Some may say that familiarity breeds contempt, but two Thunderbird alumni believe just the opposite. To them, familiarity has created trust. After all, Nathan Henderson and Ahmed Qureshi have been friends since they grew up together in Saudi Arabia. Now, these two 1999 graduates of the Thunderbird School of Global Management are business partners in a venture that is taking off.
Together they have launched BILT, Inc., an online learning application designed to help consumers assemble, repair or maintain all types of products. The downloadable app utilizes CAD modeling to offer a 360-degree view of a product being assembled. The software delivers step-by-step assembly instructions and allows the users to see the product from any angle as they put it together. According to Nathan, the BILT program can be used with virtually any type of product requiring assembly, from consumer to industrial brands.
Product assembly can be a painful experience. In fact, Nathan calls it the Achille’s heel for brands. “Our research shows that the time we are most likely to talk about the brands we buy is not six months later. The time we’re most likely to get on social media and say “Look at this amazing thing I have” is within six to 10 hours of bringing a product home and assembling it.”
“We’ve become very good with our design teams taking a good product that is difficult to assemble, and making that experience so easy that the average consumer can put it together and say ‘I did it’. So, when they get on social media to tell friends about their new Weber Grill, it has an immediate and direct impact on sales.”
Simple Enough For Kids
The goal of these online videos is to make assembly so simple that even a 10-year-old can do it. Each piece is clearly labeled. Their research shows that many service calls can be eliminated and returns can be cut by 50 percent without any engineering or design changes. BILT’s app eliminates the need for printed instructions and are easy to update quickly or translate into other languages. They are scaling up operations to be able produce video instructions for hundreds of products each month.
Nathan developed the program while working in the innovation center of SAP, a global business systems giant. After the concept was proven viable, SAP allowed BILT to be spun off in 2015, and Nathan took the reins as Chairman and CEO. That’s when he turned to his friend, Ahmed, to help build the business as an independent entity. Ahmed now serves as BILT’s president and COO.
Nathan and Ahmed met in the 1970s, when their fathers worked for Saudi Aramco in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia. Together, they experienced school, sports and Boy Scouts. After they moved to the United States to attend high school boarding school, their paths crossed again when they attended Brigham Young University and Thunderbird. Ahmed says the two often discussed the dream of working together once they established their careers. They’re being helped by Bill Thompson, another T-bird alumnus who also grew up in Saudi Arabia.
Both agree that attending Thunderbird taught them the core fundamentals of business. “I’ve used every piece of my Thunderbird education in all the work I’ve done up to this point, including finance, accounting, marketing and negotiating. Another thing: Business is global today whether you leave the United States or not. We may be in the United States but we’re selling to manufacturers who produce products overseas.” That’s why businesspeople need to learn a global mindset.
“Thunderbird was a valuable piece of instruction that was the foundation for our careers,” Ahmed says.
Diverging Paths Reconnect
Once they completed their graduate degrees, though, their careers led them down different paths. But they always stayed in touch.
Upon finishing an engineering degree at BYU, Nathan went to work at NuSkin, where he helped implement the company’s use of SAP’s enterprise resource planning system. Once he entered Thunderbird, that experience caught the eye of SAP recruiters, and he had a job offer from the company during his first semester at the school. Since leaving Thunderbird, he had worked with five different divisions of SAP before shepherding the development of the BILT product and its spin-off.
Meanwhile, using his expertise in Middle Eastern languages and business affairs, Ahmed went to work managing Middle East and North Africa operations for Papa John’s Pizza. He also served as a non-commissioned officer in the U.S. Army Reserve while at Thunderbird. From there, he went to work for Investools in 2000 as vice president of business development. Investools was a pioneering system of online information for investors who wanted to make their own investment decisions. He says he learned from these entrepreneurs how to open a business with international operations. From there, Ahmed says he went through a series of entrepreneurial ventures, while also serving active-duty stints as a Navy Reserve officer.
Large companies such as SAP often have difficulty innovating, Nathan says. SAP, a $20 billion company, was struggling to create disruptive products and solutions, so he was given responsibility to develop products that could take advantage of emerging mobile technology. A well-known industry consultant worked with him to take a new and different idea and make it successful when it goes against the sales model and branding ideals of the company. “But if you’re going to create something new, you’re going to break some rules,” he says. “Just because something is different from your current business, executives needed to learn it’s a bad idea to say no just because it’s different than their current business.”
Managing the Spin-Off
In June 2015, Nathan received approval from SAP to spin off BILT. However, it was the first time that software giant had ever allowed such a spin-out. People within SAP advised Nathan to find someone who had been through start-ups and raising money ̶ someone he could trust. That’s when Nathan contacted Ahmed to help launch the company as a private enterprise. As this was SAP’s first spin-off, the process of raising money and setting up the company took about 14 months. In August 2016, their product became commercially available, and they already have 12 companies under contract. They expect that number to double or triple in the near future.
They also expect their long relationship to allow them to build the business “at the speed of trust.” They still have issues that need to be solved, but their history allows them to be evenly yoked. “It’s a unique opportunity to do something like this as our skill sets complement each other,” Nathan says. “We’ve been through those maturing cycles of what’s important and what’s not important.”