I had a great time in Abu Dhabi and Amman for both the MIT Pan Arab Conference and Amman Global Entrepreneurship Week. It was really an educational trip since I have not been connected with the entrepreneurial scene in the MENA. I saw two different approaches with regards to entrepreneurship in both Abu Dhabi and Amman. In general things are very positive, with innovation and creativity being at the forefront.
In Abu Dhabi, there is a lot of money floating around. People use billions more than they use millions. The scale of projects in play are a totally different level. Some of the key businesses emerge around relocating large industries to the UAE through government intervention. The bulk of the opportunity for startups lies in the ripple effects of these government led macro events.
In Amman, I saw a more of a bottoms up approach to entrepreneurship that is less tied to riding government led initiatives. You could feel the energy and excitement around starting new businesses and in particular I saw a large focus on solving problems using the the internet and mobile.
This might have been a function of who I met in both places.
However during my trip I saw a few common themes emerging from the many discussions I had with all the great people I met. Some of this might not be new, but I wanted to capture my reactions and recommendations for how to make things better.
1. Talk to each other people! - during my visit I met a lot of entrepreneurs. What surprised me was that I was sometimes introducing people in the same country to each other. People have a genuine fear that their ideas might get copied. That is crazy! If your idea will get easily replicated then you are not solving a hard problem and thus do not have a competitive advantage. A big part of my success resulting from socializing my ideas with others and this helping me think through the problem. Also, sharing ideas/needs/issues can help you solve things faster and even connect you with the people you desperately need to support you to make the business successful. One thing I learned from a good friend is that people like to do business with people they like. The only way to break these barriers is to build relationships. Have more ways to connect with one another!
2. When thinking about risk, think of the upside not downside - Joi Ito wrote a wonderful blog post about this topic that you should read. His view clarifies why early stage funding (hundreds of thousands to a few million dollar investments) needs a different way of thinking about risk. Investors please read this before talking to 2 guys working out of their homes.
3. Think open – I was a little surprised to hear that most of the technical work in the MENA startup world was .NET. What?! Not to diss .NET, but in the US startup world .NET is far from the norm. In my talk, I emphasized that at Zingku and Google we made a heavy investment in leveraging open source software. A lot of great innovations happen as open source and it is FREE! You should seriously consider open source as a technology choice and even a model for your business ideas. Keep an open mind.
4. Fail Fast - This is sometimes counter intuitive, but your odds for success improve the quicker you fail. In the MENA culture, failure is the kiss of death. That really needs to change. If you read the research about this, the odds for success improve with failure. When starting a business, you are solving a problem. First, is the problem real? Is your solution the right one? Knowing the answers to these questions quickly helps you tune things quickly so that you can figure out the right formula. Failing fast and iterating is a key step when innovating.
5. Talk to the Diaspora – There is a lot of folks outside the MENA that genuinely want to give back and share their expertise. They just need a mechanism to do so. Be bold and talk to them. Give them ways to get involved with what you are doing. It could be as simple as asking a question. Things that might not be obvious to you might just be an obvious best practice elsewhere.
6. Focus - A few entrepreneurs were describing what they were doing and described several ideas they are working on simultaneously. My view is that when you start you need to find your focus. Your biggest cost early on is opportunity cost since you do everything. When I was doing my startup we always said that we needed to keep focusing until we found the niche that loved what we are doing and then grow from there. If you are not thinking in this way it is hard to find who cares about your solution and thus not able to really nail the problem and solution. This does not mean your focus will not change over time, but a quest to focus will help you find the problem and solution at hand.
7. Get your hands dirty – Folks see personal career growth as getting away from the technical aspects, such as coding. Stay versatile and do not think that any job function is below your pay grade. Till this day I still code. It keeps me connected to the realities of what my team is doing. It also helps me make important triage/product/feature decisions since I have visibility to all the other aspects of the business, and more importantly exposes me to new things that get my creative juices flowing.
Finally, I wanted to close with some stats about the MENA:
- 60M Internet users (17% of population)
- >2000% user growth (2000-2008)
- ~90 cellular subscriptions per 100 inhabitants
- 5% of the world population are native Arabic speakers, but only 1% of internet content is in Arabic