Just Build It

Boston-based Sami Shalabi, who famously moved to Google with his Zingku startup in 2007, was recently back in Jordan to attend its edition of Global Entrepreneurship Week. The head engineer of Google’s Digital Publishing Platform had a simple message for the up and coming tech entrepreneurs: Focus less on building a business and more on building exciting new products and services.

What advice do you have for startups?

They must understand that the world has changed and the barrier to entry for technology is very low. People can go from a concept to a working functional prototype in two days. They should not waste time on business plans, crazy presentations, and market research. Instead, they should build something. However, technology alone doesn’t win, the best products are not always the most successful ones, but those with the best distribution channels. You need to get someone else to distribute your product, don’t try to do it yourself and think about distribution from day one.

What can trigger this change in our business mindset?

A lot of the energy seems to focus on postgraduates. There should be instead much more emphasis on undergraduates, since universities are the most secure environment for someone to take an idea and try it without worrying about profits. Going after students at that stage could unlock a lot of great ideas. Facebook started in a dorm at Harvard, Google at Stanford, Dropbox at the MIT. The reason why these ideas worked is because they were conceived in a very safe environment bereft of constraints.

How did you wind up working on Google’s digital publishing arm?

It was the beginning of the mobile revolution in 2006, when text messaging exploded. Together with my partner, we introduced Zingku on the American market. A promotional service via SMS, it was a Twitter before Twitter. We built the entire product from scratch in six months with an initial funding of $2,000. At the time, Google was primarily looking for people who understood the mobile sector, as almost all technology companies were trying to figure out how to become part of the mobile market. So, Google came to us and acquired the product. When the iPhone came out, it completely redefined the whole game, shifting the industry’s attention to applications. We (then) built Google Currents, the original version of Google Newsstand, which allowed people to read news in one tab.

We had a few thousand publishers using the product ranging from The GuardianThe Independent, and the New York Times, but distribution was a challenge. Launching a product on Google automatically provides you with a million users by virtue of the company’s brand. However, Google’s success is not a million, but much larger numbers. So we attached the product to Google Play, which was part of Android. This gave us the ignition to grow Newsstand to these unbelievable numbers.