Khaled Bichara is practically a force of nature in the Egyptian startup realm. It was 25 years ago that Bichara founded LINKdotNET, Egypt’s first internet service provider. The fearless go-getter was in his early twenties and entrepreneurship was not yet the booming trend it is today. Despite most people failing to understand his compulsion to start his own business - let alone one focused on the internet, a new and seemingly useless invention at the time - the risk he took shaped the trajectory of his career forever. Since the massive success of LINKdotNET, he’s led a number of big-time companies including Orascom Telecom Media and Technology, Wind Telecom, and currently heads the major telecommunications-focused investment group, Accelero Capital, as well as entrepreneurship support network Endeavor.

One of the country’s earliest digital media entrepreneurs, he’s still passionate about the scene decades later. His face lights up when he talks about the innovative young changemakers shaping Egypt’s future. As he wrapped up a motivational speech for 200 at the SPARK! Ventures entrepreneurship bootcamp, we caught up with the business mastermind. 

How do you think the MENA's startup ecosystem has evolved so far?

Clearly it’s much more advanced, much more fun than it was when we started. I still think we lack a bit of focus on the revenue and the numbers; I see it improving but it’s still not where it should be.

Do you think that SPARK! is filling a hole in the Egyptian educational system, as far as training young people how to start businesses?

When I was first told about this by Sherife [AbdelMessih, founder of SPARK!] I was very intrigued because we always start very late, but I personally started a lot earlier in school or college. You can do small things and if you have the exposure, a place to discuss and talk and you know, get exposed and brainstorm with others, and it will help you to become better. I believe that entrepreneurs are the future of this country.

I think there are very few bright people in Egypt, which when you ask what they want to become, would say “I want to be a politician.” The political system here is different, but with 50 percent of our population below 25, a way to give back to the country and to make it a better place is to create jobs. The way to create jobs is to start businesses, and usually small to medium businesses hire much more than the big businesses - you do a multi-billion huge factory and you only hire 500 for the same multi-billion.

If it’s spread over a lot of small and medium businesses, you can hire thousands, if not millions. So my view is that, if I can, one of my ways to give back to my country is helping entrepreneurs. Then they turn to be successful and hire more people, and then they pay taxes, and they’re paying back and this is actually a very big thing for Endeavor. On our current board now, there are entrepreneurs who we used to support some time ago, whose businesses were sold, and they have since joined the board so I think that’s a very good way to get Egypt to move forward.

People never took us seriously. They’d ask us so many times to 'give us someone more senior to talk to.'

When did you get involved with Endeavor?

I have been on the board of directors since 2008. At Endeavor, we support small and medium businesses and help them with structuring and advice and it’s all for free. We have also created Endeavor Catalyst, which is a separate fund that focuses on investments.

You are a graduate of the American University in Cairo (AUC); how do you think it prepared you for this lifestyle?

I think the education system at AUC was very, very helpful for me because it was the first time people would push you to have your own opinions, to do your own research. It wasn’t about giving you a book and a set of questions and putting you on a train, it was more about showing you what real life is - so many different options and you have to choose your own thing, and you have to have a voice, you have to be able research things you don’t know, and at that point in Egypt, it was not the standard way of thinking. I think it helped me be prepared to manage different things, go in different directions, and be ready to “throw the punches,” as they say.

You founded Egypt's first internet service provider, LINKdotNET. What were your biggest challenges back then?

Funding was a big challenge, but being taken seriously, I would say, was a challenge and opportunity at the same time, because people never took us seriously. They’d ask us so many times to “give us someone more senior to talk to.” At the same time, because we were so young and people didn’t take us seriously, they left us do our own thing for long enough, so that by the time they focused that we were doing the right thing, it was too late. We were the largest and the best.

So I always say it was the best thing, these guys, basically; we were very frustrated at not being taken seriously, but it allowed us to have our own space and growth, so the biggest challenge was to prove to the market, whether to customers, suppliers, or banks that we are there for real. Even suppliers, when they would talk to us they would put us at the end of their list. They would talk to Sawiris’ company or to Ahmed Bahgat Group, or to the government company, and they would come on the last 15 minutes of their trip when they were in Egypt, to meet “those young kids who we are not sure they will be here next year,” so that was the bad side. The good side was when we would do new things, people would always say “they are young, they don’t know what they are doing,” so they would be late reacting to us. So when we did unlimited [internet access] and other things... we were able to hire the young, have a real team spirit because everyone was 25. There wasn’t a 50 year old manager, so there was no culture gap, so the challenge was the opportunity in my point of view.

The way to create jobs is to start businesses, and usually small to medium businesses hire much more than the big businesses - you do a multi-billion huge factory and you only hire 500 for the same multi-billion.

So as far as today’s entrepreneurs, do you think the perception has changed, or do you think we are facing the same challenges?

I am sure every generation will have its own challenges, but for sure it's not the same. Now talking to a VC is a structured process, but at my time there were no VCs, I had to go to people in their living rooms to get the money, talk to their parents, convince them to invest 50,000-100,000 LE with us. Being an entrepreneur was not understood so some people would think, why don’t you have a real job? Why are you doing this? Now it’s much more accepted, there’s more of an ecosystem, more support, but there’s more competition. So it’s never only better or worse, it’s just different.

Video by @MO4Network's #MO4Productions. 

Shot and Edited by: Martin Roux.