar doesn’t actually consider himself a social entrepreneur, preferring to call himself an “entrepreneur wannabe”.
He says: “It’s an issue that no one touched before. Technically, I’m a social entrepreneur but I’m avoiding calling myself that.
“Entrepreneurship is not something to boost your ego but it’s only something for you to work hard and make things happen.”
Not only does the 29-years old Jordanian openly talk and write about “the real things that people don’t hear about entrepreneurship, things that are not being addressed by those who are working to promote it as the perfect thing one can do,” but his actions prove his commitment to learn and “tie up his loose ends” along the entrepreneurial path.
Hailing from Amman – ranked by Bloomberg as the tenth best city in the world for a tech start-up, and one transformed by entrepreneurship – Al-Asmar is a representative of the new generation of Jordanians who turned entrepreneurship into pop culture to contribute to the kingdom’s economic development.
With unprecedented support from His Majesty Abdullah II ibn al-Hussein, the King of Jordan, Jordan’s ICT sector in particular has been recognised as a vibrant and internationally competitive ICT sector.
Various initiatives of His Majesty King Abdullah II, and private sector representatives such as Aramex’s Fadi Ghandour – described by Al-Asmar as “the father of entrepreneurship in the region” – have allowed Jordan’s start-up community to thrive on more liberal government bureaucracy and lower seed costs.
According to Wamda, an eightfold increase in this kind of tech support between 2001 and 2013 led Jordan’s tech sector to boom, with a surge of more than 600 tech companies and more than 300 start-ups. Some 84,000 jobs have been created as a result.
Al-Asmar is now one of the symbols of the country’s success.
Being inspired by his first volunteering experience with special needs children, which led him to create a Facebook group called Volunteer Jordan, he went an extra mile to facilitate a connection between volunteers and social causes, and launched Nakhweh.com, a volunteer matching website, in August 2009.
Al-Asmar says: “I used to volunteer since I was 13 years old so it’s a personal passion. I thought that a platform like Nakhweh would be useful [for people] to find volunteering opportunities.
“We want people to start feeling responsible towards their communities, regardless if they volunteer or not.
“Nakhweh is not only about volunteering. It’s also about exposing stories about what’s happening on the good side of the Arab world.”
A few months before he launched Nakhweh, then computer science graduate set up Ideation Box, with a plan to offer web development services.
He says: “There was no business model behind it. I started a company that has to do with web development services mainly.
“Moving forward, the volunteer matching website that was supposed to be on the side became bigger than the company itself.”
The early signs of Nakhweh’s success made him reconsider the business offering of Ideation Box to include youth oriented and development communications solutions for non-for-profit organisations.
He adds: “It taught me a lot about an unserved sector of non-profit organisations.
“At that point, the Arab spring started and people started realising the importance of social media. So basically I moved forward from building websites into the social media world.
“Later on, the social media business became bigger and we expanded it into communications in general. We helped them in forming offline communications as well, creative ideas beyond PR, and similar.”
Nakhweh evolved to cover the entire region, with a database of 22,000 volunteers from 17 different countries and more than 1,000 listed organisations and initiatives.
He also became a Fellow of the King Abdullah Award, a finalist of the Queen Rania National Entrepreneurship Competition, and a “Global Shaper” for the World Economic Forum in the Arab world in October 2011.
When asked about challenges he faced in the beginning, he says: “The main challenge was a bit surprising. It was convincing NGOs to use the platform.
“There was more demand than supply from the volunteers’ side. NGOs didn’t want to go into the virtual world because they thought it had some security issues and something to do with transparency.”
Measuring Nakhweh’s social impact proved to be another struggle which they overcome by following up on organisations and volunteers to ensure that the connection established online was happening offline.
He explains: “We do random follow-up calls on applicants and organisations to maximise the efficiency of the network because a lot of volunteers think [that] they are volunteering only by applying for the volunteering opportunity.”
Developing profit-oriented Ideation Box at the same time, Al-Asmar encountered a few of its own stumbling blocks due to the limited size of the Jordanian market.
“Jordan is a very good, very cheap starting point, and we have a lot of talent but there is no way one can scale up in Jordan. It’s a very tiny market and it’s all about PR.”
The local market proved to be too small for his ventures also due to the number of clients he could serve since, at one point, all top NGOs in Jordan were his clients at the same time.
He says: “For me, that was the peak. That’s when I started questioning the Jordanian market.
“What’s next? I’m not going to switch to another business model because the Jordanian market wants me to, basically. It’s about me and not about the market anymore.”
With the UAE’s various initiatives to enhance entrepreneurship, Dubai, as the region’s traditional tech hub, continues to attract talent, and Al-Asmar is no exception.
“It is a good place to start a business if one can afford,” he says and opines that Dubai is also a place where “people can scale up”.
Talking about his peers in Dubai, he says: “Most of them are not really entrepreneurs who started in the UAE.
“Most of them are entrepreneurs who came to Dubai because they found it to be a good hub for expansion regarding all aspects of business development.
When asked whether entrepreneurs come to Dubai hoping to find investors for their ventures, Al-Asmar points out: “It is easy to approach investors. Probably it’s easier in the Arab world than anywhere else because they are well known and companies that deserve investment are well known.
“I know for a fact some investors were the reason for many companies to close down because they invested money and thought that they had the authority to take decisions on behalf of the entrepreneur who had the vision from the beginning.
“I know a lot of entrepreneurs who got money from investors and went and got married with that money. I know that for a fact.
“So it’s both sides, both can misuse the funds. So having a proper agreement that protects both sides is a way of doing it.”
He states that none of his ventures have yet received outside investment, but he has largely benefited from the support of a lot of people, including Ghandour, who has been one of his first business mentors, and made him “stick to what he’s been doing”.
The two first connected via Twitter: “At that point, entrepreneurship was just starting,” he says.
“So when Fadi started opening some discussion topics on Twitter about entrepreneurship … I sent him an email.
“He is very accessible. Out of all business leaders in the region he is the most accessible one.”
Al-Asmar also credits a network of “brilliant brains” who are ready to help whenever he has an idea, including his latest decision.
“I’m now taking my own time to really figure out what are the next steps till the end of the year,” he says.
“I’m thinking to stop providing services through [Ideation Box] and have Nakhweh as the owner of the product if Nakhweh is generating good revenue.
“We’ve figured out that there’s no need to have Nakhweh as a non-profit organisation because there are no funds coming to Nakhweh. It’s a non-profit for no reason basically.
“Since we have the biggest directory of organisations and initiatives in the Arab world, we can find stuff to monetise on Nakhweh beyond the free basic stuff that will remain free forever. That will not change.
“A few ideas have to do with white labelling the platform to be used by NGOs, to build a very specific job-matching website for the NGO sector in the region, [and] one of the ideas is to create a database and management systems for volunteers inside organisations.
“Many ideas are in the pipeline but these are the top three that we are thinking of to move forward with by providing them with a return on the premium subscription to the website.
“The other option is to keep doing what I’m doing but beyond the Jordanian market.”
Regardless of his final decision, the one he made in 2009, when Nakhweh sprang into life, has generated positive change across the Middle East.
Concluding with his potential expansion plans, Al-Asmar says: “I’m targeting mainly the Levant region and the UAE as a hub to the rest of the GCC.
“I don’t want to scale beyond the Arab region. First let me cover the Arab region because scaling to Saudi Arabia is maybe more complicated than scaling to Europe.
“The Arab world is big enough.”