Tell us about you, your career, how you founded Vanilla Social Media?
Ahmed Ezzat: I’m the founder of both CORE Training and Consulting and Vanilla Social Media. As an entrepreneur, I have strong hands-on experience in consultation services for projects budgeted at more than $30 million, including multinational organizations. CORE has trained more than 10,000 individuals in various business topics. My broad area of expertise includes Entrepreneurship, Marketing, Digital Marketing, Strategic Planning, Project Management, Performance Management, Customer Experiences, and Training & Development.
I’m also a mentor at Singularity University in Silicon Valley – Global Startup Program and a chapter leader and active member, as well as a group coach at Hive Global Community for Leaders & Entrepreneurs – USA.
I finished my bachelor and MBA in 2009, which enabled me to work for Orange Telecom for 5 years in the Business Transformation Planning field, the German Hospital medical packager, Vital Konzept, in the Project Management Field, as a Leadership Assessor with the National Bank of Egypt, as well as, Job Master in Assessing more than 1500 General Managers for their leadership competencies.
My first business, CORE Training and Consulting, was launched in 2009 in Cairo, Egypt, and I worked with many organizations in the training & development fields. CORE Training & Consulting initiated the Startup Mentorship Platform, CORE Circles, in late 2019 and has done the Startup Accelerator with the Government arm TIEC. My second business, Vanilla Social Media LLC, was founded in 2017 in the USA to work as a digital marketing agency in the US & MENA regions.
I have presented in many International Events like:
- Startup Path in Romania
- Nexus MENA
- Hive Eastern Europe
- Hive Global Community of Entrepreneurs – India “The entrepreneurship track”
- Startup Grind Egypt.
- I also judged and mentored many startups through DEMO Africa Innovation Tour, Singularity University, and Startup Accelerator at Technology Innovation & Entrepreneurship Center.
How does Vanilla Social Media innovate?
Ahmed Ezzat: We do weekly brainstorming meetings and exercises among the internal team, and sometimes we bring in engineers, product designers, painters, and other individuals with diverse backgrounds through our network to the brainstorming meetings. We also use rapid prototyping techniques, which are techniques learned from Tom Chi, a co-founder of Google X, whom we met through one of Hive Global Community of Leaders and Entrepreneurs gatherings.
How the coronavirus pandemic affects your business, and how are you coping?
Ahmed Ezzat: In Vanilla Social Media, we have had tough times as our accounts went from 18 running accounts to only one account in 2 months by the start of the Coronavirus pandemic and during the lockdown time. It was stressful and hard to manage. During the first 2 weeks staying at home was enjoyable, but it became very frustrating after that.
Defining the real challenges that the company was facing at that moment – during the pandemic became crucial. The main challenges were and still are:
- Personal mental health and the mental health of the team and family.
- Cash Flow Crisis as revenues suddenly declined, and the fixed costs were running the same.
- Managing Uncertainty and How to come back at the right time?
How to take care of and overcome every challenge?
Ahmed Ezzat: Challenge One: Personal mental health and the mental health of the team and family
Actions: I realized that the first challenge was managing my inner emotions, fears, and negative feelings and that I had to take care of them in order to take care of the outer stuff.
- I bought a bicycle and got back to exercising and going for walks and running outdoors.
- I read a good part every day.
- I supported my community by either inviting them to do what I’m doing or helping them accept their own changes and cope with them, including supporting my team and family.
Challenge Two: Cash Flow Crisis as revenues suddenly declined, and the fixed cost was running the same.
Actions: My main goal here was to ensure the business’ continuity and sustainability
- I switched some full-time employees to part-time or freelance base.
- I negotiated with the property owner to decrease our office rent during the lockdown period.
- I sold my personal car to cover the rest in lack of regular revenues and cash inflow.
- I made my focus on developing a future-state vision, how to optimize cost and innovate at the same time.
Challenge Three: Managing Uncertainty and How to come back at the right time?
- As mentioned above, focusing on developing a future-state vision was a driver in choosing what to do and what not to do? We chose to digitize and automate more tasks and create and sell more automated products and services. How to use innovation in the design of the products and the concepts that we, as businesses, offer to help overcome this challenge posed by the pandemic.
- We built app.vanillasm.com, which is a new 100% automated service that needs ZERO to one employee only to manage and start selling that with a competitive price and focusing our effort on showing the value of getting cheaper and effective B2B leads during the pandemic, which is the real value behind using the tool for the users.
Did you have to make difficult choices, and what are the lessons learned?
Ahmed Ezzat: The most difficult situation I had was asking full-time employees to become part-time, freelance, or end their contracts. It was really painful for me, and I know it was bad for them, but they will never imagine how much more it hurt me.
On the other side, some employees chose by themselves to quit and come to me to stop their contracts due to the situation, and as it was so nice on their part, it made me feel just horrible.
The biggest lessons I learned are:
- I have to work in a minimum assets mode as much as I can.
- I have to automate.
- I have to work in a minimum human resources mode as much as I can.
- I have to keep a good amount of cash in reserve for crises like this one, and in case there are no crises, then that extra money could be invested as well. Running on the edge is not the best thing.
How do you deal with stress and anxiety?
Ahmed Ezzat: As mentioned above, I kept walking outside every day for 8000 – 12000 steps to release negative energy.
Sometimes I would bicycle and do meditation before going to sleep to make sure that I was getting more mental clarity and additional negative energy release.
Who are your competitors? And how do you plan to stay in the game?
Ahmed Ezzat: I have 2 kinds of competitors: the direct digital marketing agencies that help clients spread their digital presence like Vanilla Social Media and the other indirect SAAS tools that do bits & pieces of the functions and sell subscriptions.
By giving our clients the credibility of being covered and helping them to know there is a helping hand that can take care of their marketing and digital marketing tasks manually and gets high results, we have an eye on building our portfolio of SAAS products, which can either helps our clients or us in their digital marketing, and we started during the pandemic by building app.vanillasm.com for B2B lead generations and using exponential tech like AI, Machine Learning, Blockchain … etc. to have a good place in the near future.
Your final thoughts?
Ahmed Ezzat: I’m happy that I was able to sustain the business and keep it running during the pandemic, and I’m getting back now with new optimized methods and lessons learned. I now believe that being too big of an organization makes it harder to change, be agile, and overcome big challenges. Although I wasn’t that big of a business, I’m happy that I made it through this tough time.