Idriss Al Rifai is helping us leap into a future where eCommerce businesses can serve everyone, and everyone can benefit from online shopping from their phones.
His startup is well on the way to connecting four billion people who have been left sidelined by big industry incumbents and the old status quo.
We got together for an episode of the DealMakers Podcast. Al Rifai shared with our listeners how his time in the special forces prepared him for founding a startup, his thoughts on who to hire first, what the future of eCommerce looks like, and what’s different about launching a business in Dubai versus the USA.
Survival & Team Sports
Al Rifai is a former pro basketball player and special forces operative.
He was born in Iraq, and moved to France when he was just three years old. In the special forces, he was deployed to 13 countries in just three years.
Unlike the movies, he says his intelligence work was basically being sent to random places, in the middle of conflict, with 20 bodyguards, and being tasked with talking to 10 people a day. You have no comforts. You don’t sleep or eat much. It is a lot of just surviving on the journey, amidst a lot of uncertainty. Yet, you have a patchwork of people you have to lead and empower.
Sounds just like being a startup founder, right?
Al Rifai was also a pro basketball player but found he spent too much time on the bench versus on center court. When he didn’t see making it into the EuroLeague or NBA happening, he decided he needed to find something else to pursue.
So, he went to do his MBA and moved to Dubai to do consulting.
The Key Ingredients To Compelling Storytelling
Consulting gives you skills in engineering. It is your way to break down big problems into small parts and championing those one at a time. However, Al Rifai says one of his biggest takeaways from that experience was storytelling.
It’s a skill you need at every stage of a startup. You have to use it to find your cofounder, investors, customers, and employees.
He says the key ingredients to creating a compelling story are:
- Emotional intelligence and putting yourself in the other person’s shoes
The Gym For Entrepreneurs
Al Rifai describes going to work for another startup as being very much like training for athletes. It’s your chance to put in the work and practice and build the muscles to launch your own venture.
A VC partner from Hummingbird Ventures suggested he join Marka as a COO. He did. It broke a lot of the myths he had held about startups. He thought they were all very structured and knew what they were doing.
Then he discovered the reality of the chaos. The constant daily challenges and changes, and what it’s like to try and grow at 40% per month.
Once he realized many of these successful startups really weren’t perfect at all, it gave him the confidence to take the leap with something that may be imperfect at the beginning too.
The Crazy Ones
Setting out to disrupt incumbent giants who already have multi-billion dollar businesses and footholds in 150 countries sounds crazy. You have to be that crazy to be an entrepreneur.
Al Rifai was, and he threw all of his money into a venture to create a solution he saw missing in the world.
Early Stage Hiring
“When you’re asked to be on a rocket ship, you don’t ask which seat.”
When it comes to hiring for early-stage startups, Al Rifai says he looks for passion above all else. If they have that, you can almost always get them to figure out the rest and how to work together.
He says to hire Swiss army knives who are willing to work 18 hours a day, doing whatever is needed to make things work and move forward.
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