By Salman Hatta, Wharton MBA Class of 2014
Shashi Menon is the CEO and co-founder of Nervora, currently the Middle East’s premier digital media and advertising firm. Started in September 2009 with co-founder Nick Gonzalez, Nervora has built exclusive ad sales partnerships with such iconic brands as Condé Nast, Hearst, Viacom, CBS Interactive, and Gawker Media. Nervora connects regional advertisers with Middle East visitors to these publishers in unique and meaningful ways. Nervora Studios, Nervora’s creative arm, develops executions on various web and mobile platforms (Facebook, iPhone, Android, Blackberry, etc.).
While working as a management consultant in Dubai prior to starting Nervora, Shashi recognized that, while consumer demand for the web had finally hit critical mass — more than 50 million people from MENA were accessing the web via computers each month — there wasn’t enough structure or efficiency on the media/advertising side of the web. There was a huge quality gap online between Arabic language content and English language content. Nervora was built to address that.
Shashi has been kind enough to share some background on his experiences, including what a typical day is like, and offers other pieces of advice for a budding founder.
SH: What’s a typical day like?
SM: Given the nature of a startup, I’m not sure that I can say that there’s ever truly a typical day, but on average, I probably spend my time about 50-60% on sales or business development, 10-15% on general management and growth/strategy initiatives, 10-15% on organizational planning and recruiting, and 10-15% on client / partner / relationship management. This means lots of meetings, lots of email, and lots of presentations.
Over time, my schedule has shifted somewhat, but these days, I typically get into the office between 8-8:30am and leave sometime after 8pm and often do some work from home after that. I typically get to bed sometime between 12-1am. Both breakfast and lunch are typically at my desk unless I’m eating out with a client. Weekends are generally less full-on than they used to be, but most weekends involve at least some work, with perhaps one weekend a month that is a full working weekend.
I do lots of meetings with clients during the week, either during or after normal working hours, so I’m often out.
SH: What makes you excited to get up each morning?
SM: I wake up each morning and am excited to go to work because I’m very fulfilled by what we’re doing at Nervora, what we’ve been able to achieve so far, and where we’re going. This has been simultaneously the most challenging and the most personally and professionally rewarding experience of my life, and I’ve learned a ton about business and about myself in the process. Doing deals with billion dollar companies like Condé Nast, Hearst, Viacom, and CBS Interactive is something that I would never have expected, and it’s an amazing experience. Being able to just call senior executives from these companies and have them answer the phone is a really cool feeling. And we got there because we’re able to offer them something of value, which is, of course, critical.
SH: Describe some of your most interesting recent experiences.
SM: Besides some of our recent deals (including one that we just announced with Viacom), I’ve really enjoyed learning more about the cultural landscape of the Middle East and spending time in Saudi Arabia, which is a really distinct cultural experience. On my most recent trips to Saudi Arabia, I’ve been meeting with a Princess (a member of the Al Saud family), with whom we’ll be doing business. Most surreal experience: the first time we met, we almost instantly bonded over our mutual love for In-n-Out Burger.
SH: What are some challenges you face both in general and particular to your region?
SM: We face a lot of the challenges that most startups face, regardless of region, such as raising capital, building a base of clients when you’re a small company, and recruiting. As we’ve grown, the sorts of challenges we face have evolved. Building and scaling an organization is a really difficult thing to do, and that begins with finding and retaining talent, which is an ongoing challenge. The Middle East doesn’t have the same embedded startup culture that the U.S. has, and it can be really difficult to find people who are intrinsically motivated and prepared for startup life, which is fundamentally less structured than traditional corporate roles. We’ve found that recruiting expatriates from other markets (and particularly those with startup experience) and young, driven people (often straight from college) to be most effective.
SH: What are your key takeaways on work-life balance in a startup?
SM: While I do believe it’s possible to have some semblance of work/life balance at a startup, and certainly as a company becomes more mature, I definitely don’t think it’s the norm. I also think that if work/life balance is the most important aspect for you, there are far better ways to optimize for that outcome than working at a startup, especially if you’re a founder. Similarly, if money is the most important aspect for you, there are far better ways to optimize for that outcome, too.
As a founder, be prepared to work long, arduous hours on often unglamorous activities, especially at the beginning. If you’re not prepared for that, don’t do it.
But if the thought of building something from nothing excites you, do it. If the idea of creating structure from something unstructured excites you, do it.
I would consider myself to have a pretty bad work/life balance, but I find myself fulfilled in other ways, so I’m ok with it. Evolving to a more balanced lifestyle is something that’s an ongoing goal and challenge for me, but is not my number one priority. Still, it’s gotten somewhat better over time, and I think I’ve discovered ways to mix work and pleasure (drinks with clients, team outings, short weekend trips, etc.) to make it easier. We’ve also gotten a lot better at celebrating the highs, such as our recent deal with Viacom, which we celebrated with champagne in the office at 9am (as soon as the release went to press).
Salman Hatta is an incoming Wharton MBA student in the Class of 2014. He is originally from San Francisco but has spent the past three years in Washington DC and Dubai, focusing on infrastructure investments for the International Finance Corporation (part of the World Bank Group). An avid traveler, he has visited nearly 40 countries so far and wants to pursue his passion at an online travel startup.