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Overcoming the most difficult business challenges

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Life during wartime

Most entrepreneurs will tell you that there’s never a perfect time to start a business. Starting one is disruptive. It will take all of your time and energy. There are a million considerations to contemplate and to plan for, and success can be elusive and slow. Occasionally, however, the stars align into the unlikeliest of constellations. Sometimes a new opportunity in the market appears, or a catalyst like a new technology becomes available allowing a savvy entrepreneur to react and create a business. While starting a business is disruptive, it pales in consideration to the disruption of war.
To say that Iraq has been in a state of disruption would be an understatement. To the outside world, there might have been a semblance of order in Iraq before the March 2003 invasion and subsequent war, but even then, Iraq was an unpredictable and dangerous place. After the initial conflict ambiguity and danger increased.

Yet people went about living, doing things like going to school and work, shopping, and starting businesses.

While the Kurdish region of northern Iraq was less affected than other areas in the country, there were still threats. Media reports told of suicide bombings, kidnappings, and pillaging. Yet during this unrest and uncertainty, there were people with business ideas. Yad Rashid was one of these people.

In 2007, Rashid realized his dream of starting an information technology consulting firm in the Kurdistan region of Iraq. Many Iraqis were unfamiliar to the possibilities of IT. So, in addition to building websites and other solutions for small- and medium-sized businesses, his company, Avesta Group, conducted IT training and workshops. As business grew, Avesta Group expanded to sell software, help desk support, business consultation, and cloud services.

Before Microsoft we used other providers for hosting…It was too difficult and most of our energy went to [customer] support. Now we are focused on the core of our business.

- Yad Rashid, CEO, Avesta Group

Off-premises infrastructure reduces on-premises risk

Ongoing conflict in Iraq has made doing business a challenge on every level. In addition to IT security concerns, Rashid worries about physical infrastructure and property crime. Computers and expensive equipment make attractive targets. Securing networks presented Avesta Group an opportunity.

In Iraq, the cloud offers some compelling advantages to manage IT services and security. Moving infrastructure off premises means a business doesn’t need to buy and secure expensive servers. Power outages become less destructive and network management becomes a service provider’s role, reducing the challenge of finding experienced administrators. With predictable billing, financial constraints are made more manageable and scalability becomes easier. As a Microsoft Partner, Avesta Group was well positioned to offer Microsoft Azure and related services to its clients, including its most visible and well-known client, the Iraqi Ministry of Defense.

In 2015, the technical staff of the Ministry of Defense contacted Avesta Group looking for help. Its website was facing frequent Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks based in other countries, which frequently brought the site down and prevented the ministry from filing important conflict-related reports. Avesta Group’s solution was to migrate the site to Microsoft Azure and increase security. Once migrated to Azure and with the new security measures in place, DDoS-related outages largely ceased.

Community outreach and relationships

The Ministry of Defense learned about Avesta Group through its work with the Iraqi Ministry of Planning, Ministry of Power, and other clients. In addition to the goods and services a business provides, relationships play a particularly important role in Iraq as they do throughout the Middle East. Lengthy conversations about personal life and family often precede business. Trust is earned by taking time to get to know one another before official business is discussed. The importance of personal relationships affects how Avesta Group markets its services, and the community outreach events it holds have proven to be quite effective. “Our events are focused and small so we can build a relationship with customers and talk about the solutions we have,” Rashid said.

“Frequently, we invite customers to our office to talk to them about the latest technology and what it can do for their business. Recently we had an event with about 20 customers, and showed them how Office 365 can improve their business. That went very well. After that event, four or five of them contacted us.”

Leapfrogging technology and expertise

In developing countries, the instillation of older technologies like traditional telephone service can take a long time and be expensive. When cell coverage became widespread and technology more affordable, many people stopped considering landlines entirely. In a similar way, companies in developing countries are transforming their IT with the cloud rather than investing in on-premises infrastructure.

Conflict in Iraq has made business difficult on every level – manifesting itself in unreliable infrastructure, frequent blackouts, and unavailable technical expertise. Years of conflict have disrupted the Iraqi educational system, leaving a void in the collective skillset, and many Iraqis with options abroad have abandoned the country. Rashid and his team have found that the cloud has made outsourcing mission-critical business software and equipment possible, helping fill the skills gap for many businesses. As a result, Iraqi business leaders have been open to the model as a stabilizing force for business.

Training staff and empowering women

In Iraq, it’s exceedingly difficult for businesses to find staff with pertinent IT experience. The disruption of war has limited educational opportunities, leaving the business community behind much of the world in terms of modernization. “You cannot find technical staff easily as technology is not being taught in schools and there is no learning center where people can go and learn that kind of thing,” Rashid said.

“For example, right now we need someone to be experienced in Windows Server and Active Directory. We’re struggling to find someone with even 2-3 years’ experience. On the other hand, in another way it’s also an advantage for us because most of our competition can’t find technical staff either. When they do, they need to pay too high a salary for them, so companies rely on outsourcing to third-party IT like us.”

One way Avesta Group is addressing its staffing problem is by recruiting women. “Our culture [in the Kurdish region of Iraq] is not like some other Middle Eastern countries. Women are freer than the other parts of Iraq and surrounding countries.” Another approach they take might sound a little old-fashioned to some: training employees through an extensive apprenticeship program.

“We’re focusing on talented young people. We bring them to the company and train them. [When] we hire someone we don’t expect production from them until [they’ve been with us for] four or five months. After that, they become more knowledgeable about the business and they are able to go assist other people that have more experience. After a year, they can [help] develop apps, code, and install servers. The process takes time. We are working with them and next year they’ll become productive staff.” said Rashid.

Rashid sees a lot of value in the training available through MPN. “We’re using the training on a regular basis. Our staff is attending online and in-class training for Azure. MPN is a good resource for that, but we also need more advanced training to develop our team,” Rashid said.

Partnering with Iraqi business

Close personal relationships and trust are important to successful engagements with many Iraqi companies. Because of this, business can be made easier with the assistance of a local partner.

Rashid says that much of Avesta Group’s business efforts focus on larger Iraqi cities that are more stable, have more business activity, and show opportunity for growth. “It’s difficult to cover the whole country. You need to focus on parts of the country and grow from there.”

Even under the challenging conditions of conflict, Avesta Group have been able to grow their business and make business possible for their clients. With training materials and support from Microsoft and MPN, Avesta Group has been able to ramp up their staff and provide their clients the support they’ve needed to grow. This has led to improving the lives of many Iraqis, and providing opportunity where it didn’t previously exist.

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