Zaki Mahomed started his first company at the age of 14, helping build websites for big brands like Pepsi. He left Karachi shortly afterwards and moved to Singapore to study engineering. But the experience convinced him that entrepreneurship was a risk worth taking.
In his third year at the National University of Singapore, Zaki started TimeSvr – a portal that helped people hire and manage virtual assistants. “It was my first real startup,” he laughs.
The young engineer ran the firm as CEO from 2008 to 2010, but soon itched to do something different. He relinquished control to a co-founder to start a gaming company.
Zaki’s next startup, Game Ventures, sought to tap into the burgeoning social gaming space. It raised approximately US$1 million in funding but initially started out of a small apartment in Singapore.
“Our focus was social sports games. The problem with games is that you have to keep making new ones. Sports is different because you don’t have to make new ones over and over again. You can concentrate on incremental changes,” he outlines.
One game the team built was Pokerrama, a social game based on poker. It was acquired for an undisclosed sum by gaming behemoth Ubisoft, the company behind titles like Assassin’s Creed and Prince of Persia.
“The exit served as validation – we knew how to make games,” recalls Zaki.
Game Ventures enjoyed other successes. Howzat, its game based on cricket, grew to 6 million monthly active users at its peak. The game had tremendous traction in India, and also signed partnership deals with media giants like ESPN.
But trouble struck. In early 2012, Facebook started clamping down on social gaming. Gaming startups were left with an uncertain future: either pivot to mobile or seek a buyer. Game Ventures was eventually bought out by Junglee, an Indian gaming company, and the deal was finalized by late 2013.
“We had a lot of fun, we built a great team and imported talent from all parts of the world. Now it was time to move on,” explains Zaki.
At the same time, one of Zaki’s investors and mentors, Mark Organ, gave him a call and asked him to join Influitive, a new B2B marketing company he had just started.
“I knew nothing about B2B marketing, but Mark wanted me. So I moved to Toronto and joined as the director of product,” says Zaki.
In the past three years, Influitive grew from a team of ten people to over 150, raising US$49 million in total funding. It’s also brought in clients like Salesforce, HP, and Google. Zaki has transitioned to new roles in an effort to keep learning.
So after a varied career, what does he think is preferable – serial entrepreneurship or settling for the stability of a job?
“Most people say they want to start a company. That’s great and you learn a lot, but from my own experience I’ve learned equally working for my mentor at a high-growth startup. One lesson for entrepreneurs is – don’t just look to start a company, also join one that’s growing really fast and help it scale,” answers Zaki.
3 tips to be a better entrepreneur
For those who are still keen on starting their own business, Zaki has a few words of advice.
1. Build an ecosystem
“The people you work with matter a lot. By people, I don’t just mean the team, but also investors. The entire ecosystem you build around you, including mentors and advisors,” he explains.
For him, the easiest way to determine whether to work with a person is to figure out if you would have a beer with them after work. “If the answer is yes, then that’s great. If not, then it doesn’t matter how much of a rockstar they may be,” he adds.
2. Don’t be egotistical
“You can learn as much from working with someone who’s done it before as you can doing it yourself. If I were to go back, I’d probably work at a company first and then start my own. Because I’d be a 10x better CEO.”
Zaki explains that part of the reason people are attracted to entrepreneurship is because it’s just so damn sexy. Young entrepreneurs are lauded, offered speaking slots at conferences, and flooded with media opportunities. People think they’re out to save the world.
“I used to say I would never work for anybody else and that rings true for a lot of young entrepreneurs but then I recognized that’s an egotistical approach. I will do whatever it takes to learn and be a better leader and that usually involves learning from somebody else,” he explains.
“Don’t be egotistical about learning from others or working for others.”
3. Focus on culture
“It’s very important to define what a company’s values are, what the mission is, and what it’s trying to achieve. When times get tough, and they always do, it’s good to go back and have something that reminds you what the goal is,” he says.
Companies can hit rough patches, but they’ll only be able to cross the hurdles if the team sticks together. It’s alright to lose a deal, get bad product reviews, or miss deadlines. The most important thing is to never lose focus.
“From the outset, draw up five objectives that describe your culture. Screen and hire people based on that, and constantly articulate the values of your company.”
This story was originally published here