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Reflections: Lessons Learnt Engineering An Entrepreneurial Future For Myself Embarking on an entrepreneurial journey can be daunting. It is dotted with challenges, learnings as well as many exciting and "aha" moments.

By Arun Mohan

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Embarking on an entrepreneurial journey can be daunting. It is dotted with challenges, learnings as well as many exciting and "aha" moments. As an engineer turned entrepreneur, I thought changing tracks was quite a disruptive career trajectory. Walking the entrepreneurial path felt natural, and I was confident I could apply my skills as an engineer to elevate this journey.

Having experimented with open-source software for years, I decided to make my idea tangible, and bring it to life by kickstarting the first chapter of my entrepreneurial career. The main goal was to assemble talented individuals to do exciting work, and scale this equation to achieve commercial success. I founded one of the first pure-play cloud systems integration companies in the region, AppsIntegra, which became an Amazon Web Services (AWS) certified partner. My first foray into entrepreneurship was a huge success– after supporting some of the biggest names in the region to turbocharge their cloud strategies, I was able to have a profitable exit in 2015.

For my next business idea, I was keen to explore a different industry, and step out of my comfort zone. I was a complete outsider to the media and entertainment field, but armed with the confidence from the success of my first venture, I decided to dive into this uncharted territory. This led me to invest in RadioMe 100.3 FM, a regional Indian language radio channel, which was a collaboration with celebrated South Indian movie star, Mohan Lal. It was the first time a radio station in the UAE had managed to have such a prominent celebrity brand ambassador on board. But while we did have several small wins like this, the venture was unsuccessful, largely due to market conditions. On the other hand, this failed stint left me with powerful and valuable lessons that became the cornerstone for my future success.

After this, I took a sabbatical to retrospect my entrepreneurial journey until then, and to observe and learn from influential technology magnates in the region. One of the lessons I learned from the previous venture was that the Middle East markets have its own nuances and characteristics, and global technology success patterns often don't fit well. It was important to understand and be aware of these unique dynamics to have a successful business. I wanted to work with technology leaders to learn how to better navigate business environment and regional specific challenges.

It was during this time a well-known technology leader and entrepreneur in the UAE, Faisal Al Bannai, set up a cybersecurity powerhouse in the Middle East. I was fortunate to work with Faisal right from the early days, and I got to witness first-hand how to build a global consulting business that supports local economies through sustainable cybersecurity practices. With deeper experience, knowledge, lessons, and wisdom from mentors like Faisal, I felt ready to return to entrepreneurship. My vision for the next venture was defined by an economic and technological observation– the UAE was a trade hub with strong retail activity, and an increasing number of organizations were seeking big data analytics stacks.

Related: Five Lessons From Running A Startup Business Through A Global Pandemic

Understanding that marketing plays an instrumental role in B2C businesses, I realized that data and machine learning (ML) had immense potential to enhance and curate engaging customer experiences. The adoption of modern martech was nascent in the region, and there was a clear gap in the market. This led to the birth of my third venture in 2016: Adfolks, a cloud-native engineering company. Together with a team of engineers with ML expertise and an informal advisory board of industry veterans, we designed a product strategy for a customer data platform (CDP), which was to be called UPZEL. During the pre-General Data Protection Regulation(GDPR) era, martech solutions were all third-party data based, and our proposition was a radical change to look at it from a first party data perspective, and make user behavioural data and insights easily accessible to businesses.

Unfortunately, we were not successful in launching the product. But this time, I was able to apply past learnings, and be agile to evolving circumstances. Even though the product did not take wings, we delivered cloud-based big data projects– this included setting up platforms for businesses to innovate and manage data workflows faster and better at scale. At this point, we also pivoted to offering cloud services with a dedicated focus on infra, software engineering, data, and cybersecurity. Our strength has always been our engineering capabilities, and we channeled that to be a technology consulting and services company working on digital initiatives across public and private sectors in the UAE.

Several factors helped position Adfolks as a boutique services firm. First, the coveted partnerships that we fostered with the three major cloud providers and other cloud-native companies, then the early bets we placed in niche capabilities like Kubernetes, and finally the right skills and talent that we identified to build and deliver on product strategies successfully. Today, Adfolks' portfolio includes some of the region's most advanced digital projects, and we work with clients directly or in a consortium with other global systems integrators and technology vendor companies.

The company saw a significant growth even during the COVID-19 pandemic, and it recorded a growth of 110% in 2021. In this short span of time, we boast of customers that include Dubai Airports, DP World, Mashreq, EMAAR, Arab National Bank, ADNEC, Etisalat, among several other multinationals. With the skills and confidence garnered over time, I was able to bootstrap and profitably scale Adfolks with a workforce of 50 in the last five years. Adfolks is the sweet fruit of hard work, struggles, failures, and, most of all, relentless determination. Looking back, I'd say the ingredients for my success have been a combination of many elements such as deep experience with companies like Red Hat, HP, and BMC Software, past failures; guidance from great mentors, and the courage to push boundaries and explore unknown areas. Most of all, I have been fortunate to be able to bring together talented individuals, and provide a creative environment for them to work together.

My advice to aspiring entrepreneurs is around three big themes: embrace failure, invest in team-building, and focus on a bottom-up approach. Failure is always a learning; it widens your perspective, and it helps you to make better key strategy decisions. I also cannot stress enough on the importance of identifying the right talent with the right aptitude. This must be followed by setting up a great space for them to collaborate, grow, and perform at their best. Finally, the bottom-up approach means acknowledging that the smartest person in the room is the room itself. It is important to be inclusive of everyone's thoughts. Providing channels for ideas to flow bottom-up and vice-versa, without having to clamber up the hierarchy wall, allows for ideas that otherwise could be missed opportunities to surface freely.

Entrepreneurship has become a way of life for me. I love seeing an idea come into fruition, and I am my best self when collaborating with like-minded individuals. It is exciting to challenge yourself, and keep being surprised by your true potential. This is only possible when we expand our horizons, and walk the road less travelled. As for myself, I look forward to pushing the envelope with my next venture- stay tuned!

Related: 14 Lessons That I Have Learnt During My 14 Years Of Leading A Business

Arun Mohan

Founder and CEO, Adfolks LLC

A serial entrepreneur, Arun Mohan is today the founder and CEO of Adfolks LLC,  a full-service catalyst for transformation in the cloud. The company leverages the innovative capabilities of the cloud to help customers build new revenue streams, increase efficiency, and deliver incredible experiences. 

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