Hussein Cholkamy of Eyrus: “Knowing when and what to ask”

Knowing when and what to ask: You can’t know everything up front. As much risk as one is taking to move forward with managing and leading a startup, one has to know when to ask questions and learn from others. One cannot emphasize enough on the importance of collaboration and mutual understanding of opinions as […]

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Knowing when and what to ask: You can’t know everything up front. As much risk as one is taking to move forward with managing and leading a startup, one has to know when to ask questions and learn from others. One cannot emphasize enough on the importance of collaboration and mutual understanding of opinions as well as humility. Without it, one does not learn and does not grow. Leadership requires growth in order to set an example and lead without an ego. We all make mistakes and learn from them. How willing is a leader to take feedback and implement it in the next step?

The COVID19 pandemic has disrupted all of our lives. But sometimes disruptions can be times of opportunity. Many people’s livelihoods have been hurt by the pandemic. But some saw this as an opportune time to take their lives in a new direction.

As a part of this series called “How I Was Able To Pivot To A New Exciting Opportunity Because Of The Pandemic”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Hussein Cholkamy.

As Co-founder and COO of Eyrus, Hussein brings over 20 years of global experience in real estate development, construction and design. He began his career as an Architect after obtaining his bachelor’s in Architecture from the University of Arizona. He then crossed into real estate development and project management after achieving his MBA from The George Washington University. Throughout his early career, Hussein worked on over 15 million square feet of construction and development globally. His dynamic understanding of construction project complexities, along with experience in business development and operations have founded the success of Eyrus in today’s market.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we start, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?

My father was in the foreign service, so I grew up all over the world. My family is originally from Egypt, but by the time I was 18, I had lived on four continents. That was an incredible experience. I learned how to navigate the world and relate to people of different backgrounds from an early age.

My mother was a very powerful, successful figure. Even while moving all over the world, she always understood that she had to continue to work. She found that being an entrepreneur was the best way to continue her career with the flexibility needed as we traveled. . My entire life I watched her build her business and investment dreams, while learning from taking risks. I owe all that I’ve learned from both of their impact on me growing up.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

My family lived in Italy during what my “formative years,” and there’s a saying that goes, “Sbagliando si impara,” which translates to: “You only learn from your mistakes.” My mother pounded that idea into my head. It helped me to not be risk adversed. Measured risks are what help you grow. As long as it doesn’t kill you, it will teach you something. So that Italian saying has been my life’s motto.

Is there a particular book, podcast, or film that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

One of my former bosses recommended that I read “Straight From The Gut,” by Jack Welch, the tenured CEO of General Electric. Whether you like Jack Welch or not, that’s an incredible read. It helps you understand how to analyze challenges, how to address them, and how to work on them with short-, mid- and long-term strategies. It was a helpful read for me to understand how to manage some of the risks and some of the challenges I am faced with in my role as Chief Operating Officer of Eyrus.

When it comes to podcasts, I listen to every new episode of NPR’s “How I Built This,” by Guy Raz. He brings on founders and leaders of all kinds of prominent and impactful startups and companies, and he gets them to talk candidly about their failures, how they got their ideas from nothing to something, and every step in between. There’s so much to learn from each story and each person’s path. What they seem to all have in common is that they have a vision and follow their gut with persistence.

Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion. Can you tell our readers about your career experience before the Pandemic began?

I started my career as an architect, actually, which is completely different from what I do today, and then I went to business school, which kind of shifted my mindset. From there, I moved into real estate development and understanding deals and financials when it comes to developing properties. I have always had an affinity for buildings and construction, ever since I was a kid.

That shift in my life led me to start Eyrus with my partners. Together with Alexandra McManus, we run Eyrus, which is a technology solutions company for construction and workplace visibility. We help builders better understand and track their projects, and that core function of the company has evolved beyond the construction industry alone, which has been an exciting transformation.

We were on a great path before the pandemic, with promising growth projected, supportive investors and great strategic partners. In early 2020, we were taking this five-year-old company to overseas growth and global business and attention. Then everything changed.

What did you do to pivot as a result of the Pandemic?

At first we weren’t sure how much the United States would be impacted, but by late February and early March, we faced a moment of panic. What were we going to do?

Once the panic passed, we realized the Eyrus platform was perfectly positioned, with a few strategic tweaks, to help our clients, and the construction industry at large, weather the storm brought by COVID-19. Our workforce visibility platform could help our clients understand the activities on their construction sites. If we added a layer to that already existing technology, we enabled our clients to keep their projects and job-sites active, while managing the risks of COVID-19, implement social distancing, identify exposures to the virus, and much more.

In a nutshell, our platform was key to give our clients the tools they needed during the pandemic to manage risk, and positioned Eyrus as a valued partner to help.

Can you tell us about the specific “Aha moment” that gave you the idea to start this new path?

After Alex and I went through some outside-of-the-box brainstorming sessions with our talented and creative team, our idea came to creating technology that would help us layer anonymized data and efficient tracking for safety on construction sites. There was nothing like that readily available, so we created it with SafeProx. We have an incredibly dedicated team and together we developed this solution and started marketing it to our existing clients to help them keep critical work moving forward. Then we were able to open a new market for ourselves.

How are things going with this new initiative?

We are fortunate to have clients who believe in our team and our services, because they were ready and willing to try this new solution, we brought them without much proof sourcing because it was completely new and created for totally novel working conditions. They were willing to provide us critical insight as we walked the job-site with them, so to speak. Ultimately, we enhanced the product with customer guidance, gained additional market opportunities, and closed a number of pivotal new partner customers for Eyrus, making 2020 one of our best years yet. So it’s safe to say things are going great with our new initiative with SafeProx and the ancillary tools we’ve launched. I feel that today our clients are satisfied with our offerings, and that on the whole, we are more indispensable than ever to their everyday. We feel honored to be playing such an active role in making their work better and safer, so we’re looking forward to building on those initiatives this year and making 2021 an even better year.

Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I’m grateful to Alex [McManus] because our partnership is so special. I feel like we balance one another. We manage our challenges with each other very well, as well as our ambitions and thoughts. However, I can’t name just a single person from our team, or even our suppliers, because everybody played a key role in supporting us.

Both Alex and I hired the team we have, and we feel like we constantly focused on hiring a team that is smarter than us. A team that knows what it’s doing in their field, leaving us to manage the vision of the company, making sure that we are all going in the right direction. Without the team there is no us, and without us there is no team.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started in this new direction?

Funny enough, the story that comes to mind is really not a product of this direction but a product of everyone dealing with the pandemic which was suppliers. As you might know from the news, manufacturing components has become very difficult. There are certain electronics that are very hard to source these days.

It is very interesting that we find ourselves in the situation, where we are buying materials and competing with massive, publicly traded companies that are also trying to compete to get the same products that we do, with our volume being tiny compared to theirs. However, it is very interesting to see us in this situation, where we are dealing with components. While we are not necessarily a hardware company — we offer data management and data analysis solutions — but we do need the hardware to get the data.

That was interesting to navigate all summer long — to figure out how we diversify, how to get those components from China when many factories there were said to soon be shutting down, what alternatives we had… It was an eye-opening experience.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started leading my organization” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

Virtual Workforce — We started the company as a virtual platform in order to be able to acquire great talent outside of the DC metro area and globally. Knowing where the future of work is going, it would have made it even more easy for us than now to make that decision. Our company was thriving before the pandemic working remotely and will continue to do so seamlessly past the pandemic. The perceptions about us working from home that existed prior to the pandemic have dramatically changed over the past 12 months and are now seen as an accepted way of work. Had we known that this is where we would be today, we would not have fretted about it as much before the pandemic.

Growing Pains of startups — I wish there was a magic 8 ball to give us advice as to how early we should hire critical talent. Knowing what we know now, certain key hires could have come earlier to help with the leap the company was witnessing. Rapid growth comes fast and it causes one to realize the importance of the right hire. The founders start by being the only individual contributors at first. Once the hiring of specialized talent joins the team, you as a founder need to realize that you no longer have to own the entire process. Measure your risks, hire smart and hire fast before the growth hits you in the face rather than wait to hire after the growth happens.

How to select Investors — Selecting the right institutional investors who will be your partner in growth is key to future success of the company. Eyrus is lucky to have landed a couple of very supportive institutional investors who played a key role during the ups and downs along the way. Obtaining the right partnership for your investment groups is key to success and we have been fortunate to experience that. Alex and I had no guidebook in how to select investors. The intrinsic value that we have received by being part of their portfolio has been key to our success. It is important to understand the reach and the tools that these investors can provide. We learned to leverage those tools when needed in order to navigate towards success.

Sacrifice: Are you prepared for the time, financial, and life sacrifices associated with starting a business? There is no guide for that. One has to balance and prepare for what those may bring. Support from partners, family, friends, colleagues and your bank account are important. Balancing it all is an important art form to ensure you can perform and not burn out in the process.

Knowing when and what to ask: You can’t know everything up front. As much risk as one is taking to move forward with managing and leading a startup, one has to know when to ask questions and learn from others. One cannot emphasize enough on the importance of collaboration and mutual understanding of opinions as well as humility. Without it, one does not learn and does not grow. Leadership requires growth in order to set an example and lead without an ego. We all make mistakes and learn from them. How willing is a leader to take feedback and implement it in the next step?

So many of us have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. Can you share the strategies that you have used to optimize your mental wellness during this stressful period?

I have to admit that the news was very stressful. All around, you had to stay on top of it to understand what was going on around the world, but at the same time you could not let the news consume you. It became a morning one-hour routine, understanding what was going on, listening to different talk shows to understand the political situation, we live in a country where politics are really important.

What was even more important was finding a way to unplug and destress, exercising, working out, going outside, even if it’s a walk outside, that made a huge difference. You are just walking to clear your mind, think straight.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?

Equality is huge for me — understanding that people are about what they can offer based on their mental strength, their talent and that it is not about how they look, their names or their background. It’s about what they can do, and about respect. Lots of movements around this have happened around the world during this last couple of years. This enables creativity. It creates opportunity. It allows people to work together with the same goal, this goal is to move forward and succeed. It’s not about I am better than you, it’s about succeeding together as a company, as a country and as the world. We only have one another!

Is there a person in the world whom you would love to have lunch with, and why? Maybe we can tag them and see what happens!

Given the hypothetical nature of this question, I’m going to go with someone who is no longer with us. I would have loved a chance to sit down for lunch with Steve Jobs. In my mind, almost no one was more innovative than Jobs. If asked to choose someone who is still with us, I would say Richard Branson is a bucket-list lunch companion. I’d love to know more firsthand about how he persevered through challenges to grow his many business ventures. We all struggle with focus, and Richard Branson does so more than some other given his challenges with dyslexia. But he has managed to overcome those challenges, and others, to become one of the most successful and powerful business leaders in the world. I find his story very inspiring.

How can our readers follow you online?

You can find me on LinkedIn:

Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!

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