It only took $7 to bribe the cab driver that agreed to drive me across Cairo at the 5am during the Egyptian presidential elections in 2012. I wore a head scarf and told the driver I was from Turkey. He remained calm and collected as he drove this foreigner through angry mobs of screaming protesters, only 20 yards from the flaming Molotov cocktails being hurled at tanks.
And that's how I was able to get to the test center to take the GRE exam on time.
Working in Egypt right after Arab Spring, with limited government and security, helped me become a better entrepreneur in ways I could have never expected. These are some of the lessons I learned from working as an economist in the Middle East after Arab Spring, along with the wisdom I gained from watching young Arab entrepreneurs grow their businesses:
Always Stay Agile Enough And You'll Never Have To Fear Change
Almost nothing went according to plan in Egypt. From being stranded in Sinai by car bombings, to just traffic delays, car accidents, and the general chaos of Cairo, plans and schedules rarely went the way they were supposed to.
I was amazed by how resourceful Egyptian entrepreneurs have become because of their environment.
When important equipment broke right before a big deadline, they would just find other factory owners with the machines they needed, and negotiate a deal on the fly to rent part of their space so they could ship on time. Even if roads were closed and the country was on lockdown, they would still find a way to make their supply chain work.
But setbacks and catastrophes can affect businesses anywhere. Whether it's natural disasters, financial crises, or just manufacturing errors, the businesses that can't maneuver fast enough to handle change are most fragile.
It's helpful to proactively address potential problems that could affect your business, and identify the "worst case scenarios" to plan for, but the best thing you can do is stay agile.
As a CEO, this means you need to not become too attached to the way you already run things, how your existing business models work, or anything else that might make you inflexible to big changes. Keep a positive attitude toward change, and your employees will be better prepared to handle major changes too.
You Can Negotiate Over Anything, Even Bus Tickets
The best part of the Middle East is you can haggle for just about anything; even bus tickets.
Because prices (and even rules) are often flexible there, nothing is set in stone. You develop the mentality that you can make anything happen if you negotiate well enough.
This really changes the way you think about fixed prices and how business is done. You start to think more critically and become more skeptical of everything. You develop a better sense for price, and start noticing all the subtleties of timeless sales tactics and different negotiation styles.
Negotiation should be a top skill for every entrepreneur to learn because there is so much arbitration involved in deals, partnerships, sales, and even hiring employees. A savvy negotiator will not be taken advantage of, and can always secure favorable terms for their business.
The first key to negotiation is understanding your audience, and what their goals and intentions are.
Always Be Prepared for Slowdowns And Delays
The first thing I learned living in Cairo was the concept of "Egyptian time."
Nothing ever happens on schedule in Cairo.
When trying to work remotely from Cairo, I was faced with traffic jams, power outages, and being confined to my house for days when the streets were too unsafe to go outside.
Living and working in these conditions forces you to be conscientious of potential setbacks, and that can actually make you a better planner.
Tech entrepreneurs in Egypt, Lebanon, and Pakistan are familiar with regular power outages and shortages, and so they know how to prepare for them so they don't get derailed. I watched some of them deal with this problem by having backup power generators for their offices. Resourceful entrepreneurs and freelancers had plenty of other workarounds for bad internet and power outages too though, like having spare batteries or extra power packs, and making sure they had enough offline work that they could do, in case they couldn't get online.
Anyone who owns or manages a business will regularly encounter obstacles and delays that can set back, or even ruin, their projects. Great entrepreneurs will often have backup plans for these potential delays, and will even build in buffer time to make sure they can deliver on their commitments on time.