Training for Business Success with AstroLabs Dubai

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At Infographic.ly we find inspiration in the success of others from across the region and want to share those incredible learnings with others with our ‘Creative Industries’ segment. This month we’re putting a spotlight on the increasing investment that companies are making in digital training to help equip their employees with the right tools for future success. Enter AstroLabs, the region’s premier learning academy, having established a thriving technology ecosystem across MENA and innovative approach to digital learning.

Founded in 2013, AstroLabs provides technology companies with a launchpad to establish a market presence in the UAE and KSA to then scale globally. They have also created an impressive coworking community, allowing like-minded people to share ideas and innovations under one (albeit fairly large) roof.

Yet, it’s the academy segment of the business which is most intriguing as the dynamics of business have changed. The company have designed their sessions with entrepreneurs and SMEs in mind, allowing the focus to be on practical solutions that they can then apply to their various industry professions. As technology continues to change, the training topics cover off all areas of digital business, from digital marketing, coding, analytics & big data, UX design, and business development, running open classes to the public, as well as custom-made curricula for corporate clients and incubators across the region.

Earlier this year, our founder, the eternal student, enrolled in a Digital Marketing Course at AstroLabs, connecting with Ahmad Abugosh, director of marketing and learning at the company. Inspired by the teachings and ambitions of company’s learning academy, we wanted to explore how the traditional working model is becoming obsolete and how shared workspace communities, are powering the way companies think, learn and react to stay ahead in today’s competitive market.

Welcome to our Creative Industries segment, Ahmad. Can you give our readers some insight on your background and what led you to both the industry and position you are in today?

I’m half American, half Palestinian, and have lived between the US, Saudi and the UAE.  I graduated having studied Computer Engineering at the American University of Sharjah, and since then I’ve been working in Dubai. When I entered the job market in 2011, I worked in web development for a while, then I found an opportunity to work at a new eCommerce company, Namshi, which is what got me into digital marketing. Since I had a technical background, the analytics and performance side of digital marketing came easy to me, as I found that most people that come from a more traditional marketing background, aren’t that technical.

Let’s talk about the AstroLabs mission to ‘create a thriving tech ecosystem in MENA’. What is the ultimate goal of the business, how did it come about, and where do you see the brand expanding into next?

The ultimate goal of AstroLabs is to be the go-to hub for entrepreneurs in the Middle East for starting their companies, getting support and learning anything they want to help them grow in the new economy. AstroLabs started in 2014, created by Louis Lebbos and Muhammed Mekki, who also founded Namshi, when they saw the lack of support startups had in the region at the time. They started off by doing workshops and programs around helping startups scale, and then when they realized that the licensing process was too cumbersome, they decided to partner up with Google for Entrepreneurs and the DMCC (JLT) freezone and start the AstroLabs Dubai coworking space.

At the moment, our focus is to continue building our Dubai community and Academy training programs, and scale up in Saudi, where we have just opened a brand new coworking space in Riyadh that allows 100% foreign ownership for companies that want to set up shop in Saudi Arabia.

Given the types of courses that you specialize in, what kinds of people do you have attending your classes? Are there any industries that they come from which may be surprising to us?

At the moment our flagship program is our one week « Digital Marketing Track » where we go over all channels in digital marketing. For that one, we noticed there is a split between founders of startups that want to do their own marketing inhouse, marketing professionals that want to stay up-to-date and recent graduates that want to get into digital marketing. We’ve had several people take our courses that have a Masters in Digital Marketing, but they found their knowledge to be too theoretical, so they take our program to help them understand practically how things are done.

It’s clear that the traditional work model is in freefall – with companies shifting to accommodate a new way of working. The emergence of things like coworking has come as a result of this – what do you think will be the next trend companies will seek to capitalize on in a bid to stay ahead of the game, and what is AstroLabs working towards in this space?

Coworking is a major trend we have noticed, as well as remote work and having smaller, on the ground in-person teams. Many of the companies that work out of AstroLabs have at least a few freelancers, part-time and even full-time employees that work out of different countries and even continents, and with everything being online it’s only becoming easier.

Traditionally, further education was the most obvious and in some cases, only, route to improving your skill set once you were in the working world. How do you find working adults cope with revisiting education and learning something completely new in a setting with like-minded professionals?

From what I see, the only way forward is to be a lifelong self-directed learner. It’s no longer the case where you can learn a trade and expect that by the time you retire, things will stay the same. All of the modern occupational fields are changing too fast. If one was to take a four-year degree in digital marketing, programming or ux design, by the time they graduate, most of the knowledge they gained would be out of date, mainly due to the structure of traditional institutions; the need to have a fixed curriculum that has to go through several approval processes.

Not to say that college is completely useless, but the fact is, especially if you are in a digital or tech field, you have to keep learning if you want to stay relevant. I found the best ways most adults cope are by attending workshops, meetups and by joining online communities and taking online classes. It can be hard to stay up-to-date in any field, but luckily education has never been more accessible.

There’s an argument that we are unequipped to deal with the careers of tomorrow, as the tools we need haven’t yet been defined or even invented. As a tech incubator, how do you stay ahead of the curve and keep your curriculum as up to date as possible?

That definitely is a major challenge. One of the main ways we deal with it is by having instructors that are currently working in the field they teach, so they have to deal with the newest tools on a daily basis, hence they can impart that knowledge to students in a practical way. Besides the instructors themselves, we’re always learning ourselves by connecting with smart practical people, taking courses ourselves, and following the new trends & tools. The thing that keeps us sane is knowing that everyone is in the same boat as us, and we all have to keep learning!

We’re on a rapid acceleration of tech enhancement in the region right now. What do you predict the MENA tech landscape will look like in the next five years?

I expect there to be a lot more talent in the region on-par with the rest of the world, which would feed into a lot more great companies and products that are produced locally. The region (especially Dubai) is already attracting a lot of interest from around the world, and I think the efforts all of us are doing together is having a positive impact of not only keeping smart people in the region, but making people want to move here.

What would be your advice to budding entrepreneurs on how they can scale their company efficiently – what would be the key areas of ‘training’ to invest in, in your opinion?

Of course, it depends on a lot of factors, but if I were to narrow it down to a few, I would say 1) Make sure you have a very clear understanding of your financials and what makes the business tick, and at the very least understanding how to read a P&L report. I found this is a surprisingly underdeveloped skill. 2) Digital Marketing is also important to test your idea, iterate and scale by focusing on performance marketing (making back what you spend right away) and long-term cost effective marketing (building out an email list and good word of mouth etc.) 3) Coding, to understandat the very least how your website / app works, even if you aren’t a developer, so you can make quick changes or manage others. Even if your site is on WordPress, just knowing the basics of HTML, CSS and some JavaScript goes a long way.

There’s been a lot of talk about data in recent years, and big data in particular, the role it plays in shaping nearly every business decision. How do we ensure that we don’t get too bogged down in the nitty gritty and are able to look at and interpret it to see the bigger picture?

The main thing you can do when overwhelmed with data is to just focus on what matters. Don’t look at vanity metrics (number of followers, likes, etc.), but instead focus just on the things that move your business forward (leads, sales, and customers). Everything else is nice to have and can be added later, but if you don’t have the essentials tracked (the metrics that have a direct impact on your business) nothing else matters.

For those who may never get a chance to take an AstroLabs workshop, what’s one thing you would encourage they learn on their own, from a data perspective and with what resource?

Thinking about data as part of a larger goal is essential when thinking about how to prioritize data. A good exercise I would recommend is to think about starting a business. Choose an idea you feel you’re passionate about that is solving a problem, and then look at what data points you would need to make it successful (profitable) on a granular level. For example, if I want to start an eCommerce business, I would need to look at data on my margins, delivery costs, marketing costs, licensing costs etc. That would allow you to put data into perspective and learn to ignore the unnecessary noise to further your larger goal.