At Mix n' Mentor Doha, we gathered over 100 mentors and entrepreneurs for a half-day event that fostered in-depth discussions about team building and investment. A wide range of startups attended- some hadn't sought funding yet, while others had closed large series A rounds.
Previous MITEF Arab Business Plan Competition winner Hind Hobeika joined us, discovering along the way that she might want to find a founder. "The best session was one where I sat down with Louis Lebbos from Namshi, and had an argument about how co-founders are cruical to you as an entrepreneur. Not having a cofounder is very difficult i find, but it's difficult finding one now at this stage of the startup." (Hobeika is well on her way, having recently launched an IndieGoGo campaign to fund her first prototype for Instabeat, a technology for swimmers that monitors heartrate).
"He insisted that there was no way no one would ever get me like a co-founder would... it made me seriously start a hunt," she said.
Meanwhile, Muhammed Mekki, Lebbos's co-founder, was enjoying meeting local talent in Qatar. "The diversity of the entrepreneurs, who hailed from all over the region, made this Mix n' Mentor unique," he said, "but one of the sharpest entrepreneurs I met was a Qatari named Omar Al-Ansari, who is planning to change the way financial traders in the Arab world communicate with his start-up, Borsa Arabia."
In an initial panel, members of PayPal, Google, Microsoft, and Qualcomm shared their advice, before entrepreneurs later asked mentors and each other about the best ways to build and scale. Here are 10 pieces of advice from the day:
- Cherry pick your team very carefully. It's important to complement each other, Wael Fakharny of Google pointed out. "If you're a tech freak or geek, surround yourself with people who are unlike you," he emphasized. Only focusing on the technical aspects of the product without having someone to focus on marketing and distribution can prevent a startup from reaching success.
- Choose your investors carefully. One experienced entrepreneur described his experience closing a seed round and recent series A, pointing out that it was very important to have investors on board that understood the business and could add value. When it comes to dealing with investors that delay extensively and lead startups on, he advises against continuing the discussion. "If an investor couldn't prioritize us within four months, we would not really want them as investors."
- Always think mobile. It goes without saying, but "there is a lot of money being made on mobile," said Rami Osman of Qualcomm. And get ready to expand your definition of mobile. Google may be leading innovations like Google Glass, but Chinese search company Baidu isn't far behind. Huge shift to smartphones, smartTVs, augmented reality, Baidu are also developing their own glasses. Qualcomm. There are 50 billion devices around the globe.
- Watch your cash flow. Elias Ghanem of PayPal (who recently answered our questions about their expansion) advised seeking out a payment solution that will only charge on a transaction basis, to forgo having to deposit a large amount of money at the bank and critically reduce cash flow. Within his pitch for PayPal is a deeper point: be smart about researching solutions that allow your company to retain as much cash flow as possible in the early days. Be smart about your burn rate as well; most investors at the early stage want to know that their investment will last for more than a couple of months, investors said.
- Look for funding once you want to expand. While several entrepreneurs at Mix n' Mentor Doha hadn't yet fundraised, several of the more experienced entrepreneurs pointed out that it's important to begin thinking early on about the right time to raise. Even those who are bootstrapping to continue creating a successful product might want to think about seeking investment to take their scope to the next level, entrepreneurs pointed out.
- Invest your own money. Investing your own money demonstrates commitment from the founders. One experienced serial entrepreneur described his experience raising a series A round in the low millions recently. One of the factors that persuaded investors to come on board? Commitment from the founding team, he said. Investing your own money demonstrates that you're in it for the long haul.
- Teach at universities. Many startups in the region have difficulty finding the right talent. To solve the problem, one entrepreneur suggested developing a relationship with talented college students by teaching workshops or seminars from time to time at a local university. This way, he said, you can recruit the best fresh graduates.
- Outsource. Other entrepreneurs disagreed with the advice above. "When you train people, you create competitors," said one. "Sometimes it's better just to work with people in India." While creating systems to incentivize entrepreneurs to stay can often retain talent, sometimes it's good to consider all of the available options; sometimes an outsourcing model or hybrid outsourced model can help a startup prevent issues of talent loss early on.
- Set up training systems from the beginning. Most of the entrepreneurs present, especially a few from Jordan and Egypt, admitted that they typically hire talented graduates who have the right passion, and then train them to have the right skills. Although sometimes these employees end up leaving, there's simply no way around the fact that training is an essential part of creating a sustainable company. Some of Jordan's best successes have done so, demonstrating that setting up ongoing training structures from the beginning eliminates later pain when it comes to scaling.
- Get out of your comfort zone. Wamda CEO Habib Haddad summarized the sentiments mentioned by all of Mix n' Mentor's panelists: the most important element of continuing to grow a startup is to get out of your comfort zone. Whether by inviting non-family investors to invest, seeking out the right team members that aren't necessarily the first to apply, or going out of your way to find the right people, almost all mentors advised getting out of your comfort zone in order to optimize your startup.