Now CEO of the Jabbar Group of internet-focused companies, Samih Toukan made his name as one half of the Maktoob story. He hopes that success will be contagious across the Middle East.
It is, without question, the most high-profile entrepreneurial success story in the Middle East in the last few years. When Yahoo acquired Maktoob, the Arab-language news and entertainment portal, in August 2009 it catapulted the Middle East’s entrepreneurial landscape to the forefront of global business news. Internationally, the power and possibilities of online communication within in the Arab World was underlined, while Samih Toukan and Hussam Khoury, the men behind the venture, provided ample evidence that regional success could be found well away from oil wells and skyscrapers.
For Samih Toukan, the entrepreneurial journey didn’t end with acquisition. He remains head of Jabbar, looking after those companies – iKoo, CashU and Souq.com among them – that Yahoo didn’t acquire. The drive to innovate, to confront challenges and create opportunities for others is, he insists, the real benchmark of an entrepreneur’s success.
What does the word “entrepreneur” mean to you?
Samih Toukan: I think there are obviously many definitions, but for me it is really someone who is a risk taker, someone who displays the courage to put their plans into action. A lot of people have ideas, say they want to start this venture or open that business, but very few people actually do anything about it. So, for me an entrepreneur is someone who faces that risk, that uncertainty, and perhaps a lot of negative pressure from family and society, and takes the leap.
The notion of entrepreneurship is so much in the spotlight in the Middle East right now. How would you survey the landscape?
ST: We have a strong entrepreneurial culture here, with a long history of traders and families who start enterprises, so I don’t think we lack entrepreneurs. I think the emphasis now is on the need to create more successful companies and diversify our economies. In Jordan, for instance, we have no real venture capitalists, no mentorship programmes, poor access to credit and government regulations that do little to support new ventures. We have the right spirit, we just need to do more to capture it, nurture it and support it. That also applies to the need to accept to failure; every entrepreneur will face it and will have to deal with it. But with hard work and proper execution, they will overcome it and eventually succeed.
We hear a lot about learning to embrace failure. Shouldn’t we be more concerned with creating an ecosystem that better supports entrepreneurs so that they don’t fail?
ST: Well, that would be ideal. But the main point about of failure is the shame associated with it in our societies, resulting in a complete aversion to risk and a reduction in innovation. There’s also the need to fail in order to learn. That doesn’t necessarily mean an entire business will fail and everything is lost, it just means that certain products don’t work, or some ideas won’t get off the ground. Investors tend to invest in the people more than the product, so failures are anticipated along the journey to success.
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