25 Lessons After 10 Years in Startups

Ahmed El-Sharkasy is a software engineer and product manager with more than 8 years of experience working in world-class startups in the Middle East and Europe. He was the first engineer at Bkam, a leading price comparison website in the MENA and was also the first engineer at Onfido, the leading identity verification service in the UK and Europe. After going through one of the top accelerator programs in Europe (Entrepreneur First), Ahmed is currently the CEO and Co-founder of Knowledge Officer, a London-based EdTech startup with a mission to build the shortest and most efficient path to employment and career progression. He has also been included in the list of top 100 influencers in Edtech by the EdTech Digest. Ahmed shares some of the most important lessons he has learnt over the years.

Do I have the DNA of a founder and entrepreneur?

Do I have the DNA of a founder and entrepreneur? What do I need to know to be successful in starting a business? I asked myself these questions exactly ten years ago when I was just beginning my startup journey. I don’t claim to be an expert in becoming a founder but I wanted to share some valuable tips and lessons I have learned first hand rather than generic slogans you can find on your LinkedIn feed.

I have also spent multiple hours with other founders, discussing their struggles, successes and mistakes and gathered the lessons in one ‘Founder’ online course, which you can find out more about on our Knowledge Officer app. To cut a long story short, being successful is more about the ability to learn and listen, rather than possessing some innate personality traits. So what are the other 25 lessons I would like to share?

25 Lessons

  1. Building a product is easy. Building an exceptional product is hard. Building a business is extremely hard. Remember that an exceptional product is solving a strong painful problem for a big set of customers 10 times better than the competition. Building a business is way more than just hiring a team, doing partnership deals or building a competitive edge.


  1. Being wrong might hurt you a bit but being slow will kill you! Here we are talking about the importance of speed for startups. Feeling the right speed and grasping the momentum are the startup’s strongest weapon and competitive edge. Lose them and you are edgeless. Speed can be about decision making, responding to user feedback, conflict resolutions, or delivery. If you think you need 6 weeks to develop a new product or feature, then find a way of doing it in just 2 weeks and you will be surprised how feasible it is! When enough members of your team exhibit this habit, the whole organisation will benefit.


  1. Want to be the smartest person in the room? Ask the simplest questions! Always think of the word “simple” when you think of the word “smart”. I am surprised why many people mix smart with complex.


  1. When experts are wrong, it’s often because they are experts on an earlier version of the world or because they are too confident of their expertise. This is both an advice of the advice-giver and the advice-taker. As founders you take advice from investors, advisors, customers, employees and many more. When you take advice, you need to think critically about it and not blindly trust the person giving it. You need to manage the psychology of advice both for you and the giver. Beware of advice that confirms your prior beliefs, feeds your ego, came in recently or from the person you favour. Also advice-givers themselves sometimes project their own experience or personality traits on you. Just take any advice with a pinch of salt including this advice to you now.


  1. You are not your startup. The startup is a business you are starting that can fail or succeed. You are much more than that. Don’t be too afraid to fail. Failing fast is always better than failing slow. Separate your personal brand from the startup brand and don’t let your ego stand in your way. Success requires a lot of factors, some of which you can’t even control. Failing as a startup does not equal the demise of their founders. You will fail a lot and you will make a lot of mistakes. You just need to learn how to live with that.


  1. Always have a plan! No worries if you deviate but you can’t see a deviation if you don’t have a target. It’s better to have a bad plan than have no plan at all. People tend to confuse agile or being lean with no planning at all. Agile is about the flexibility of your plan and being open to change and pivot.


  1. People management is more about “people” and less about “management”. People confuse people management with processes, systems and rules probably because of the bad reputation of the word “management”. People management is all about being a good human being. It’s about trust and treating your people fairly and honestly. This level of intimacy is what will let your company pass critical situations and get even stronger out of it. Just be human and treat people just like how you want to be treated.


  1. A founder without a mentor (of some sort) can rarely succeed. This is a very critical tip to founders and something that you should start thinking about now if you have not already. Mentors and advisors are essential to the success of any founder as part of your key support network when the tide is really low. Invest in building a good network and start doing this investment now.


  1. The highest degree of competency is accepting what you don’t know. Stay humble. Accepting what you don’t know is extremely hard and that’s why it’s the highest degree of competency. People are usually overly confident in their abilities and only very few people are competent enough to appreciate the unknowns in the world. Stay humble and don’t stop learning.


  1. Disagree, respect and commit. Strong disagreements are inevitable. You will always have loads of disagreement running your business and you can’t always wait for consensus. Disagree and commit. Most importantly, you should always keep respect between the parties.


  1. Join a startup if you are a. passionate about the problem, b. you will learn from the team and c. you believe in the viability of the business. You must join a startup if you can tick all three, or possibly even two of the above. This is my own personal bible to join a company and I have been always sharing this with my friends. You can use this as a framework to decide whether to join one company over another.


  1. Find weekly spots to reflect, strategise and meditate. This has priceless outcomes. Forcing yourself to get outside the picture is really key to develop innovative frameworks of thinking and new out of the box ideas. Do your own meditation, frequently and consistently.


  1. Entrepreneurs are not celebrities. If you want to become a celebrity, there are much easier ways to do it. The best entrepreneurs are not busy every day going to events, speaking, sharing and attracting the spotlight. Building a business is extremely hard and it’s not the shortest path to being famous.


  1. Constructive and honest feedback is the key to succeed in any career. Surround yourself with those who consistently challenge you to be better. Getting feedback is key to improvement. We all know that but receiving feedback is one thing and accepting it is another. Train your mind and soul to accept harsh yet constructive feedback (sometimes destructive). Learn how to distill the best information and takeaways from any conversation. Implement processes that encourages and rewards for sharing feedback in a 360 degree manner.


  1. Ideas are open source, execution is proprietary. Focus on execution. I get really surprised when I hear people getting afraid about even talking about the idea of their startups not to be copied. There are very few truly novel ideas and most of the time the differentiation is in the execution. Ideas are worthless, execution is gold. And the practice of sharing your ideas is not only useful for you to get feedback and learn how to communicate it but also can lead to thinking differently about your ideas yourself rather than letting it rot in your head.


  1. Invest in building your network. Your startup success is affected heavily by the depth of your network and the weight of its nodes and edges. Advisors and mentors form the first level of your network. After that you need to have many more levels and layers of people whom you will share ideas with, partner with or ask for help. Having a strong network is a key element of startup success. This is more important than fundraising and is as important as having a good team.


  1. People change if they believe in the need for change. Invest more time telling people why to change than how to change. This is advice for people who give advice to people. We love to give advice and share our views on other people’s lives. Don’t assume stuff and instead of telling people what to do, tell them why you think they should do it and then let them decide for themselves.


  1. Unconscious incompetence is the deadliest disease for people and startups. Avoid these people as much as you can and avoid being one of them. Be aware of your own incompetence and work on it. Some people believe they are the experts while having very shallow knowledge and they are extremely reluctant to change.


  1. Think about profitability from year two or three. Most of what you spend before that is a business waste but if done right, it can grow the teams’ knowledge and pave the road to success afterwards. Many founders make the mistake of delaying thinking about revenue and profitability. They call it product excellence, or focusing on retention and engagement. Don’t do this for too long because profitability is all that matters and your product before revenue is usually totally different as compared to the product after revenue.


  1. Old school partnerships are still the easiest way to grow. As unsexy as it sounds, it’s more effective than 90% of the ‘modern’ ways to grow. This is related to building a network that we mentioned earlier. If you research the ways hugely successful companies have grown, you will find it’s usually out of a viral effect, which is challenging in today’s world (yet doable). Think of it this way, you need a channel for your product or service to grow and you are either creating the channel or stealing the channel or using someone’s else channel.


  1. Hire people who are better than you or who can learn from you and then become better at what they do. This one has 2 sides. The first one is to always look for people who are smarter than you and who are more knowledgeable. I understand this does not apply for all roles and all stages of a company; therefore you can also hire people who can learn from you and become better than you. As a founder you do so many things and you can’t be the best in everything.


  1. As a startup founder, you must be t-shaped (especially the CEO). The bigger the width, the better paired with an ‘acceptable’ depth. If you are a t-shaped founder, you should have an overview of every part of building the product, business and company. Invest in width more than depth as your company grows.


  1. Empathy is key to running a company. Without empathy, it’s almost impossible to run a successful company and lead a happy life. You need empathy towards users, customers, partners, your team, your investors and your co-founder. Without empathy, you can’t sell, you can’t lead teams and you can’t partner with others. Be human.


  1. Having discipline as a founder is not a choice. If you don’t have discipline, you better learn it or do something else. Discipline pays off way more than being smart. Discipline will force you to always remind yourself and your team of why you are doing what you are doing. Discipline will force you to stick to a daily and weekly schedule and hold yourself against solid and impactful targets. Without discipline, you will always be looking for excuses instead of doing what you should be doing. Be disciplined and don’t be smart (at least in the modern definition of being smart).


  1. Be an honest mirror to yourself. Don’t actively search for ways to confirm you are always right. With the number of decisions you are making and how fast you move, you will be wrong a lot of the time. You will make a lot of mistakes. Simply live with that and just be true and honest to yourself

Find out more

Knowledge Officer is a training partner both for individuals and organisations. By using Machine Learning and Natural Language Processing, it offers a personalised learning journey to hundreds of thousands of individuals worldwide on their path to the dream career goal. Knowledge Officer also helps companies to retain and grow a competitive workforce. They offer Free, Plus and Pro learning plans in careers such as Product Management, Marketing or Entrepreneurship.