What Running A Business In Morocco Has Taught Me
I don’t come from a family of entrepreneurs, so I had to learn everything about starting up and running a business in Morocco the hard way. Given the absence of literature, testimonials and information, I often found myself ‘lost in translation’. Sure, I read business books and articles, but they didn’t exactly apply to the Moroccan context. Therefore, here are the lessons I wish someone would have shared with me when I first launched my business in Morocco.
Delegation in Morocco doesn’t have the same meaning as in your standard English dictionary. When I first started my business, I organized short meetings, dispatched tasks and explained to each person what was expected of them. Then, I would come back to find that nothing had been done according to plan. This problem kept coming back– even when my business began to take off and I decided to hire a proportionally larger number of qualified people who had graduated from well-known schools. The problem, as I kept on noticing over and over again, was that one could never assume that a task would be done in the way it was instructed. I learned I had to keep following up -over and over again, and throughout all the processes of the task- to make sure it was being handled as discussed and expected. This is a complete time-waster for startups whose budget doesn’t allow them to hire more experienced, senior people.
Suppliers can be your worst enemies. While you may think outsourcing or having a regular supplier would lift some of the weight off your shoulders, the reality is that it can be the complete opposite. Just like with employees, you need to constantly be checking in with your suppliers to make sure that the work is in progress and that there are no unforeseen problems with the order. At first, I was hesitant to keep calling my suppliers. Firstly, I genuinely thought the order was being processed and, secondly, I didn’t want to bother them knowing that I was not their only client. WRONG! As soon as your supplier accepts a project, you need to call them regularly to make sure that they have started the work and to constantly remind them that you have a deadline. If you don’t, they will assume the project is not that important and will, instead, turn their attention to handling projects from people who ARE putting the pressure on.
Communication is the Moroccan people’s weakest link. While they may be quite proficient at using apps, such as WhatsApp, IMO and Messenger, Moroccan professionals can sometimes be very annoying– such as on those occasions when you give someone a call, leave a message, and they never get back to you, or when you send them an email and they don’t acknowledge receiving it. This lack of communication is very difficult to deal with. It is stressful and time-consuming. Eventually, I have learned that if you call twice and you still don’t get a response, chances are that the person you’re calling is avoiding you. Then, it is up to you to decide whether you want to continue calling them or not.
In Morocco, there is no notion of time. “I’ll get back to you in a bit” could mean days… or weeks… or months. It all depends on who said it and how they were feeling when it was said. One could say that time’s relativity has found its true meaning in Morocco. No matter what the business is, regardless of the individual’s position or title, deadlines are left up in the air. This makes planning a bit of a challenge. The magic sentence given to punctuate any commitment is ‘inshallah’. Of course, one cannot object to that. Then, if they don’t follow through on their commitment, they can hide behind a “ma kettebch llah” and say it didn’t work out.
Yet, when it comes to time, people in Casablanca are somewhat better than Moroccans in the rest of the country as they tend to be better organized. That said, it is not unusual to find that when you have a series of candidates applying for a job, several of them will show up late for the interview. They just come in without any apology or excuse. As for meetings, they often get cancelled 30 min before their scheduled time (just when you’ve almost arrived at the venue). Sometimes, when you go into a meeting, the person you’re supposed to see simply isn’t even there. You then learn that they had an emergency of some kind (but never bothered letting you know). What I have learned is to always call on the day of the meeting to confirm it. However, high-level professionals do a better job at managing their agendas, so you don’t generally need to confirm appointments with them.
I find it very annoying when my peers pick up or make phone calls during our meetings. They generally don’t apologize for these interruptions- and when they do, they use their workload as an excuse. Don’t expect your peers to turn off their phones so you can have their undivided attention. Unfortunately, you have little choice but to deal with the many distractions as you try to get your point across. There have even been occasions when I was in a meeting with someone who was managing other meetings simultaneously. You should be aware that this is not due to the lack of respect and you shouldn’t take it personally.
Work vs. productivity
In Casablanca, people work long hours. Due to them taking long lunch breaks, they often stay in the office until 7pm or 8pm. However, this doesn’t tell you very much about their productivity. The Moroccan culture is still more about hours spent on the job than about the results achieved. Don’t be surprised to have meetings scheduled at 6.30pm- that way your peers can show to their boss, or their employees, for that matter, that they work hard and till late.
Related: The Changing Face of Entrepreneurship in Morocco
‘Bak saahbi’ (Your dad is my buddy) is a phrase often used in Morocco to convey that only connections and friendships work in business. The marketplace relies hugely on recommendations and favors. This applies to everything from small projects to large tender opportunities. Connections are what Moroccans swear by. They do not go to networking events to meet their future colleagues, business partners, investors, and so on. They would rather ask their most trusted people, such as friends and family members, for recommendations.
I started doing the same once I understood that people here didn’t take business networking seriously. In fact, in business meetings, actual business is only discussed about 20% of the time. The other 80% is dedicated to finding commonalities, people we know, places we have been to, etc. In other words, you must find like-minded people if you want to grow your business. Recommendations are important elsewhere as well. The singularity about Morocco is that referrals are the only way by which you can progress. Literally. Your accomplishments are secondary. Who you know and how you could be useful in the eyes of your interlocutor are key.
Often when I meet with someone for the first time, I realize that the person in front of me has no clue about what I do and why they are meeting with me. There’s a lack of preparation, a void, which needs to be filled. Usually, people do not have a clear objective or outcome in mind and meetings are led rather randomly. In some companies, meetings tend to last hours exactly because of bad time management and careless transcription of the minutes. No agenda is given ahead of the meeting- not even a line in an email. “We’ll figure it out as we go” is the proper way to conduct a meeting. Who are the stakeholders? What should be the milestones? How is the project managed? What are the fallback scenarios? You would think all this should be presented and discussed during a meeting. It’s not. To transcend these obstacles, one should always be prepared, have an objective and ideas in mind. That way, even when others are not very talkative, you can lead the discussion and get your point across.
I have become desensitized to this word because in Morocco, everything is urgent. Whether it comes from government ministries or SMEs, urgent is a word that you hear constantly– most likely due to a lack of organization, anticipation, planning, etc. When I first began doing business in Morocco, I would react rather quickly when I was asked to deliver ‘urgently’. Now, I know better. I take the time to ask questions and evaluate the project to truly understand how urgent it is. Yes, we need to work according to client deadlines but really, 99% of the time, it’s not that urgent. They just don’t want you to spend weeks on it. That’s all. Some will even tell you the deadline was ‘yesterday’ to make you act as fast as you can...This is problematic in the sense that when everything is urgent, then nothing is. There can be no planning if the underlying tasks are not prioritized.
Invoicing and payments
When the job is done -and you issue your invoice- even in the best-case scenario, never expect the client to call you to let you know that the check is ready. Luckily, large (non-Moroccan) companies and international NGOs do not operate like that. As for the rest, expect that it will take more than one phone call to remind your client of the due payment. Sometimes clients want to negotiate price after you have received a PO from them and issued an invoice. My advice is to stay clear of these companies. Only work with people and companies who respect your work and pay you (maybe not on time, but eventually).
It’s not part of the Moroccan culture to thank, congratulate or encourage. When a client doesn’t comment on your work, it probably means that everything is fine. However, I have noticed that a client can decide to work with another company without judging appropriate to explain his decision. Obviously, there is liberty of choice, but some constructive feedback would have been better for both parties. Without feedback, I could never know whether the problem was due to my fees, my service, the quality of the work or an incident with one of my employees.
In Morocco, giving negative feedback is viewed as taking a risk. One never knows what might happen in the future or when your paths might cross again. As for positive feedback, it could be used against you in the event that the project ultimately fails or is not approved by the supervisor. So, people here feel it’s just best to maintain low profile.
Gifts and presents
Gift & presents are part of daily business life in Morocco. Although it is a reality, people do not talk about it openly. Some companies can see doors being opened and POs being sent to them just by handing fat envelopes here and there. Buyers for many companies are primarily interested in what’s in it for them before they examine how it can benefit their company. Bribery works.
In my case, I chose the hard way and the clients we have are hard-earned. I also lost some clients because I refused to play the game. Sometimes I wonder why...
To run a successful business in Morocco, one shouldn’t be in a hurry. Things will never go as fast as you’d like. Whether it involves administration, personnel, suppliers or clients, there is always a reason why it’s not ready yet, on time or too soon. Some prospects may want to work with you but will wait to see you grow and survive the stormy first years before they are willing to sign up with you. But, patience has a cost. Every end of the month. Salaries for your employees. Bills from your suppliers. Government taxes. Office rent. How long can you afford to wait? The answer to this question is crucial because depending on your business, payments could take up to a year. My advice is- if you can’t take the heat, stay out of the kitchen.
Launching and running a business in Morocco belongs to the fierce and fearless. At times, it can be very frustrating, tedious and draining. It’s nothing like what the media talk about because there are so many unexpected sticks in the wheel and unspoken words which make it even harder. But once you crack the code, things get easier and a lot more fun!
Related: Ten Mistakes You Might Be Making As An Entrepreneur In Morocco
Safaa Nhairy is an entrepreneur, blogger and speaker. She has founded Leader Media in London and iMediaRt in Casablanca. Both companies are communications agencies specializing in media relations, PR, event management and copywriting services. She has also launched and run several other ventures and is always on the lookout for the next opportunity.
Safaa also teaches and gives seminars. Passionate about helping the youth help themselves, she blogs regularly and posts videos on her YouTube channel on topics of entrepreneurship, leadership & communication. She dedicates a lot of her personal time mentoring and coaching young professionals and aspiring entrepreneurs.
Safaa contributes to Entrepreneur Middle East and writes about entrepreneurship and business-building. After Casablanca, Washington DC and London, she currently resides in Paris. She holds a Bachelor's degree in Communication from George Mason University in Virginia, USA as well as a Master's degree in International Commercial Law from City University in London, England.