I logged onto our scheduled Zoom interview excited to speak with Mumm CEO Waleed Abdelrahman. Launched in 2016, Mumm is one of Egypt’s leading foodtech startups, which started as a marketplace for home-based chefs, and then expanded its market offering by launching their virtual Cafeteria and then corporate catering.
I’d set up the meeting with a plan to interview Waleed about his decision to take the company fully remote, even after Covid-19. This was the kind of forward-thinking HR strategy that was few and far between in the Egyptian ecosystem, where startups are generally reluctant to experiment with progressive HR policies, choosing instead to rely on the age-old 9-5 in-office mandate. The conversation that emerged, however, went far beyond the scope of remote work and its effect on Mumm’s growth and operations processes. We spoke about his daily routine managing a fully remote team, the recent investment from Alex Angels, and Waleed’s experience winning a $65,000 third-place prize in last year’s Africa’s Business Heroes (ABH) Competition.
“I wake up at 5 AM every day,” Waleed tells me as soon as I ask about his daily routine. I immediately wonder whether this is another one of those rehearsed CEO responses that try to make them seem superhuman and hyperproductive, but my skepticism is dispelled right away. “I’ve always wanted to wake up this early, but it’s only really been possible to maintain this kind of schedule during lockdown,” Waleed elaborates, going on to share with me various aspects of his day. “After spending some time with my daughter, I allocate some time to reading books and articles that I want to spend some time with and really reflect on. After that, I do half an hour of day prep, revising what needs to be done and comparing it against our quarterly plan just to make sure everything is on the right track.”
As with almost every MENA startup operating through Covid-19, Mumm’s plans have witnessed a significant overhaul over the past few months. The company was just about to become cashflow positive in early April if the crisis hadn’t struck Egypt when it did. Nevertheless, with some clever maneuvering early on, Waleed speaks with pride about his team’s capacity to adapt quickly to the situation and pivot the company’s revenue streams in response. “We were lucky enough to realize pretty early on that, once Covid hit MENA, it was here to stay for quite some time. Coming to terms with this fact and working to adapt our processes to go fully remote from as early as mid-March really allowed us to take the time to craft a strong plan of action in response.”
The Alibaba Foundation allowed us access to biweekly webinars featuring 100-million-dollar leading Chinese startups discussing how they each handled Covid-19. Listening to this was huge for us.
One of the ten finalists in last year’s ABH Competition, organized by the Jack Ma Foundation’s Africa Netpreneur Prize Initiative (ANPI), Waleed also benefited from access to the Chinese ecosystem, where he sought advice and inspiration on how to face Covid’s business challenges. “Because China was hit first, having this visibility was a huge advantage. The Alibaba Foundation allowed us access to biweekly webinars featuring 100-million-dollar leading Chinese startups discussing how they each handled Covid-19. Listening to this was huge for us. One of the people they interviewed, for example, was one of the biggest food delivery providers in China. You can only imagine how beneficial it was for us to listen to his experience! Having this information on hand really opened my eyes, almost like a peek into what the future holds for us here in Egypt.
About a week or so after Covid lockdowns hit Egypt in mid-March and we processed the shock, we were back on track, working towards new options. In fact, now, most of our pivoting efforts are being directed towards making the best out of the Covid-19 situation, not to make sure we simply ‘survive.’”
Speaking to Waleed, it’s impossible not to be struck by his strong sense of optimism and positivity when discussing how Mumm’s work has been going amid Covid. Is he not worried about maintaining the team’s motivation from a distance? What about team-building and brainstorming activities that rely on face-to-face communication? How does he ensure everyone is working on what they need to be doing without any direct supervision?
Yeah, I exercise discipline, just like the coach of a football team striving to win the world cup! That’s how work gets done.
In fact, self-accountability isn’t new to Mumm. Unlike many local startups who had to learn how to work from home from scratch with the onset of Covid-19, Mumm has always allowed all of its permanent employees to take three days of optional work-from-home every week. “All companies say that trust is important, but we really embody this in our work. If you’re comfortable in your role and you have work to do, your results speak for themselves.” I quickly learn that it is this results-driven approach that really defines Waleed as a leader. He’s the first to admit that he expects a lot from his team: “In a lot of HR conversations, I may seem like a very discipline-focused leader, which I am. I don’t believe in fluff and empty platitudes about the company being a family. I like to think of our company more as a professional sports team. Yeah, I exercise discipline, just like the coach of a football team striving to win the world cup! That’s how work gets done. But I believe that discipline should also come with some flexibility. If you can get what you need to get done from home, then you don’t need to be in the office every single day. And this isn’t new to us. This is how we’ve always worked. Responsibility and freedom come together. If I give you lots of responsibility, I also need to give you enough freedom to achieve these goals whichever way you see fit.”
By 9:30 AM, he’s ready for his daily call with the team. With comprehensive project plans, every task is accounted for and followed up on teamwide to ensure everything stays transparent and organized. “Because we’re a small team with many people functioning in multiple roles, this is a good opportunity for us to ask other team members questions and see how we can learn from one another,” Waleed reflects.
It seems that collaboration is really at the heart of the Mumm operation. Waleed excitedly tells me about the company’s group learning activities, which take place every one or two days for 30-45 minutes as part of the daily team-wide meeting. “We survey the team to find out which topics they’d like to learn more about then find an appropriate program and enrol in it together. We’ve found that engaging together on a common learning project at the start of every day gives us each a kick in the morning and helps us stay focused and motivated.”
With all of this out of the way, it’s barely 11 AM and Waleed already has the rest of the day to himself. By ensuring all regular meetings and urgent tasks are completed early in the morning, the Mumm exec makes sure that the bulk of his day is spent focusing on what the company needs most at any given point in time, working until around 8 PM every day.
Let’s be real. Startup founders know that their job descriptions are not tailored to the standard 8-hour workday model, otherwise they wouldn’t be that extensive.
“That’s a very long day!” I note to Waleed, who seems unfazed by the 12+ hour day he just described. “I don’t believe the standard 9-5 work culture applies effectively to startups, especially founders,” he tells me. “People often have to work around the clock to get the company off the ground. We all know it. Startup employees regularly work until 7, 8, 9, or 10 PM. I know I place a lot of pressure on myself and my team and that the required amount of work can’t be completed in the standard 8-hour workday. Let’s be real. Startup founders know that their job descriptions are not tailored to the standard 8-hour workday model, otherwise they wouldn’t be that extensive.
“That said, because I know my people are already working hard and putting in tons of hours throughout the week, I try to make our team as comfortable as possible and that’s really where the 3-day WFH policy came from. For those who take advantage of this opportunity and don’t work, their (lack of) results also speak for itself!”
“What about the new investment,” I inquire, curious to learn how a growing company like Mumm can optimize its allocation of fresh funds amid today’s turbulent market landscape.
Knowing that you were among 10 people chosen out of over 10,000 applicants means that you’re interacting with the best of what Africa has to offer and really pushes you forward to get through whatever obstacle may come your way.
“We’d been working on this opportunity from before Covid and we really were lucky actually that it fell through then, and picked up again when it did,” says Waleed. “Pre-crisis, we were really investing our efforts towards developing our virtual cafeteria. Now, we’ve actually developed an on-premises cafeteria. This product helps organizations limit the spread of Covid-19 through food delivery. We allow businesses with essential employees to feed their workforce healthy, clean, good quality food. The product has already launched, targeting banks, factories, and other office settings with essential personnel.”
Although I’d seen other startups in the region pivot slightly to account for changing consumer habits during the pandemic, introducing a whole new revenue stream during Covid-19 is a hefty endeavor, even with the influx of new cash into the business. I was eager to learn how else Mumm’s Covid response plan had been inspired by Waleed’s 2019 participation in the ABH Competition.
“Well, knowing that you were among 10 people chosen out of over 10,000 applicants means that you’re interacting with the best of what Africa has to offer and really pushes you forward to get through whatever obstacle may come your way. The competition itself also exposed us to a lot of other African startups. It allowed us unparalleled access to the African ecosystem: what can be done, what is needed there, and are there any potential business opportunities? In our day-to-day business activities, we’re rarely exposed to the African ecosystem and its particular cultural nuances and market needs. In this way, the ANPI experience was truly unique. I was exposed to a group of world-class judges, mentors, and entrepreneurs, who really informed the strategy we implemented after the competition.”
“Any plans to return to the office once all of this is over?” I ask as we round-off our discussion. “It really depends on the number of people in the company. If we grow and have a team that we believe needs to be housed in an office, sure, I’m not fundamentally against it. But, at the moment, it simply doesn’t make sense for us. We’re working more efficiently (and safely!) than ever before right now!”