When my good friend and cofounder Samer Atiani and I decided to start our lending business, liwwa, we had a limited understanding of what kind of commitment we’d be making. As people with some experience, we thought we’d be able to draw from prior knowledge gained at work or school.
But building this company has been unlike any other experience. Analogies exist; it’s kind of like running a marathon, people say. That turned out to be partly true. It’s been more like running a marathon-length relay triathlon. Or, it’s like running a marathon-length relay triathlon as a small child, before you’ve learned how to ride a bike or swim.
But you do have two things going for you: it’s a relay- so you do it with other people. And, you’re totally ignorant of the racecourse, prior knowledge of which may keep you from ever crossing the starting line.
liwwa is still an early-stage company. After operating for two years, we’ve underwritten about 155 loans amounting to roughly US$4.6 million in debt in Jordan and the UAE. Our portfolio accounts for a very tiny portion of the market opportunity we’re targeting. In other words, we still have a very long way to go.
Despite that, I feel that I’ve learned a handful of lessons about building a business. Primarily, one has to have a love of learning, the discipline to implement new lessons over time, and the skepticism required for questioning old lessons along the way. I’ve also learned that culture matters- and so does consistency. Finally, accountability grows with a growing business. When I think back on the past few years, I have no problem cataloguing the new skills and facts I’ve learned over time. I’ve learned about diversification, accounting, and liquidity and cash management. I’ve learned about human resources, the fair price of office space in Amman and New York, and the difference between profitability and favorable unit economics.
Yet, what underpins all of these lessons is learning that, well, learning is a skill. One simply cannot go from the idea stage of a company to a point where that company is generating real revenue without developing new skills. Building a business is about growing- both the business and yourself. And learning, particularly fast learning, requires both discipline and skepticism. There’s no paradox; you have to be able to assimilate new lessons even as you question things you believed you knew. It’s a humbling process.
For example, in our first board meeting, I remember telling one of our most supportive investors, Ali Al-Husry of DASH Ventures, that we aimed to experiment with borrower profiles to generate more information on defaults. That would help us produce more robust statistical models highlighting the characteristics of nonperforming debt.
It all sounded good, but then he looked at me and said, “You want to hand out $175,000 to strangers to generate defaults?” His point was well takenour ideal experiment would blow up the business (at that early-stage).
I’ve also learned that culture -the way you talk about and do things with other people- is a powerful technology. It’s a self-replicating code of conduct (your values) that directly impacts your quality of life and the lives of those around you. For us at liwwa, a good culture is based on mutual respect, transparency, fairness and individual responsibility. That all sounds very good, but it’s hard to manage in practice. The only thing that consistently guides us is our values statement. So it’s important to get your values right, and down on paper.
Finally, I was one of the people who believed that starting a business meant that I’d be independent, and I still do. Building something you love with people you admire is a wonderful way to spend your time. However, it is not a way to escape responsibility or attain total freedom (whatever that means).
As your business grows, as you accept investor money, as you hire people and make good on your obligation to provide health insurance and a positive work environment, your responsibilities grow. You pay the price of growth and professional independence in a different kind of currency- responsibility and accountability to the people who’ve agreed to join you on your journey. And for me, that’s also been a pretty good thing too.