The business world always gets a little more interesting when new ingredients are tossed in the mix. There are two things that occur to me immediately; first of all there's crowdfunding, which has challenged conventional means of financing projects (and lately real estate), and can taking existing endeavors to a whole new level. The second is the open source movement, which is likely to have more drastic implications in the long run. I chatted with Jordanian 'trep Tarek Koudsi, founder of Hashdoc, an open knowledge database that players in the business and entrepreneurial fields need to check out.
"I come from a technical background," says Koudsi, "I grew up in a family of computer engineers, and I've been hacking code since I was eight." The second-generation techie started a degree in Information Systems and Management from Brigham Young University in Utah, and worked in multiple sectors for 12 years. Before Hashdoc, Koudsi was involved with brokerage houses, the public sector and consulting stints with three of "The Big Four"–he's worked with Deloitte, KPMG, and PrincewaterhouseCoopers- and he realized something that eventually led to the creation of his startup. He noticed that large consulting companies have what he calls an "internal repository of business documentaries that empowers their employees. It provides a boilerplate for deliverables on the projects that they're working on," noting that they enhance productivity and efficacy. But here's the catch; Koudsi realized that tons of money has been spent on resources that can easily be found on the internet for free.
"Witnessing that over the years made me wonder why can't there be a similar platform that's open all over the world, where freelance consultants or boutique consulting houses can benefit from its [existence]," and according to Koudsi a "goldmine" of documents that aren't within reach outside of the dominating companies. He immediately clarifies that he's "not replacing consultants," but claims that "there are a lot of boilerplates available on the net that regular marketing officers or enterprise professionals are not aware of." Not aware? In the internet age? That's almost like being unable to solve a basic math problem with a calculator right next to you. He cites two main reasons for this: the professionals' lack of skills in advanced web searching, and that many (if not most) of these documents end up in the "deep web", making them difficult to access.
That's the problem that inspired Koudsi to create Hashdoc, and he hopes it will become a hub of a knowledge and resources that can be accessed in a simple and user friendly manner. He describes Hashdoc's functionality and relationship to the current market eloquently: "We're not inventing a new market, but we're just tidying up and organizing an existing one." What does that entail? Making these resources more accessible and available to people who aren't part of the large consulting firms. Hashdoc is targeting three segments from across the relevant industries. The first segment, "consumers", are described as "regular professionals". An example of a consumer would be a marketing officer in a large enterprise trying to find resources to help them with a project. The second segment, "document publishers", have two sub-categories: "those who are solely in the business of producing business documents," and those that release periodical or seasonal documents, but aren't solely document publishers. This is especially common in many marketing departments that put out reports about different consumer trends.
Koudsi mentions that many of these documents are released as infographics, which has been trending on the web for a while. And finally, Hashdoc targets freelance consultants and boutique consulting houses. He claims that they benefit by looking for resources to help them complete their tasks, and to promote their own work, meaning that Hashdoc can act as somewhat of a networking resource to find clients. Having a clear and relatively narrow target audience means that unlike similar platforms, content will be well-defined and thus more organized and easily accessible. This sets them apart from other websites that allow users to upload documents of any form. "The main difference is that we have a defined scope. And our scope is business/enterprise, meaning that you cannot put e-books or e-magazines for example."
A quick skim of Hashdoc, and you'll find all sorts of interesting resources that are relevant to a number of topics, from social media and consumer trends to finance, accounting, and operations management, mostly in PDF files but Excel spreadsheets and PowerPoint slideshows are on there as well. How do Koudsi and co. make sure that Hashdoc's documents don't go beyond their defined scope? "Technically, people will be able to upload whatever kind of document, but that depends on three things we use for curation." Hashdoc's staff are always on the lookout for ill-fits, and their users being able to report documents they find unnecessary or inappropriate. They also have an algorithm that "reads" the document being uploaded and detects the nature of its content. Despite my interest in the open-source movement, I always felt a bit skeptical about certain aspects of it, especially the ability of users to falsely claim ownership of content or upload without owner-permission. Koudsi says that problem was a "classic issue" and has been taken into consideration during their design phase.
"One thing we focused a lot on is having a claiming mechanism," that allows the document owners to claim the relevant content, eventually allowing them to decide whether they'd like to remove it or not. The portal also allows users uploading documents to credit individuals or organizations that took part in creating the work.
"Hashdoc was 'launched' in August 2012, but I wouldn't even call it a launch," says Koudsi, "we just keep growing and adding more features." There was no official announcement about Hashdoc going live, instead "we just went online with a few functions." The founder says their growth strategy has been successful thus far, "breaking records" with more visitors engaging with its content "on a weekly basis." They have yet to spend any money on marketing, "capitalizing on SEO and the virality of our content."
To my surprise, the team behind the startup is minuscule. Alongside Koudsi are Software Engineer, Rand Muhtaseb, and Content Manager and Social Media Marketing Officer, Rawan Mehyar. They sometimes bring in freelancers to help with routine tasks, but they have no plans to expand the team until they secure another round of investments.
Hashdoc's complexity required a lot of capital and resources. And Koudsi admits that they were fortunate early on: "We had one institutional investor and one angel investor [in Silicon Valley] that got on board in December 2012." Koudsi also successfully pitched the idea of Hashdoc to Oasis500, a MENA startup accelerator program. He eventually began a strong relationship with two U.S.-based investors: angel Investor Amjad Afanah and VC Namek Zu'bi, who both understood and expressed interest in his concept and its potential. In hindsight, Koudsi regrets not injecting more capital and effort into marketing, saying that technical improvements held them back, which was a tedious task.
What about social media? "Nothing." Nothing? "It started with someone checking out one of our documents and sharing it on Twitter." Hashdoc is not just relevant to the Middle East, nor is it solely targeted to this region, and over "60% of our traffic and engagements come from the U.S.," followed by the U.K., Spain, Singapore, India, and the Philippines.
Going forward, he has tons of plans in store. "The product that's up there right now is about 50% to 60% of our vision. We're eventually going to allow people to edit documents, revise them, request them, and that's all on our backlog." As a self-proclaimed "pre-revenue startup", he's also been looking at various options at monetizing without having to resort to ads, admitting he's a "design freak" and that advertising ruins the overall intrinsic value and experience of the database. Two of the business models he's looking at include the popular freemium model, where paying a fee for a premium version gives users access to more features, as well as the marketplace model, which gives options for owners to charge people for their documents. Nothing is confirmed, as Koudsi is concerned about impacting the general experience of users. He's also hoping to convince more freelance consultants to use the site, and to upload and promote their own work.
Does he plan on reeling in Arabic documents? "We're language agnostic. Our primary language is English, but we won't stop anyone from uploading documents in other languages," adds Koudsi pointing out that that there are some Spanish, Italian, German, and even a selection of Arabic documents available on the site already. Does Koudsi speak the language of the internet? Hashdoc seems to be fluent, and that's probably why this founder's open source ideals are a great fit for the web.