My Life as a Startup Founder – Interview with Amany Killawi

profile picture of amany killawi

Social worker turned social entrepreneur, Amany is the Co-Founder & COO a.k.a Team Swiss Army Knife at LaunchGood.com: A crowdfunding platform to support Muslims launching good all over the world by helping them raise funds for their projects, campaigns, and creative ideas.

Today, she tells us about what it’s really like as a startup founder, the rise of Muslim startups, and what you can do to get started on your idea.

Can you talk a bit about the diversity in the startup scene? 

I think the startup space is changing a lot in many ways. I’ve seen changes to founding teams, in the way funding is received, and more startups that cater to different communities. 

For example, when LaunchGood first got started, we went to Silicon Valley to ask for funding. We told them that we have this great idea to build a crowdfunding platform to empower the Muslim community, and no one gave us any money. We couldn’t even raise $1! So we ended up bootstrapping our company. We had an angel investment of $10,000; that’s about the same of the average crowdfunding campaign. It was tough! We didn’t pay ourselves for three years, but we needed to keep pushing to get LaunchGood to where it is today. 

Now things have changed, and there are other companies similar to us who got funding. For example, Muzmatch, Y Combinator graduates, received $7 million in seed funding. Haute Hijab received $2.3 million in seed funding, and Affinis Labs got acquired for $8 million. The current situation is a far cry from when we looked for funding six years ago; people are starting to pay more attention to us.

Things are changing, but it’s not where it needs to be yet. There still isn’t a catered global Islamic economy. However, we are seeing more Muslims starting companies, like LaunchGood and Haute Hijab, that are building products that cater specifically to Muslim consumers. We look at an even more specific group – global urban Muslims who are educated and speak English, or “gummies”. There’s 287 million of us around the world. You need people from this community to cater to them, which is why the diversity of founders is changing. But of course, I’m in that bubble. I see that it’s starting to come together, but I don’t feel like there’s an ecosystem emerging. It’s in the works, but it’s not there just yet. 

We’ve received positive feedback when we’ve gone and presented to people in the mainstream community because I think they’re starting to get it. For so long they’ve been building products for a specific type of consumer, and now see that there’s a whole other population that has different needs. 

Do you think that the rise of companies catering to Muslims is because of more Muslim founders or because of more mainstream investors taking notice?

I think that it’s the former. For this ecosystem to emerge, we need Muslims to take a bet on the Muslim community. What I mean by that is that entrepreneurship is inherently risky, no matter what space you’re in, whether you’re in the Muslim community or not. Why not build a business where you feel like your values are already aligned, and you feel like there’s a need. 

I don’t think investors are going to come to us unless we prove that there’s actual value here, that there’s a market to capture. For investors to be interested, the first side of the equation is that you have to build that demand. You have to go out there and get an MVP, show people you have a working product, you have paying users, but need help scaling this. 

The first year we came back to Silicon Valley, they were surprised we were still alive. The second year we came back, they were surprised we were doing so well. There’s a lot of scepticism, and the only way to prove that wrong is for us to take the initiative. As a community, we need to say we want to build these products for ourselves, have a proof of concept, market it, and then go to investors to show them what we’re building and ask for help making it bigger. 

I do think that Muslims should ride this wave of people feeling it’s cool to be Muslim. We experienced a “Trump bump,” meaning our numbers did better in the election year because people rushed to support us in light of rising Islamophobia. CAIR also received more funding that year because of public anti-Muslim feeling. So yes, we should capitalise on this, but as a community, we need to have support and resources regardless of what sentiment the world community feels towards us.

What are the first steps an average Muslim woman can take to build a startup?

Start with your mindset first. The first step in doing anything as a person is your mindset; you have to permit yourself to grow. Give yourself permission to not be good at something in the beginning and be comfortable with feeling awkward. Take everything as a growing and learning opportunity. 

Many times we feel like we can’t do something until we reach some pinnacle of success or surpass some mountain that we placed for ourselves. I don’t have a tech background, and neither do any of my co-founders. I don’t have a business background; I studied social work and have a background in community organising. We each had a growth mindset that said: “I don’t know everything about this, but I’m going to learn.” You don’t have to feel like you’re married to your major and can’t do anything else.

The second thing I often tell people is that before you jump in and get funding, you need something we call a minimum viable product, an MVP. What is the least amount of work, time, and money you can put into this idea to see and get a pulse if this product is wanted and viable? It can be as simple as realising something is a pain point, and learning for how many people. See if there’s a need and build something basic, like a landing page, to test it. 

How have the demands on your time evolved from when you started LaunchGood to now, six years later.

I’m a big fan of not glamorising things. I think a lot of people glamorise entrepreneurship. It’s certainly the most intense school you can go to. But it’s very very hard, and a big amana; especially when you’re growing a team and have people on the payroll. You have to make sure you’re leading the ship the right way. 

The first two years of LaunchGood were intense. The first two to three years of any startup are intense; there’s a high chance of burning out. But there’s a lot of passion, it’s like you’re infatuated with this idea. And that passion gets you past those first two years and past that burnout. In those first years, you’re just seeing if people want your idea. Is it a good market fit, and can you get this up and running?

Years three and four is when you learn how to optimise and build a team. You amplify what you’ve already been doing, and then you start to optimise. Once you’re able to get some profit going and can hire people, it gets a little easier because you don’t have to be there all the time. I like to say that 1 + 1 doesn’t equal 2, it equals 11. 

I think that it’s a little easier for women to be entrepreneurs early on than men because most people don’t expect women to be the breadwinner. Unless you’re a single mom or in financial pressure, you can take risks and go with it because you’re not expected to fund the household. Take that advantage! It can evolve for you, and you might end up becoming the breadwinner. It ‘s going to take a lot of sacrifices. You have to know that you might not get paid for some time, especially in the very early stages. The biggest advantage is the growth you’ll have in yourself. That’s the best investment. You’ll learn so much about yourself in such a short time. And that itself pays for it.

How does the intense work schedule affect your family? 

Family helps keep you in check. You can spend all day and all night in the office, but knowing that you have to come home to your family for dinner is healthy for you. 

Alhamdulillah, my family was very supportive. I lived with my parents during the first two years of LaunchGood. My routine was that I would come home and from 6-8 I wouldn’t touch my phone, sometimes 6-9 if I was really good. No technology, nothing. If the world was burning, I had no idea. I would unplug with those three hours, have dinner with my family, have tea, and then I would come back around 9, take some conference calls and go onto shift number two. I still try to keep to that routine; I need to have some time to unplug. 

I had more time when I got married. I’m the middle of seven kids, so there were a lot of distractions at home, and it was hard to focus and get any work done. Once I got married, I had more control over my schedule, and then I had to focus on not working too much just because I technically could. I can’t speak to having kids yet, but I know that they’re a game-changer. My strategy is to build as much as you can now until you get to a point where the company is more stable, and then you can ease back. Match the talent on the team with the energy; when you have more family commitments, have a team in place than can pick up the slack. 

The level of work you can do will evolve with the stages of your life. What you did as a college student won’t be the same type of work that you’ll do as a parent. Learning to accept that can be harder than the transition itself. 

What are you looking for when you’re interviewing people to work at a startup? What qualities do you want to see?

Early on in a startup, you need generalists. You don’t know exactly where things are going to go, so the first twenty-five people you hire need to be able to handle anything. Then as you grow, identify specific areas you need help with and hire people who specialise in that.

In terms of skill sets, you have to have a growth mindset. You have to be flexible. Don’t expect things to be the same as a corporate job. If you have an idea, you need to be able to go and build it. You have to be comfortable focusing on many different things at a time; we don’t have the luxury of focusing on just one thing. Have a growth mindset and a “let’s go figure it out” attitude: I’m not sure how this works, but I’m going to do what I can, and I’m going to figure it out.

Where do you look to hire these people? Do you use recruiters, job sites, or networking?

We tried using recruiters, but by far, personal referrals are the best source of finding talent. (Nadah Feteih also spoke about the importance of referrals in our interview with her). After that, the next best source is putting the message out to LaunchGood fans and supporters. If people catch it there, they’re typically already engaged with the community and will be a good fit.

Hiring people takes time. Ideally, you should be sourcing people before you even need them, but it’s hard to find time to do that consistently. 

In your startup journey, what’s something that you regret?

There are a lot of things; lots of strategies I would have taken, things I would have built differently. That’s a loaded question. I would say be more forgiving, in general. We’ve made mistakes along the way, and I regret not easing up on myself. We did the best we could with the knowledge that we had, and we learned and improved ourselves. 

What’s something that you’re grateful for?

I feel like health is so important; you really feel that when you get sick. Alhamdulillah, I’m healthy and able-bodied, and every morning I wake up and think: “alhamdulillah, I’m healthy. The world is mine.” 

In terms of my work, I’m grateful for the ability to have independence. But that’s a double-edged sword. Sometimes I feel done making decisions and having to think about the plan and pave the way forward; I just want to show up and be told what to do. And other days, I think this is awesome, I can control and create a place where people want to work, and this is enabling us to do all sorts of good. 

Final thoughts. Is there anything else that you’d like to add?

The biggest piece of advice that I tell most people, whether they want to work in a startup or not, is to come at everything with a growth mindset, a mindset of just learning. Don’t have a mindset where you’re worried you’re going to lose everything. Remember that the best investment you can make is in yourself. If you want to do something, try it for 3 months, 4 months, a year, whatever you’re comfortable with, but take it as a learning opportunity. You’re going to learn a ton. And it will make you a much more versatile and stronger person, no matter if your idea succeeds or fails. 

Thank you Amany for sharing your advice and insights with us, jazakallah kahir! You can connect with Amany on LinkedIn or Twitter

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