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The Con Man

Egypt's first true internet entrepreneur, we learn the tricks of the trade from Cornelius O’Donnell.

This week, we caught up with Cornelius O’Donnell, the man that invented the internet. Or at least the internet in Egypt. Having founded (and subsequently sold off) online media empire Sarmady – featuring some of Egypt’s most-visited sites including filgoal.com, contactcars.com, mujaz.me and more – Cornelius (Con if you want to be matey with him) has been instrumental in shaping the local techy landscape. He’s like the Egyptian Godfather of Geek. Except he’s Irish. Now working on bigger and better projects, including new online shopping site books.com.eg, we catch up with the internet guru to talk porn, Amanda Palmer and potatoes on the internet…

Do you like the interwebz?

I love the interwebz!  I live on it! I actually built a lot of the interwebz in Egypt!

How did you get into the online world?

Things just seemed to happen. When I first moved to Egypt I actually found myself writing at fashion magazine. I had never even used a computer in my life! People were talking about this thing called Hotmail and I was like ‘what the hell is that?!’

Wait. What? How did you write?

With a stone and chisel! Hahaha! No, I used to handwrite things and send them to be transferred on to floppy disk! Things have changed, obviously! I learned to use a computer by watching the designers at the magazine and taught myself how to use Photoshop and Freehand. Then I started a small design agency with some of the magazine’s designers and we started our own publication called Nightlife. It didn’t last long because it was expensive to run and that’s when I started thinking about the internet. Immediately, I knew that the three things that would work best online in Egypt are porn, religion and football. The first two are a bit dodgy so that’s when FilGoal.com came about.

What is your favorite: football, religion or porn?

Porn. At least I can watch porn for more than 90 minutes.

Are you the Godfather of the internet in Egypt?

It’s quite a big family, the internet. I’m an uncle, maybe.

What would you consider MO4?

You would be like the bratty cousins. You’re the new generation.

Do you feel like these internet entrepreneurs are the new rock stars of the world?

No, the whole entrepreneur thing is a title that doesn’t mean anything. They’re not really entrepreneurs; they are geeks with people throwing money at them. It doesn’t make them less geeky or more rock star. I think it’s going to take a few more years before that kind of thing happens because the amount of money being thrown around is really small here, and most of these newcomers  are disappearing after three to six months

Had you come up with the World Wide Web, would you have given it away for free like Tim Berners Lee?

Yeah probably. I ran Sarmady as a non-profit for 10 years because I was off with my predictions. I thought internet advertising would have boomed around 2003 like it did in Europe and we would have all made tons of money but it still hasn’t really hit yet! But I really believe we paved the way for the internet in the Arab world. For example, there was no content management system in the world that handled right-to-left text like Arabic. We had to create that.

What was the first thing you bought when Vodafone bought Sarmady out?

Hahaha! I bought a BMW 330 and totaled it just off the mehwar. Obviously. I’ve learned my mistake!

If you were to get the following people and put them in order of how genius you think they are from bottom to top, what would it be?: Google founders, Mark Zuckerberg, Stephen Hawking and you.

Zuckerberg at the bottom, then me, then Google people then Hawking at the top. I don’t like Facebook, I think it’s a disaster.

Who would you poke if you could poke anyone in the world?

Repetitively or just once?

You get one poke till the day you die.

It would have to be Amanda Palmer.

Obviously there’s been a big paradigm shift in the internet in terms of  ‘Net 2.0′ and increased interaction, so what we want to know is: what is your favorite Pokemon?

I don’t have a Pokemon.

THEY’RE NOT REAL. Gosh. Tell us about Books.com.eg

These two young guys kept turning up at events I was speaking at, pestering me about this idea of selling books online. I put it off for ages because I wasn’t really convinced. Who read actual books now? They bugged me for a year and a half until I finally agreed to take a look! They amazed me. They’re really bright and did everything right. They put off their marriages and sold their cars because they really believed in what they were doing and that was the tipping point for me. They’re convinced that the two biggest hurdles – that Egyptians don’t buy things online and that they don’t read books – are wrong and they’re setting out to prove it. Their understanding of business was so spot on that I agreed to put $20,000 into it and became the company’s chairman.

Would you have invested in us if we had asked for $20,000?

Yes, probably.

Can we have $20,000 please?

Sure.

That was easy. So, how is books.com.eg doing so far?

It was doing really well until Febuary when they ran out  money. Thing’s have slowed down a bit but we’re still getting around 35 orders a day which is great. The cash flow situation is just a hiccup.

One of our distribution guys suggested that we should sell potatoes on the internet. What do you think of this idea?

I think you can sell ANYTHING on the internet if you’re offering it slightly cheaper than someone else and giving them convenience.

If you were given a million pounds but you could only spend it on a potato website, would you take that challenge?

I’m Irish! I would have a LOT of fun with potatoes. Stupidity and potatoes are our two main strengths. We could diversify and sell potato kebabs, mashed potatoes, add some value to the potato. Peeled, chopped….

What else have you got up your internet sleeve?

Well, that potato idea is great, I’ll write it down. Other than that, we have a few new apps coming out including some fun Islamic ones and we’re also working on a program to help out with corporate Twitter accounts. Outside of the interwebz, I’m also developing a reality TV show, that’s sort of like The Apprentice meets The Dragon’s Den for the Middle East to help encourage ideas and entrepreneurs.

Tell us something no one knows about you.

I was training to be a Catholic priest when I was young!


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