Business, at its core, is providing your audience with a product or service that caters to their needs in return for financial compensation. While the academic study of business is a valuable stepping stone to the practice, some argue that actually starting and growing a business is the real mentor.
Many successful and internationally renowned entrepreneurs - like Steve Jobs, Daniel Ek, and Evan Williams to name a few - have debunked the myth around the necessity of being academically prepared for doing business. This narrative continues to be replicated every day in local markets around the world by spirited entrepreneurs who react to the pulse of their local communities.
As inspiring as these stories are, the circumstances that allow them to unfold are often too foreign to our realities; unless the protagonists share a similar pool of opportunities.
Hailing from Egypt’s coastal city Alexandria is architect and restaurant owner Hussam Alsayed whose business journey started with an unwavering dream to be a businessman. But how does one turn a business dream into a reality without academia paving the way for it?
1. Don’t settle, no matter how long it takes.
Born and raised in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, Hussam grew up with heavy exposure to the world of architecture - thanks to his father whom he often accompanied at work and on-site. The love of architecture soon took roots and blossomed. Nonetheless, Hussam had an innate desire, even vision, to be a businessman. “I was never fond of the idea of having to work for someone else,” recalls Hussam. “Whether I was going to start my own architecture firm or pursue a different business, it was very important to me that I do my own thing.”
Despite his young age, he knew deep down it was going to be a restaurant.
Instead of choosing either over the other, he decided to make the best of both worlds. After 16 years in Saudi Arabia, Hussam returned to Alexandria to study architecture at the Arab Academy for Science, Technology & Maritime Transport. However, he intended for his career as an architect to finance his passion for business.
Over the span of six years since his graduation, Hussam opened his first business, a PlayStation parlor, moved back to Saudi Arabia as an architect, before making it back to Alexandria, this time with enough funds to open his restaurant.
2. Research. Research. Research.
During his time in Saudi Arabia, Hussam had the opportunity to travel to the UAE, Malaysia, Turkey, and Indonesia. Trying out different cuisines is a staple of travel, but to Hussam, it was a window for empirical market research.
By virtue of his work as an architect, it came to him naturally to observe and take note of restaurants’ interior designs. But as a soon-to-be restaurant owner, his scope of attention expanded to include everything from the food style and quality to service, hygiene, and how the staff interacts with the customers. Sometimes, if the staff were friendly enough, he would even ask them to take a look at their kitchen.
By the end of his regional food tour, Hussam knew that he didn’t want to merely offer great quality food through his restaurant, but also transparency. “The idea is that the guest deserves to know everything that happens to their food,” explains Hussam. “I want the entire process, from the moment the food is pulled out of the fridge all the way until it is ready for serving, to be visible to the guest.
“Not only would the food preparation be visible, but all the safety and health precautions undertaken throughout the entire cooking process as well.”
Transparency alone isn’t edible so to round up the theme, Hussam decided that Section F was going to be a fast-food restaurant.
3. Utilize your available resources.
Despite spending his childhood and teenage years in Saudi Arabia, Hussam fell in love with Egypt and the social life he built there. That’s why his return to his birthplace was timed and intended solely for saving up the seed fund required for Section F. Four years later, this mission was complete and Hussam made his way back to Alexandria with a mission and a long to-do list.
The first item on the list was finding the right partner who would help him finance the rest of the project which was too big to be a one-man-show. Before turning to strangers, Hussam ran the idea by his friend Abdullah whom he had known for 14 years. “He was very interested and he entrusted me with all aspects of the business, contributing to the business solely with capital,” says Hussam.
Meanwhile, the search for a location was on. Once the space had been secured and rented, architect Hussam got down to designing the brand’s spatial and visual identity - a task that would have been ludicrous to assign to someone else.
4. Learn at every touchpoint.
Hussam believes that one of the attributes that nudged him towards owning a business is his tendency for leadership. “Since I was a child, I always liked being in charge whether it was a study group or a football match,” recalls Hussam. “I preferred taking matters into my own hands to make sure everything went accurately and according to plan.”
As a self-motivated business owner who skipped the academic prep work, Hussam had to educate himself on the job. This entailed practicing the nitty-gritty of the job before hiring anyone else to do it. And the first job on the list was developing the recipes.
While the search for a location and its preparation were in progress, Hussam spent four months in his kitchen trying the best fried chicken recipes from around the world until he settled on his favorite. In the months to follow, he was responsible for interviewing all new recruits as well as ordering and receiving supplies, all the while journeying back and forth across the trial and error spectrum.
But for Section F to take flight, Hussam needed to recruit a staff that is attuned to the values of Section F. “I didn't want to start the business and manage everything,” explains Hussam. “I wanted to establish a strong and professional staff.”
5. Flock with birds of a feather.
Seeing that the degree of transparency sought by Section F is unfamiliar to an industry of concealed kitchens, Hussam struggled to find the right staff. While he was lucky to find a partner who had faith in his vision, hiring a manager who is well versed in the fast-food industry and who believes in the importance of upholding a transparent work environment wasn’t as easy. No matter how many incompatible hires it took, it was worth the journey of finding the right match.
As for the staff, Hussam aspired for people who are willing to learn and grow. And the widest area of growth that he encountered was boosting the cooks’ morale who always had an audience of spectators.
“This approach is quite novel in Egypt. So, it was very important to reassure the kitchen staff that there is no reason to be anxious or stressed,” explains Hussam. “They are capable of what they are performing, and they aren't doing anything wrong or worth stress over.”
But just as Hussam expected his team to follow his rhythm, it was now time for Section F to synchronize with the market’s preferences.
6. Tune in to the pulse of the market.
How fast should fast food be? To Hussam, it’s food that’s both fast to prepare and to consume on the go. This prompted him to design a small menu that’s easy to pick from and that consisted mainly of boxes. Without fillings oozing out of sandwiches or hands getting dirty, the box was Hussam’s solution to make fast food even faster and more convenient.
However, the market begged to differ. “There is a common consensus in the Egyptian market that the meal has to include multiple items with rice or bread for it to be a well-rounded and filling meal,” explains Hussam. “The initial menu included only one sandwich, but seeing how the market was consistently inquiring about the sandwiches, I was quick on my feet and I turned the menu around to satisfy the market’s taste.” The new menu offered six chicken sandwiches and four beef sandwiches.
Adjusting the Section F menu to meet the customers’ expectations was soon to reap very fruitful results without even investing in a marketing plan.
This was all too celebratory until Hussam realized that there was a wide bracket of the market that still didn’t know about Section F.
7. Make sure people know about you.
“Even though we have social media accounts on Instagram and Facebook, I didn't pay much attention to our online community,” says Hussam who was happy to see his business growing organically, yet to a limit. Six months into Section F’s journey, Hussam started paying attention to marketing communications - specifically, influencer marketing.
Relying on celebrity endorsements, Hussam would hand-deliver new meals to Alexandria’s food bloggers in return for their reviews - a plan that reflected immediately on Section F’s online community growth.
Hussam still practices this approach with every new offer, which he prefers to keep limited and frequent, allowing Section F to stay fresh and on top of its customers’ minds.
With almost two years in the market, Section F is now preparing to open its third branch in Alexandria and its first in Cairo, hoping to expand not only across Egypt but the entire region as well.