My First Job: A Tanzanian teenager's entrepreneurial education selling fish | Crain's Boston

My First Job: A Tanzanian teenager's entrepreneurial education selling fish

  • Ahmed Albaiti (right), 13, with his brother Hussein (center), 19,  and sister Nabila, 4. (Courtesy Ahmed Albaiti/Medullan)

    Ahmed Albaiti (right), 13, with his brother Hussein (center), 19, and sister Nabila, 4. (Courtesy Ahmed Albaiti/Medullan)

  • Ahmed Albaiti (Dan Merino)

    Ahmed Albaiti (Dan Merino)

 Ahmed Albaiti is CEO and founder of Medullan, a healthcare IT company based in Cambridge, Mass. The firm bills itself as "a digital health consultancy focused on improving the healthcare experience."

I'm originally from Tanzania, which is in East Africa. There's not much of a custom in East Africa to be paid for stuff that you were asked by parents or grown-ups to do, so let's just get that one out of the way. If you're asked to chop down a tree or trap a monkey, you do it! So there were a lot of little gigs, jobs I had to do, but they were expected as part of pulling your weight in a big family. I had 11 siblings, so there was a lot going on.

So in East Africa, Tanzania was particularly kind of African socialism driven. So the market for goods, services, products was very tight. I mean we had some crackdowns on anyone with imported goods. Very socialist policies. I grew up thinking I'd be a zoologist, which is crazy to think about. We had a lot of pets. Growing up in Tanzania you have access to all kinds of wildlife. All of my siblings were animal lovers, but they all took up education and different things. By the time I was age nine and onwards I was very excited about being a zoologist.

My first business was in selling pet fish. I started out with a single tank. And these were recycled tanks, not really fish tanks because you couldn't find real tanks—there was no such thing as a pet store. I had to get the pumps, gravel, plants, food, and get the fish and raise them. This business was pretty much my eighth grade to 11th grade life. There were probably seven people doing this. The biggest pet fish business in Tanzania was a British lady in her 60s. I would say I started off as the smallest at one tank and probably got to being the third largest with 12 tanks. There were very few people doing this and most were clustered around Dar Es Salaam, which is the big city hub. So people got to know you pretty quickly if they were into having pet fish.

I built a pretty serious kind of black market network of expatriate kids—British kids, French kids, whatever—whose parents worked for some attaché or government and they would travel back and forth to Europe and basically you'd work out a deal to say, “I've got this many shillings for you, get me a pressure pump for a 60-liter tank.” And months later a French kid would come back and say, “I got your pump.”

It got pretty serious, it took pretty much my entire afternoon after I got home from school. I was probably selling a few hundred dollars a month, which was probably about 300 times more than the average wage at the time in Tanzania. My buyers were upper middle class people.

It took some time to get the infrastructure down. For example once you get above 600-liter tanks or something you have to move from five-millimeter glass to eight-millimeter glass to make the tank. Eight-millimeter glass is not available unless you're building a building. So in order to build a big tank you had to find out where the construction sites were in the city, work out who was buying the glass for that building and say can I get extra panes in your container.

It was a trivial idea—I like fish, I want to be able to sell them—and it turned into this weird education in engineering, supply chain management. I would never have described it in those terms back in those days.

I didn't do any bookkeeping. I find finance to be extremely boring. For me it was all about, can I find this fish that is going to be a challenge to breed? I learned you make a ton more money off the fish that breed faster because you can get two hundred of them out of one breeding cycle. Angelfish were one of the trickiest because they lay eggs on wide leaves and they don't have as many babies. So even with the higher price of the Angelfish, you still make more money on the ground going with the faster breeding fish. So [I learned] things like managing down and managing to focus on where you think the biggest margins are.

I also learned a lot about picking and choosing which type of fish to sell, and I guess you could translate that out to which projects, positions, whatever have decent margins, lower risk and happier customers, despite the fact that they may not be the rarest. Which is the most scalable, the most profitable. That said, you needed some cool fish. Because if you didn't have the cool fish folks would go to the other five or six breeders because they want to go ogle the fish! So you also needed your showcase fish.

Today we're transforming our business now, so it's kind of apropos. We do a lot of high-end strategy projects, which are impressive for sure, but where we have a lot more impact in the long run is programs that are less complex but much more repeatable. Certainly it's driven by what we did in strategy, but they have the highest margins, the lowest risk. I can't do that with the highfalutin strategy project which is more complex and very impressive looking.

When I got accepted to Worcester Polytechnic I had to give away most of the fish. I had no successor who wanted to manage the 12 tanks. So the whole thing kind of shut down over a few months before I left Tanzania. Most of the fish I gave away because I did have a lot of friends who liked the fish and would come out and buy fish or use me as sort of a broker for pumps and gravel and things like that. I don't have fish today—I'm waiting to see if my kids are going to be excited about fish. Today PetCo might have us beat, though!

April 18, 2017 - 10:52am