4 Key Lessons on Managing Small Businesses in the Middle East

Sep 17 2014
4 Key Lessons on Managing Small Businesses in the Middle East
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We’ve hired a total of 8 interns (ranging from 17-25 years of age, high school graduates to recent university grads) since launching www.melltoo.com in March 2014. Melltoo is a social network for buyers and sellers, the Facebook of classifieds. We are based in Dubai. Since launching, we’ve grown so quickly that our founding team of 4 has had a hard time keeping up. We are bootstrapping, so we don’t have the budget to take on full-fledged team members. This situation is exacerbated by the fact that the startup ecosystem in Dubai is in its infancy, hence the right people for our startup are difficult to find. We decided to take on interns both out of necessity and as an experiment. We wanted to see if we could train youths in Dubai to become the X-men that startups require, the special breed able to work in the high-impact, high-excitement and high-stress startup environment. As it turns out, we probably learned as much from our interns as they learned from us.

On Recruitment: Roles vs. People

Startups are about people, not roles. In the corporate machine, a role is static regardless of who fills it. If the accounting manager quits, another person can be hired to fill the role. In a startup, because of size and resources, roles are not well-defined and each person brings value in his own unique way. (Our social media manager is also our quality assurance guy!) When someone leaves, nobody can replace him completely.

Having said that, recruit people to do what they love. Even if they are inexperienced, if they are passionate about what they are doing, they will do it well. Among our interns, some were hired as content crafters. One in particular, Rashidah, fell into her work like a fish into water. She thrives not only because she enjoys reading and writing but also because she has an inherent interest in her content area, family and parenting. She constantly surprises us by doing things in unexpected and novel ways, the result of bringing her personality and interests to her work.

Our role as managers is to recognize each person’s talents and to give each one opportunities to apply them.

On Logistics: Time

It’s a no-brainer that when a team grows, facilities need to be expanded. We were ready for this. What we did not expect was that time as a resource also needs to be increased and re-allocated.

Time needs to be spent onboarding team members. Whether with interns or otherwise, the values, vision, and mission of the startup all need to be conveyed…multiple times. We conducted 2 full-day workshops (that took time to prepare for) in the span of a month. Team meetings now take twice as long with 10 instead of 4. More meetings are also required since the large group has to be broken down into smaller ones to facilitate brainstorming.

Proper communications now take more time as well. One email forwarded to everyone doesn’t make sense since team members aren’t always in the loop. The volume of emails and communications has increased and time needs to be spent staying in the loop to collaborate efficiently. The fluid nature of a startup means that things change rapidly hence efficient communication is necessary.

Making decisions also takes longer since there are more heads to consult. In other words, as a startup grows from a group of people into an organization, we have to find ways to work better; this means establishing procedures and routines that still allow for swiftness and fluidity. One of the things we’ve put into practice is documenting task procedures on a Google Doc with images embedded and links to screencasts. Having things detailed in writing/video/images accessible at all times means less time spent repeating ourselves. The collaborative nature of Google Docs allows team members to ask questions, post comments, with changes reflected immediately.

On Culture and Organizational Behavior

Very often, discussions of organizational culture are left to large companies. In fact, culture is most acutely felt in startups. The founding culture is organically created by early members, whose personalities and perspectives shape how the startup behaves. As the startup grows, new entrants are assimilated into the existing culture and also shape and change it.

As managers, we have to carefully manage organizational culture to align it with company values and vision. Having a well-established culture is efficient because there are a set of norms and expectations that everyone can refer to. At Melltoo, the founding team literally works around the clock, taking breaks whenever it fancies us. This also means that we live and breathe our startup which instills passion and a sense of pride. We have found that our interns respond to this immediately. Instead of watching the clock, they pay attention to getting things done. For us, everything is always a work in progress, from the perspective of agile development as well as from the perspective of ongoing improvements.

We don’t need to explain this to our interns, they sense it naturally, it’s part of our culture. We also encounter less conflict because it is “understood” that we aren’t interested in how much time is spent, just whether things get done and objectives achieved.

Of the 8 interns we’ve hired, 4 still remain. Some of the others have moved on to other things, some left because they didn’t fit in with our culture. Of those that remain, we hope to transition them into full-fledged positions pending funding. With all said and done, our interns taught us some valuable lessons that will help us as we grow our startup to the next level.

The interns at Melltoo


More about Sharene Lee

Sharene Lee is the co-founder of Melltoo Marketplace (www.melltoo.com), a social network for buyers and sellers. She is an educator and researcher by training and an entrepreneur by passion. Oh, and she's mother of 5 young children. She spends her free time doing...wait, she has no free time.