Product Lessons Learned: Interview with Hassan Khajeh-Hosseini, Co-Founder of AbarCloud

Andre Theus
Former VP of Marketing at ProductPlan

product interview AbarCloud

This post is part of a series of interviews that we are conducting with product leaders across various industries. In this interview series, product leaders share advice with their fellow product managers. We hope this series will shed light on trends and challenges in the profession, and be helpful to new and experienced product managers alike.

The following interview is with Hassan Khajeh-Hosseini, a former product manager and two-time entrepreneur who recently relocated from California to Tehran to launch AbarCloud, the first Iranian public cloud provider. Sanctions against Iran have prevented American cloud providers, such as Amazon Web Services, Microsoft Azure, and Google Cloud, from infiltrating the Iranian market, so Hassan seized upon a unique opportunity to make a massive impact on the Iranian tech scene.

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Hassan walked us through the validation process for AbarCloud and shared some of the challenges he’s encountered, both personally and professionally, while trying to achieve product/market fit in a developing market. According to Hassan, a few of the keys to success are universal: you need to understand your customers, understand your market, and understand your product.

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Listen to the full interview or, if you prefer, read the transcript below.

Full Interview Transcript

Andre Theus: Welcome to our interview series, Product Lessons Learned. In this series, we interview fellow product managers so that they can share their stories and advice with you. Today, I’m talking to Hassan. Hassan started his career as a consultant for Accenture, and then he founded a software company in Edinburgh, Scotland.

It was acquired by a California-based company, where he stayed on as a product manager for several years. Hassan recently decided to start another company called AbarCloud, and that’s mainly why I am here talking to Hassan today. Hassan, welcome! Would you please tell us a bit about yourself and give us an overview of AbarCloud?

Hassan Khajeh-Hosseini: Sure, thanks for having me. So, I’m Hassan. I started my career in the technical consultancy world in London, and then I got into the startup scene and I never left. Personally, I love jumping around the world and jumping out of airplanes… but with a parachute. I am the co-founder of AbarCloud.

That’s me. Let me tell you about AbarCloud a little bit. AbarCloud is Iran’s first public cloud provider. Because of the American sanctions on Iran, AWS, Microsoft Azure, Google Cloud — none of these people can enter the Iranian market. So what we’ve done is basically taken today’s cutting-edge technology and brought it into the Iranian market.

And then maybe for those who are interested, there’s a new concept called containers as a service. It sits in between infrastructure as a service, which is what AWS provides, and platform as a service, which is something like Heroku. The cool thing is, it gets the flexibility of IaaS, with the ease of PaaS. So that’s what we’re currently offering here in the market.

Andre Theus: Very interesting, that’s a big project. Very impressive. So you were a consultant, and then became an entrepreneur, and then you worked as a product manager. Why did you decide to become an entrepreneur again?

Hassan Khajeh-Hosseini: Yeah, good question, a lot of people ask me this. Why did I give up a nicely-paid product management job-based in sunny California and relocate to Iran?

This isn’t our first startup. Our first startup was a cloud cost simulation engine, called PlanforCloud. We got acquired by RightScale, who does cloud management, and on the acquisition, I became a product manager.

I guess, to answer your question, why did I leave to start another company? One thing I learned when we were getting acquired is negotiating your autonomy upfront if that is what you want. Negotiate team structures, reporting structures, and things like that.

And then, from there, don’t keep yourself separate. You have to establish a strong relationship with key people in the company. Get executive sponsorship behind you. And also, you’ve got to have the ability to influence decisions in the company.

I left because my vision of where things should go, or how things should be done didn’t align with the management teams. So it was better for me to step aside and not be a blocker. We also lost some of our autonomy.

Once I left I took some time out and drove around all of the United States, and then started looking for opportunities. And then this opportunity, AbarCloud, started popping up,
so that’s how I ended up being an entrepreneur again. But I think there’s a lot of overlap between being an entrepreneur and a product manager because, essentially, you’re leading the charge on something, whether it’s your company or your product.

Andre Theus: Got it, very interesting.

Sounds like you didn’t find the opportunity while driving around the US, and now you’re seeking it in Iran. Why did you choose Iran as the target market for your product?

Hassan Khajeh-Hosseini: Good question. I had a manager, and when I talked to him, I was approached by Google to do a product manager job at Google.

My manager told me, look, Google’s a big company, right? So if you’re gonna accept anything, make sure you’ve got the ability to make an impact. I think the main reason we chose Iran, and such a massive project, like starting a cloud provider, is because of the massive impact we can have.

If you think of Iran, it is very much like China. It’s very hard to break into if you’re not from here or don’t have a deep understanding of the environment, which is the same in product management. If you don’t really understand your customers or users, you’re not going to break into them.

Once you break-in, I think you can carve out your own section of the market, with much less competition, in Iran. And at the same time, you can have a massive effect on the market, as well as the people’s lives here.

I’d say it like this, imagine it was 2005. Werner Vogels, who’s the CTO of Amazon, says hey, we’re working on this cloud thing, do you want to get involved? And I’d say, yes, sir. That’s kind of the effect it’s having on Iran.

By the way, I don’t know if I mentioned this earlier, but AbarCloud is Iran’s first real public cloud. Until now, it’s all been co-locations and building your own data centers — very much like what the United States was in 2006, when AWS launched. So, it’s that big impact that’s driving us forward.

Andre Theus: That’s a big undertaking, launching a nation’s first public cloud infrastructure. Very impressive.

What has been the biggest challenge in the launching of this first public cloud? What has been the biggest surprise so far, for you?

Hassan Khajeh-Hosseini: Yeah, let me split that into two sections. Let me talk about some personal challenges of living here and then some company challenges.

Personally, I was born in Iran, but I’ve grown up in Scotland. When I moved here, it took some getting used to. Driving is scary, so I don’t drive. Tehran has a lot of pollution and traffic, so it’s just something you have to learn to deal with. Also, there are very few systems in place.

In the UK and the US, there’s a process for doing things. If you do A and B, then the result is C. But here, in Iran, you have to find and make your own systems and ways of doing things — either through connections, just dealing with a lot of paperwork, or whatever system you can come up with.

So personally, those are the challenges. And then if I talk about the company challenges, or maybe surprises as well, the startup scene here is just getting heated up. We’ve got now, for example, an Uber of Iran, they’re called Snapp, an Amazon called Digikala, a Groupon called Takhfifan, online food delivering systems, and so on.

There are a bunch of startups that are just starting to have a big impact on the market. And I think the biggest surprise of all is how they’re hosting their systems. They’re taking a massive risk by using an American provider like DigitalOcean, who will shut them down if they discover that they’re Iranian. Imagine your production system entirely going off. That’s the risk they’re taking.

Or they’re buying servers and putting them in a co-location. And that means that they can’t really focus on their product. They’ve got to do everything from buying servers, maintenance, and security. I mean, all of this is great for us, as AbarCloud, because we bring massive value to that.

It is the same mentality in the US, where you don’t do any of that. You go on to a cloud provider so you can focus on your product.

If I talk about another challenge a little bit, we’ve learned businesses don’t buy from salespeople here. They also don’t buy by visiting your website and testing out your product. What they do is buy from their peers.

I think this goes back to understanding your customer. They buy from a community around them. What that means is you need to be present — you need to integrate yourself with the company. And then once a few people buy, everyone else will follow with word of mouth. That’s something that works here, word of mouth.
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Andre Theus: Very interesting. Well, let’s talk about breaking into market.

The two co-founders here at ProductPlan spent well over one year validating the product before writing a single line of code. Do you mind sharing a bit about how you go about validating? Is there a market? Is there a customer?

Hassan Khajeh-Hosseini: Yeah, a good question.

The first thing I would say is we’re still in the validation process. I think, always, the customers are going to give you the best answers on what they want right now. And for us, we’re looking at more developed markets like the US to see where things are going.

I think Iran will follow that path somewhat, so we’re kind of lucky because we can see into the future. The same things that happened early on in Silicon Valley are happening here.

Our validation process is mainly around integrating ourselves with our early adopters. We sit in an accelerator, for example, with all of our early adopters. We’re learning exactly how they’re developing these systems, what tools they’re using, and things like that. And then we extrapolate that out with what is happening in the UK and the US, or what has happened. We determine what products and features they need to be successful.

There are certain features that you need when working with Iran. So understanding those things, and building those, is important. And that, again, goes back into product validation.

It goes back to what I think of as the three things product managers should be after. Those three things are understanding the market, understanding the customers, and understanding the product that you’re selling. If you know those three, you can navigate and validate your market.

Andre Theus: That’s great advice.

Once you conclude it and validate it, then it’s product/market fit. The next step is product launch. How do you go about launching, or planning for the launch of AbarCloud?

Hassan Khajeh-Hosseini: Good question. Given the market’s relatively small here, and the buying process is very much in person, there aren’t a great deal of things we had to do in the marketing sense.

We did do a lot of things from a technical perspective, like performance testing, capacity testing, security, and so on. When we were ready, we started going through every startup name that we could find in Iran and mapping that to their founders and funders, their VCs, and things like that. We started reaching out and just seeing if they’re up for a 30-minute call. I think it was interesting for them, which worked really well for us because we brought in a fresh perspective on how to do things.

Our product launch wasn’t a massive marketing push. It was more of a, hey, this is a product we built, do you think it will work? It went hand-in-hand with validation.

Andre Theus: Awesome. Iran is such an interesting market, and I suppose a little-understood market, especially if you’re from the US.

What advice would you give to somebody who’s looking to expand into Iran, and how would you recommend they go about it?

Hassan Khajeh-Hosseini: I think that people fall into two categories, probably.

There are a bunch of Iranian-Americans who have got an Iranian passport or can get an Iranian passport. If they are part of that group, I encourage them to visit Iran. And the people you really want to connect to are people at Avatech — they’re the Y Combinator of Iran, for example. And Sarava, Iran’s biggest venture capital firm. That way, you’ll see the tech startup scene from up close and you’ll make much better, informed decisions. Also, I’d happily connect people. Just reach out to me on Twitter.

The second group is those who don’t have an Iranian passport. If you’re not Iranian, I think one of the most important things is to establish a partner here — a trusted partner here who can be on the ground. They will help educate you on what the market is, how people buy, and what the landscape looks like. Again, I’m happy to connect those people as well.

I think it’s one of those markets that you really need to be in to understand. It draws parallels with China, I think. If you’re breaking into China you need to understand it from a local perspective as well.

Andre Theus: Makes sense. Hassan, that was my last question. Thank you so much for talking about AbarCloud and your process, and your background as a product manager.

It was a very interesting conversation, and I thought you had some great advice. I wish you the best of luck with AbarCloud. I hope this product launch is great, and you have a lot of success with it.

Hassan Khajeh-Hosseini: Awesome, thanks very much for having me. It was awesome chatting with you.