Triumph of spirit

Firas al Abduwani of HTC, which went through a series of hiccups before turning into the successful entity that it is today speaks about the spirit of entrepreneurship

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In business one has to adapt and find solutions to the challenges that keep cropping up every day. Success lies in taking the problem as a challenge and tackling it as best as possible," says Firas al Abduwani, CEO, Hussam Technology Company.

Although a successful enterprise today, HTC did not come up as originally planned by him.

A petroleum engineer whose passion lay in IT, Abduwani was keen to do something about the nagging gap in the information and communication technology developments in Oman, his home country and the Netherlands, where he was pursuing his doctorate.

HTC was formed in 2005 with a plan to establish itself as a Wireless Internet Service Provider (WISP) in Sohar Industrial Area.

In 2004, the Telecom Regulatory Authority (TRA) gave an in-principle approval for a WISP in Sohar Industrial Area to cover the factories as the Royal Decree of 2002 had mentioned that secondary players could buy bandwidth from Omantel and resell it.

The only obstacle was that the regulations were not ready at that time. "In Sohar we bought some spectrum under the belief that the regulations for ISP were imminent.

We did a demo for tenants in the industry and showed the video around. But that project never took off and can't take off even now because the regulations for it still don't exist."

By 2006, it was clear to Abduwani that his ambition to turn HTC into an ISP was not going to be fruitful.

"We had to sit down and consider very carefully whether to shut down and start something else or to adapt.

Thankfully, we had gained some knowledge and experience in the field. We had come across other elements of the solution delivery system and it was only a matter of time that we got hold of it," he says. However, he had to rework the mission statement of the company and evolve it as a system integrator.

Looking back, Abduwani feels some of the challenges his company faced initially were because he was new to the business and since TRA, which was formed in late 2002, was in its infancy.

"If we look at it from our perspective we find that our business was hurt because of the lack of regulations. But if we step back for an overview, it is obvious that TRA had limited resources and had their priorities set right in addressing the issues that affected the larger public, like giving licence to a second mobile and fixed-line operator."

Overcoming hurdles
Reworking on the company's strategy, Abduwani realised that high-band application demands were not met adequately in Oman, because of the high cost of available lease lines.

"Cyclone Gonu was an eye opener for a lot of companies. Disaster recovery became an essential part of their existence, particularly for the banking sector."

Having worked on a project with Nawras in providing them a free space optics (FSO) solution prior to the cyclone, HTC wanted to deliver the same solution to the private market. FSO is a wireless telecom equipment that is based on free space optics or lasers and not radio frequency.

But once again the company stumbled against regulatory blocks.

The regulations at that time allowed FSO technology to be sold specifically to Omantel and Nawras as they were the only class-one license holders.

HTC had won an FSO project from BankMuscat but had to wait for nine months before regulations were laid down by TRA.

"That was a serious issue from multiple aspects. The technology existed in Oman as we knew a few entities were using it without following any regulations. We knew the regulations would not have been just for the new entrants.

During that period we missed out on a number of projects because of the lack of transparency, even as our competitors made a killing. In any case we held our fort and chose not to breach the law and wait until the rules were laid down. From that point the company went on to capture contracts with banks like Oman Arab Bank, Bank Dhofar and NBO and the larger market."

Research and support
Abduwani believes that there are always challenges when one enters a business. The most important thing to do before jumping onto the scene is to do proper market research.

That includes not only the market requirements, competitors and alternative solutions but also the national as well as international regulations, which affect export and import of materials.

"Another very important thing one should look at is the support entities that exist to back start-ups and budding entrepreneurs." He enlisted the support of The Knowledge Mine (TKM), which he says was a studied step from his side.

Although he had been able to get investors, it still made a lot of sense for him to seek help from TKM.

"It was not the monetary support or the subsidised office that we got in KOM, which was more than appreciated, it was more of the marketing, liaison and educational backing we got from them that became instrumental in our success."

"To be honest," says Abduwani, "there's a lot that needs to be done for entrepreneurs to set up new businesses. I believe that one of the things that I did right was to get the support of an established entity, which cared about our success."

Abduwani says there is a lack of awareness about the services offered by various agencies to help start-up businesses.

"Till about a year back I thought there were not enough support organisations but it turned out to be my ignorance about their presence. I don't know where the fault lies - whether we are at fault for not seeking it out or the organisations for not ensuring enough publicity."

Lately he has noticed that there is a collaborative effort between several institutions aimed at supporting and nurturing entrepreneurs. He learnt about Intilaaqah and the Directorate General for the Development of Small and Medium Enterprises (DGDSME) through TKM. "Each one has a core focus area and provides comprehensive backup that serves the market."

Angel investors & tax holidays
He laments the lack of a philanthropist philosophy in Oman unlike in the US, where an angel investment community helps budding entrepreneurs even before venture capital is set up.

"There are successful entrepreneurs who pour money into people they see as themselves in their younger days. We don't have that in Oman. Also missing in the Omani ecosystem is an industry-academia link. In other countries, a lot of entrepreneurs who become successful go back to their alma mater and invest hugely."

Industry-academia interface is very important, says Abduwani. He points out that if the industry does not approach students at that critical stage when career decisions are taken, the latter is left unexposed to market realities. "Also, it opens new frontiers for students when they get hands-on experience as against only theoretical knowledge."

To encourage and nurture young entrepreneurs, Abduwani suggests the government give tax holidays for start-ups. He cites an example in the US where the whole industry got an equivalent of a tax benefit in implementing millimetre wave technology. The US regulatory authority unlicensed the 60GHz spectrum and put a US$75 token amount on 80GHz.

"The tax benefit resulted in such a growth that the technology captured the world market from 0-5 per cent in just three years since its introduction in 2006."

However, he doesn't believe in giving seed capital without guarantee.

"If an entrepreneur doesn't have anything to lose then there is less drive in him to excel. It is said that an entrepreneur should be given the biggest carrot and the biggest stick. I truly believe that for an entrepreneur to deliver he has to struggle. He has to go through the labour pains.""

Triumph of spirit
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