Cognira uses analytics to help retailers get more value from their data. Serving customers like HEB, Walgreens, Lands End, and Orvis, this startup balanced their software with their services from day one and was profitable in their first 6 months. The now 40 person Cognira team is closing in on $8M in revenue this year, and showing no signs of stopping. Many startups dream of achieving these numbers, but very few would guess this entrepreneurial journey started with a young boy growing up in the small coastal country of Tunisia.
Growing up in Tunisia
Hatem Sellami, the Founder of Cognira, was born in this North African, French speaking country. Little known (or understood) by most Americans, it is a small, beautiful, coastline filled country on the Mediterranean Sea. Tunisia is roughly 10 million people and is similar to the population and size of the state of Georgia. Their dialect is a fascinating blend of French, Italian, Spanish, Turkish, Maltese, and Arabic. Without a lot of natural resources to fight over, and no strong military, Hatem says that Tunisians only have their brains and tourism, and they use that to their fullest advantage. Most Tunisian jobs are created by locals starting their own businesses.
The youngest of 7 siblings, Hatem grew up with four sisters and two brothers in a tight knit family. His father’s entrepreneurial skills were honed at a young age when he began working at 8 years old to support his family. And as an adult, Hatem’s father grew multiple businesses in the textile industry from ideation to success. In Hatem’s words, “My father worked hard and would do anything for his children to be the best they could be. I grew up watching him build companies.” His father’s success led to the family tradition of spending summers seaside in a quaint little Tunisian beach town. It was a special place where everyone knew each other and entire families grew up spending the season together. And it was on these very white sand beaches that Hatem would one day meet his future wife.
By the time Hatem reached high school, computers were coming on the scene. He was fascinated by them and decided his goal would be to learn how to create the hardware itself. Hatem finished top of his high school class and was offered two scholarships for engineering schools – one in the US and one in France.
Pursuing Higher Education
After a couple of American fluency and culture classes, Hatem started attending Georgia Tech in the Spring of 1986. He graduated 11 years later with a Bachelors, Masters, and PhD in electrical and computer engineering. And yes, later he even decided to add an MBA.
Why so much school? In Tunisian culture, and in Hatem’s family, education was seen as the greatest opportunity. The more you could learn, the more likely your success would be. So he learned all he could with the hope that he would contribute to his family and country’s economy one day.
Shortly after graduating, Hatem was offered an opportunity to work in retail forecasting at Retek as a Data Scientist. Hatem accepted and became employee #34. He was now responsible for the engine that did all the forecasting for Retek. His education had paid off. Hatem found he loved the work and did really well.
When they offered a position for him to go back to Tunisia and represent the prediction and analytics side of Retek for all their clients outside of North America, he said yes. Retek was growing quickly because of y2k and the dot-com boom, so the opportunity to grow and scale this division was there. In this new role, Hatem was involved in the whole life cycle of the sales process from demos to implementation to support. It was a unique opportunity that helped him gain trust and win customers because he was the one implementing what he sold.
In Hatem’s words, “It was an incredible experience because I was exposed to the whole life cycle of any project. I learned more in this role than I had in all those years of schooling.” And Hatem had a lot of schooling.
Retek grew to over 900 employees during those 4 years and Hatem was now the Director of Retek Labs. Then in May of 2005, Retek was acquired by Oracle for $630M. Hatem’s original stock options now meant something. He decided to leave Retek and finally start his own company. In his words, “I always had the vision for a startup and I knew exactly what I wanted to do. It was always very clear to me, but now I had enough money to take the risk.”
When Hatem had moved back to Tunisia, he was not only building Retek, he was also looking for a girl he had met in that seaside town that he had never forgotten. Her name was Mariem. One fateful day, some friends invited Hatem on a trip to France and Mariem was going, too. He immediately called a friend with the airline and had them move his seat to one next to her. Less than a year later, they were married. The girl he had met beachside years ago, was now his wife.
The new couple moved back to Atlanta, GA so Mariem could attend Kennesaw State University. She received her Masters in Management Information Systems, and Hatem launched his first startup, Predictix.
His First Startup
Predictix started as a consulting firm with a vision to build next generation software for predictive analytics. With Hatem’s previous work experience, he knew he had the opportunity to become an implementation partner for Oracle/Retek. That consulting led to the additional money needed to build the software, and his startup began to scale. As Predictix grew, Hatem continued to strategically hire one consultant for every developer he needed to cover payroll. Over the next 6 years, they rode the wave of the SaaS business and cloud model, and Hatem and his Co-Founder grew the company to more than $20M in revenue.
Unfortunately, Preditix did not have a perfect ending. In Hatem’s words, “What I learned was not only the business side but the human side of working with partners. Equal partnerships are very, very hard. I now believe one person has to call the shots. The mom and dad approach is impossible in my opinion, and it was the demise of Predictix.” Two of the three partners exited and were replaced with private equity investors. Hatem was one of them. A year later the company was acquired by Infor.
Not one to sit still for long, Hatem began his next startup, Cognira, just a few months later in March 2015. Cognira launched on a Monday and two days later, they had three Reserved Desks at Atlanta Tech Village. Hatem knew what he wanted to build and he knew who he wanted to build it with. In his words, “When I started my company, I knew the people who I wanted to recruit to make the dream team: Mark, Bahadir, and Jo Claire. We had all worked together in the past. They were all happily employed, but once Cognira launched, each one of them decided to take the leap with me. We built this together.”
Hatem learned from his past and chose to maintain 100% control of the company, but he also chose to give his Founding team all Co-Founder statuses and generous stock options. He wouldn’t want it any other way and it seems to be working.
In his first two years, his non-compete limited him to consulting, but Hatem kept his vision to eventually complement and augment other software vendor solutions. Today Cognira provides data science and analytics that empower their retail customers. They build AI, Machine Learning, and Cognitive Technologies. In Hatem’s words, “This is the future. There is huge growth potential with these types of solutions.”
Not a lot of startups are cash flow positive within their first six months, but Cognira was. Today they are in a corner suite at the Village, employ more than 40 people, and recently opened additional offices in Tunisia and France. They closed $4M in revenue last year and they expect to double that this year.
How did they scale with such success to date? In Hatem’s words, “We had good people and a solid reputation. We are also considered the Cadillac of what we do and fully believe in offering our services along with our technology. One of our customers is currently funding further development of some of our software to meet their needs. It’s a model that works.”
Plans for the Future
Hatem’s vision is to make data science easy enough that retailers can quickly leverage the information to help them sell more. The Cognira team does this by bringing together expertise in retail, advanced analytics, and scalable technologies to automate and enhance the quality of decision making through software and consulting services.
When asked where he wants to be in 5 years, Hatem first responded with “On top of the world!” Then he smiled and continued, “In 5 years, I want to have a very successful company. I want to deliver a lot of value to our retailers by leveraging the absolute best analytical technologies. And I want to do this in an environment that supports, challenges, and grows people in their careers.”
Today, Hatem is equal parts businessman and family man. He has three kids (two girls and a boy), the wife he always dreamed of, a leadership team that he knows and trusts, and a startup that supports families both here in the US and in Tunisia.
Hatem Sellami is one of the most educated people in Atlanta Tech Village, who has run the gamut of being an entrepreneur. He works hard, cares deeply for those around him, and seems to perfectly balance the love and respect for his home country of Tunisia with the family, success, and opportunities he has had here in America. Hatem believes that startups are the best way to provide a future and opportunity for people in both places.
In his words, “I am proud to be an American company who operates here and in Tunisia. I care about people and want to create places where they can be successful.”
We want that, too.