June 02, 2004

What am I doing here?

I don't mean this rhetorically, as in "this is nuts, what am I doing here?". Nor do I mean it existentially, as in "what is my purpose in life?". Those are good questions but ... they're kinda on the back burner for now. What I mean is what many people are asking me: why am I in Iraq right now.

Well, it goes like this. The background is that I'm currently working on my second startup. We've got a good team and we're building a product/service that we think is very relevant and we expect it will do well. The problem is that we are what people call not only "pre-revenue", we're not making money yet, but also "pre-product", we can't even start making money yet -- this puts us pretty much outside the current investment arena. So, we've already done the whole MRD/PRD/specification process and the dev team is hard at work. I could stay in Si Valley and try to raise funds, which would probably be fruitless at this stage of the company's life, or I can take this opportunity to have an adventure and get paid too (I haven't been paid in a year and this gig pays just a little bit more than being a startup CEO of a venture backed company -- and we're not even venture backed yet). So, by the time I get back we should have something that I can run with and I get to eat for a little while too.

The foreground is that the Iraqi Telecommunications and Post Company (ITPC), think Pac Bell, is about to go from being a ward of the state to a player in a free market environment. Until very recently, if you were a member of the Baath party you got a phone. It cost you $5/year. If you were a member of the Baath party and knew the right people you got a job at the ITPC too. The ITPC existed to provide limited phone coverage to party members and to give people jobs ... and for the higher ups to embezzle from as well.

Now that's all changed. If things go the way we expect, they'll be spun out and forced to fend for themselves. They have no corporate structure, they have no department heads (they don't even know what the departments should be, in fact they've never done any sales or marketing since people came to them for phones) they have no accounting practices beyond a budget (and that's recent), they don't know what a set of financials should look like, they need to (re)build the technical side almost from the ground up, they don't have a billing system ... and at their projected burn for the next year is 2x their expected income.

It looks a lot like a startup, actually.

So, I'm trying to sort out which way is up, which is interesting as the infrastructure in the past here made releasing financials punishable by death, so there isn't much laying around you can pick up to start with. Next I'm trying to illustrate the difference between where they are and where they probably like to be (RPU should be higher than the $5/yr Baath party discount, phone lines per populations should be higher than it is, they should have Quality of Service metrics...).

In 1989 it took three US dollars to buy one Iraqi dinar, now there are 1,500 dinars to a dollar. This country used to be defined as "middle income", it's rich in natural resources and it used to have a modern infrastructure -- before the Baath party diverted all development funds to their own pockets and alienated the country from the rest of the world by invading Kuwait, and then generally being a pain afterwards. It'll be interesting to see when it's all over how this whole thing ends up. There is a culture here, left over from the former regime, that bullying and embezzling is they way to get by, so the whole thing could just end up a mess again. On the other hand there a lot of people who really want to see their country return back to its status of middle income (instead of its current status of impoverished), hopefully it is this group that will win. All we can do is advise.

Posted by rick at June 2, 2004 08:45 PM