Helal Ismail, CTO at Alfan, introduces his work in the new, 100-billion dollar market that’s virtually untapped.
Zeo Solomon: Can you tell us a bit about Alfan and how it works?
Helal Ismail: Alfan is a startup in the creator economy, which is a new term describing a 100-billion dollar market. Today everyone with a camera and a microphone can become a content creator. Our mission is to help the individual creators to monetize their content by better understanding their audiences, analytics, and financials across different channels and social networks. The friction points are increasing, and what we’re doing is consolidating everything onto the creators’ own platforms so that we make it easy for them to focus on what they’re good at, which is creating the content, while we take care of the rest.
ZS: Very interesting. It sounds like you have a history of working with startups and innovative ideas. Prior to working with Alfran, you really disrupted the transportation industry in the Middle East. Tell us more about this part of your career journey.
HI: I joined Careem almost five years ago, just before the Uber acquisition. I was primarily responsible for building Careem’s technology for mass transportation, which was a new initiative that was extremely successful. After this, I moved from Careem to CAFU, which is a startup focused on mobility for automotive services: think gas stations on wheels.
ZS: That’s very interesting – you have to tell us more about that!
HI: You can use your phone to have anything from food to a taxi delivered to your home, so we thought, why not bring fuel to your doorstep? We started with fuel and subsequently expanded to other automotive-related services like car washes, maintenance, etc. There are a few other companies doing this globally, but CAFU is by far the largest fuel-on-demand operator in the world.
ZS: This raises another question about the pace of evolution in the Middle East in terms of processes and innovation as well as technology stacks. Can you give us some insight into your current innovations at Alfan?
HI: Creators in developing markets earn almost 10% for their reach relative to creators in the US & EU. We at Alfan are having to develop innovative ways to allow our creators to increase their monetization whether it's from one piece of content to unlocking direct to consumer and direct to brand monetization opportunities. Web3 is on our road map as we want to eliminate the friction creators face to monetize and better connect with their fans.
ZS: Where did this idea come from?
HI: Our founder has been in the content creator industry for years, so he has great insight into its opportunities and challenges. It’s an enormous market, and it’s basically untapped. Our work is centered on building infrastructure for content creators so they can focus solely on content creation.
ZS: Given that many content creators are under-age, what are your considerations for this? For example, my son is eight and has 100 thousand followers on TikTok.
HI: We see this as an opportunity to help creators understand their audiences better. Not all content creators are data experts, so this is at the core of the capabilities we’re building. We also have been seeing entrepreneurs keep getting younger and younger, it’s not uncommon to hear of many creators & entrepreneurs generating $1M before the age of 18, with their parents’ consent of course.
ZS: Let’s talk a little bit about the post-COVID reality for companies. At Avenue Code, we went from having four delivery centers to a thousand delivery centers overnight in March 2020, which changed our paradigm for security and infrastructure, onboarding and offboarding, culture, and so much more. How did this season affect you and your work?
HI: I’ve been in the tech industry for fourteen years building companies in so many different countries and regions, so I was personally very used to the concept of distributed teams. But looking at the bigger picture, I see so many opportunities that came out of COVID, particularly those related to talent acquisition.
Just a few years ago, companies used to brag about having tech hubs in places like Central Europe. Today, geography doesn’t matter, so long as you have internet access. This means that the talent resource pool has changed dramatically. Because of this, I’m seeing so many great engineers deciding to stay in their home countries now that they can accept offers of remote work with compensation being democratized. So while COVID was obviously a challenge, it was also a huge opportunity for the tech industry to rephape.
ZS: You say that compensation has globalized. How did that affect your talent acquisition abilities?
HI: I won’t say all regions are equal, but I will say the compensation gap isn’t as massive as it was when hiring people from different geographies, say Central Europe versus North Africa. For me, that’s an opportunity. If I’m considering hiring remotely instead of building a tech hub in Dubai, my biggest challenge shifts from trying to bring talent into a specific region to figuring out the logistics of managing a distributed team.
ZS: How would you describe the traits of a modern CTO? How has the role evolved?
HI: The term that comes immediately to mind is the “10X Engineer,” which means the ability to wear multiple hats. Everyone’s trying to achieve better results with fewer people and less money, and we’re facing challenges related to security, scalability, picking the right tech stack, people management, etc. So modern CTOs are far more technically hands-on, as well as savvier when it comes to strategy, people management, and resource management.
ZS: With your academic background as a software engineer, how did you learn these other traits?
HI: My career journey has exposed me to many different cultures and people, and I also love to read outside my comfort zone, exploring topics like psychology and people management. Work experience and reading have really helped grow my skill sets. I also love to learn from success stories in bigger organizations and then apply those practices to my own work.
ZS: Do you have any advice for aspiring CTOs?
HI: I’m actually writing a book right now for young CTOs who are learning on the job, so I’ll mention just a couple things. First, building teams is one of the most important considerations for CTOs–make sure you’re building a good team and that you can retain it. Second, read a lot, and I don’t mean just technology-related reading. Make reading a habit, and try to socialize this practice within your team.
ZS: You’re bringing the intellectual world into the technology world – I really appreciate that! Thanks for your time today, Helal. It’s been fascinating to hear about the creator economy and how Alfan is looking to the future.
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Zeo Solomon is the Founder and Chief Strategy Officer at Avenue Code.