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Thursday, 24 June 2021

My Morning Routine: Ahmed Gaballah, founder and CEO of Sokna

Ahmed Gaballah, founder and CEO of Sokna: Each week, my Morning / WFH Routine looks 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 Gaballah, founder and CEO of Sokna (LinkedIn).

I’m Ahmed Gaballah, a former techie who’s now in the funeral business. I started Egypt’s first end-to-end funeral service, Sokna, after spending 16 years in California working my way up the ranks at Google, Adobe and Facebook. I’m a problem-solver who’s drawn to new challenges and I saw an opportunity to transition the traditional and largely informal sector of funeral services in Egypt into something transparent and systematic.

Being the CEO of a start-up, I’m effectively wearing several hats all the time. I’m in charge of handling strategy, expansion, growth and sourcing great talent. I also spend a lot of time studying international standards in funeral services so I can ensure we’re adhering to best practices in the field. Business development is also a top priority for me, so I spend a lot of time meeting with potential partners like hospital CEOs and companies that are considering adding Sokna’s services to their employees' benefits package.

I wake up at 7 am and the first thing I do is check my phone. We’re a 24/7 hour operation so I have to look at how our field teams have been doing and check for updates on what happened overnight. After that I usually listen to the news on Google Home, and scroll through Enterprise while I grab coffee from TBS or Brown Nose.

The best remedy for me is polo. Nothing relieves stress like a good mallet swing. I have polo games scheduled three times a week first thing in the morning. I’m actually a lifelong equestrian. I started out show jumping when I was younger and later transitioned into polo, which I now play regularly. I call my assistant on my way to the office at 8 am to run through the schedule for the day which typically consists of meetings, brainstorming sessions with the team, and field visits. I try to wrap things up by 7 pm but on busy days it's a little closer to 10 pm when I start to wind down. The reality is that I’m thinking about work all the time though, even in my sleep.

I like to decompress in the evenings by cooking or grabbing dinner with my fiancé. Every once in a while I try to get in a good chess game with a cup of tea before I head to bed.

Witnessing the chaos of organizing a funeral first hand was one of the early signals that something had to change. I was closely involved with supporting one of my closest friends in 2005 after his father passed away. I remember the experience being incredibly traumatic because of how stressful and chaotic it was. I wanted nothing to do with funeral services again and I actually refrained from attending any until 2013 when I was living in California. I was stunned by how different the experience was. I felt that my friend, who had suddenly passed away, got the calm and respectful end of life service that he deserved. This became the catalyst for starting the company: I wanted to solve a tangible problem that not only affected me personally but eventually affects everyone in Egypt.

We intentionally chose to avoid marketing our services when we first launched. We rely mostly on online reviews and word-of-mouth – which is actually how we prefer people find out about us. Otherwise, partnerships with 15 hospitals in Egypt that now have in-house spaces for Sokna staff to offer immediate support, gives us direct exposure to people who most need our services. Media coverage in several local and international news outlets have also helped drive familiarity with our services.

We’re currently working on signing partnership agreements with more hospitals and private companies. I think corporations are starting to realize the importance of supporting their employees in times of loss. We’ve had a number of companies approach us about providing services as part of their employee benefit packages. We’re also working on growing our newly launched service called Pre-Planning, where people can make pre-arrangements for funeral services to ease the burden of decision making during a time of loss. For now, we cover anywhere in Egypt as long as the burial process starts or ends in the greater Cairo region, but we’re looking to expand our geographic footprint.

My time in tech taught me to focus on customers and their experience. Approaching problems through a well-structured process has been a crucial tactic that I learned from my previous work. Relying on data to measure quality, growth, customer satisfaction — and everything really — was an indispensable skill I picked up while working in the US. You can’t make informed decisions without data. I also learned how to build and coach excellent teams.

The transition to Sokna wasn’t easy at first. I had to do a lot of research and spend time on the ground in Egypt, establishing relationships with morticians, speaking with families experiencing loss, and pinpointing exactly where the process could be improved. I also spent substantial time in Asia and the US researching how funerary processes and systems worked there.

As a frontline service provider we don’t have the luxury of WFH. We have to be available at a moment’s notice to our customers wherever they are located in Greater Cairo. The company has been tech-enabled from day one, however, so we’re able to communicate remotely through our internal infrastructure. We have a one hour team meeting and a 20 minute team scrum on a weekly basis. We regularly bring everyone together to regroup through team building activities in fun, outdoor settings while following health and safety guidelines.

I’m passionate about good coffee. It’s been lovely exploring all the local, homegrown coffee brands sprouting up around the city. Dark Solution Coffee (Maadi), Seven Fortunes, Brown Nose and 30 North are my favorites.

My best advice? Work on what you’re passionate about, everything else will follow.

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