David J. Cord’s enthusiasm for the written word has seen him recently document the rise and fall of Muxlim.
Originally from Indianapolis, USA, it has been in Finland where David J. Cord’s life has taken some unexpected turns, as he slowly moved away from his initial career in finance to try his hand at journalism. A regular contributor to Helsinki Times since its inception, with his opinionated and popular column appearing in all but one issue, it was this change of direction that eventually led him to Mohamed El-Fatatry, the driving force behind Muxlim, the world’s first online social network site specifically for Muslims.
Documenting the remarkable story of this charismatic figure, one of the most high profile immigrants here in Finland, Cord’s Mohamed 2.0: Disruption Manifesto has recently landed on shelves. Embellished by vivid imagery and the perspectives of the various actors at play, the book follows El-Fatatry as he rubs shoulders with notable figures both here and abroad during his quest to make Muxlim a viable business.
In contrast to the larger than life personality of El-Fatary, Cord cuts a calm figure, softly spoken and clad in a chequered shirt. Politely refusing the offer of refreshment he takes a seat, awaiting the arrival of his first question.
I’ve been wondering this for some time, what does the ‘J’ stand for?
Have you ever been just David Cord or used the name Joseph?
Normally when I was growing up I was just David Cord. When I got my American Social Security card – well, I guess I had it from birth – but when I paid attention to it I saw that I officially didn’t have a middle name. My middle name was ‘J’. So when I would sign official documents I would just use the ‘J’.
Tell about why you came to Finland in the first place.
Married a Finn, that same old story. It was 2005 that I came.
And why have you stayed here?
I like Finland. I don’t like the winters, but I like everything else. I like to complain about the politics and the taxes, but in all honesty I like it here.
Lifestyle-wise how different is it here compared with Indianapolis?
It’s a little bit different. When I was in Indianapolis, I guess it was not normal to use public transport. I always had a car. I had a car from when I was about 16 years old, up to until the day I left. Socialism is really frowned upon. I was very hard right. When I moved to Finland I realised well, this kind of works. So it really opened my eyes.
What is it about finance that interests you?
I went to school for finance. I started out in America, working in the investment field, basically as a salesman. I would sell products to clients. I really enjoyed it. When I moved to Finland, I got into the same thing. I went into management, and since I had all of the licenses from America, the NASDAQ, the New York Stock Exchange, you could transfer it all to Europe. At the time Finland did not have any licensing for that, so it was very useful for the company that I had those licenses, so we could set up shop in Malta and the Baltics. It’s called passporting. I enjoyed it but it wasn’t very fulfilling. I didn’t like selling, but I liked investing.
It was right before the financial crisis hit, around 2007-8, I had gotten tired administering at the company I was at and wanted to just do pure investing, kind of running a mutual fund. So I opened up my limited partnership. It’s officially a hedge fund, but we just do investing in Nordic equities. So I started doing that, just before the market crashed. It was perfect timing on my part, as the previous company went bankrupt. I’ve been doing that more or less ever since.
That’s when I got started writing for Helsinki Times and SixDegrees also. I didn’t like their business articles. I sent an email to them one day, and said I can write their business articles. So they asked me to send them one and it grew from there. This was the first professional writing I had done. I liked it. You get to meet a lot of people. Sometimes I don’t like to write about what I am asked to, but sometimes I do and it’s really interesting to me. But I wanted something bigger; I wanted to write a book.
When [publishing house] Söderströms had this idea for a book about Mohamed El-Fatatry and Muxlim, at first they wanted him to write it. But he didn’t want to do it so they thought they would find a professional. He had met me somewhere writing an article for Helsinki Times and remembered me. So, during the process of thinking about how I could get into writing a book, that’s when Mohamed contacted me and said, ‘We want a book, are you interested?’
What was the idea behind the book’s creation in the first place?
From the publisher’s point of view, it’s just a great story. You have this young kid who comes to Finland to study and ends up creating this social network for Muslims that ends up becoming popular all over the world. Finns like the story. It’s got technology, it’s got immigration; it was a really compelling story. Mohammed is such a good speaker. When he talks he has an innate ability for it. He’s a great communicator and has great charisma.
Why was it chosen to write the book in English?
You know, I’m not really sure. It might just be that Mohamed doesn’t speak Finnish, so English was easier. I know the publisher was experimenting with English. They are Swedish -language primarily, and that market is very small in Finland. They do export some to Sweden. But one way for them to grow is to publish in English. The English language version of the book is coming first, followed by Swedish, then hopefully Finnish by the end of the year or so.
As an English speaker here in a country whose mother tongue is another language, do you feel that this has opened up opportunities that you wouldn’t have necessarily had in the States?
I think so, yeah. In Finland, English has a strange kind of international flavour to it. It’s compelling in some sense. Even if you are just talking about purely Finnish things but you are using English, it kind of opens up the communication differently. Maybe that was why they were interested in the English language, as it felt different.
What was the writing process like?
It was really interesting. We started in June last year. At the time, Muxlim was going down, so Mohamed wasn’t very busy. So I had him whenever I wanted him. I would interview him 2-3 hours at a time, twice a week. I would interview him for a couple of weeks and then write and we’d go over it. And I also interviewed other people involved with the company, employees and investors. For a long time, about four months, the investors refused to talk to me. That was a big hole in the book. I wanted to know what they had to say.
Eventually I spoke with one investor and he picked up the phone and called the other ones and said, ‘You’ve got to talk with this guy’. I’m really glad that he did as I got all of their points of view as well.
What was it like dealing with Mohamed?
He’s got a very strong personality. Sometimes we got along great, and sometimes we didn’t. I guess we had two different goals, more or less. I wanted to tell the true story of what happened at Muxlim, including the views of the people involved. Some of those investors lost millions of dollars and they weren’t exactly happy with Mohamed. He didn’t like to read what they had to say at times; didn’t agree with it, or didn’t think it was true. So we often fought about what other people had to say about him.
Did he have some kind of final say about how he was presented in the text?
When he could make a good case about why something wasn’t true, then I had to listen to him. But if it was an opinion, then of course there is no way to say whether the opinion is true or false – it’s an opinion. If it is portrayed as such then it is okay for the book.
Was there anything that Mohamed wouldn’t discuss?
There were some things. He didn’t want to talk about his [failed] marriage. That’s a real hole in the book. Because of that the feel of the book moved more towards business than to his personal life. It’s more about Muxlim instead of a straight biography. It’s billed as a biography, but it is not. It’s a hybrid I suppose. He didn’t like to talk about her. I think it was a bit too painful.
Then again in the book’s charming epilogue, where you are both on a train and happen to pass by some of the places of note for Mohamed when he first arrived to Finland, it really felt like he had opened the gate and was just being himself.
That’s really funny because I wrote that after we had a huge fight. I really didn’t plan on it being in the book, but I sent it to him as a bit of a calm down little note. Most writers are this way – that they express themselves better with the written word than with talking. I wrote that to say that we are still okay. He loved it and said to please put it in the book. The editors liked it as well, so I put it in.
This is not the first time that you appear during the text – at one stage you refer explicitly to the process of creating Mohamed 2.0 Disruption Manifesto. Why would you mention your own role during the writing of this book?
It was kind of an experiment in meta-nonfiction, putting the writing and the author into the story. It’s a bit of a jolt. It changes perceptions there, when you realise that the writer is a part of the story. It interested me, as I was sort of part of it. I saw all of this happening. I talked to him as these events were taking place. At some times it bothered Mohamed, he wanted two different things: his business is one thing and his book is another. I don’t think he was upset about the book, but he was afraid it would take his focus away from the business.
In fact he wanted to stop the book’s story at the end of last year and didn’t want it to continue. But there were a lot of things happening this year – basically the company was collapsing for the first couple of months this year. That was tough for him as he had to worry about the book and the company falling apart at the same time. That put a lot of pressure on him.
Did you have a desired outcome when writing the book?
I wanted to tell it truthfully and to have all of the different voices involved. Hundreds of articles have been written about Muxlim and it has always been from Mohamed’s point of view. You never hear from these companies that invested millions of euros, or the employees, or how the public looked at Mohamed – like how the Homma group looked at it. It was interesting to me, not just Mohamed’s voice. I wanted to put all of those into the book.
Does the book have a message?
Well, I guess that’s up to the reader. That’s their job to interpret it.
Something then, perhaps, for budding entrepreneurs to take away?
They can pick up a lot of things from the story. It has been talked about a bit in the start up community. When the book comes out and they read it I’m sure they will be able to pick up lots of things about it. Not just on Mohamed, but his views on entrepreneurship. Basically I have an entire chapter on his views of entrepreneurship. It’s very interesting. A lot of people would like to hear what he has to say about this.
How do you feel Mohamed and Muxlim have altered perceptions of Muslims here in Finland?
I don’t know if they have. Immigration sceptics, I don’t think they’ve changed their opinions. Those in favour of immigration, like [the Finnish Ombudsman for Minorities] Eva Biaudet, I’m not sure her views changed because of Mohamed, but I guess it opened up their perceptions and gave them more things to think about.
The immigration sceptics say that here’s an example of someone who came to Finland for the free education and got tax money and it didn’t work. So that’s the example they can use. The people who are in favour of immigration feel he has talked about Finland all over the world. He is a great ambassador for Finland; a positive example that we can use. People can take out of it what they want to take out of it.
Mohamed 2.0: Disruption Manifesto is available now and is reviewed on Sixdegrees paper, page 21.
Text James O’Sullivan, photo Tomas Whitehouse.