Entrepreneur, Adventurer, And Retired Professional Triathlete Omar Nour On Aiming As High As Humanly Possible
By breaking down some of the most significant moments in his life, Nour delves deep into how his career as the first Egyptian professional triathlete in history opened doors to different business opportunities.
Watching Egyptian serial entrepreneur, retired professional triathlete, and adventurer Omar Nour tap on my phone (which has dangerously low storage) to ensure that the recording of our conversation is exported to my email reminds me of his advice for anyone feeling a sense of impending doom: “When facing too large of a problem, just focus on doing one thing that will make your situation a little bit better.”
The first time Nour said this line out loud was to his fellow Egyptian entrepreneur and adventurer Omar Samra when the duo went missing at sea for more than 11 hours amid their attempt to row 3,000 nautical miles across the Atlantic Ocean, aka the Atlantic Challenge. Nour’s mentality worked out well for the two then, and while they were eventually rescued, their story of survival has since been turned into a documentary called Beyond The Raging Sea, which officially premiered at the third edition of the El Gouna Film Festival in 2019, after having been featured at the 71st Cannes Film Festival in 2018. The documentary continues to serve the initial goal of their daring endeavor- to raise awareness of the plight of refugees and the perils they are exposed to as they cross seas in an attempt to reach safer shores.
I’ll let you see the story of their near-death experience in the documentary for yourselves, and instead take on the challenge of writing an interesting story for those of you interested in learning more about Nour. When Nour was 29 years of age, he was severely overweight, but by his thirties, he had became known as the first Egyptian professional triathlete in history, representing Egypt on the Olympic circuit from 2010-2016, and securing the country’s first-ever Olympic points in a triathlon. While he has a triple major and pre-med degree from John Hopkins University, he has gone down the entrepreneurial route for his career, co-founding three companies, one of which is the Middle East’s first e-commerce platform for endurance sports products, while another has invented the world’s fastest triathlon bike.
To keep you reading the story about a man who obviously defies simple characterization, and to again make my own situation a little bit better, I’ll also add that Nour is diagnosed with diabetes- however, he nevertheless agreed to take on the aforementioned Atlantic Challenge, whose rules forbid accepting any help during the crossing. “My job is to continue to dream, and if your dreams don’t scare you, you’re not dreaming big enough,” Nour says. “My rule is also to aim as high as humanly possible, because if you don’t shoot, you don’t score, so I like to go for it publicly, and I like to fail publicly. I don’t necessarily care about the limelight, although my character lends very well to it, but I will continue focusing on sharing my story publicly, because I want to inspire, empower, and help everyone to change their path if/whenever needed."
Egyptian duo Omar Samra and Omar Nour at the startline of the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge. Image credit: Ben Duffy.
When Nour was three years old, his family moved from Egypt to Switzerland, and he then spent his teenage years in the US, which urged him to learn how to overcome difficult transitions quite early on in his life. One benefit of all this, however, was him developing a very strong bond with his younger brother and partner in all of his business endeavors, Diaa Nour. “We are very close, and one of the reasons why is being raised overseas,” Nour explains. “Kids are mean, and if you are a new kid who doesn’t speak the language, you’re going to get picked on. We became each other’s best friends and had each other’s backs, and we have continued doing that in business and in life.” Inspired by an uncle who was an otolaryngologist, Nour got accepted at Johns Hopkins University, and before long, he learned that being underestimated could serve as a strong internal driver. “I walked into the counselor’s office, wanting to do a triple major, and he laughed at me, saying, ‘Not with these grades.’”
In his own words, Nour dedicated the next three years to proving that man wrong by studying hard, while also working three jobs and being the social chair of the whole school. Having earned the triple major, he walked into the same office three years later only to hear, “That’s excellent, bravo, but who are you?” The anecdote, Nour says, sums up his character: “It starts getting interesting for me when someone says that it’s not possible,” he says.
While his triple major and pre-med degree allowed Nour to enrol in the John Hopkins University School of Medicine, he decided to venture into entrepreneurship instead, and started up his first business which built websites for Arab-owned businesses, back in 2001. However, following the events of 9/11, the enterprise shut down. His next venture came in 2006 when, together with his brother, he set up a voice over internet protocol and a centralized call centre that served only one client: a pizza franchise. “When we lost that one client, we learned one thing that a lot of business people can relate to, and that it is to remain focused,” Nour says. “You can tell from my character that I’m very much everywhere, and although starting something new can indeed be a solution to a situation, which was what we kept on doing at that early age, and which people today call pivoting, I must say that, in all honesty, we were not pivoting, but lacking focus. It’s hard to draw a line between abandoning your original idea and starting a new concept, while being clear that you are doing it because your original concept truly is not viable, and not that you are simply taking the path of least resistance.”
Egyptian serial entrepreneur and retired professional triathlete Omar Nour.
The tech that the Nour brothers used for this venture proved to be the foundation for their next enterprise, Tot Solutions, which was a Washington DC-based telecommunications provider for businesses and governments across Africa. However, the toll of scaling a business, which, at one point, employed a team of 500, led to Nour having an overworked, travel-filled lifestyle. It soon resulted in Nour’s obesity, but that went on to him making a decision to turn his life around by signing up for his first triathlon.
Before long, triathlons stopped being just a hobby and became a lifestyle, and his brother boosted his motivation by giving him an ultimatum: either to come back to the company, or to make his commitment to triathlons real by monetizing it and aiming for the top: the Olympics. In only two years, Nour earned his pro-athlete card and started his professional triathlon career. “All naysayers come out, saying you are too old, too fat, too slow, you don’t know enough,” Nour recalls. “I lost friends because of this, because I don’t allow negativity. I appreciate constructive feedback, but don’t push me down. And this is the same in business. Don’t let anyone limit your imagination.”
Getting on the path to the Olympics led Nour to be recognized by companies and governments across the Middle East through branding and sponsorship deals, and he was also invited to run events and mentorship programs for youth around the region. However, there were quite a few bumps along the road to the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, which included a diabetes diagnosis, a fracture of the ankle, and ultimately, a serious disc injury. “The Olympics dream ended, but I’m always happy,” Nour says. “We are here for a limited amount of time, so we need to be happy. You can’t do it every day, because if you did, it would have become flavorless. In order to be happy, there has to be some sadness, so I don’t view it negatively, because once I’m back on the top, it’s an amazing experience.”
Omar Nour co-founded Enduro Supply, a distributor of sports and lifestyle brands across the Middle East. Source: Enduro Supply
Around the same time when Nour was recovering from one of the injuries, his brother exited Tot Solutions, and the two brothers found themselves becoming aware of a market demand for sports and lifestyle brands, especially for endurance sports products, across the Middle East. “Every time I would be in a race, somebody would ask about my workout gear, and when I looked into it, I realized that big international brands didn’t care about the Middle East, especially in late 2014 or early 2015,” he explains. “The endurance sport is very niche, and the triathlon wasn’t even a thing here back then.”
His career as a professional athlete opened doors to different brands, and the brothers co-founded Enduro Supply, a distributor of sports and lifestyle brands across the Middle East, which today distributes 18 brands to more than 60 retail outlets across 11 countries. “Because of a niche market, this is a high-margin, low-volume model, and as a retailer, brands are your differentiators at the beginning, but as the market expands and there is more demand, you realize that instead of opening the doors [across the region], you are the door [to the region],” Nour explains. “I caught the wave, but I was also helping generate that wave, so that I could monetize it. As an athlete, you don’t want to oversell yourself to different brands, so becoming a distributor was a different way of monetizing my athlete career.”
In business, Nour prefers simplicity. “I’m not fancy when it comes to business,” he says. “I like things that make sense. The new world of business is all about how you pitch, and people buying into your ideas, but for me personally I don’t want investors ever. I didn’t choose to avoid a 9-to-5 job to now have somebody to tell me what to do. However, I do understand that when you are a startup whose doors are about to close, any investor is a good investor. In order to prevent that, I have kept things simple from the very beginning.” Starting a distributor business in a field he knew so well also enabled Nour to recognize good brands ahead of the market. “We signed on the Roger Federer-backed running shoe Swiss brand ON in 2015, when few knew about it and thought we were crazy,” Nour says. “But now, it’s the fastest growing sports brand in the world, and in the Middle East, and that is why now, big distributors who said that it wasn’t going to work, and who let us try and take the risk, want to come in.”
All this business savviness goes a long way also when it comes to a small, local retailer securing its market share from large distributors, especially in the world of sports and athleisure wear. “I secure my position by being unique and doing things differently,” Nour explains. “I’m a protector of the brand, and a storyteller. For the big distributors, it’s a volume game, and they don’t have the same amount of attention for one brand as we do. Every brand that we are working with tells us the same: ‘When we come visit you, we have a feeling that you are an extension of us.’ So, how can the little guy win the big guys? We know more than them, we know how it works, the brands’ priorities and their ethos. I think that playing a defense and building relationships is crucial.”
Ventum was founded by Omar Nour and his brother and Diaa Nour. Source: Ventum.
At one point, the Nour brothers (and the third founder Jimmy Seear) must have been seen as odd newcomers to the billion-dollar bike industry, but their Utah-based company Ventum is today described as a performance bike company that leverages technology -from Formula One cars and fighter jets- to manufacture the world’s fastest triathlon bike, as well as industry-leading performance road and gravel bikes. “When we started this, we decided to create a bike focused only on triathletes,” Nour explains. “We took 18 years of wind data from triathlon championships to create a bike that is unique.” The brand was launched in 2015 at the IRONMAN World Championship in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii, and in 2018, it officially became the first Global Bike Partner of IRONMAN, being represented across the globe at all the IRONMAN Championship events. Following its Ventum ONE and Ventum Z bikes, the company came up with the Ventum NS1, which is its first Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) legal road bike. Nour explains that the whole developmental process of the three bikes has been based on the realization that “we cannot compete with the biggest of the big without having other models.”
The team also broke the traditional retail model in this sector by making Ventum a direct-to-consumer company that prioritizes the pre- and post-sale customer experience. “It goes straight B2C, and everything is based on experiences,” Nour adds. “They can book a demo on our website, and buy it after that, using the money that they spent on the demo.” While Ventum will continue to push its performance-oriented products into new verticals within the bike industry, it is to be expected that Nour will be doing the same in the areas of entrepreneurship, adventure-seeking, and public speaking. In conclusion, he shares a piece of advice for all wishing to follow in his footsteps. “People like the concept, but they don’t like the actuality of it,” he says. “It’s the same in many areas of my life, like sports and business. When they see me crossing the finish line, people say, ‘It’s fantastic, I want to do that,’ but they don’t, because it’s not glamorous. They don’t want to sacrifice, they don’t want to miss birthdays, weddings, funerals, losing friends, and to endure the physical and emotional pain that it requires. The same thing applies to business- but that effort matters.”
Tamara Pupic is the Managing Editor of Entrepreneur Middle East.