Startup Weekend NEXT Baghdad shows what's possible

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As a co-organizer of the first and second installments of Baghdad Startup Weekend, I’ve learned first-hand how challenging it can be to create a sustainable entrepreneurial ecosystem in my city. But with events like Startup Weekend becoming more frequent and well attended, and featuring mentors of greater caliber, the ecosystem is growing broader and deeper than ever.

After the Startup Weekends were over, I was hungry for more and immediately started to looking for another relevant mission for me to implement. I wanted to keep the momentum from the Startup Weekends rolling, especially because teams and individuals had just exposed to a whole new business culture.

Taking into account the great success of two Baghdad Startup Weekends (in fewer than five months), UP Global in cooperation with Mercy Corps in Iraq decided that the time was right to implement the new program Startup Weekend NEXT. Based on Steve Blank's Lean Launchpad, SW NEXT is a five-week, part-time, pre-incubator program for early stage startups. Founders learn about leaving-the-building culture and on how to deal with real world variables. They learn how to validate their ideas, how to conduct customer discovery and development, and how to bootstrap their startups and go to market with a close-to-zero budget.

While the program has strong potential and aims to teach a great wealth of information, there were still a few problems here and there. Participants were forewarned that they have a long road ahead with such an intensive program, requiring no less than 20 hours of commitment per week. Add to that, the uniqueness of the program agenda made it hard to find the suitable mentors for such specified topics. So the participants had to stay in touch with mentors online, getting feedback on their Business Model Canvases via emails and Google hangouts.

Nine teams entered the program, but only three graduated:

  • A moderately popular website on Baghdad whereabouts with no clear revenue model sought to develop an integrated system that enables reservations on the website implementing a two-way revenue model. The original website was an alumnus of the first Startup Weekend Baghdad.

  • A soccer-focused social network and pitches reservation system got advice from SW NEXT Geneva instructor, to stream the efforts on a gamification approach in order to scale world-wide in the future.

  • Given how important it is to many Iraqis to send their students to pursue higher studies outside the country, the entrepreneurs at a promising study abroad app/website learned more about customer segments and acquisition from San Diego's NEXT instructor.

Participants were wowed by the newness of the material and the eye opening mentorship experience that they never thought they would be able to access. However, based on my observation, Iraq needs more Startup Weekend-type events, where participants can receive dense training and a crash course on pivoting and team work. The entrepreneurial mindset has just started to establish itself in the city's typical tradecraft and commerce that largely resemble what our grandfathers used in their day-to-day lives. These aspiring startups have a lot to accomplish in the bigger scene of Iraq's re-emerging economy. 

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