An Exclusive with the most patient founder in the internet world
A while back as I joined the committee for my urbanization in Spain, I started pushing for a website in order to improve the communication amongst the neighbours and also bring about an outdated administration system to the 21st century and the net. I was baffled by why when everything is available online, the administrator was still issuing paper bills and all the community minutes had to be distributed by post.
So after a long search and trial of several internet based services such as votobweb, mycasaonline and todovecinos , I settled for OCM by Urbytus, mainly because it was the only one that offered a fully multilingual website and modular service with most of the facilities that we needed.
As we started using it, I became more and more intrigued by finding more about the people behind it. Mainly because we were using the free version of this service and it provided us with everything we needed and I was baffled by how they were making a living and who they were? Another Mark Zuckerberg with a new version of Facebook? No, the concept was too different. OCM was a software and not a social networking website. I thought that it would be a difficult job getting to meet the people and the CEO but all it took was one email and the founder, Ali Parandeh replied promptly and accepting my meet me to talk about his project and the issues of community management and the reasons why property administration has taken so long to join the web2.
I was not sure what to expect and he requested that we meet in a quiet bar or cafeteria. I was sure if I will be able to recognise him, but he looks exactly the same as his photos on the company website; short hair, well groomed and with a cravat. Not exactly the geek type you see in the movies, but as you get to know him, you realize that he is as much a geek as Mark Zuckerberg and Steve Jobs.
Ali Left Iran at 12 after the revolution, moving to France where he went to an American International School. He says laughingly, I learned English in France in American school. Two years later he moved to Spain with his family in 1985 continuing school at a British college in Marbella, followed by university and postgraduate studies in UK. When asked what brought him back to Spain, he replied that it is the closest place where he feels home, in particular the Costa del Sol which is in some cases similar to London, it is very international and cosmopolitan.
His university education is Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology and I was intrigued by how he ended up in the world of IT. He explains that in fact he never ended up in IT, but started with it. He purchased his first Computer in 1986 an Amstrad 6128 (some of you may remember the brand name and model). It had a 128K of memory and when you switch it on it took 2 seconds and booted into a Basic Windows. He started with an address book and from there wanted to write programs for everything, His mother’s house accounting and purchases to his father’s manufacturing plant. Unfortunately neither of them ever used the programs he wrote, but in 1994, he wrotehis first commercial program for the English International College, that kept students record, created reports, stats, class assigning, etc. He comments “It was a very extensive program and had I had the time to market it and upgrade it, it could have become a winner, but at the time I was still doing my PhD and could not devote too much time to marketing it.”
I go back to my main point of this meeting. What made him think about creating a web portal like OCM? Ali explains that before he even became the president of his community they had decided to create a website for their own urbanization and he set up a small static website. He soon realised that it was just too static and if it were to become useful, they needed some sort of content management system. He therefore experimented with several CMS systems like PHP NUKE, DOTNET NUKE and Word Press, but none of them could deliver the functionalities required by a community, so after two years of trial and error at about the same time that he became the president of his community, he put together a team of programmers and designers to create a web portal unique for communities.
He continues explaining that everything that exists has been created for a purpose. Facebook is a social networking portal, allowing you to keep in touch with friends and family. OCM is a web portal, allowing neighbours, administrator, president and the committee to keep in touch, discuss matters, vote and keep track of ongoing issues in an organised manner. It allows the community to create tasks for jobs and flag them with different status from request to completion. Everyone can monitor all that is happening within their community. It allows for AGM meetings to be filed and owners can send proxy votings that automatically notify the president and the administrator. In short the program has been designed with modules and options that facilitate the running and communication within a community.
OCM is even more attractive in the Costa del Sol because of its international community and the fact that many owners are not full time residents and mostly work or live abroad and unlike the international community in London which mostly speak English on the contrary majority of the international community in Costa del Sol do not (apologies to those who do). Ali and has team have built a system that uses Google translation to also allow for message translations between neighbours and the committee. Therefore, Danish, Swedish, Spanish or English can all login to the website directly using their own language interface, hence facilitating jobs like sending Proxy votings, contacting the administrator, checking their community fees or getting copies of past and current AGMs. Asking about the quality of the translation, he comments that all the menus and help files are always translated in house by a human but the rest of the user generated content is always through Google translations which can sometime be very funny, but the most important is that in most cases, using short concise sentences can easily get the message across and avoid misunderstandings at AGMs.
His love for detail and functionality amazes me and more over the time he has spent developing this software. Starting in 2007 and rolling out with the beta version two years later in 2009 with some 30 to 40 communities. Overall there are some six thousand users registered on the system from different communities along with some 500 businesses. Among these communities are San Juan de Capistrano in Nerja with 500 owners, Torremeulle Urbanization in Benalmadena Costa with nearly 1000 owners and some higher profile places like Las Alamandas in Nueva Andalucia, Marbella. He speaks of the different needs in each community and how he has built a love for helping neighbours come together. He says with a slight fury that he can’t understand why with all the available technology at hand why the administration and committee are still living in the paper era. The communities that have started using OCM have already benefited from better meetings, reduced expenses and even new additional values where they didn’t even think of. He explains that it is like everything else, we don’t know how we lived without mobile, email and internet and now 10 minutes without it and people develop withdrawal symptoms.
He explains to me with fascination his idea about smart cities and how he thinks we will be using computers and the internet. If anyone has read the Biography of Steve Jobs, they might think that why he is not rich and famous like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. I asked him if he knew Pierre Omidyar, the Iranian Founder of ebay and if he had similar ideas? He replied with almost a sad tone that he thinks he is always 5 years ahead of his time. He recounts the time in 1991 when he was a student in London and he sent over 500 letters to hotels, telling them about the opportunity of being able to advertise on university BBS, where he constantly was asked by American students about accommodation in London. Then in 1994 he asked his father to lend him the money to setup an ISP, but his father refused until he had finished his PhD. He also believes that most of the Internet famous and success are US based and that Europe and in particular Spain is not the most entrepreneur friendly country. He recounts a bitter account of having to pay an employee thousands of euros after her contract was legally finished and even though she had worked only nine months, he still had to pay her another 5 to 6 months from the time her contract terminated to the time the judge decided that she should have had a permanent contract, disregarding the fact that company was not making any money and that she had worked nothing more than 9 months. He comments that things like this are very anti business. For an entrepreneur or a small business, this means death. It almost stops anyone wanting to employ anyone every again and you wonder why Spain has such high unemployment at times like this.
Nearly two hours have passed and I haven’t even noticed it. Getting anxious that he might be wanting to leave and get on with his work, I bring our conversation to a close by asking where he sees himself in 10 years time? He laughs and says that one of his best friends reckons that when OCM becomes as big as Facebook he should buy a yacht, maybe or maybe not but he says he prefers the snow and the mountains. One thing that he is sure of however is from one of his favourite books by Deepak Chopra, “The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success”. At one point in the book, the author asks “If you had all the money in the world and did not need to worry about anything, what would you be doing?” His answer “Well maybe slightly longer holidays than just a week or two in a year and I just love skiing, but ultimately I love creating and writing new programs, I see OCM as the start of a large number of web portals and application plus devices that can all integrate and work together ”. The technology is here and nothing excites me more and gives me more energy to work and to create.
I feel privileged and almost feel like I have met Bill Gates or Steve Jobs himself even though he is not famous, his vision is nonetheless extraordinary and mind blowing. As it says on his company website he lives on planet Urbytus and his community software may one day be something that we will all use in the near future. Services that are an innovative blend of experience and new technology to aid efficient and cost effective management of community requirements and communication.