“If there is a month where I don’t learn something, I would probably die”: Interview* with entrepreneur and co-founder of Namshi.com and AstroLabs, Louis Lebbos.
Q. I know how important the sense of continuous learning is for you. Where do you think you picked up your key skills? Was it part of your education? Was it from working in and starting up businesses?
A. If there is a month where I don’t learn something, I would probably die. So there are no months in my life where I haven’t learnt something. If I’m not in a super challenging environment, I go and read. I really enjoyed my MBA and I learned a lot because Harvard is one of the few universities that only does case-based study. Both Harvard and the Darden School of Business are case based universities and you had to start every class by saying, this is what I believe they should do, and this is why I think they should do it. Honing your decision making skills are very important. Honestly, in consulting, I learned very little. That’s why I left. Fast forward to Namshi which was an interesting experience. We had not worked in fashion and we had never done e-commerce, which made the learning super interesting. During the last seven years at AstroLabs, we’ve created so many different business models; B2C, B2B, coworking space as well as training and even a bit of consulting.
Q. You said that when you started Namshi, you didn’t have any kind of fashion or e-commerce experience? How and why did you decide to start Namshi?
A. It’s actually good advice to know the space well yourself because you need to understand the customer problem deeply to solve it in a way that they will accept. But let’s not exaggerate. Namshi was just selling shoes online. It’s not like a disruptive idea. The thesis that we had was that people in the region would buy stuff and they would appreciate fast delivery, bigger offering and also the competitive prices on some brands they might not have access to. So it wasn’t very far outside the box. We had some people early on say it wouldn’t work because people are used to visiting the malls. They love malls here, it’s true, but this doesn’t prevent you from going on Namshi or Noon or Mumzworld to find the things that you need with better prices and next day delivery.
Q. How do you develop your resilience, your guts and courage to jump from one venture to another? And how have you dealt with failure? Or the fear of failure.
A. I don’t know if I have fully developed it. I think that two things make it easier to jump. One, and probably the most important, is passion for the topic. So jumping from Namshi to AstroLabs was easy because actually AstroLabs was kind of a life dream. Before Business school, when I did some introspection about what I want to do in my life, it was always about doing something in the entrepreneurial world, in economic development. So AstroLabs came very naturally.
Your question about fear of failure, well, I am still super afraid of failing. But at some point, you build a network of people, you build some credibility and if you fail on one small venture, it’s not failure. I think failure is a vague word. If one of the ventures did not work out, you’re not a failure because there is a bunch of people who believe in you and saw what you did before.
Q. Learning why things haven’t worked can also really give you insight into your users or into your business model.
A. That’s true, you can get tons from failure. I love learning, but honestly there’s actually way more lessons to be learnt from success. Failure teaches you what doesn’t work, which is something important. If you’re walking in the woods and there’s a path that takes you off a cliff or to a tiger, you would not go there, but you still need to get out of the woods. Success teaches you a few things that you should do. I think there’s way more lessons in the failures that lead to success than the failures that lead to failure.
Q. How do you see the future of e-commerce, fashion and accessories, post Covid?
A. During Covid, eCommerce is doing well in some sectors. Obviously many categories are exploding: food delivery, grocery, etc. I think there’s even some opportunity in some non-essentials because, again, you’re sitting at home. There’s Netflix and all the stuff people like to consume, consumption will always be there, it’s just that the logistics have not been figured out to send this much volume. I bet 90% of people in Dubai are now doing some kind of online grocery shopping, people are now using platforms more. That is a huge opportunity because now we have a wave of people that are open to trying and using new platforms and the current platforms might not be the best, but this is the only thing that they have to use. There’s going to be tons of opportunities in e-commerce post-COVID. Sure, there might be a little bit of impact on the economy and people having less money in the immediate future but I’m not sure if there will be a big impact on the long-term.
Q. Are there any particular fields you would advise people to focus their attention on if they are thinking of starting an eCommerce business?
A. It depends on the region but I can give a couple of hints. Try to see what upsets you here in the region and try to solve that problem specifically. It’s ridiculous, for example, the price difference between what we can see on Amazon in the US on the platform here in the UAE. I think there is a huge opportunity in physical item categories, such as furniture. But again, it’s for you to solve how to do the logistics for that work as you see eCommerce businesses here that either don’t have the collection that you want or they’re oppressively more expensive than what you see in Europe and the US and there’s no reason for it as Dubai is a logistics hub where you can generally ship cheap and import duties are not that high.
Q. What direction do you see Venture Capital investment and funding evolving in the region?
A. It’s hard to answer this question because I don’t see a rapid scaling and amount of V.C. money available. I think especially in Saudi, there’s some exciting activity happening in the V.C. space but in Dubai, I think the last V.C. I heard about is Global Ventures and Beco Captial that both just announced around USD 50 mn. There are more angel investors and people who are willing to put an early stage ticket to something that is interesting and scalable. In terms of sectors of investments, I honestly don’t know if this will change radically. I don’t want to call it recession, but the economy hasn’t been great in the GCC for the last few years.
Q. We usually see ventures starting in Dubai and then expanding into Saudi. Why is it this case?
A. The short answer is, it depends. If your market is purely Saudi, then it definitely makes sense to start there. I think in the past the reason this happened was because it was easier to set up a company in Dubai. It was super expensive to start a company in Saudi and very complex but I think that will change. There are some companies that will set up in Saudi to take advantage of the huge economy there that haven’t started in Dubai. It’s a big opportunity.
Q. Obviously, your co-conspirator has been Muhammed Mekki and you were working with him at Namshi and now AstroLabs. What makes for a good co-founder?
A. We’ve been working together for eight and half years. I think the reason it works for us is that, after all these years, we really get each other. I like him as a person and I really enjoy working with him. At the same time, he drives me crazy. And I think that’s the key to a successful co-founder relationship. You have to have good alignment on value. I have huge respect for Muhammed’s values, one hundred percent, but you have to disagree on a lot of stuff too, otherwise you’re redundant. We are from similar backgrounds, he went to business school too and also did consulting; he grew up in the U.S. and I spent a few years there. So, we are in some ways, very similar, which we joke about a lot. You have to have major differences for it to be productive. Muhammed is way more patient than I am, so you have to be different in terms of temperament and perspective, then overlap and have enough of a good communication methodology to resolve differences in opinion. It’s a very intricate relationship, like marriage.
Q. What are your plans for scaling and growing AstroLabs?
A. It’s hard to think about scaling during this crisis. It is about survival, but we are thinking of post-Covid. Hopefully we have a world after that. (laughter). We are growing most of our products and have more people joining our coworking spaces, both in Dubai and Riyadh. We have more companies being registered in Saudi with 100% foreign ownership. We are going to grow our open classes, public accessible classes, digital marketing and other topics, and growing our corporate and government university work too so we can run our programs for universities. We run incubators and accelerators, we’ve done that for government entities and we work with lots of corporations on a range of topics, ranging from internal accelerators to external accelerators to capability building.
Q. What are your best practices on recruitment? How do you ensure you hire people who fit into the company’s purpose?
A. We do multiple rounds of interviews, we even do periods where you test us and we work with you for a few months. If you enjoy working with us and we enjoy working with you then that is mutual value being created and we formalize it into a full-time position. I think value for us is the easiest one to check on because it’s decently crisp in our minds. Maybe the best practice overall for recruitment is testing for skill.
Q. Work life balance. Best tips for maintaining work-life balance.
A. Work less, work less. I personally think that most of the time at work is wasted. It’s better if you’re able to really focus your brain over shorter periods of time, and that requires a lot of diligence. I’ve written a couple of articles on this topic about conserving brain share and quality of decision making. If you work in a brain job, you need to make better decisions and a more efficient way to correct problems. Those are independent of time.
* This is an edited transcript of an interview with Louis Lebbos. If you’re ready to dive into the full webinar, just press play: