The CEO of N2V Mr. Rashid AlBallaa participated in the “Entrepreneurship and Innovation Panel” organized by Google, during the first day of G.Jordan (Google day in Jordan) event in Amman, on the 23rd of October at the Grand Hyatt.In this Panel participated also, Mr. Ahmad El-Alfi the founder and chairman of Sawari Ventures, Cairo, Egypt. And Mr. Firas Al-Otaibi co-founder and CEO of Think Arabia Group.
The Panel was moderated by Mr. William Kanaan, the Google new business development manager in the Middle East and North Africa. Those entrepreneurs spoke to the younger generations, attending this event, about many topics such as the development of ideas, the qualities of a true entrepreneur and how to handle ventures in the industry. Their experience in various fields and their exposure to a multitude of trials and errors has added a lot to the panel’s content and to the audience’s education.
“It feels like i got the privilege in one hour to learn the lessons these leading men have experienced for years” said one of the panel attendees.
The panel started with statistics that Mr. William Kanaan mentioned, saying: “i was reading a report on MENA investments, about start-ups that said that in the last 20 months 65 investments took place in the MENA region, their total capital was 24 million dollars. 30 of the start-ups were in Jordan, 11 were in the UAE, 9 in Egypt, 6 in Saudi and 5 in Lebanon. By the first quarter of 2011, 23 investments had already taken place. This number is bigger than the number of investments done in the year 2010 as a whole. we are in a revolution of tech start-ups in the Arab World.”
Followed by that were many questions directed to Mr. Rashid AlBallaa, Mr. Ahmad El-Alfi and Mr. Firas Al-Otaibi. Some of those questions were as follows:
Question: Whats your assessment of the tech entrepreneurship in the MENA region in general
and in Jordon in particular?
Mr. AlBallaa’s answer: Jordan is one of the most areas advanced in the sense of entrepreneurship. Individuals do their own start-ups soon after they had worked with Internet companies, and the government helps and encourages them. However as a Jordanian you should look at the regional market as a whole not only the Jordan area.
As Mr. Ahmad El-Alfi agreed to what Mr. Rashid had said, Mr. Firas Al-Otaibi added that Jordan doesn't have much big corporations that can cradle the fresh graduates’ talents. Thus they decide to open their own business and cradle their own talents.
Question: What are the main characteristics of a good entrepreneur?
Mr. AlBallaa answered: It is the ability to sense an opportunity. There are so many opportunities and gaps in this market, if we don't seize these opportunities, big corporations will come and seize them.
The entrepreneur has the ability to create a product from an opportunity. The goal should be to do something useful to the society. An entrepreneur has to have passion, and innovation. Not necessary the innovation of being the first to create something. However by being the first to look at it from a different angle. you are your first customer. you have to have distinction. One doesn't become an entrepreneur by following people’s trends to make money. This might make money but its not sustainable and it doesn't make you a true founder of something or an entrepreneur. This is called “life style” business. Like Internet companies in the 90s when it all started, and everyone opened an Internet Service Provider to make money, however they didn't last long.
However Mr. Ahmad El-Alfi added saying: “I discourage people from being entrepreneurs. I tell you, do not risk leaving your job and going through hard work and the risk of loosing so much unless you really want to do it. Becoming an entrepreneur is like becoming a singer, only one of many succeeds, and the odds of success are few. An entrepreneur has to have what he would call “My Way”, his vision, his input of doing things. If you don't have “your way” don't become an entrepreneur. I’ll tell you a short story about one of my employees. Every time i pass by the office at around 2 am after a late night out, i find him sitting there, working. i asked him “when do you sleep son?” he said “at my desk, while i work”. Now that is an entrepreneur ready to work hard and challenge all the risks. i would fund not one, but many of such a man’s projects. He is the kind that i would trust to invest my money with. An entrepreneur has to have integrity. Its not a shame not to be an entrepreneur, be successful in whatever you do. That is honor.
The crowd then turned to Mr. Firas Al-Otaibi to hear his answer, and he said: “An entrepreneur needs to know that the company’s welfare should come first before his personal interests. Most beginning entrepreneurs start by making sure they get a fat salary, and totally divert from the main goal which is their company and project’s success. What’s more important than the idea behind the company is the person behind the idea.
On the occasion of these words Mr. William Kanaan said: “We at Google choose our team members based on those who involve themselves in more than one field. Those who could have studied finance, understand how to read a manual themselves and assemble an appliance and have involved themselves in marketing decisions”
Question: If someone wants to open a start-up in Jordan, what idea would attract you to invest in?
Mr. AlBallaa and Mr. Al-Alfi’s answers were: “We don't invest in ideas, we invest in people. We don't care that much about business plans. But we care more about your passion, and if you have the right team. We rarely invest in one person; we invest in a team that completes one another.
Mr. Al-Otaibi agreed, however his point of view was a little different, he said: “We focus on the start-ups that have proven that they can succeed on a smaller scale. I will tell you my story. When i started with my start-up “kharabeesh” we sat with many investors, and they told us that we were not focused. Thus we had to let each one of our team (of 5) to focus on one thing. After that our goals and achievements got clearer, because everyone did his best in his area. Then “kharabeesh” jumped from being Jordanian, to a Pan Arab company. We are now 30 employees.
Question: How can entrepreneurs approach you as investors?
The three parties had the same answer more or less, which was “ Integrity, the person behind the idea. When you present an idea you need to know all its angles, the investor cannot ask you a question that would make you freeze. You have to have thought of all the odds, you are your first customer. You cannot be trusted when you walk in with a project full of gaps. And that's what differs between those who have worked before they open a start-up and the fresh graduates. The ones who have worked have been around, seen failures and studied the market need and the market downfalls through their experience.
You don’t need to present the prototype, just have the idea covered in your head. Have it all figured out.
When you reach out for a VC, you don’t reach out for money. Some people do not need the money yet still reach out for a VC. The VC has seen a multitude of knowledge about start-ups, what makes them succeed and what makes them fail and how. To those who believe that VC’s take a lot more credit from the start-up than they deserve, look at the risks the VCs are taking. Most VCs that invested in the Middle East didn’t make it till the end.
There are two kinds of start-ups: the fat cat start-up, that starts with a lot of employees and a big capital. This start-up doesn’t match with the region’s needs right now. The better one is called the “lean start-up” which would be focused on a city, and then when it proves success it would grow bigger. And as Mr. AlBallaa likes to say; “Nail it, then Scale it” get control of your business first one a small scale, and then start growing bigger.
The last question was: As a start-up, do i wait for VCs to approach me, or do I go to them?
The answer way: “Wait for VCs to approach you if you think you don’t need them. However the VCs experience saves you months and years of trying to reinvent the wheel. Like when you sell your house what makes you go to a real-estate agent rather than sell it yourself. Because the agent knows the market and has already built relationships with customers. He will not fall in your mistakes. Thus the VC is not just money. Choose the VC like you choose your business partner. Choose the one you trust, whose beliefs match yours.
However if you decide you need a VC, don’t wait for it to approach you. It is like when you are looking for a job and you send your CV out and sit home waiting for the companies to call you rather than taking charge and killing yourself to get to be hired by the company you want to work in. Then you make an impression, and you show determination.
The panel was then concluded by Mr. Kanaan saying a quote from Steve Jobs, “Stay hungry, and Stay foolish”.