Ahmed Reza of Yobi: Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Uncertain & Turbulent Times
The most important thing for a good leader is to know themselves. Your personal strengths and weaknesses do not have to be the organization’s strengths and weaknesses. Acknowledge your shortcomings but don’t project them onto your business. If you know yourself, and you’re honest and say, these are my weaknesses, go and make sure you hire for those weaknesses, this way, your weaknesses are not the organization’s weaknesses.
As part of our series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times”, we had the pleasure of interviewing Ahmed Reza.
Ahmed Reza is the Founder of Yobi, one of the fastest growing AI communication apps for business, and the co-founder of TrepHub, a nonprofit dedicated to building startup ecosystems. Ahmed is a serial entrepreneur with a background in AI and software engineering. After selling his last venture, he realized that small businesses and startups have trouble scaling customer-facing teams like sales and customer service, and that he could build a platform that made it easy for businesses to successfully build these teams. Yobi is rapidly growing and now has over 11k business clients.
In his effort to source talent and help GROW startup communities around the world, Ahmed built a high-performing team of software engineers IN North Africa and helped accelerate the startup community in Algeria. More startups have also started looking to Algeria with the goal of identifying exceptional talent following Yobi’s lead. Ahmed believes in building local capacity and nurturing strong entrepreneurial culture, so he spent a significant part of last year traveling to North Africa and supporting local leadership. Yobi’s presence in the North African startup scene has been a force multiplier for the community.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I got my degree in engineering, but my career started from my desire to be successful, no matter the industry. Entrepreneurship came to me as a necessity as opposed to by design. I started my entrepreneurial journey back in high school, selling incense and oils at a festival. It wasn’t as profitable as we had hoped. Later, I focused on other side hustles to continue this business experience, like buying and reselling cars. I was nominated for a scholarship through the Milken Institute where I became a member of an exclusive group of scholarship winners. A fellow scholarship recipient inspired me to look into business as a full time career.
It has been said that our mistakes can be our greatest teachers. Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
In retrospect, the funniest mistake was when my friend and I took all of our money, including our savings, to put into our incense and oils business venture. Our original $200 turned into $20 that day and on top of that, we were stuck with a lot of incense that we didn’t know what to do with. So money management and planning was one of the first lessons we learned that day.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
One of the other fellow Milken scholars, Serge Sverdlov, flew down to Florida to see me. He saw that I was running a multimillion dollar online car business while working at the U.S. Department of Defense and was like, “Why aren’t you a CTO of a startup?” Until that moment, it did not occur to me that I could do business and engineering. I just never realized that I could do it until Milken scholar, Serge, told me, “You should be doing this.” And then he backed me, he was like, “I’ll back you.” And I was like, “This is really weird. You’re going to give me money? I have nothing.” He’s like, “I’ll back you. I’ll give you the money and I want you to really focus on a software startup.”
One of the folks that I feel most deeply appreciative of, this is personal, is Dr. James Houck, God rest his soul. He was the principal investigator on the Spitzer Space Telescope Project and he was kind enough to offer me a full-time job at NASA as one of the youngest engineers when I dropped out of Cornell University because I was too poor. He basically said, “Hey, I’m the principal on this NASA project and I see that you’re an engineer. I don’t care if you have a degree or not, you write really good code, you understand things others don’t. I’m going to give you a job.” That was incredibly kind of him. Had that not happened, I probably would have been working at a grocery store. There was a very real possibility that nothing else would have come together.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose-driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your organization started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?
The vision behind it was simple. I felt like I could use an extra set of hands. I was always the underdog, and I’m not the only one. My stories resonate with most small business owners. Many of them come from a similar background as me, and nobody builds stuff for them. They inadvertently stumble into business. They don’t know fancy words like monthly recurring revenue. They might not even know what profit and loss means, but they are very much the engines behind economic growth.
During COVID-19, I realized this is probably when all those small business folks who are fast on their feet will be looking for technological solutions. I thought, “Hey, what if we could give all those folks an extra hand automating specific workflows, doing the things big businesses do? That would be amazing.”
Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?
When the whole world gets turned upside down, that’s happened to me so many times. I’m like, “All right, I got this.” After I sold my previous company, I was involved–from an ownership perspective–in acquiring a company. I put together this crazy spreadsheet, got on a Zoom call, and explained this crazy spreadsheet to hundreds of people. And then I said, “This is why we’re laying everybody off.” And this is when COVID-19 was just barely in the news, and they’re like, “This guy is crazy.” This is the first time we’ve heard from him. This is that prototypical new guy who comes in, laying off everyone, and telling everyone, “This is a good thing.” There were so many tears, and I was out. I was like, “Man, I hope this is the right thing.” It turns out two weeks later, the entire United States went into lock down and everybody had applied for unemployment except for one or two folks.
I told folks like, “Hey, if you are having financial difficulty, I will personally reach out and help you out and take care of you.” I only needed to help one person who had been too distraught to even apply for unemployment. Everybody else was ahead of unemployment, and they actually got the extra money. As soon as that happened, I had everybody calling me up and they were like, “How can we get behind you? What can we do? Because with all the uncertainty going on, you are somebody who I really trust. You gave me the hard truth.”
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
Sometimes giving up is the right thing to do. More than giving up, I feel like knowing yourself and learning to manage your ego as an entrepreneur is important. When you have successes, when you have wild successes, your ego gets inflated. You need to learn to manage that. When you have failures, your ego gets super deflated. You need to manage that also and understand neither one of those are realities. Those are both emotions. The reality is somewhere in between.
For me, I had to redefine what success meant, and that’s what really helped me stabilize. All these people who have helped me, those who have gotten to know me, are the true blessings in life. All the people who love me, all the people who care, all the beauty that’s out there, really focusing on that and helping you ground yourself is the most important thing.
I’m an author and I believe that books have the power to change lives. Do you have a book in your life that impacted you and inspired you to be an effective leader? Can you share a story?
One of my favorite books is called “The Upside of Stress” by Kelly McGonigal. Stress and failure is amazingly good for you. Stress is really good. Stress is formative. It takes that clay and turns it into a statue or turns it into a sculpture. I would highly recommend that book, “The Upside of Stress.”
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
The most critical role of a leader is to not let a good storm go to waste. These are the best times to build companies. I say that from experience. The little guys, usually, are outmatched, outfunded, and outgunned. But during these times, this is when you can build that next Microsoft.
It’s in revolutions like this that you build something big. If you’re an entrepreneur who’s trying to build something big or even if you’re a small business owner and your key thing is resourcefulness, being faster on your feet is key and the people around you who you owe will help make your organization a success.
When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?
This very much depends on culture and leadership style. I’m a big believer in keeping it real. It freaks some people out, but I’ve seen harsh realities. In my personal experience, it’s best to face harsh realities for what they are as opposed to avoiding them.
I think it’s a lot better when you’re dealing with adults to tell them where things are and how you plan to fix it. The second part, I have a plan. If you don’t think this plan is good, come talk to me.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
I’m still figuring this out because it takes a little bit of getting used to. And a big part of this is culture and understanding who you’re working with. I once met Kobe Bryant and he was talking about business and giving leadership advice, and he said, “The train’s going this way. You’re either on it, off it, or under it.” That’s become my mantra. It’s a very straightforward statement of fact. To me, that’s the best thing that you can do. Hopefully, you’re dealing with other self-aware, high functioning people who will appreciate the honesty and appreciate where you’re trying to go. People tend to appreciate someone who really has their best interest at heart and is honest.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
Anybody who thinks that the future is predictable is probably pretty early in their entrepreneurial career. I actually don’t make one plan. Me and the executives I work with make several plans, usually a minimum of five. If I’m feeling particularly stressed out, I’ll make even more plans in Excel. I’ll take the whole weekend and knock out a whole bunch of different scenarios. And in that planning, you start to get clarity. And at least you have a plan, so if something happens you’re as prepared as possible.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
My core guiding principle is to redefine success as not something extrinsic but intrinsic. What are the things in your control? One of the folks that I want to quote here, another formative book is “Man’s Search for Meaning” by Viktor E. Frankl. Victor E. Frankl basically reframed his incredibly unfortunate experiences to, “I’m not going to let the outside things dictate my success. I’m going to choose to love despite all the hate that’s around me and that’s how I will maintain my sense of self. That’s how I will maintain my sense of success.”
When you’re in turbulent times, people need good core philosophies. Redefining success and being able to congratulate yourself on those days when everything is going wrong is key, so that no matter how turbulent the waters are, you’re still focused, you’re still gritty, you’re still pushing forward. You don’t control the outside world, you just don’t. You control yourself. You control the things that you have and you control trying your best. You have to try your best. Check in with yourself regularly and keep moving forward.
Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
My advice to entrepreneurs, be honest, don’t be short-term focused. I think the worst thing that I’ve seen folks do is want to be liked. I’ve gotten advice from seasoned CEOs because I want to be liked. I want these folks that I care deeply about to like me. And they shared, you don’t have to be liked, you have to perform, you have to do your job, you have a responsibility to all those folks around you. They may not like you in the short term because what you’re saying is harsh.
I think getting reality right is really important. I’ve made a lot of mistakes myself, which has helped me learn some of these lessons and really internalize some of these lessons. Market realities matter. I don’t care if you know profit and loss or not, in your gut, you will know profit and loss because you will live and die by it. No matter what you think, no matter what the perception is, as an entrepreneur, as a business, you have to understand that greater reality. The future is never predictable. Markets are turbulent. The ones people don’t see coming seem to keep coming. Historically, they happen, so account for them.
Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.
The most important thing for a good leader is to know themselves. Your personal strengths and weaknesses do not have to be the organization’s strengths and weaknesses. Acknowledge your shortcomings but don’t project them onto your business. If you know yourself, and you’re honest and say, these are my weaknesses, go and make sure you hire for those weaknesses, this way, your weaknesses are not the organization’s weaknesses. Hire people who are better than you. You need people in your organization who can challenge you and make you learn something new. Stop trying to do everything yourself. If you’re an overachiever, you want to do everything yourself. The whole part of being a good leader is not doing everything yourself. Trust the people who are better than you.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I met Kobe Bryant, and he had a famous saying … Well, I don’t know if it’s famous, to me, it’s famous. He was talking about business and giving leadership advice, and said, “The train’s going this way. You’re either on it, off it, or under it.” That’s become my mantra. Yes, it sounds very harsh, but the train’s going this way. It gives you some certainty. The train is a metaphor for life, you have to keep moving. If you don’t believe in it, get off of it. If you fight it, you’re going to be under it. It’s a very straightforward statement of fact.
How can our readers further follow your work?
Yobi’s Press Page: https://yobi.app/press/
Yobi’s Blog: https://yobi.app/blog/
Thank you so much for the time you spent with this. We wish you only continued success!
Ahmed Reza of Yobi: Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Uncertain &… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.