My Journey From Syria to Canada: Technology & Entrepreneurship

photo credit: Joshua Sortino

As part of my application to the Founder Institute, I was posed the question: “Why do you want to be an entrepreneur?”

Considering the way I have, and continue to live, the answer for me was simple: “What else can one be?”

This is a retelling of some of my adventures growing up in Syria, up until arriving in Canada.

With the current crisis in Syria, the seemingly endless war, and the refugee dilemma the world is facing, I hope my story can be one of optimism and encouragement for refugees leaving their homes behind and wondering what’s ahead.

Note: Originally published on June 20, 2014.

An Early Start

From the time I was 10, growing up in the capital of Syria, Damascus, I have found myself always thinking of different ways to change the world, including my own. When I was in the fourth grade, I observed that the other students had limited access to certain candies and treats in the school cafeteria. Realizing a market opportunity, I would every morning hop into a candy store near my home while waiting for the school bus, spend all my money on candy and treats, then resell them to my classmates during break at a markup.

Unfortunately (Fortunately?), I spent most of the profits on buying Superman + Batman comics!

At 11 years old, I was one of the lucky few in all of Syria to get the first generation Sony PlayStation.

However, I wasn’t content to just sit in front of the TV and allow all of my brain cells to rot (or grow, depending on your perspective of gaming), so I sought out gaming magazines from which to learn more about the fascinating world of gaming and consoles.

Unfortunately Syria had access to no such publications back in 1994, due to politics, sanctions, embargoes and such… At the time I only had access to the Arabic version of PC Magazine which helped shape a lot of my early experience and expectations with computers and technology.

(thank you PC Mag!)

One time on a family trip to Lebanon, I found a gaming magazine aptly named: PSM (PlayStation Magazine) of which I purchased a couple issues. Upon returning to Syria my very accommodating parents would ask friends to buy me the magazine on their travels.

one of the early issues I owned of PSM

PlayStation Magazine featured a “cheats” section, which listed hundreds of video game cheat codes. This was when I recognized I had another opportunity here. I knew kids my age who had gaming consoles would gladly purchase codes from me as they had no access to such magazines. Even if they did, these magazines were in English, and unlike me, their grasp of the language was too poor. I was fortunate in having advanced English tutoring and hung out with native English speaking kids which helped me gain some mastery of the language.

Even at the hefty cost of 5 Syrian Pounds (SYP) per cheat, gaming addicted kids would seek me out and pay, for more often than not they would find themselves stuck on a level and needed an edge.

Y2K!

It wasn’t until the year 2000 that the internet came to Syria. Prior to that, it was highly illegal, and the only method of accessing the internet was to long distance connect to a Lebanon Dial-Up ISP.

That of course, did not stop me. I proceeded to create an account with Cyberia, the Lebanese ISP, and once I gained access to the content riches of the internet, I was able to expand the cheat code business tenfold.

more than a decade later, Cyberia is still around! http://www.cyberia.net.lb

Access to the Internet changed EVERYTHING in my world.

All of a sudden, I had access to interesting topics I would have never thought existed! This of course, produced new business opportunities!

There were no copyright laws in Syria (a communist, third world country) so naturally, any access to digital content such as music, movies, and software was pirated. With access to the world wide web in my pocket (illegal at the time) I became the go-to guy for acquiring new music releases, movies and software!

I made a lot of money by partnering with local shop owners and delivering CDs for them to mass-copy and sell, beating the slower methods of importing from Russia and Asia (where much of Syria’s pirated material came from). I remember downloading Microsoft Encarta which took days to download over dial-up; Once it was finished though, my local store partner was the only store in the entire country that had it available for months in advance of any other shop owner. I was only 14 years old and making more money than my father did.

By mid-2000, Syria finally allowed the Internet into the country and the first ISP (government operated) was launched. Come 2002, Nokia launched the Symbian Series 60 (now S60) platform, one of the very first smartphone platforms (despite what Apple claims!).

my first “smart” phone

With the S60 platform, the concept of mobile apps first became a reality with the release of the first true smartphone: Nokia 7650. Almost a year later came another first in the form of the first mobile gaming platforms: Nokia N-Gage.

All of a sudden, my early years of selling video game cheats and later software & music came all together in the mobile world. I partnered with a friend and opened up a cellphone store where we started selling smartphones, apps, music and games. No one else was doing this in Syria and I had access to all the S60 apps and games online, at a time when no one else even knew that apps could be installed on these devices! I would use audio editing tools to create custom ringtones of whatever the latest hit song was, then charge a premium to customers for manually cutting their favourite part of a song for their own use.

Entry to Programming

Although business was good, it wasn’t challenging enough.

At 17 I got into web development, and as the internet matured in the country, I started building websites for local businesses that needed an online presence. I then proceeded to start building my own websites as I was experimenting with various ideas. The first of my experiments was a local classifieds website, which ran for some time, but failed to get high enough traction as people were not familiar with selling content online back then. Realizing the local market was not caught up with the technology yet, I made some research into what people really wanted and how the internet could help.

Once I started university the answer clearly presented itself. It turns out people’s needs were simple: People wanted to date!

I’m not a Zuckerberg, and I had different motivations. I recognized a business opportunity and I went for it. I operated an online dating site for two years and it turned out to be moderately successful in terms of signups and usage, but hardly generated meaningful revenue.

University introduced me to even more opportunities. Students in Computer Science courses had little or no prior knowledge to the industry, and most did not even have a computer for more than a few years prior to starting their courses at university. Since I taught myself programming and software development (thanks to my early access to the internet) I had an advantage that I could leverage here, so I started tutoring students.

I partnered with a couple other advanced students who also had an edge in mathematics, computer science, physics and English, along with a local internet cafe owner. We expanded the internet cafe and converted it into computer class rooms, where every student would have a computer in our little college, where in the University they only had books and had to practice programming on paper.

Our college turned out to be so successful that even with 15–20 students per class, we had many more we had to turn away as we couldn’t keep up with the demand!

In 2004 I dropped out of university to focus on my businesses: The Smartphone Shop, The College, and Web Development Services.

A year later, my family received a letter in the mail that we were not expecting, and something they had given up on years ago. The Canadian Embassy in Syria had just notified my parents that their immigration application filed 12 years earlier, had been approved and we were now welcome into Canada!!!

Opting into the Matrix *

As much as access to the internet had changed my life as a kid, landing in Toronto back in July of 2005 had as big of an impact on my life as a 20 year old adult.

Life has been a whirlwind since then, my story continues, and more adventures undoubtedly lie ahead; Some will prove crazy and many more extraordinary, but all shall certainly prove beyond my wildest imagination as a child born in a third world country in the middle east.

July 19, 2005

This was the day I set foot in Canada for the first time.

My family and I, having just emigrated from Syria, had never been to Canada prior to this day.

We landed in Toronto, and fortunately my father had made a connection with a friend of a friend to help us get settled in a rental apartment.

Those first few months went by so fast, we were in a daze! Compared to Syria, everything was so different, yet in some ways, everything was so much the same.

When making a huge life decision, or when expecting a big change in your life, the brain tends to go deep into imagination mode and will conjure up all sorts of extremes. At least, that’s what happened to me.

I expected cities in this new country of mine to look different, and they did. I also expected that they were going to be populated with people of different cultures and backgrounds, and that too turned out to be true. However, the cities were beyond my expectations, and I even learned of new cultures and peoples that I never even knew existed!

I got a bit into photography, and was fascinated with the streets of Toronto

Yet everything was the same! No matter how different and how colorful new cultures are, all human societies seem to function on the same set of basic principles. No matter how big of a change it was for me to uproot and immigrate to Canada, realizing this was key to keeping my feet on the ground, and avoiding being swept away with everything new.

For all the new and exciting though, there were still disappointments. I wanted to continue my studies in Computer Science at the local universities, so on my first week in the city, I braved the public transit system, the likes of which I’ve never experienced before. Trains that runs underground? Electric-powered buses? Streetcars? These were things I’d only seen in pirated Hollywood movies!

Unfortunately, the universities here did not recognize my Syrian higher education, nor my university credits, and wanted me to start over by taking high school courses. I wasn’t about to do that. Later I learned that there is a serious educational system acceptance gap in North America for any students or graduates coming from the middle east and other parts of the world. I’ve met so many people who were let down by the system, from cab drivers who used to be economics professors back home, to nurses who used to run genetics research labs!

My first year was spent exploring both the physical world as well as the virtual one.

With internet access that had no filters and firewalls, and with speeds 10 times faster than what I had back home, the opportunities for new learning were amassing fast!

I continued my web development freelance work, and started to grow my skills and knowledge even more. I quickly graduated from just building HTML websites to learning PHP, JavaScript, and Python. At the same time, I received my first glimpse into the potential for Linux with Ubuntu’s free CD shipping service ShipIt. I’ve been a loyal fan of Ubuntu ever since.

I did a lot of freelance scripting, built many plugins for popular online software, and even developed my own geocoding API service before the Google Maps API was even available. Unlike Google’s eventual API, mine was provided as a paid subscription which had about 20 subscribers. It wasn’t until late 2009 that I finally shuttered the API in favor of Google’s version, and probably much to the dismay of the lone subscriber who had still been using it. (Google won that round!)

Getting Employed

In 2006, I felt I needed a change. Working from home doing small freelance work wasn’t cutting it, and I felt that I reached a limit in learning new things by doing it alone and online.

I went to Craigslist as I often did to find gigs and contracts, but this time I was looking for something different. I came across a post for a startup project called ChickAdvisor.

The word “startup” had never been in my vocabulary prior to reading that post, so I was intrigued. Up to this point though, I’ve only ever been self-employed and had been my own boss.

Not knowing what any of it meant, I went to meet with the co-founders of ChickAdvisor, Alex and Ali de Bold at a Starbucks to talk about this opportunity. By the end of the meeting, I had signed up to work with a small team of six people on a big vision project that had no money, no roadmap, and a seemingly immense amount of work to be done!

Challenge Accepted

On the very first day of team hacking (aka work), the tech lead quit! Josh Davey, Alex Harvey and myself were left to our own devices! So we did what any sensible hackers would do, and we thrived!

Working at ChickAdvisor gave me huge opportunities to learn, grow, experiment, and develop my teamwork and leadership skills.

Alex & Ali: I don’t know if I ever properly thanked you for giving me that opportunity, and saying this in a blog post definitely does not have the same weight, although, it should last forever on the internet, so thank you!

Having caught the “startup fever,” I was hungry for more.

In 2008 I joined Viigo, which involved a larger startup team with an even bigger vision:

Viigo™ is revolutionizing the way users access information on their smartphone. Every day, people around the world rely on Viigo as their gateway to a vast array of up-to-the-minute content and useful services, wherever they are and whenever they need it. In one simple, fully customizable application, Viigo delivers news, weather, flight schedules and status, real-time sports scores, stock quotes and market data, entertainment, hotel and restaurant reviews, blogs, and much more. Viigo is the one application smartphone users cannot be without.

Viigo was lead by serial entrepreneur Mark Ruddock, who proved to be a strong leader and became my friend and mentor. Mark gave me many things that had helped me grow; The most important of which was trust.

I joined Viigo as a web developer to maintain the company’s website; However, through my lust for building innovative technologies and with Mark’s trust, I was quickly given more responsibilities that were far beyond what I had been accustomed to.

I got to lead my very own team of two, and proceeded to go on a talent hunt and my very first “hire,” who ended up being Robert Medeiros who, without a doubt, is the best programmer I have ever worked with.

We went on to build a number of complex, fun, and useful services in Viigo.

The Viigo community of users was amazing! I built many good connections over Twitter and email in support of the product, and some even became real good friends in real-life!

Getting Hitched

In 2009 and during the busiest time of the year working at Viigo, I experienced another massive life-changing event.

I met my soon-to-be wife, partner, overall pain in my ass, and love of my life: Nicole.

All of my adventures in startups, all the fun and risks that I’ve taken, and even emigrating from Syria to a foreign country had nothing on meeting “the one.” Now THAT is life changing!

Nicole helped shape who I am today and opened my eyes to a brand new world filled with new types of travel adventures, love, and family.

On my 25th birthday, Nicole managed to snag us last minute tickets to the Metallica concert in Toronto, a band that played a big part in my young adult life and whose music I loved!

Viigo got acquired by BlackBerry in 2010, and quickly learned I wasn’t cut out for the big corporate world (too much politics & bureaucracy), so I made my way on to other ventures, all while building a family life for the first time.

In 2010 we bought our first condo! It was a tiny little place, but it had a beautiful view, and we called it “Home.” It was soon after that we decided to get married!

I proposed in the most nontraditional ways possible:

It started with me finding and bidding on a ring on eBay. At some point, Nicole cyber-stalked and figured out what I was bidding on, and ended up being the one who notified me that I had won auction! Since I didn’t have a car, she had to drive me to pick it up, and once I had it, we went for coffee at Tim Horton’s and I “formally” proposed!

A couple of months before the wedding, we made the logical decision of getting a dog. We figured, “how hard could this be?” And so it was that Ruby entered our lives and promptly established herself as leader of the family.

We spent our entire honeymoon talking about Ruby and we missed her dearly!

To Infinity… and BEYOND!

Over the years, the adventures continued, both in my family life and my professional life. I have worked with many amazing startups along the way, and even went to the big evil corporate world a couple of times. I have met so many smart, passionate, and driven people, and each one has made an impact on my life, big or small.

so, what’s next?

Why, more adventures of course! and you can follow along here on Medium or in realtime on Twitter: https://twitter.com/ahmadnassri