With Japan surprisingly falling into recession and the eurozone desperately trying to avoid it, all eyes will be on how the world’s largest economies look to recover from what has been a turbulent seven years around the globe. However, one common and positive trend that usually comes from such a setback is the increase in number of entrepreneurs, or people who decide to start their own business. New businesses create new jobs and so individuals with ideas can be great for long-term economic recovery. When Qais al-Khonji, a leading entrepreneur from Oman started out, he experienced the bad before the good. Since making a series of mistakes with his first venture – an import company – he now runs a successful enhanced oil recovery business called Genesis Projects and Investments. In this Q&A, Qais al-Khonji explains how he learned from his early mistakes and advises would-be entrepreneurs how to succeed with any new start-up.
What is essential for an inexperienced graduate or person leaving their job to know when starting a business venture?
QAIS AL-KHONJI: There is a saying that “entrepreneurship is neither science nor art” – it’s something you learn over time. Keep going even if you fail and eventually you will achieve success. That’s exactly what happened to me.
Is it better to gain work experience before going solo?
QAIS AL-KHONJI: Absolutely. I was an employee for six years before starting my first venture. It not only gives you experience, but you can save money by training on the job. I would advise a stint in corporate banking because not only do you find out how best to approach a bank for financial help, you can also learn invaluable negotiating skills.
How did you come up with the ideas for your businesses?
QAIS AL-KHONJI: My first business idea came to me during a trip to China. I was aggressive and bought a number of products that were not available in Oman. Although the idea seemed good in theory, the venture never took off because I did not carry out the appropriate market research. The process was painful but it was a valuable lesson. My second and third ventures came about from a business forum and so I decided to work with partners. Again, we got involved in sectors that didn’t work for us – tourism (health and educational) – but we succeeded overall.
If you could start all over again, what would you do differently?
QAIS AL-KHONJI: I would focus on services rather than products, especially in a small market like Oman.
What was your biggest mistake when you started out and how did you overcome it?
QAIS AL-KHONJI: Starting without a feasibility study and market research. Another mistake was starting a business dealing with un-branded products in a small market such as ours.
What tips do you have for people starting out with no financial backing?
QAIS AL-KHONJI: It’s a difficult question and one with no easy answer. If you don’t have savings, try banks offering loans to start-ups. If you don’t succeed with the banks, but believe your idea is sellable, approach investors and they can become a partner with the equity in return. Just make sure they have your know-how.
Is it a good idea to stay away from already saturated sectors and focus on niche markets instead?
QAIS AL-KHONJI: Yes, especially in small markets because competition is fierce. You have to be different if you are part of a small market and that’s why and how we came up with the idea that we are part of today. I call our market “slow and small”.
Middle East nations such as Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates are synonymous with booming businesses – is Oman a long way behind when it comes to international investment?
QAIS AL-KHONJI: We are behind in some sectors, but we also lead in others. The UAE and Saudi markets have been open for business for some time now, so obviously investors would rather target those countries. However, Oman offers things that are not available to those countries, such as raw materials when it comes to mining.
How long should you give it before admitting defeat?
QAIS AL-KHONJI: Never give up, whatever happens! Martin Luther King said if you can’t run then walk, if you can’t walk then crawl, or just keep moving forward whatever happens. That’s how I operate. Sometimes you reach a point where you think your business might close down tomorrow. At such times you should take tough decisions. For example we recently sold shares in my company to a strategic partner in order to grow. There is another saying: “If you want to go fast go alone, if you want to go far go together.”
Which entrepreneurs do you most admire and why?
QAIS AL-KHONJI: Sir Richard Branson. It has nothing to do with his net worth, but more to do with how he made it
If you could give one piece of advice to someone who is starting out, what would it be?
QAIS AL-KHONJI: There are so many: believe in yourself, believe in your idea, never give up, be patient, listen and read, keep feeding your brain with motivational stories and you will be successful.
By Robert Shepherd
Image courtesy of Qais al-Khonji
Interview with Qais al-Khonji