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By Oula Farawati
standing before a huge techsavvy audience during Jordan Entrepreneurs Week, Jordanian entrepreneur sami shalabi awed listeners with two pieces of information. First: Entrepreneurs only have a paltry 18% shot at success. But, he followed that with a rather "seriously-funny" note as he spoke of how he can produce software at his venture Zingku with zero cost, thanks to open source and that the highest cost for this venture was actually caffeine.
this exclusive UMen interview, Shalabi details the recipe for success, that got his business acquired by the giant Google, landed him a prestigious job also at Google and made him the celebrated-entrepreneur that he currently is. Q: please briefly introduce us to the main milestones in your career. A: I am a Palestinian Jordanian who grew up in both Kuwait and Jordan. I always knew I wanted to be an engineer like my father, who frequently took me to work to learn and help. When I was 15, I recall watching a documentary about MIT's 2.70 robotics competition. This was the point I set my eyes on MIT. After a lot of hard work, I landed in Boston to join MIT's class of 1997. I started with the aspirations to be a Mechanical Engineer. However at MIT, I discovered the internet. I realized that Computer Science was my calling. While doing my regular course work, I was eager to apply what I was learning. I did research at the MIT Media Lab, and the MIT Computer Graphics Group, while managing my dorm's newly installed network, and building various websites. During the summers I interned at Lotus/IBM which landed me my first job after graduating with a SB and Masters in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science.
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At IBM I worked at Iris, the division responsible for all Lotus Notes development. I worked on a variety of products while waiting to receive my Green Card. During that time, the entrepreneurial bug hit me. I decided to co-found a company with one of my buddies at IBM called Zingku. Zingku was a venture backed startup that built a variety of multi-channel (mobile, IM, and web) consumer services. At Zingku, I architected and coded the first version of the product that lead to our first funding round. Post funding, I lead the development of Zingku’s entire platform and product line. After 18 months, Zingku was acquired by Google after which I co-founded Google Friend Connect. A service with the mission to make the web more social. I was the first engineer on the project, and am now leading the engineering team. The service is now being used by over half a billion users, and is running on over 9 millions of sites around the world. Recently, in the spirit of giving back, I have been working on a non-profit called YallaStartup, which has the mission of fostering innovation and early stage entrepreneurship in the MENA. Along the way I have applied for 32 patents and been recognized by MIT with their 2009 MIT Young Professional Award. Q: What were the major patents that you have registered? A: Most of my patents are in the social and collaboration space. My favorite patent is actually my first. It was invented at a time when the internet was just starting and the things we take for granted now did not exist. I was fortunate enough to create the first system that allowed website designers to upload a template of their website to change its look and feel. This technology was first used commercially by Lotus and now the technique is used by many services on the internet. Another fun piece of technology I recently created is a computer language for creating real-time applications called Conversation XML. It allows programmers to tap into real time using the same techniques that are used to create web applications. This work is still patent pending, and am excited to see it used more broadly. Q: Why do you think your business was acquired by Google? In other words, what do businesses need to do in order to be noticed by Google? A: First and foremost, creating a business with the mindset that you want to flip it will likely fail. Thinking of things as we need to do X,Y,Z to get noticed by a major company is not how the founders should be thinking. The goal is to build a great business. When your focus is building and growing the business, you end up getting noticed in your space. So it always goes back to building a business that has great
people and is solving a hard problem in a big market. Q: Can you describe for us the work atmosphere in Google? A: Google is a really fun place. The best way to describe Google is that it is a bunch of startups in an environment where they have access to funding, resources, people, and shared services. Most teams are small and have their own culture. The way we run my project area is the same way we used to run my startup. The people at Google are crazy smart. I can say that most of the people I work with are some of the best I have ever worked with in my career. At Google, everyone feels empowered to make a change. On projects, engineers own large areas of a product and it is easy for someone to point to something really big they did. Also, we take "20% time" very seriously. At Google, we offer our engineers 20% time so that they’re free to work on what they’re really passionate about. I got it when I discovered that people can save up their 20% time, like vacation time, and work on their next big idea. Products like Google Suggest, AdSense for Content and Orkut came out of 20% time. I am having a blast there. Q: As a world-celebrated innovator and entrepreneur, what is your working day like, what do you do? How do you use your time, considering that you are married with kids? A: I will be honest, work-life balance is an area I can always improve. It is great to have a family that is supportive of my activities, even if at times they appear to be crazy. In general, I try to avoid being interrupted and look for ways to get continuous blocks of time during the day. This allows me to focus. Every couple of months I try to define macro things I want to achieve. This helps me think strategically a couple of times a year. Then every week I capture things I want to achieve for
A: Upon reflection, there were several things that helped me. The first was to follow my passions. No journey, professional or personal, doesn't have both ups and downs. Passion is what will keep you going. It drives you to excel and helps you get through the inevitable tough times. Secondly, I generally have this personal rule, if I am in my comfort zone, then I am doing something wrong. I am always looking for ways to learn new skills. My measure for that has been, how comfortable am I? When you are in your comfort zone, you are not learning because you are exercising skills you already have. Outside your comfort zone, you are doing new things and learning. The last piece has been actively seeking mentors and mentees. The path of personal and professional growth is not a solitary journey but one that requires the help and mentorship of others. I realized that successful people like to pass on their experiences and wisdom. It is a big part of personal growth, knowing how to teach and be taught. Q: But your talent and innovation flourished in the west, would you have had the same chances of success had you chosen to work in Jordan? Why? A: Hard to tell since it is difficult to replay history. What I remember of Jordan has significantly changed since I lived there. Ask me this question 10 years ago, I would have said no. But now, it is not a simple answer. I am very bullish about the prospects of the region and in particular Jordan. The access to information, people, and markets has changed the equation considerably. The world is truly flat now. Technology has broken down barriers. Someone in rural Jordan can get an MIT education using a computer connected to the internet. A few guys in a basement can come up with the next hot technology. During my last trip to Amman, I really felt the energy to do
everyone feels empowered to make a chanGe.'
that week. This helps me manage my time in increments I can handle. Finally, I realize that when you work hard it is important to find time to rejuvenate with the family. Q: The word "innovator" and "entrepreneur" are the most prestigious descriptions of young businessmen these days, what drove you to get where you are? great things. Q: What drives innovators out of the Arab world? When they do leave, why don't they come back? A: Let's look at the first question, why do people leave? Most of the time, most Arabs leave to become gradate students. We have universities, but very few do cutting edge research. This makes the options in the West more
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'The people aT GooGle are crazy smart. I can say ThaT mosT of The people I work wITh are some of The besT I have ever worked wITh In my career. at GooGle,
zInGku was a venTure backed sTarTup ThaT buIlT a varIeTy of mulTI-channel (mobIle, Im, and web) consumers servIces. '
'I decIded to cofound a company wIth one of my buddIes at Ibm called ZInGku.
attractive. So how do we make our universities compete? I would simply say that our universities need to start doing world class research. With time, they will transform to a place that attracts talent. The second question is why do our youth not come back? There is strong evidence that the longer migrant workers remain abroad, the lower the probability they will return to their origin country during their working life. So we need to get our youth to come back early and that starts with aggressively recruiting them. To do so we need to create attractive options for them to consider. For offers to be attractive our organizations need to do what startups do in the US to compete with large corporations, give them equity. Another attractive option is to give them the tools necessary to be bold and entrepreneurial. That involves not only building the entrepreneurial ecosystem that creates success stories, but also finding role models that our youth can relate to. Celebrating our successes makes our youth believe that they can too achieve great things. Q: How do you think innovation and entrepreneurship are going to help our nascent economy in Jordan and elsewhere in the Arab world? A: In the US, small businesses employ over half of the country's workforce and they also generate the majority of innovations. The Arab world could easily be that. We have the talent, we have the money, and we have the markets. We just need to show people the way. Entrepreneurship and innovation are the life blood of a vibrant economy. Innovative economies generally produce healthier societies that have higher incomes and higher standards of living. We have a large young population that needs jobs. I do not see any better vehicle to ensuring a future for our youth unless we focus on innovation and entrepreneurship. I firmly believe that our future depends on this, which is why I am working hard on YallaStartup.org. There is so much knowledge that exists in people's heads (in and out of the Arab world) that just needs to be funnelled back into our next generation of entrepreneurs. I believe in our youth and what they can do. However, they just need a little help to get to the next level.
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