Many of us have thought about starting our own business – but where to begin? It might sound surprising, but not all entrepreneurship journeys have to start with a business background – or even a well-defined “big idea.” Entrepreneurship expert and ESCP professor René Mauer and Niuversity founder Fadi Alshalabi put some of the myths to rest.
ESCP Business School Prof.
Niuversity founder and CEO
Hello Fadi! Your entrepreneurship journey is extremely interesting. After many years in academia, you founded Niuversity in 2017. To get started, can you tell us a little bit about your background and the story behind the creation of Niuversity?
Fadi: Before I launched Niuversity, I was a member of the academic staff at the University of Damascus in Syria – so a very academic background. At the time we had over 200,000 students enrolled: sometimes, I’d teach classes in front of four or five hundred students at a time. I was always conscious of the fact that each student had his or her own learning style but that they all had to adapt to my teaching style. Even at that time, I had a dream of creating an educational system that catered to everyone, which ended up giving rise to Niuversity, a skill-oriented Arabic-language learning platform based in Berlin.
Do you feel that you had a certain predisposition to entrepreneurship?
Fadi: The idea to become an entrepreneur was always there, but it was only after the crisis erupted in Syria that I began to seriously think about how to develop it. I was doing research in Germany at the time, which welcomed a big wave of Syrian refugees in 2015. One day I was distributing food with some colleagues, and I encountered five of my own students. As you can imagine, it was a very difficult moment for all of us. I delved a little deeper and I found that the language barrier was a huge hindrance for my students – brilliant young people who were extremely educated, but who lacked a concrete skill that would allow them to transpose their knowledge. I immediately knew that an Arab-language school would be able to act as the bridge they needed. With that said, I certainly had no formal entrepreneurship experience, so I joined an incubator and then enrolled in U-School, an entrepreneurial acceleration programme at ESCP, to get to grips with what I needed to do to make it happen.
In the end, long-term success needs two things: concretization of a generic idea, and constant transformation of the initial idea.René Mauer
René, you mentored Fadi during his time in the incubator and then also during U-School. In the light of his comments, do you feel that anyone has the potential to become an entrepreneur, or are they born, not made?
René: Entrepreneurs are made, of course – what else would an entrepreneurship professor say? But joking aside, maybe there are some people who bring with them a certain set of characteristics, paired with a particularly useful set of skills, which allow them to succeed more easily with all sorts of projects.
But entrepreneurship can happen when an individual likes a (business) idea enough to start acting upon it. That person can be anyone. And that idea doesn’t have to be big; it just has to ignite the individual enough to push him or her into action. What keeps many people from becoming entrepreneurs is that they’re waiting for ‘the big idea’. But very often, an idea only becomes big in the process.
That’s certainly a very interesting remark. Fadi, could you tell us a little more about how your initial idea began to take on an entrepreneurial shape – ‘getting bigger,’ in a sense?
Fadi: The crucial decision was taking Niuversity online. Having a purely digital offer obviously has several advantages: it’s accessible to everyone in Germany, and it’s specifically adapted for an Arab-language public that isn’t necessarily used to digital tools. However, the context that we were facing with our offering was that international completion rate for voluntary online learning is 8%. For Arab-speaking people, it’s only 2%.
To counter this, together with my team, we decided to teach in real time rather than via pre-recorded classes, using behavioural economics and behavioural psychology to make the experience as interactive as possible. These were not skills I had initially, so this was a part of the transformation of my idea into a viable entrepreneurial endeavour.
Another factor was adapting the experience to cultural norms. At Niuversity, we have now created something that is extremely seamless for our users – you receive an email, you click on it and bang, you’re in the class. This we have learned through difficulties getting students into the classes. We kept analysing, adopting and changing until we reached today’s results. Learning about the importance of these practical elements and requirements to make everything user-friendly was definitely part of the journey. Today, we have a completion rate of 94%, as well as an exam pass rate of 87%. This is a huge achievement, and it just goes to show the possibilities of what can happen when an idea is backed up by practical choices.
Technical and cultural difficulties aside – René, what would you say is something that many of us find more difficult than expected when it comes to entrepreneurship?
René: As we can see from the examples, the devil is in the details. The challenge itself – innovating the education space for Arab-speaking people – is in itself quite a common concept. The major difficulty, when it comes to entrepreneurship, is to accept the uncertainty of how exactly that should be done, and the failure that is connected to experimenting with different ways of doing it. In the end, long-term success needs two things: concretization of a generic idea, and constant transformation of the initial idea.
Personally, I don’t believe in ‘the big idea’ that overcomes everything else. Of course, there may be cases in which people have a genius ‘aha’ moment and come around the corner with this new-to-the-world innovation – but these are very rare cases. Usually, ideas themselves need a lot of work in the entrepreneurial process.
Fadi: I agree – and let me stress that in my case I felt it to be even more challenging. Prior to Niuversity, I was an ‘employee’ all my life, which carries itself a degree of certainty. When I thought about making the shift to business, I said “I can do it! I’m a PhD holder, I lead a team of people, I’m capable in my field – this should be easy.” What a mistake – I realised very quickly that all my knowledge and experience was no longer appropriate for this change in career. In my previous field, I managed a large team but I wasn’t paying their salaries. The day I hired my first employee at Niuversity, I got quite the shock – I really began to understand what entrepreneurship and building a company looked like. It was a different kind of responsibility.
René: I fully understand. The task of creating a new company in order to gather and organize resources is an additional challenge. Still, let me stress that my impression was that Fadi does have some natural entrepreneurial talent for partnering.
Do you have a specific example of that natural talent?
René: Well, when I met Fadi in the incubator programme, he did a great job of applying a particular tool about five minutes after he had learnt about it. I had just introduced effectuation and the “effectual ask” to the group.
Effectuation is a model that describes how expert entrepreneurs think, decide and act, and has evolved into a very useful method to shape ideas that face high uncertainty.
Even if your entrepreneurial journey begins in an industry that you know very well, it’s so important to be ready to start over mentally.Fadi Alshalabi
Fadi particularly liked the ‘effectual ask,’ a way of asking for support that 1) assumes that the other side wants to commit something, but 2) leaves the scope of that commitment entirely open to the other person. That way, people can still say no. However, we know from research that entrepreneurs are surprised how often that commitment is more than nothing, sometimes even more than was ever thought possible.
After learning about the effectual ask, Fadi approached me and said: “So, René, what would it take for you to include me into one of your ESCP programmes?” He had been reading the start of the sentence from my own example on the flipchart, and had only added the focus of his interest into it. I was very surprised and impressed, and Fadi ended up joining our U-School programme.
Fadi, what else would you say has helped you in your entrepreneurship adventure?
Fadi: It probably sounds unsurprising given my background in teaching, but community feedback and peers have been really important to my success. Firstly, on a practical level – I have a German business partner without whom many doors would have remained closed to me, particularly when it came to the German bureaucracy – but I strongly believe in the power of working together, of sharing a common belief.
More generally, I cannot stress enough the importance of ‘unlearning’. Even if your entrepreneurial journey begins in an industry that you know very well, it’s so important to be ready to start over mentally. I had to accept that I was wrong about some things, ignorant about others, and had I not been able to do so I would have never gotten Niuversity off the ground.
Finally, what practical advice would you give any entrepreneur who is struggling to find their ‘big idea’ in concrete terms?
Fadi: I would always say to anyone starting out in entrepreneurship: One thing at a time. Prioritise the things that are within your control and ask questions as you go. Moving from Point A to Point B is more effective than setting yourself a huge map that will only lead to frustration and disappointment!
René: I’d offer three short, sweet pieces of advice:
- Get clear on why you want to start acting upon an idea.
- Spend time exploring what you can already do and shape based on your own means.
- And finally, make sure you’re true to yourself about your own commitment when it comes to getting started!