Tips from Silicon Valley for Entrepreneurs in the Arab World: MAKE Ignition Welcomes 500 Startups

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Don’t be an entrepreneur. Keep your day job, spend time with your spouse, play with your children, socialize with your friends, see your parents. Whatever you do, don’t be an entrepreneur.

That was the surprising advice from celebrity venture capitalist Dave McClure of the seed fund 500 Startups last week at MAKE Ignition, a regular series on entrepreneurship. In this special edition featuring Dave and participants from the Geeks on a Plane global entrepreneur tour, three local startups pitched to their overseas counterparts.

Included in the tour was Jesse Thomas of Jess3, Alexander Polvi who founded Cloudkick, and Edith Yeung of VC RightVentures and startup Dolphin Browser. If the name “500 Startups” sounds familiar, it’s because they recently invested in Jeeran, the user-review platform based in Amman. Jeeran was their first investment in the region, but it’s unlikely to be the last.

With a taste for global innovation, 500 Startups looks for new and exciting startups with world-changing ideas, wherever they happen to be.  The fireside chat during the event revealed what Dave finds attractive about startups in general and the MENA region in particular. 

Three global trends have made things easier for global startups: falling software costs, rising ability to reach customers, and the mass-adoption of certain platforms. It’s now cheaper, faster, and easier than ever before to target a market anywhere in the world. But unless a startup also maintains an unrelenting focus on customer needs, these benefits won’t help a startup succeed. “Technology is just plumbing,” says Dave, but understanding customer behavior is critical. While this may sound surprising coming from a VC in the world’s biggest innovation hub, the facts are that the world’s greatest companies succeeded by targeting exactly what people wanted.

For starters, Dave sees the world in customer groups, not technology developments. Hot customer segments he identified included people buying things online, families, and products stored in the cloud that can be packaged. 

Further, he identified Spanish and Arabic-language content and sites as having high growth potential. Unlike investors who seek global mass-market ideas, Dave is drawn to more local, ‘point-specific’ startups that are targeted at a set of customers in a niche with little competition.

MAKE Ignition also featured pitches from local entrepreneurs. Alborz Toofani demo’ed Snapp Card, the new rewards card that stores, tracks, and automatically deducts rewards from local partners. Ghazwan Hamdan pitched his website (target launch date December), which will allow sports teams to plan, manage, and photo-share sports activities. And the highlight of the pitches was Alexandra Tohme’s teaser-pitch for her new startup (target launch December), which identified women’s bras as an underserved market, and will be the first to guarantee a good fit.

If after everything, you still want to be an entrepreneur, just focus on the customer and go for gold. 

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