Interview: Faris Zaher, CEO of Yamsafer

Paprika! Issue Editors:

Can you introduce Yamsafer to us and describe the office space briefly?

Faris Zaher:

Yamsafer.com is essentially a Booking.com or Expedia clone. In terms of the source market, where the travelers come from, we’re focused on the Middle East, and specifically the Gulf countries such as Saudi, Qatar, Kuwait, UAE. Our office is based in Ramallah, Palestine where we started at the end of 2011. Since then we’ve been growing by 50% each month. Some months we’re doubling in size. We started out as a three-person company, today we’re over 60.

In terms of the space, it’s an indoor space on the 11th floor of a commercial building that has a panoramic view of Ramallah. On the interior it looks like a promenade, a main street with benches and sidewalk tiling. Plants, a bike, and couches line the promenade. In the distance is a café with a view to the city, and in the open space are a series of loosely organized desks and a ping-pong table. On either side of the promenade you have small spaces that are more private for meetings and a quieter working environment.

Given that in the past few decades there has been a shift in the definition of the place of work, it can no longer be limited to one place. People can do work from home, or on their phones from vacation. Why have you put so much energy on the design of your office space?

I think that the reason we invested so much in the space is because it makes even more sense for companies that are emerging out of places like Palestine to invest in space than it does for companies like Google. Space is a very powerful tool. Obviously all of these companies do it to attract top talent, because at the end of the day these are your assets as a technology company. If you’re a Google employee at Palo Alto, and you’re not at work, you’re at Fisherman’s Warf, or going hiking. You can do a million and one things outside of work there. Here, the lack of alternatives makes the workspace all the more important. Restrictions imposed on people – the Israeli occupation and mismanagement by the Palestinian Authority — require you to solve problems dealing not only with people’s work but also with people’s lifestyles in general. It’s more challenging because you’re stepping outside the scope of work and into personal space.

The occupation has then affected Ramallah physically and spatially, but given that borders and walls can’t confine information flow, how are you affected by the occupation?

Individually, each and every one of us is affected by the occupation, and so the business is indirectly affected as well. People come into the office after going through three checkpoints and getting harassed and abused. The business itself could then be indirectly affected by the frustration of its employees. But it depends on which angle you choose to take. On the flipside, we reject the status quo. We are hungry for change and that makes for better fighters.

We could have been more directly affected if we decided to set up in another location like Dubai or Amman. It’s very difficult for Palestinians with a Palestinian ID card to travel out of here. We knew that was the case. That’s another reason we chose Ramallah; there was no other option. As hard as it was to get everyone here, we managed to do it because we knew that the alternative would have been even more difficult. The benefit of that is now paying off, because the internal flow of information that we have here within the confinement of these walls is much more efficient than any other organization that might be scattered across one or two or three countries.

That’s what really matters in technology, because at the end of the day, as you scale, most of the communication between you and your customers or partners is going to happen online, but the internal flow of information is what you need to maximize on to be super efficient—that you can’t do online. The point is to have a closely-knit group of people.You build this mesh that allows people to move faster and that propels the business forward.

Who works for you? Are they all from the West Bank? Do people return to Palestine because of Yamsafer?

We have some people who came back from abroad to visit and decided to stay here. It’s sort of a reverse brain drain. Everyone here is highly intelligent and very skilled. They probably have the option to work for companies like Google, but they stay here out of choice and a desire to change things. Not everyone is from the West Bank. A fifth of our employees are Palestinians from Jerusalem.

Do they cross the border every time they come into work or do they live in Ramallah? (The 8-meter separation wall and checkpoint between Jerusalem and Ramallah blocks entry in and out of the area. You have to have the right ID card to be able to move with the permission of the Israeli government.)

Some do live in Ramallah, but most cross the checkpoints every day. It depends on people’s preference. Obviously there’s a problem with the Jerusalem ID living in Ramallah, but I won’t get into that. I’m the only one from Nazareth, or “the ’48”—whatever you want to call it. (“The ’48’” refers to 1948, the year Nazareth was occupied. It is now considered an Arab Israeli city, and is fully under the control of the Israeli government)

At the Google office in New York, you know you’re at the Google office, and you know you’re in NYC given the cultural references painted on the walls of the office. At Yamsafer do you feel like you’re in Palestine?

Well, you know, we don’t want to draw inspiration from what it feels like to be in Palestine because it’s not such a great feeling today. What we try to do here is to make you live through what our future vision for Palestine is.

The reason why we decided to design the space as an outdoor promenade is specifically because in Palestine we don’t have these outdoor spaces. This is what comes closest to a park or an exterior communal space here. If our company becomes successful we can make a significant impact on the Palestinian economy, but the real impact will come by many others that will follow the same path. Among other things, maybe that will change the way the streets look outside. That’s our vision for what things should be like.

There are many architects who have been critical of the “Google office” typology. Although it is a new typology, there is evidence that the space only keeps people at work for longer hours, which is potentially harmful to their well-being. Can you speak to the relationship of work to home, and this dichotomy that you and others at Yamsafer are conscious of?

I think most critics of that concept are not coming from the tech industry. They still have this separation in their minds of work/life. Work for them is purely a means of financing life rather than an essential part of what makes it great. The way people think about working for tech firms is “work is something I enjoy and I come to work because I enjoy it.” You don’t think about clocking in and out. Like any bad relationship you should quit your job once you start thinking about these things for too long. This isn’t to say these jobs are for everyone. Most people, whether they know it or not, want to be in the average because of its convenience, and that requires them to do average work. Those types of people don’t get hired by tech firms because it is harmful for both the company and that person. On the contrary, people who like to work on the edge will be absolutely miserable in a slow-paced environment. What I’m trying to say is bad career choices make people miserable, not their employers. It’s important to note that going to “work” does not mean you’re constantly working. Most people’s friends here are the people they work with as well. It’s a campus-like environment, it’s like Yale. You’re on campus pretty much all of the time for 4 years, I don’t think that’s unhealthy in any way.

How do people occupy the space in a way that you weren’t expecting them to?

I was really surprised a couple of times in our previous and this office. When we were 10 people in the 200m2, it didn’t work well. It was counter intuitive because technically we had more square footage per person, but we realized with less density there was more noise. When there were 20 people it was ideal. People didn’t talk that much, because they felt like they were sharing the space instead of owning the space. At that point, people were respecting the space and it felt more communal.

Another instance I noticed was the way designated areas were used for different purposes. We have a very big dining area where people are supposed to eat. When people eat in large groups they eat there, but when it’s a small group they eat in random places on the picnic tables or couches. We designed these specific types of spaces that are designated for something, and people use them for something else. We can’t tell people “you can’t do work in the kitchen;” that’s not going to happen. The next time we design a space, we have to keep in mind that we have to be able to change the designation of spaces quickly.

Paprika! features issues that are mostly very local. What would you like to portray about being an entrepreneur in Palestine, and in the Middle East in general?

The only reason we’re successful is because we don’t have American preconceptions of how things should work. If Americans could do it here, they would have done it already. Expedia could have been the leader here, but they didn’t do it for a reason. You need to think about these regional problems differently, and you probably need to be from here to understand how to tackle these issues. That means that you come into the game with a lesser amount of experience. Tech entrepreneurship didn’t exist 10 years ago in the Middle East. There was absolutely nothing. There is not a wave of successful entrepreneurship that you can draw experience and talent from. You need to figure things out on your own, and it forces you to move quicker, and to be more efficient than your Western counterparts. You need to be more efficient in terms of cost because you probably have less money. You’re going to make as many mistakes if not more along the way, so you need to be practical with your attacks. While the guys in Silicon Valley drink soy milk and attend conferences, we go an extra mile or two. If you keep doing that systematically, eventually you will win, regardless of how disadvantaged you were to begin with.