Can Startappz Disrupt the Mobile Space in the Arab World?

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The idea of being more committed to learning than to a given product seems appropriate for the wave of young entrepreneurs entering the startup scene; overvaluing a given app idea cobbled together during a Startup Weekend and glazed over with some revolutionary optimism can be a lethal approach if user testing is not part of the recipe. 

Learning how to pivot and be agile, on the other hand, is crucial for entrepreneurs in a quickly shifting environment. 

And when it comes to getting young graduates comfortable with the idea of starting a business quickly, a vehicle that minimizes the consequences of failure- N2V tries to offer a “risk-free” environment for experimentation- can’t hurt initially as long as it doesn’t make entrepreneurs lazy. The challenge then is to generate good ideas.

Focusing on Mobile

N2V’s newest investment vehicle, Startappz, is putting a unique twist on this formula, by focusing on mobile, perhaps one of the company’s smartest moves yet. Mobile is the future, especially in the Arab world, where cellular penetration reached 97% at the end of 2011, 19 points higher than the world average, according to ITU. Saudi Arabia, where Startappz has a hub, has the third highest mobile penetration in the world, hitting 188% at the end of last year. 

So an investment vehicle and incubator focused on mobile makes sense. It’s also a great way to lure talent to work on in-house ideas.

“Our goal is to discover talent and find a formula to support them, whether by investing in their apps or having them as resident entrepreneurs,” says Startappz CEO Mohamad Khawaja.

Just don’t call it an accelerator.

“This is the opposite of what accelerators are doing; they are preparing teams for an investment cycle and evaluating their ideas,” he says. “We see a lot of scattered talent, and not a lot of viable ideas.  Most of them have a very basic idea, and they try to push the technology rather than understand the market- it’s a tech push rather than a market pull.”

Startappz doesn’t necessarily target ready-made startups, but rather targets inexperienced entrepreneurs who might not have any market understanding, a business plan, or a viable idea at all, says Khawaja; it then hands them projects to work on.

“Our goal is to incubate you as part of our team, as we have some apps that we’re working on ourselves. We think that by doing so, we may stimulate the community to approach us with great ideas.” Investment is case-by-case and not guaranteed.

Tackling the mobile space

Within the domain of mobile, the vehicle encourages four types of products, healthcare, education, sports, and telecom or communication apps.

Thus far, it has launched Appz Door, a content platform, Lifeline, a video aggregation vehicle, Ideables, a platform for creating value added service apps, Easy Charge, a mobile app that allows users to recharge prepaid cards using a camera and optical character recognition technology, iAraby, a platform for building mobile games,  Jasem the Hero, a gaming app based in Riyadh, and Fatooosh, a platform-agnostic mobile and smartTV app for streaming videos across devices.

None of these ideas are revolutionary or disruptive, and most of the platforms listed are vehicles for the creation of more applications in a given segment.

Yet sometimes slow and steady does it, especially in environments like Jordan where some complain that too many ideas are being funded too quickly. We might start to see some of Jordan’s startups fail this year, but it will likely be a necessary culling of bad ideas. A focus on testing should eventually produce something very viable.

Mentors for hire?

Supporting a specific segment is a great idea; now the biggest challenge for Startappz will be creating a culture of great mentorship.

Right now, the team’s approach seems a bit vague. They have developers and business development managers working in Cairo and Amman, but when I ask about mentorship, it’s less clear who’s training the Startappz army.

“We have mutual mentorship,” says Khawaja. “Our developers are mentoring each other.”

He does say that in the healthcare sector, the team has “prominent doctors” advising on products, and the same goes for the telecom sector- bigwigs are weighing in. “In the education sector, we are bringing in some teachers,” he notes.

If these products are to succeed, bringing in experienced mentors who have previously built mobile startups will be critical. 

In the meantime, experience itself will be the main teacher as the Startappz army pushes forward to test the market. 

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