Entrepreneurship: From Surviving to Thriving in the COVID-19 Era with Mohammad Obeidat

Published June 30th, 2020 - 12:30 GMT
Entrepreneurship: From Surviving to Thriving in the COVID-19 Era with Mohammad Obeidat
Courtesy of Mohammad Obeidat
Mohammad has been in the world of entrepreneurship for quite a while and definitely knows how keeping start-ups engines going especially in these unprecedented times.

COVID-19 invaded our lives without knocking, shifting everything from how we run our daily errands to even how we do business. Like every other crisis, it created challenges to entrepreneurs and their organizations which led to more pressure on the troubled global economy.

Now, with lockdown restrictions easing up around the world, a lot of businesses are back to “normal”. Bearing in mind the new “normal”, what can entrepreneurs do if their businesses don't make enough profit?  What’s the role of social media in all of this? How can entrepreneurs turn this crisis into an opportunity?

To answer all these questions, we chatted with Mohammad Obeidat, Director of Queen Rania Center for Entrepreneurship (QRCE), to get the gist of his personal and professional experience. Mohammad has been in the world of entrepreneurship for quite a while and definitely knows how keeping start-ups engines going especially in these unprecedented times.

  1. How did you start your personal journey in the intriguing world of entrepreneurship?

I first joined the entrepreneurship scene in Jordan when I was a university student. At that time, I was an entrepreneurship project manager for a students led organization at my university where our main objective was to allow the engineering faculty students to have applied capstone projects, and be able to turn them into small businesses. At the same time, I decided to start my first entrepreneurial adventure, where I, alongside some friends, started our first startup in the IT domain. Back then, it wasn't easy to have such projects, especially that the entrepreneurship ecosystem in Jordan wasn't mature yet. Not long after, I joined the Queen Rania Center for Entrepreneurship and officially started my entrepreneurship career.

  1. Jordan, like many countries, followed the lockdown approach in an attempt to contain the pandemic and limit the losses. How did this approach affect you personally and professionally? And what did you do to keep the flame of hope ignited?

I guess the lockdown came at the right time for me, as I was feeling a strong need for some calm environment where I can rearrange my cards and rebuild the structure of my work and personal life. So I was glad to have it!

The lockdown gave me the opportunity to practice activities I used to enjoy before having a busy life. I started cooking again, playing home sports and most importantly I started planting again and I realized that I still enjoy it! These activities helped me not to fall into a lazy, unproductive state of mind.

On the professional level, the main thing that kept me going was my team. I firmly believe that having the right passionate group of people around you is essential when you work with startups that are very demanding. We managed during the first week of the lockdown to put together our emergency plan and kick-off operations with a new style within days. So I have to say that without the bright minds at QRCE and iPark, I think things wouldn't have been that easy during the lockdown.

  1. As the Director of Queen Rania Center for Entrepreneurship (QRCE), what do you think is the role of such entities in supporting entrepreneurs and startups during the COVID-19 crisis?

I believe the role of the startups' support organizations didn't change. However,  the value of it increased. The main elements startups require in such times are the guidance and mentorship on what they should do next and what they have to do to survive. Also, the importance of planning and risk management training programs became more important and needed for entrepreneurs especially during these times.

 Along with guidance and capacity building, we play a role in linkages and networking to focus on trying to find new opportunities for our entrepreneurs either in accessing new markets or securing new investments.

  1. During these unprecedented times, we noticed how organizations turned to social media channels and tools such as Zoom to keep the momentum of their growth. How did QRCE utilize these tools during this period? And what were the challenges and limitations you faced using them?

We concentrated our emergency plan on full automation as well as virtual communications. What helped us is that most of our internal operations are already paperless, as we have been using cloud-based project management tool to run our services and that was indeed a great help during the lockdown.

On the other hand, before COVID-19, we weren’t used to utilizing the online tools for training (which is our core activity), and for meetings.

The main challenge we faced here was to convince people of the value of using online channels to attend training. And I assume that this was also a challenge for most of the organizations.

However, although people got adapted to these things slowly, we managed through these technologies to reach out for even a larger crowd and provide our services for people across the kingdom where we never managed to operate in before. All of this made us decide that the online part of our operations will continue even post the lockdown phase.

Moreover, the online tools allowed us to introduce new programs and offerings for our beneficiaries, for example, our weekly Facebook episode of (Ask the expert), which was implemented by one of my colleagues at QRCE (Nada Jaafari). This program re-positioned the center, and shed the light on us as a center of entrepreneurship excellence in Jordan.

  1. No one can deny the fact that COVID-19 has not only affected the businesses but our personal lives as well. Hence, we cannot afford to stand still right now while witnessing a lot of new challenges emerging in front of us due to the pandemic. In your opinion, what has been the toughest nut to crack for entrepreneurs? And how have social media channels been helping them? 

I guess the main two issues some of the startups faced were staying relevant for the new emerging market, and keeping their cash flow positive. Nonetheless, some startups gained more tractions and generated better income as the pandemic didn't hit everyone the same way.

Social media played a significant role as a sales and marketing channel for many startups during the pandemic, especially that many of the non-online customers had to move online and explore this technology. Accordingly, many startups managed to gain access to a new customer base.

Moreover, social media encouraged startups to connect more with their customers as it facilitated the customers' validation and development process since many of the customers were spending more time on these platforms.

On top of it all, accessing the regional and international markets became an option; as what used to be ineffective before became the only way available. So we noticed some of the startups communicating virtually with possible customers, investors, partners from other regions and it was in many cases more fruitful than expected.

  1. Starting your own business is a hassle by itself, let alone keeping it thriving during such critical times. From your personal experience, what are the best practices to succeed at that?

The most important things to start with are: do not panic, do not blame yourself, and accept the new reality. Panic and self-blame could lead to unfocused decisions which might lead to a worse reality. Furthermore, acceptance is essential to be able to start looking for solutions.

When you start preparing for solutions, it is inevitable to surround yourself with the advisors, experts, and team members and listen to what they have in mind. In these times thinking of solutions requires more brains working together, as each one could have unique insights that could lead to better solutions.

Revisit your existing plans. Sometimes entrepreneurs, and due to the significant stress and work they have to do, they dive deep into operations and lose sight of the plans they created. It is beneficial to use such times to relook at your plans and see what could be done, and what resources you can use to survive the current reality.

Replan. In such times, the market is changing fast, and unexpected things would happen. Hence, you have to put together a new plan which could be a temporary one, where you explore new customers, new partners, revenue streams, and unique operation models. It is OK to pivot now rather than reject the idea and ignore the market signs.

Communicate, communicate, communicate. Communication is not limited to the internal communication you have with your employees. It is vital to keep communicating with your customers, partners, and suppliers, reassure them and be honest with them. A startup cannot afford losing relations at such times. Therefore, it is essential to make sure they are trusting you and trust that you will do your best to fulfill your promise to them.

Seek help. There are many organizations and individuals in the entrepreneurship ecosystem around the world that offer advice especially in such times. Don't shy away from seeking help and ask for advisory or support.

At last, the changes happening in such a pandemic can also change your customers' needs and your relevancy to them.  If your offering is no longer relevant, you should be prepared for tough decisions, which might be shutting-down your operations, accept the new reality and be agile. And keep in mind that some failures are no one's fault.

  1. During the last period, we noticed several startups shutting down due to the withdrawal of investments. How can entrepreneurs keep the investors interested and involved during these tough times?

The investors are seeking a return on investments. Hence, if your business is looking good and is profitable, then it is in their best interest to continue being part of it. However, one of the primary values investors look for in entrepreneurs is being coachable and adaptive, especially in such realities. They want vibrant entrepreneurs who are willing to learn and make tough decisions to stay relevant to the new market.

So to keep your investors motivated, zoom-out, and replan. Keep them involved and seek their support, do not procrastinate, be open to tough decisions, and show them your risk management plans.

On the other hand, sometimes the withdrawal of the investors could be a sign that you should reconsider the sector you are operating at, or the offering you have might be no longer valid. And that's a thing you shouldn't ignore due to your attachment to the idea. 

  1. Some argue that COVID-19 pushed us to work and think "outside the box", and that it even opened new doors and created new opportunities for some. Do you personally believe that? If so, please share some examples with us.

For sure! COVID-19 introduced new variables to our daily life. Some of which we never considered before or didn't get the courage to explore. It also introduced us to many new challenges that we weren't used to.

Some of the clear beneficiaries of the new reality are the Fintech and Edtech solution providers. From firsthand experience, I noticed how just a few months before the COVID-19 it was extremely hard in many cases to convince clients to use these technologies, and how these same clients started reaching out to the technology providers once COVID-19 became a reality seeking their offerings and services.

Another industry that benefited from COVID-19 was e-commerce. The non-customers for this industry had to convert and use the technology. Not forgetting to mention that the technology providers were able to finally attract those who weren't part of their formal persona.

I believe that digital transformation is becoming faster across industries as it's becoming inevitable. So many new opportunities are still to emerge in this domain, and all, if I may say, thanks to COVID-19.

  1. You've probably encountered several startups and SMEs that were directly affected by the pandemic. In your opinion, how can these entities turn this crisis into an opportunity?

I believe it is essential to look within the startup. First of all, explore what type of resources we have, what kind of relations and partnership we acquired, and what is our current value-chain.
Innovation starts from within, once we are aware of what we have and understand the market dynamics, we can start moving around the new reality and take the actions we must take.

Also, as I mentioned before, it is essential to study the market changes and to keep an eye on the customers. In some cases, the best option might be pivoting either through changing the offering or changing the customer segment. In other cases the best option might be to reduce the operations temporarily.

  1. Welcome to Al Bawaba Business time machine! Buckle up your seat belt and let's skip forward to June 2021. What do you imagine the global economy will be like? How did the global and regional entrepreneurship landscape change?

Well, I think the global economy by then will still be struggling with the aftermath of COVID-19, as I believe some sectors will take much longer to get back to “normal”; keeping in mind the geopolitical scene and its impact on the global economy.

However, for startups, I have a good feeling that next year will be a good year for the technology scene in specific and startups in general. After every crisis new solutions surface and new industries emerge or become more relevant. In our region we do not lack the great talents. I believe we will be able to introduce new technologies which will have a high added value and pave the way for new startups to emerge. I hope we will see more Agritech and Healthtech investments in the region as COVID19 proved our need for it.

Finally, as Joseph Schumpeter said, "At the heart of capitalism is creative destruction.", and I am looking forward to seeing more innovations in 2021!

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