Executive InterviewsLatest

Meet Ayman Abdel-Rahman – Interactive ebooks: One Step Closer To The Future of Reading

Today we have selected Ayman Abdel-Rahman to take his interview. He is the CEO of kotobee.

First of all, how are you and your team doing in these COVID-19 times?

We are all safe and in the process of getting vaccinated. Our company already had a lenient work-from-home policy before COVID-19. So the transition to a 100% work-from-home model only required minor tweaking. We plan to continue working remotely as it has proven to be more beneficial for the company in terms of productivity and for the team members to avoid commute time.

Tell us about you, your career, how you founded or joined this company?

I’ve been in the ebook industry since 2004. I’ve always been fascinated by the technical side of interactive ebooks, and I wonder why this technology hasn’t been adopted by major companies other than Apple. I have founded several online and offline services to aid basic users in creating their interactive ebooks independently. There were many pivoting decisions at a small scale, such as targeting different markets; we stayed firm with our vision that interactive ebooks are the future of reading and learning. Eventually, Kotobee, launched in 2015, picked up and has been in steady growth since then.

How does your company innovate?

As the director, I do give the team members room for breathing and innovating. For example, every two months, we run a “hack day” where every company member works on any topic they wish in randomly assigned teams. The person does not need to use their job title’s skill set that day but can do anything they wish. Besides breaking the ice and team bonding, this hack day has been an oil well of extremely creative out-of-the-box ideas, with feasible ones implemented already into our products.

We’ve been running this hack day for over two years now, and I strongly recommend other business owners to try it out. Food for thought: Google Maps, Gmail, Google Calendar are just a few of the products that simple employees have pitched at Google in similar “hack day” activities.
Other than that, the majority of our companies are ambitious techies who have the urge for innovation. We have a strong business development team that is on the watch for new ideas and opportunities.

How the Coronavirus pandemic affects your business, and how are you coping?

I know the pandemic was an unfortunate reason for many businesses to close down or struggle financially to this day, and I sincerely hope things pick up for them again. Fortunately, in our case, it was the opposite. The lockdown has encouraged many educational institutes to take remote learning seriously and put it into practice. It was a time of decision and change in direction.

As ebooks are a tool of remote learningwe did receive a lot of attention and interest from educational institutes worldwide.
That said, we took social responsibility and aid institutes struggling financially due to the lockdown by providing free licenses to start applying remote learning. We raised awareness and transferred part of our experience with the tools and know-how required to start working remotely through our popular blog.

Did you have to make difficult choices, and what are the lessons learned?

I wouldn’t be honest if I said there were difficult choices we had to make. Things went smoothly for us for several reasons. We already had a good company infrastructure that allows good control while still provides flexibility for employees. We were well-equipped with the tools and experience to suddenly shift to working remotely. Nonetheless, I was keen to continuously ask employees if things were boring working from home or unknown challenges to take quick action.
Business-wise, our company is product-based, so an investment of several years of work led to a salable product with an automated subscription system. So even if there were downtimes or downfalls from specific team members, our cash flow was positive and steady, which helped us get through.
The main lesson learned for us was to plan, plan, and plan. Have everything documented, whether instructions, training handbooks, or policies, and let everyone know them. Document the actions to take in certain scenarios, such as dealing with the crisis at hand. All of these, although I agree, are tedious or dull tasks, they are your safety net that will save your business one day.

What specific tools, software, and management skills are you using to navigate this crisis?

We use all Google Workplace products except for Google Chat as it doesn’t support voice messages (as of the date of this interview). For remote team communication, we use Flock, which is a cheaper alternative to Slack. Just like almost everyone, we use Zoom for our client meetings.
Monitoring, increasing, and leveraging team productivity for remote workers is probably the key management skill I learned and proved useful to us throughout this crisis.

Who are your competitors? And how do you plan to stay in the game?

Our biggest competitor was namely Apple, with their free Apple iBooks Author product. The only reason I’m mentioning their name is that they have officially announced the product to be discontinued in mid-2020.

Other competitors are digital publishing products that allow the creation of interactive ebooks. This is considered a very niche market sector, so there are only a handful of competitors.

To stay in the game, we get down to earth and listen to problems and requirements from actual users. Many companies think they’re solving a key problem where they’re not. Some companies sometimes deal with user complaints with arrogance. You can only know the worthy problems by collecting feedback from target users. Most of our users would compliment the level of attention we give to their feedback and suggestions.

Your final thoughts

The pandemic shook the world. We cannot deny that this has impacted the world negatively, especially the millions of lives lost, our heartfelt condolences to all their families.

The one good thing that came out of the pandemic is it made everyone think and re-evaluate their values and beliefs health-wise, social-wise, and business-wise. We all now have a stronger bond with our families and friends. We value relationships more. We value our health and are more careful with what we eat. We feel blessed with our jobs and after we’ve seen the layoffs happening all over the world.

One of our corporate values that I reinforce every while and then is “intellectual humility.” It’s very important to feel humble and avoid any traces of arrogance. By showing intellectual humility, you will be able to extract lessons learned from any experience, no matter how negative. It’s very important to see the positive side of things and learn from them. But with arrogance, even with the best lessons, one will be blind.

I wish the best for everyone. If you have been affected by the pandemic, stay confident that you will turn things around.

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