Confessions of a Tech Entrepreneur – Fortune (Arabia)

This is a translation of an article posted in Fortune (Arabia) – October 2011

Taking on entrepreneurship is one of the most life changing events any person can embark on; it not only impacts the individual, but impacts the community and even the world. An entrepreneur is someone who just does not accept the status quo, but has a vision for the future and makes the impossible happen to arrive at this vision.

Entrepreneurship is not easy anywhere in the world. Each region has its unique challenges, and in the same ways has its unique opportunities. The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) is in transition. All market indicators whether it is around consumer usage patterns, infrastructure availability, business demand or overall business and political disruptions indicate the MENA is ripe with opportunity. Things are moving quickly and it is clear that it is a major and growing world market.

What does this growth mean for MENA entrepreneurs? We are about to enter the age of MENA entrepreneurship. MENA Entrepreneurs are going to be the life blood of all MENA economies. If you have what it takes, now is the time to act and take that idea you have always wanted to do and just make it happen. Only good will follow!

In my journey as an entrepreneur, I too started with a desire and an idea. This idea took me to unexpected places and taught me plenty of lifelong lessons that I will share with you in a list of 10 confessions:

1. Be your #1 customer

I have always found that the greatest products service the needs of those that create them. Solving a real personal pain point makes you passionate about the space, and solution. Being your #1 customer makes you use your own product everyday and forces you to keep improving it before the rest of the world asks you to. Your problems are potentially business opportunities.

2. Beauty though real things, not business plans

I always tell entrepreneurs when starting out not to focus too much on the business plan. That is a poor use of time. Spend your time building a prototype and make it look beautiful. Many early stage detailed business plans I have seen are not worth the paper they are written on. A beautiful user experience that solves a real problem get most users and investors excited. It also proves that the team behind the idea can actually deliver, which is usually the biggest wild card with early stage entrepreneurs. So ask yourself, would you invest in a business plan or a real working service that looks great?

3. People like to do business with people they like

One of the best pieces of advice I got when I was starting out was to not be so serious or take myself seriously. When working with customers, investors, and partners, it shouldn’t all be about business or technology. Human nature gets people to gravitate towards people they like. I have seen it time and time again, and all over the world, people like to do business with people they like, plain and simple. Do not forget that. There is no harm exposing your cool personality during these important business meetings and presentations.

4. Fail fast

Failure in the MENA is a huge taboo, sometimes the kiss of the death. If you read the research, second time failed entrepreneurs double their chances for success. At a more tactical level, I have found that it is far more important to get to a working prototype as fast as possible, so you can identify what is not working and fix it. In most of the products I have worked on, the first prototypes validated that the initial ideas needed evolution to work for the market. This is especially the case with new products, new markets, or new ideas. Ideas need time to bake, and it is best to bake them by allowing the bad ideas to fail as quickly as possible so the good ones fourish. So, don’t be afraid to have failed ideas under your belt, just make sure you do it quickly. In fact, the more bad ideas you have under your belt, the closer you are to having a good solution.

5. Build a lean mean machine

One common mistake I have seen in many startups is scaling and hiring a lot of people quickly. I think that it is a bad idea when you do not know that you have a product market fit. The less money you spend at the beginning, the longer your runway to figure out if you have a business. Start to scale only once you see traction, otherwise it is a poor use of money. Find the cheapest path, time and money, to test the solution.

6. Put everyone, including yourself on a vesting schedule

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