Ekshef Postmortem

We don’t have that many startup postmortems coming from the middle east. Here is one.


We started Ekshef in 2011 fresh out of college. I started it with other four co-founders. Our goal was to build an online booking service for doctors similar to what’s currently Vezeeta. The main motive for me was to solve the problem of finding and booking doctors, since I spent countless hours of my life in doctors’ clinics, and in my parents’ car while waiting for my turn.

We joined Flat6Labs cycle 0 (the very first cycle).  And after some ups and downs, we stopped working on Ekshef in 2013/2014. By the time of this writing, all the founders (with the exception of one) are outside of Egypt, and most of the people we worked with during that time are also currently outside of Egypt.

Since I have been getting some inquiries on what happened, and why it didn’t work. I decided to answer this once and for all. Before you proceed please note that this is my perspective, and other involved stakeholders might have different opinions.

Wrong Problem

We wasted a lot of time trying to solve the wrong problem. We thought if we solve the appointments problem for patients everyone would be happy. We realized that doctors don’t give a shit about organizing their appointments. In fact, some doctors even like having their clinics busy and full, because it is an indicator for many Egyptian customers of how popular – which means good – is this doctor.

We later realized the biggest pain for patients is actually finding out the good doctors. I still believe this is the main pain point in Egypt. People still ask their mom, their neighbor, or their friends for doctor recommendations. When we realized this we started building a social recommendations engine. The idea was you login to Ekshef using your Facebook account, then you would have two options 1) Recommend a doctor to your FB friends. 2) Ask for doctor recommendations. Back then, Facebook APIs allowed pulling all of the users’ friends (hello Cambridge Analytica). We were one of the beneficiaries of this feature and were using the social graph to help users recommend doctors to each other. This feature had moderate success, we could’ve optimized it more but we ran out of funding and lost hope before managing to get there.


We were naive and fresh out of college. We had a great technical team that could build anything. This led us to build a crazy search engine that would allow you to search for doctors with any way. Location, specialty, price, opening hours, you name it. To make it more crazy, I wasn’t satisfied by most of the services that provide Arabic search, including Vezeeta. Omar El Mohandes, who was working with us at the time and currently working at Amazon based in London implemented the Soundex search algorithm for Arabic. This algorithm allows you to search for any Arabic word without having to worry about the different versions the word. احمد = أحمد. Not only this, Omar did some improvements to make it detect typos. Yes, typos in Arabic names were still getting you the right doctor on Ekshef. Just like Google.

Another side of inexperience was dealing with those outside the company. We believed a lot of people that were lying to us. We had to no experience how to raise funds, and even our investors were inexperienced as much as we were with how the model should work. The general push was towards fund raising, but the company wasn’t really funding ready. The fund raising was based on totally unrealistic financial models that make no sense for a pre-market fit, pre-revenue company. We didn’t know it, our investors didn’t know it, and the people we were trying to raise funds from didn’t know it. It was like a group of blind people trying to identify the elephant in the room.

Wrong timing

When we started in 2011, internet and smartphone adoption wasn’t at the same level it is at now. Doctor assistants didn’t have smartphones. They didn’t know how to use a computer or the internet. Facebook and twitter weren’t as popular. People were downloading a game such as subway surfer by sending a 5 EGP message to get a link to the game on Google play store. And amidst all this, we were naively thinking the uneducated doctors assistants will use our system to organize appointments.

Add to this the political instability, and the fact that none of us had to stay and work in Egypt. We all decided one after another that it is not worth it, and everyone left to join a company abroad (Google, Amazon, Booking…etc).

Final Remarks

Ekshef experience shaped me in many ways. I have countless stories from these days. I met many great people that put their trust in me and helped me a lot. I have made good friends and was surrounded by some of the smartest people I know. I also had my flaws. I apologize for anyone I hurt or screwed up with. And I hope they forgive me.

As for my opinion on starting a startup in Egypt. I am extremely bearish on Egypt and don’t see it as a fertile ground for anything meaningful to come out of it.

There is a lot of inefficiency that makes any optimization problem impossible. There are basics that don’t exist such as logistics and payments infrastructure. There is an unavoidable brain drain that makes scaling an engineering organization super hard. And last but not least, building a successful company is a decade worth of effort with low probability of success, and with the current currency situation the economics don’t work compared to having a stable dollar/euro paying job abroad.

I hear you saying but look at Instabug and Wuzzuf. Those are exceptions to the rule. We are yet to find their final outcome. Even with the successes they have, they are at risk of losing everything and going back to zero. And still, those are exceptions in a country that’s failing by any objective measures.

I hope I am wrong.

Every Loser

I watched the movie “the big short” more than 10 times. It is a great story of how few people challenged everyone, and turned to be right.

One of the scenes I like is when this company led by Mike Baum (Played by Steve Carrel) meets a guy from Deutsche Bank who purposes the idea of shorting mortgage backed securities.

Shorting in this case simply means going to a bank and telling them I am gonna pay you X yearly. In the case of the unlikely event that this mortgage bond fails (people couldn’t pay their loans), the bank would pay you 10X or even 100X.

Mike Baum couldn’t believe what the Deutsche guy said that people won’t be able to pay their mortgage. He is a skeptical man. So he decided to go and find out.

The line that stood with me is this one where he is urging his team to move fast because..

“Every Loser With A Couple Million Bucks In A Fund Is Gonna Be Jumping On Us.”

I recently resonate frequently with this line. I think this is also becoming true in tech. Every loser with a computer and internet connection can launch a website/app and call themselves a founder. Only few people will have the courage, commitment, patience, and dedication to build a great company.

Seed stage traction

A friend of mine based in Berlin attended a fundraising call between two colleagues of him and a Berlin based investor. They are trying to raise a 2M euros seed round at 10M post money.

The investor told them in order to invest he wants to see numbers.

This made me think that any numbers they will show at this stage will be so small to make any sense.

I am not pro pitching investors right after launching the MVP*. Any loser can build and launch MVP. The tough part is getting people to use what you built, tell their friends about it, and pay for it. Add to this as Mark Suster puts it, it is easier to invest in lines than dots. I see launching the MVP is a dot. Making progress is a line.

So I am wondering if an investor is valuing a seed stage startup based on traction, how much traction is a good traction?

* There are exceptions to this. Some might even need to pitch investors before building the MVP. Dropbox is an example of this. Even an MVP of Dropbox would’ve been so expensive to build without investment.

The supermarket entrepreneurship

I saw this Ad on LinkedIn. The biggest supermarket chain in the Netherlands is running a competition for the best startup with a product that’s sellable in the supermarket.

The text is machine translated using Google

The winner will recieve 250K euros to further develop their product, and one year of shelf space at Albert Heijn.

There is a bias in the entrepreneurial scene towards tech. This bias is mainly because tech people are very vocal on the internet which gives them reach and scale. And because it costs way less money to start a tech company than to build, produce, distribute, market and sell a physical product.

I think this is a great idea. It will draw the attention to a breed of entrepreneurs not likely to be talked about. It will introduce new innovative products to the market. And it will help these entrepreneurs get feedback, and maybe capital for their ideas. It is a win-win for everyone.

Let’s see what we will get. If you are interested in the details here is the link.