As the only telecommunications start-up in the Arab world that launched without the backing of an existing operator, and being up against a local competitor that held 100 per cent market share of mobile services in the region, du is a company designed to face obstacles.
Continued growth since du’s launch in 2006 shows it hasn’t just faced, but overcome these obstacles, with CEO and Founder Osman Sultan at the helm. Having been no stranger to telecoms challenges in the past, it’s hardly surprising that Osman was invited to help found and lead du from the ground up. Ten years on, du is considered one of the United Arab Emirates’ most vibrant success stories, reaching profitability in just two years of its operations, and with annual revenue now exceeding US$3.4 billion.
It has won more than 7.7 million mobile customers (almost 50 per cent market share), while offerings have also gained the company 674,000 fixed line subscribers (telephony including call select, broadband, and TV). Osman is considered both a veteran of telecommunications, and one of the Middle East’s most influential leaders. He is credited with creating a company that is transforming the UAE’s telecom sector, while adhering to its values and delivering on its promise.
“Being a telecom company today, you have to go beyond just offering connectivity,” says Osman. “Technology, the internet, and the digital space have become increasingly important in our day-to-day life. New business models are transforming the way we do things, and how we interact with each other. We have to diversify our range of services constantly, not only to find new revenue streams, but because it is mandatory that we stay in tandem with advances in technology.”
The company represents a part of the socio-economic fabric of the UAE, which also impacts on the company’s responsibility to be in sync with all new technology developments. “We owe it to the country, the citizens, and to the businesses, to always remain at the forefront of technology,” Osman explains.
Launching an entirely shareholder funded business presented unique challenges for the company, with added pressure on management to build a successful and competitive business model on its own footing. Osman says this also presented the opportunity to build a unique company culture and mission statement entirely from scratch. The idea was that a fresh corporate culture would be better able to support goals to differentiate the brand. “A brand is the way a company breathes; it’s how it holds itself in every interaction with stakeholders. The brand is not just a logo, a tagline, or a jingle. It is really the culture and values it holds.”
Converged services model
Establishing itself in the region as the second telecom operator, where penetration of mobile services was already at 100 per cent, was a huge challenge for du. “It forced us to do things differently, and to keep innovation as part of our DNA. We have worked hard to enhance and expand the services we offer in an industry that is at the heart of economic and social transformation,” says Osman. It’s offerings now include both mobile and fixed-line telephony, broadband connectivity, and IPTV services to people, homes, and businesses all over the UAE, in addition to carrier services, data hubs, internet exchange facilities and satellite services for broadcasters.
“We were one of the very few telecom start-ups to move into a converged services model,” says Osman. “We launched many different services simultaneously and that is now becoming the standard. With a growing digital revolution, this evolving service model had to encompass more home-based services, along with managed services for enterprises. This included catering to digital trends such as machine-to-machine (M2M) connectivity, a shift to cloud-based solutions, and the growing Smart City space.
“We were selected as the official partner for the Smart Dubai initiative,” says Osman. “Dubai has great ambition when it comes to positioning itself as the smartest city in the world, so for us it is a significant move in terms of positioning our company as leaders
in this area, and going beyond connectivity. We believe that the Smart City initiative, and the platform that we will be using to contribute to it, will further empower our digitally driven society. We will really be at the beating heart of the city’s transformation.”
A mobile in the hand of everyone
Prior to his 2005 move to the UAE to pursue what he describes as “the immense privilege” of being asked to set up du as its CEO, Osman held a similar leadership position in Egypt with Mobinil — a subsidiary of the Orange Group now known as Orange Egypt — which he led from its launch in 1998. As a ‘mobile only’ operation, Osman’s goal for Mobinil was to expand widespread connectivity and mobility as a means to transform lives, with the company slogan: “A mobile in the hand of everyone”.
“It was a very interesting experience. It was a promise of empowerment and capability for every individual,” says Osman. “At the time, everyone was challenging this; back then, mobile penetration rates were only between 10 and 15 per cent, and it was strange to prioritise mobility alongside secure shelter and decent nutrition, healthcare, and education. I told them, this is going to become much bigger — being connected will become a basic human right.”
A brand is the way a company breathes; it’s how it holds itself in every interaction with stakeholders. The brand is not just a logo, a tagline, or a jingle. It is really the culture and values it holds.” – Osman Sultan
Since that time, mobility and connectivity have been playing an increasing role in the accessibility of crucial knowledge and services that allow people to live their lives in a more friendly, secure, efficient, and cost-effective way.
“Back then I was continually keeping my eye on the horizon to see how technology and the industry were changing, and it was then that the opportunity arose to lead du and take communication capabilities and digital trends to the next level,” says Osman. “This was in the very early days of social networking and digital transformation, so it was a very exciting opportunity for me. Though it was rewarding to see my predictions come true, the story of du’s growth has really exceeded my expectations.”
Shifting from ‘unshared certainties’ to ‘shared uncertainties’
An ongoing challenge for du will be future-proofing against major disruption, with the business world shifting from ‘unshared certainties’ to ‘shared uncertainties’, Osman explains. Where once different sectors did not have to interact or share information, today the business ecosystem has become more complex, to the point of overlapping. “Today I cannot think about what’s happening in the telecom sector if I don’t also look at what’s happening in the media, IT, or the device sector for instance. Things are blending so much now that industries are forced to share, but the fascinating thing is most often we have to share uncertainty,” says Osman.
“Since business models are evolving so quickly, nothing is clear. We see disintermediation as new companies disrupt operations, causing new business models and ecosystems to be created. It is up to us to prepare for this by asking the right questions — we are moving from a culture of having the right answers, to asking the right questions. I feel extremely excited and energised by this because it is a constant challenge, and a constant drive towards innovation, and that is what is going to really create value ultimately.”
Osman says that he hopes the model of du will be a long serving illustration of how change can be spearheaded by a strong vision, and how such vision can be transformed into reality. “My management style has always been based on the fact that I do not accomplish things by authority nor by consensus. I make things happen by sharing a vision, and convincing people that this is where we are heading — just follow me and we will make it happen together,” he says. “That leadership style worked perfectly with du.
“In the beginning, we were asked: ‘Is there a magic recipe, is there something in the technology?’ and we said no, there is no magic recipe. It is just having a systematic disciplined approach across the whole value chain, driven by people with the right mindset to make it happen; people that believe that you can accomplish that vision, even if it seems impossible. And this mindset prevailed.”
Don’t just talk the talk, walk the walk
From day one with the company, du’s employees are encouraged to embrace this culture and its values, to ensure they can continue to “not only talk the talk, but walk the walk”, says Osman. “If you have motivated employees and the happiest customers, then shareholder value will also be there,” he says. du now has close to 2,000 people, from across 60 countries working to develop its service offerings — a diversity that Osman says reflects the rich culture of the UAE.
Osman credits his success in growing the brand not just to his innovative vision, but also to remaining stubborn in this vision, while being flexible in its execution. “It has to be a ruthless execution, but you need to be flexible in the model because the world is always changing,” he says. ‘It’s so rewarding when I see my vision become a reality.”
“It was strange to prioritise mobility alongside secure shelter and decent nutrition, healthcare, and education. I told them, this is going to become much bigger — being connected will become a basic human right.” – Osman Sultan
As a self-proclaimed ‘people person’, Osman says the greatest reward is positive feedback from those in his life that see how he has transformed things for people, and the community as a whole. “When previous employees approach me years after their time working with me as a young person, and they tell me that I changed their life in some way, and also when I see recognition from my children, wife, and family, who can see that what I do is touching people’s lives — that is the most rewarding thing.”
From his time leading the telecoms industry through great disruption and evolution, Osman believes that a company’s story and its culture are the most important drivers for success. “The CEO needs to be a storyteller, because in the end, telling the right story is key. It has to be consistent, and it has to reflect the values, the ethics, and the culture that you have,” he says. “du’s story shows how you can build the right culture that blends with the socio-economic fabric of one of the world’s most dynamic countries. This is a story I am very proud of.”