Three years ago Aemal Sayer was an accomplished IT entrepreneur in Kabul, looking for his next move. He had already founded several startups, each with varying degrees of success. But he wanted more.
Germany came calling via a scholarship. Since then Sayer has worked on a computer science degree and founded another company, HelpMe, which is already looking to crack the country’s tech heartland: Berlin.
HelpMe is a crowdsourcing platform for remote IT support. It connects elderly users with IT students via screen sharing and voice and video chat using an open source platform called WebRTC, which is already used by Facebook and Google.
Sayer’s route towards his startup dream has not been easy. His IT career began in 2001 in the Pakistani city of Peshawar, where thousands of Afghans fled to during their country’s brutal civil war. Web development and Visual Basic diplomas were followed up by work first at an accounting database firm, then a software developer.
Sayer then completed a bachelor’s degree in computer science at Kabul’s Kardan University and, in 2008, founded Bitsoft, a software developer he bootstrapped with just $150. In 2015 Sayer got a German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) scholarship to complete his master’s degree in computer science, at the central city of Koblenz.
It was there that Sayer met Tim Budweg, a coder with whom he founded HelpMe in May 2016. Sayer had been helping his own parents, who are now based in the US, with computer-related problems over Skype and Teamviewer. “Often they used to wait for a few days to ask a very simple question.” HelpMe’s goal was quickly devised.
Koblenz, where Sayer studied, is a small city of just 110,000 people. But, he says, “it is very startup friendly.” Several annual events including IT City and TZK support local startups. Koblenz University runs a host of tech programs.
That said, Berlin is still Sayer’s goal for HelpMe. He is currently seeking pre-seed investment and business angels have expressed interest. “If (subsequent) pilot test results are promising, there will be plenty of opportunities in getting a seed investment in Berlin,” he says.
Germany has fostered a vibrant tech scene in recent years. Capital city Berlin has emerged as one of Europe’s top hubs with between 1,800 and 3,000 active startups. But the country is facing a talent shortfall: according to a 2015 report there are around 43,000 unfilled IT roles.
This year several people have tried to match those roles with people from the country’s growing migrant and refugee population, many of whom are from Afghanistan and Syria.
Germany, Europe’s most populous nation with 80m people, has been at the forefront of the current refugee crisis, providing a home to 1.1m in 2015 (the US, by comparison, has welcomed 85,000 so far this year. Its population is 316m).
Hussein Shaker, from the embattled city of Aleppo, created MigrantHire to help Ausländer (foreigners) like him navigate Germany’s notoriously difficult employment market. Another app, Bureaucrazy, was developed by a local nonprofit for migrants to cope with the country’s dense bureaucratic maze.
“It is very hard for non German speaking founders in the government processes, but my cofounder is a German and recently we got a stakeholder who is helping us in understanding the German bureaucratic systems for startups, finances, tax declaration, etc,” Sayer says.
Then, Sayer will have landed as a tech entrepreneur in Germany. Through the business he is hoping to achieve a higher goal. In 2013 his tight-knit family was broken up. Today he has parents in the US, a sister in Britain, one brother in Sweden and another who remained in Afghanistan. He and his wife enjoy life in Germany but, he says, his dream “is for a family reunification if my business was successful.”
Sayer is hoping that HelpMe’s radical approach to IT support will see that dream become reality.