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Meet the Entrepreneur Connecting Syrian artisans in Jordan with Markets Abroad

By Yasmeen Smadi

It’s Monday evening and I’m driving through the streets of Amman, the windows rolled down to enjoy the spring breeze, as I head off to the city’s Business Park to meet Saleem Najjar, the co-founder of Sharqi Shop.

Sharqi Shop is a market place that enables Middle Eastern artisans to sell their items online and reach global markets. It currently features 400 items made by 40 artisans, both Syrian refugees and Jordanians.  The startup is part of Oasis500, the leading seed investment company and business accelerator in Jordan.

“The main challenge was, and still is, registering the company at the Chamber of Commerce only because of the status of my co-founder and I as Syrian refugees.”

Before settling down in Jordan in 2012, Saleem was running his startup ‘Mat3amy’ in Damascus, which was a platform that lists restaurants and suppliers for users to navigate and order food online. He was thinking of moving to Amman to expand his business, but his ambition came to an end when the company had to close down after the conflict in Syria started. “It’s true that I moved to Jordan because of the Syrian conflict, being the only option at that time; but was been thinking about it way before that” Saleem explains.

Saleem studied mechanical engineering but found his passion in entrepreneurship. “I worked in an office for a few months but always felt that this is not for me; I knew I have a different calling and that there are other things in life that I can do,” Saleem says.

So what did Saleem do to pursue his dreams and how difficult was it to start a business in a country he just moved to? Saleem talks to Startups without Borders about his journey, the challenges and barriers he faced and the future he’s hoping for.

What were you doing in Syria before coming here?

I was running my own startup, which I founded in 2009; I needed some extra cash so I started looking for opportunities. I worked for a company for three months while studying mechanical engineering, but I didn’t like it; I didn’t feel that my work had purpose and I thought there should be something more meaningful in life that I can be doing. So I decided to create a website to list all the restaurants in Syria.

It was a new idea at that time. I thought that if I could convince a hundred restaurants to pay me around $20 a month, then I would become a rich man; this was a lot of money for a young person there. It was a challenging process but I managed to start the business with the limited resources I had. In 2010, I amended the business model to add suppliers and advertisements to the platform; this brought a lot of revenue for the company.

The business was growing, which allowed me to move from my home office to a real office in the center of Damascus. The startup also won the best-established business award in a Shell entrepreneurship program in the same year. This was the first time I had heard the term entrepreneurship in my life. We managed to get some funding and added online ordering to the services we provided. Lastly, we were planning to transform into a delivery service company. However, due to everything that happened after the Syrian conflict started, it was not possible.

When did you decide to come to Jordan? Tell us a little bit about the journey to get here.

Back in Syria in 2010, I started doing some research about the startup scene in the region and noticed that it was booming in Jordan; there were a lot of new startups, many venture capitalists and angel investors. So, I considered moving to Jordan and expanding my business to the Middle East from there. I used to watch a series by Oasis500 called ‘A Day in the Life of a Jordanian company’ and think to myself “one day I will be there.” I only got a passport in 2012, so I started to go to Jordan for short visits to check the possibility of starting my business there and see how living there would feel.

When the conflict in Syria started, the restaurants business started to decline. The situation in Syria was getting worse by the day and the house was in a dangerous zone in Damascus. In May 2012, I was on one of my trips to Jordan and couldn’t go back home because the borders were closed. At the same time, my family was told to evacuate the area where they were living, so I had no choice but to bring them to Jordan. It was a very difficult time for me; being stuck in Jordan with no job or business or even people I know, and having to shut down my startup in Syria with only some savings that would last for a few months. My life changed a lot in a very short period.

How did the idea for Sharqi Shop come about? 

In 2012, I had a job for a couple of months and then I was offered to join the founding team of Shop Go which was an e-commerce platform that allows people to create their own online shops. I liked the idea and so I joined the team.  This experience taught me a lot about entrepreneurship and the process of starting a business from ideation to execution to expansion. Back in Syria the term entrepreneurship wasn’t common and starting a business wasn’t really structured or well thought-out. I stayed with ShopGo until 2016 and then I decided to start my own company again, I felt it was time and that I was ready.

My partner at Sharqi and I were inspired by the Syrian artisans we met through the Syrian community in Jordan. After having several talks with them we realized that their main concern was being unable to reach potential customers or sell their products in Jordan, as they didn’t have sales or distribution channels.

So we pitched the idea of a marketplace for art crafts to Oasis500; we know the technical part of starting online stores but we didn’t have a lot of experience in trading and operations so we wanted to learn. This was my first time pitching but luckily we got accepted in the program immediately. We were happy to get the funding and support from Oasis500 but our main concern was if they would be able to help us register the company in Jordan, being Syrian refugees. 

And what did you do to overcome that challenge?

After being accepted by Oasis500 they tried to register the company for us several times with no luck; we were rejected twice based on being Syrian refugees. Being unable to register meant that we couldn’t also open a bank account so we couldn’t receive the funding from Oasis500. Therefore, we were spending from our own money to start the company and support our families, to the point that we barely had any money left in our personal bank accounts.

Here we had to act fast and find a solution for this situation; so in 2017, after 5 months of trying to register the company, we found a work around. A Jordanian friend that we trusted was willing to register the company under his name just to help us. So we managed to convince Oasis500 with this idea then their lawyer made an agreement with this friend to make sure that the company and its ownership is legally protected. This wasn’t an easy solution but it was the only option we had and it allowed us to finally register the company and launch the website.

In my opinion, the media is only focusing on the positive things that are happening for refugees in the startup ecosystem but they are not highlighting the challenges. I think if these issues were addressed then we might find ways to solve them. Also, organizations funding refugees need to be aware of the challenges, especially not being able to register companies in some countries so they can maybe help in finding a way to make it happen.

Another challenge was the English language barrier. English is widely used in Jordan, especially in the business world while it is barely used in Syria at all. So this was very challenging for me when I started working in Jordan, but I managed to improve my language skills during my time at ShopGo.

What kept you going in the difficult moments? Did you have supporters or people who helped you? 

I didn’t have another choice but to keep going.  I was able to stay positive and patient until we managed to register the company under the name of our Jordanian friend. I was getting job offers but I turned them down because I believed that things would get better and everything would fall into place. I had a dream and a belief that I would be able to build something for myself and be successful.

What changed in your life when you started the business? 

I feel my life has meaning now and its fulfilling. I am constantly thinking of how to improve things and provide better services for our customers, it gives me energy and makes me happy.

What’s your biggest goal with the company?  

Goals and plans keep changing and evolving day by day. My aim is for SharqiShop to become an established marketplace for artisans and to be operating in Syria so that the people in Syria can also sell their products. Also, I want to build an application for the artisans to be able to manage their products on the marketplace, from uploading pictures, to writing content, to handling orders and receiving payments. I want each artisan to be able to manage the complete process of selling their products Sharqi which will give them more control and sense of responsibility. I believe this will make our business model more scalable and sustainable.

Other than Sharqi Shop, we have been creating online stores for different companies and brands in the region, which is currently generating 90 percent of our revenues.  We built a very good website for SharqiShop, which opened great opportunities for us. My goal is to create an e-commerce agency that provides customers with high quality online stores that are built following the highest up to date standards and technology. I think there’s a big gap in the market that needs to be filled.

What would you advice another person who migrated from their country and wants to create a business? 

Firstly, and most importantly, they need to know if they can register and run a business in the country were they are. Also getting hired by a startup first would be very helpful to learn everything they need to know about entrepreneurship and how the ecosystem works. This will also help them avoid some mistakes that they might fall into due to lack of experience or knowledge.

Always remember that it is very important to validate your idea before jumping to execution. Moreover, think of the revenue model of the company before you start and how you would attract and retain customers, be realistic when doing this. Finally, be flexible and open to opportunities that come your way.

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