What did startups learn at Astrolabs' recent workshop in Amman?

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After their first Scaling Online Startups (SOS) workshop in Dubai this past May, and subsequent workshops in Riyadh and Beirut, Astrolabs came to Amman this past weekend, bringing together eight up-and-coming Jordanian startups to tackle their challenges with scaling.

Jordan, while a vibrant ecosystem, has seen its share of challenges lately, with new electricity and income taxes leading startups to threaten closure, following struggles with censorship laws earlier this year.

As i3zifShopGoFeeshehJamalonWysadaVogaClosetHijabik, and The Cakery gathered at the Play 99.6 Headquarters in Taj Mall, Astrolabs founders Louis Lebbos and Muhammad Mekki helped their founders refresh basic topics like digital marketing, analytics, conversion, payments, and investments, with a focus on reaching new markets.

So what did the founders and mentors (who included Tareq Yafi from Google, Aysenur Guven from Daphne Digital, Iyad Kamal, COO of Aramex, Francis Barel of PayPal, Emile Cubeisy from Silicon Badia, and Zafer Younis of The Online Project) bring to a few startups in transition?

Some learned caution. Fadi Sabbagh of Wysada, a home goods e-commerce site, says he learned to “hold on before scaling; we have to understand where every dollar is being spent, which way to expand, and how to take care of logistics, even if investors are pushing for growth. You can quickly plunge down rather than shoot up if you put your money in the wrong place.”

Others pointed to the value of analytics. “I learned that ShopGo should always pay attention to our clients performance,” says Moe Ghashim of ShopGo. “It was obvious for us that we need to focus more on analytics and Google AdWords as part of our tutorials and more integration with both services. This will help our clients to have more understanding of their website position, traffic, and marketing spend.”

Khaled Husseini of VogaCloset, a fashion e-commerce store, and Nur Alfayez of Feesheh, a musical instruments e-commerce platform, agreed that the analytics and metrics measurement techniques were the most valuable, noting that learning conversion funnel in particular was helpful.

For Husseini, the focus on outside markets, especially the Gulf, was the single biggest reason to join. “For us, Jordan isn’t really a top market in terms of priority," he explains. "Recently there have been some regulations that make it difficult to operate here.” 

“The increase in customs on clothing” is particularly troubling, says his sister and co-founder, Nadia Husseini. “And there’s talk of increasing the tax rate on technology startups as well.”

A focus on scaling was the intention, says Mekki. “Jordan is fortunate to be rich with entrepreneurial resources and is no doubt one of the most developed ecosystems in the region. The major challenge startups face is successfully expanding their locally-grown concepts to the larger MENA market, particularly the Gulf,” says Mekki. “This includes making smart marketing investments, setting up dependable local operations in each market, and recruiting the right people to make it all happen.”

Overall, the major challenges that Astrolabs helped startups in Amman tackle included expansion to larger markets, allocating limited marketing budgets, hiring and developing talent, and fundraising after an angel round, Mekki adds.

The founders' in-region knowledge was particularly helpful, some said. “The important thing for us was to get relevant input. It wasn’t some dude from Europe or the States coming in with a benchmark that might not be relevant,” says Khaled Husseini. “The speakers know the channels, they know the cost per acquisition and what happens locally in terms of how much money you need to spend on marketing and what channels you should spend it in.”

Is there room for improvement? Sure, says Alfayez; while the workshop was a valuable recap in startup 101, “In our case, we had to learn most of the topics addressed in the workshop the hard way on our own. The workshop was a good refreshment and a chance to ask specific questions concerning our start-up; hearing feedback from other startups and having side discussions was of extra value.” Perhaps the range of startups, at different stages in their development, made certain lessons valuable and others basic for specific teams, but every startup seemed to find more than a few takeaways that they plan to implement to build up their startup.

Next, Astrolabs will bring the workshop to Jeddah and Cairo in the coming months and will head to Silicon Valley in October to present on "Equipping Entrepreneurs" at the Google for Entrepreneurs Summit.

Disclaimer: Wamda Capital has invested in ShopGo and was a strategic partner for the Amman workshop.

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