Ahmed Zahran, co-founder and CEO, KarmSolar
Ahmed Zahran, co-founder and CEO of KarmSolar: My Morning Routine looks each week at how a successful member of the community starts their day — and then throws in a couple of random business questions just for fun. Speaking to us this week is Ahmed Zahran, co-founder and CEO of KarmSolar, Egypt’s largest private off-grid solar energy integrator.
I’m Ahmed Zahran and I’m a co-founder and the CEO of KarmSolar. Looking at the question of who I am from a more existential perspective, I’m a person with a point to prove. I want to prove that things can work in this country without the need to be corrupt or well-connected. You can build an institution the way institutions should be built. This is something I struggle with and think about every day — how can I work towards achieving this goal — to the extent that it’s taken over my life and become part of who I am.
My main job is to be an enabler. It’s up to me to create the context or environment and build the organization where people can achieve their potential, and where they have the resources to do their best. So I create a setup where people are motivated, and then I throw challenging ideas at them. I might then start pushing back or arguing with them to see what can and cannot be done. It’s all part of catalyzing and enabling the processes.
I have three different morning routines. If I’m traveling to one of our sites, I like to start very early in the morning so I wake up at 5 or 5:30 am. Sometimes I get to play sports (playing tennis is something I really enjoy), and sometimes not. I try to be consistent. Then I hit the road to visit our sites. These are really some of my best times. I love visiting our sites, looking at the sites that are under construction, and imagining how they will end up looking, just as I love looking at our existing products and remembering how they looked before we started work. If I’m traveling abroad, I make sure that I have a good stock of things to read and watch. When I fly, I spend a lot of time thinking, scribbling ideas, reading and watching new things. I love that process of discovering new things. If I’m spending the day in Cairo, I wake up at around 7 am to make sure I’m in the office at around 10 am. Sometimes I get to exercise first thing in the morning and sometimes I do it in the evening, at 8 pm.
I usually have a lot of meetings and some days I just hop from one to the next. When I’m in the office, I try to regularly go around and talk to people, or ask them what they’re working on. I love eating with the team, which helps me understand what’s happening in the company and what people are thinking about. We have a food culture, so we have a team lunch every day, and twice a week this is sponsored by the company. It’s a time when people can get together and sometimes they invite their friends. I also keep a tiny library in my office, so sometimes when I feel that I need to take a break I’ll either take a quick nap on the floor or I’ll read. Our days are long, and I only sleep 3-4 hours a day, so I have to take naps every now and then. I’m working hard to go home earlier.
One recent read that has affected me a lot is The Enigma of Reason, a book that could be described as behavioral economics. It helps you understand the origin of logic in human beings, and it’s an amazing book if you want to understand how humans function, how we think, what incentivizes us and how we take decisions. I also enjoyed watching the two Fyre Festival documentaries recently — both Hulu and Netflix. There’s a lot to learn from this situation. You understand how the media can corrupt people. When it comes to film, there’s a Spanish movie that I loved and would recommend to anyone, called A 12 Year Night.
The origin story of KarmSolar is an interesting one. There were four of us who were fired from a big company in 2011. The company was led by someone who did not believe in innovation or renewable energy, so when we established KarmSolar in October 2011 we wanted to prove to ourselves and obviously to him that our vision could actually work. We started in Arabica, a small cafe in Zamalek. The thing I love is that the people who gave us our initial investment were people working in the company we were fired from, who believed in us and wanted to support us.
KarmSolar’s niche is brain power. We’re very innovative, and we never accept things as they are. We’re constantly developing and changing our business model — not to be ahead of the competition, but to be at the forefront of development for its own sake. We’re trying to push existing knowledge, and we’re literally redesigning the energy structure business model. I truly think we will be the first proper solar utility globally. And I mean that.
People often think we’re a solar developer or a solar technology company, but we’re neither of those things: We’re a solar utility. We’re the power company of the future. All of our infrastructure is built around conventional methods of generating, distributing, and managing power. But so far there has never been a utility built around renewable energy, so this is what we’re working to build. Solar development is an opportunistic role that we play to build solar stations, but it’s just a very small part of what we do. What we’re really doing is designing solar utilities and the heart of our work is figuring out what they’ll be like.
It’s exciting to be at the forefront of change in the industry. Internally, innovation guides everything we do. We’re looking at things, both commercially and technically, in a very new way. Externally, we’re playing an active role, working with regulators and the government to imagine and draft the regulations of the future. Many of the things we work on don’t have existing references — and this is one of the most interesting parts of the job. We literally have a blank piece of paper we’re filling with the most creative commercial and technical ideas.
The best business advice I’ve ever been given came from my mentor and best friend of 15 years. He encouraged me to engage in silent thinking, where you periodically retreat from everything and avoid distractions, but just think about what you are doing, your future plans, your competitive edge. Sometimes we become the slaves of failure or success. It disorients us and we can’t see what to do next. He was an expert at just stopping to think silently. I learned this from him and I try to do it as much as I can. He also taught me how to learn business strategy or methodology from areas not necessarily related to business. So I learned how to use anecdotes to try to understand things and how to look for things I could use for strategic planning in documentaries, movies, or art. Finally, he taught me how to develop myself as a human being — not as an entrepreneur, businessman, or technical professional — but as a human being. This is very important because we need to have a comprehensive view of ourselves.
How do I stay organized? Who says that I stay organized? That’s a presumptuous question. I’m not organized, although I try to be. I jump around a lot. If you aren’t able to stay organized, the best thing is to have a lot of organized people around you, and I think that’s my approach. My team is far more organized than me, and they force me to be organized.