The First Startup Incubator Launches in Tunisia
In post-revolutionary spirit, Tunisian entrepreneurs Mondher Khanfir and Mehdi Khemiri just launched the first private business incubator in their country – WIKI START UP.
Decades of dictatorship have stifled creativity in Tunisia, leaving it with an innovation deficit. The local business environment has become associated with corruption, and a survival mentality that has created a negative cycle of destructive competition. By supporting local entrepreneurs, Mondher and Mehdi hope to build a new generation of Tunisian businesses that innovate rather than destroy, respect rules, and contribute to their local communities in pursuit of a long-term vision for Tunisia.
WIKI START UP supports aspiring entrepreneurs through all stages of creation, from idea to business plan, and then from raising capital to actual launch of the company. They offer critical advice, support and access to a network of investors able to provide the funds needed at each step of the process.
There is a unique opportunity to spur entrepreneurship in Tunisia now, at a time when wealth must be created and distributed to solidify any gains of the revolution. Until now, there has been inadequate support for entrepreneurs before they reach investors – advice from public institutions, NGOs or universities has been mostly theoretical. In contrast, WIKI START UP offers strategic advice from entrepreneurs with private sector experience who know what it takes to succeed.
I spoke to Mondher about the process of launching WIKI START UP, which is now identifying its first clients.
1) How did you decide to start your company?
I must say that this is not my first start-up. I was lucky enough to run several companies in Tunisia and in Europe, so I have a good understanding of an entrepreneur’s path and the conditions for success. The idea of creating WIKI START UP—the first private business incubator in Tunisia--was born out of my passion for entrepreneurship, followed by a meeting with Mehdi Khemiri, one of the most well-known entrepreneurs in Tunisia for his success in the field of ICT. We then partnered with other personalities from the business world to assemble a board of shareholders not only capable of contributing with capital, but above all providing mentoring to the innovative entrepreneurs who will be our future clients.
2) What were the most important decisions that you made in your company, or what was a key turning point in your approach?
I believe that the most important decision was to create a pre-seed fund in parallel to our incubator. This way we can support talented entrepreneurs who don’t have the means to conduct preliminary studies or protect their intellectual property before appearing before venture capital investors. We also made the choice to cooperate with other incubators globally, connecting to entrepreneurs and investors in Europe and the U.S. For example, we are organizing “Entrepreneurship Days” in early November with the U.S. State Department in Tunis, where Tunisian entrepreneurs will have the opportunity to pitch to U.S. investors.
3) What is the biggest problem that you faced (or are facing) in your company? If you don't have a mentor, what issues could a mentor help with?
As an incubator, we have a responsibility to ensure that the projects we support succeed. I am lucky to be surrounded by shareholders that are qualified to take on this challenge. That said, I don’t kid myself- we will have projects that don’t achieve success. That’s part of the game we’re in. What counts is that the rate of transformation from an idea to a successful enterprise allows us to cover the costs of the process and go on supporting entrepreneurs.
4) Do you see your market as local, regional, or global? Do you plan to expand?
Today we only assist projects based in Tunisia. However, the market for entrepreneurship and innovation is necessarily global so we do not discount the possibility of hosting foreign projects in Tunisia through international partnerships, and vice versa.
5) How do you plan to generate revenue? How did you decide on this model?
WIKI START UP functions like a consulting firm. We charge fees for services provided, and we index a success rate (using success fees) on fundraising. This allows us to deliver a very high level of service and a commitment to tangible results with all of our clients.
6) How long did it take you to get funding if you received funding? How was that process?
For us, the fundraising process was very fast- it only took a few weeks. We raised 100,000 Tunisian Dinars (around $70,000) to create WIKI START UP and we intend to raise another 1 million TND (around $700,000) for our pre-seed fund called CAPITALease. My co-founder Mehdi Khemiri and I had already plotted out the idea before we looked for funds, so we did not have much difficulty raising a round of funds from some top investors who are committed to the future of Tunisia.
7) If you have partners, how do you manage your partnership?
Partnership is crucial in the business world. I personally believe that we can build a whole greater than the sum of the parts by using synergies and strategic alliances with stakeholders of the entrepreneurial ecosystem. We are partnering with Tunisian NGOs such as The Carthage Business Angels network, The Maghreb Enterprise Development Initiative (soon to be launched), as well as with U.S NGOs such as Tunisian American Young Professionals and Financial Services Volunteers Corps.
8) What does your spouse or family think of your company? Has owning a company made you financially more secure, or not?
I am lucky to have the support of my wife ever since we got married. That doesn’t mean that it was easy all the time. Lately, I’m spending more time at work than at home. My start up wouldn’t be possible without some compensation and the approval of my family. Luckily I have been earning enough money to secure them financially. My revenues have never been constant, but they are enough to cover all of our needs.
9) Have the recent revolutions affected your approach?
The revolution boosted my motivation for social entrepreneurship. I really feel the need to share my knowledge and my experience with the maximum number of entrepreneurs in Tunisia.
10) What are five pieces of advice that you would give a fellow entrepreneur?
1) Have a dream and inspire people around you.
2) Focus on value while being different.
3) Question everything and synergize.
4) Take risk and start small.
5) Prove the concept and scale fast.
Alia is a recent Masters graduate from the Center for Global Affairs at New York University. She is a half Tunisian, half American from New York City who is passionate about entrepreneurship and the role of the private sector in economic development, job creation and poverty alleviation. She is currently living in Tunis to help launch a new non-profit called the Maghreb Enterprise Development Initiative (MEDI), in conjunction with the Mediterranean School of Business. She is excited to help nurture a new entrepreneurial spirit in Tunisia!