Born and raised in Egypt, where he began from humble beginnings selling timeshares and computer devices since the age of sixteen and working in a chicken factory when he first arrived in Quebec, Canada, Bassem Ghali has since come a long way.
Now the CEO and Head of Client Strategy of Toronto-based digital marketing agency Green Lotus, Ghali has won the national Entrepreneur of the Year Award twice—once in 2015 by the Canadian Association of Marketing Professionals and more recently this year by the Canadian SME Awards.
Green Lotus was also awarded the #1 SEO Company in Toronto and #3 SEO company globally, with multi-million-dollar accounts such as BigDaddy, Microsoft, Freshbooks, Canadian Tire, VistaPrint, Remax Canada, Egypt Air, Xplornet, Direct Energy and Toronto Star.
Ghali is also known for his philanthropic achievements, after launching the Donate & Learn Initiative which organizes educational online marketing workshops for entrepreneurs and professionals, of which all proceeds are donated to partnering charities.
The Edge caught up with this inspirational businessman who spoke about Green Lotus and his philanthropic endeavours.
“My journey in Canada began with humble beginning where I did a lot of labor jobs working in a chicken factory and McDonald’s because I was a non-French speaker living in Quebec,” he said.
His big break came when he was asked to do the redesigning and rebranding for a company—his first office job in Canada for an IT company. “One day the CEO walked up to me and enquired ‘how can we get on the first page of Google?’. That was the question that changed my career. At the time, search engine optimization (SEO) was not a thing.” The rest is history as they say. “I got into a career before it became a career,” he added.
Tell us a bit about your background? What shaped the person you are today?
I think growing up in the Middle East; I’m from Egypt, it’s kind of similar to Europe. You have to be selling and doing stuff—hustling—all the time. I was a salesperson when I was 16 years old. I sold timeshares and computer devices. I worked in the supermarket for a while. If you are a good salesperson, you will be good in any industry you choose, and I think that’s what my upbringing in Egypt taught me. That street smartness you don’t get in traditional education.
What initiated the idea of your on-line marketing company Green Lotus that you created in 2012.
After working in the corporate sector for many years (I managed some of Canada’s top digital marketing teams at Toronto Star, Direct Energy and was the head of marketing for Canadian Tire), I took a leap of faith. I told myself that if I fail, I can always go back to a corporate job. Since then, I have never looked back. We focused on two products; search engine marketing and search engine optimization. We’re a very specialized boutique agency—we do two things and we do them very well. We gained the trust of big clients like EgyptAir, Xplorenet, and Metro College. A lot of companies look for lead generation, and the initiation of company interest into products and services. Lead generation is what we do very wellbecause everything we do is performance-based. We wouldn’t take an action unless it had an impact on the bottom-line, and this is why we gain more and more trust.
You partner with many worthwhile charities and causes with Donate & Learn initiative. Do you still believe in the benefits of a simple idea?
Yeah! The whole idea started very simply. I believe that no matter how big or small your brand is, you must have a charitable approach. We thought of getting a few good speakers together to have a workshop with proceeds going 100 per cent to charity. We thought if we got 50 to 60 people and $500, it would be amazing. The first time we hosted the workshop, more than 300 people showed up. We didn’t have enough seats, water or food but the proof of the concept was there. Thereafter, we raised $4000 to $5000 in a few hours. We have gained the support of big international companies like Go Daddy- who spoke for the first time in one of our events here in Canada—Teksavvy, FreshBooks, and Microsoft—who sponsored our events. It was a win-win situation and we all saw the value. That was the main reason for the initiative’s continuous success. We have done seven expos so far and raised more than $35,000 for local charities.
What are some of the major challenges and successes that you faced with owning your own company, especially at the beginning?
When I first started my company, I didn’t really know who my customers were, who I was marketing
to, who my services were good for and who my pricing will make sense to because I met a lot of very small business owners and they couldn’t afford much a month. I said “Well, I can’t start with you.” Just getting through that process and sometimes selling yourself a little bit cheap and losing on that project was a challenge. It took a lot of learning to know the ideal customer because if you are talking to the right person then there is more chance of you closing that deal. I can’t even give you advice on that since it’s a learning curve every entrepreneur start-up has to go through to recognize and paint a profile picture of their ideal client. Once you get to that, then you will be able to improve your service and launch new products to match specifically what that client needs.
I’d imagine there’s also an intuitive part to the process.
That’s the best part about being an entrepreneur! If you are an accountant you are really good at accounting but you don’t know anything about digital marketing. If you are a lawyer, you are really good at being a lawyer but nothing else. Same here, I was really good at digital marketing, but I didn’t know anything about business development, sponsorship and speaking. An entrepreneur has to wear many hats, you have to put your feet in the water and learn yourself.
If you could transport back in time and communicate any lesson you’ve learned with the intention of saving yourself from mistakes, what advice would you give yourself?
I would have launched my own business years ago. I think the Canadian market is strong. After 2008, the economy shifted to more small-medium businesses, and the people who launched at that time, way before me, have made it big. I wish I had taken that leap of faith earlier.
Do you have a habit or set of habits that you swear by?
I don’t want to sound like a cliché, but it’s very hard to give up. I just keep going. I might get down, depressed or discouraged, but I just can’t live my life saying “I failed” or “I should have given this a shot.” I think that’s a habit that you develop over time. The more you fail, the more you find yourself getting back up.
What is your favorite/ best productivity technique or app?
It’s not a single app. Communication is a very important thing when you run a small business. If you’re not communicating properly, then time is lost, and time is money. When we started to manage lots of SEO accounts we started developing Green Lotus tools too. It started as an in-house agency tool to help us manage 200 to 300 clients at the same time, a way to take action and leave messages for each other. So we built our own and when the time came we thought this was a really good tool, and we should publish it and give it to people. So my advice is to find your own rhythm. Find the best combination of tools or create your own if you have the ability, and you never know how that tool is going to go because if you are solving a problem of yours, you will be solving the problem of a lot of people who are in the same situation.
Do you have a quote or piece of wisdom or advice to share with would-be entrepreneurs?
It’s an Egyptian saying—You never know until you knock the door. You never know what is behind the door and the worst you can get is a ‘no’. But there are more chances to knock that door and get a yes than there are to get a no.
Nezha Boutamine | Contributing Writer