Anamcara Founder Series — Abdel Mahmoud, Co-Founder & CEO of Co:Helm

Annelie Ajami
Anamcara Capital


Abdel has a unique story and I feel privileged to sit down with him to ask about his journey. From a city in Libya to London, from doctor to entrepreneur.

We talk about how his experiences growing up have shaped him, about responsibility, family, identity and duty. He is ambitious with a relentless drive to succeed and deliver on his mission. A mission that is seemingly as much personal as professional. Abdel is here. And he has something to prove.

ADV — Can you tell me more about your background?

Abdel — I’m Libyan but I don’t remember much of Libya. I remember the first few years. I think I was there for four or five years and I remember just faint glimpses of relatives and then the immense heat. Most of my memories are about being an immigrant in the UK. We were refugees.

ADV — Can you tell me more about that experience?

Abdel — I was young so I can only speak about how the experience of being a refugee shaped me later on. At the time, I didn’t think too much of it. My parents just told us we are going to a different country and not worry about it.

ADV — You weren’t aware of it.

Abdel — No, we weren’t aware of the gravity of the situation but it definitely had an impact on me growing up. I always felt pressure to step up as the eldest child. I clearly remember there was a time when my dad was struggling to find a role and my mother was suffering from a disability that I started thinking about ways to start earning a living for the family.

My parents actually wanted me to become a doctor. You know, Arabs sometimes, the most important and only thing you can do is become a doctor.

ADV — or at most a lawyer.

Abdel — ..or engineer these days! But I knew this would take years and I needed to find something to start helping the family. So I started building computers from parts, putting them together and flipping them. I started hacking a few computer games and then selling that software to people. The pressure to make money really pushed me to get creative and become entrepreneurial.

ADV — How is that experience of growing up in a country that’s not really your own, where maybe at home you have another culture than the one that you have at school?

Abdel — I think you develop two identities. I was very lucky to come to London because the city is so multicultural. My classmates from school came from all over the world. At home we still had our own culture. We lived near a mosque and we spoke Arabic at home. My parents made sure we spoke Arabic, so we wouldn’t lose it. At school I hated this feeling of needing to blend in. We didn’t have a TV at home growing up but I remember everyone would talk about football. So I’d do things where I’d come to school half an hour earlier to steal the Metro and then read about the scores of the football and pretend that I watched the TV the night before. I was just trying to fit in. I felt like I had a Western and an Arab culture, and I’m still attached to that.

ADV — What did your family think about you becoming an entrepreneur?

Abdel — Well, becoming an entrepreneur was very far away from being a doctor! Although I have always gone against the grain. Before going to medical school, I went into the army. When I was 18 I went to a military academy called Sandhurst in the UK to become a graduate infantry officer. This was a bit of a rebellion against my parents. It was a huge point of contention. I think that was when my parents realized I was going to forge my own path.

ADV — Going to Sandhurst is not for the faint hearted, it’s really tough and regimented. What lessons or core values did you take from that experience?

Abdel — 100%. I was one of the youngest and it was a challenge. Most of the soldiers were between ages of 18 to 34 and some had also served in combat. You had to be very assertive and confident.

The Sandhurst motto is “serve to lead”. One of the things that I saw from great officers was that they served others. For instance, they would serve food to others first and eat last. The notion that you have to put others first, before you. I learned very quickly that there is a link between great leaders and the concept of humility and servitude.

The officers that got a lot of respect did so because they had low ego, they naturally exuded confidence and were willing to get stuck in and help others. It taught me a lot about leadership

ADV — Back to you as entrepreneur — what really makes you get up in the morning? What drives you?

Abdel — My first job was as a Product Manager at Google. It was a very exciting time during which I learned a lot. After a while I started feeling I wasn’t making a significant and tangible impact. In some way the organization absorbed me. I learned that even if I was working on an interesting problem, or I was in a cool place with those smart people, I needed a level of ownership.

It is really ownership and the responsibilities tied to it, that make me get up in the morning.

Now when I wake up, the first thing I think about is — crap! If I don’t get up in the morning, nothing happens. Overnight, nothing happened in the company.

I read somewhere that a lot of founders are driven by the fear of failure more than they’re driven by the want for success. There are a lot of people, you know, that I’ve promised things to or expect things from me, whether employees, investors or family members who are sacrificing for you to do this thing. I don’t want to let them down.

ADV — To prove something.

Abdel — Yeah. And I can’t let them down.

ADV — Following on from that, what does success mean to you? What does it look like?

Abdel — Success in startups?

ADV — Success, generally. Personally.

Abdel — That’s a big question. I look at success in circles. The immediate and inner circle is yourself and your family. The most important form of success is that the people around you love you and feel you play a major and positive part in their life.

And then there’s the broader circle of your local community or the organisations you’re affiliated with, like people that see you on a more regular basis. That they have been touched by your impact. And then I think the final circle of success is like the broader and global stage. Leaving a legacy that changed the world for the better. I think success expands from one to the next. From the inner to the outer circle.

ADV — yeah, many, I think.

Abdel — Right. And I see it’s important to do it in that order. So that’s what success means. It’s like, let me crack it with family and close friends.

ADV — And then kind of expand it.

Abdel — Yes. We start off by having very limited global impact. Today it is all about your employees and the people you invested in. What do they think of what you’re doing and are you creating a great place to work in?

And then maybe it’s your customers, which is the middle circle. Are they happy? Are you solving real problems for them? Or are you just hype and just loads of noise, but no action. And then finally, I think once you’ve cracked those two things, well, maybe now you have a chance to build a legacy and achieve success at a global scale.