3 lessons from MITEF's Cairo competition, from startup finalist Melltoo

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Chosen from over 5,000 applicants, Melltoo (a startup I cofounded) had the honor of being one of 50 semi-finalists at the 7th MIT Enterprise Forum Arab Startup Competition. My team attended a three-day conference in Cairo culminating in a final award ceremony on May 22nd. Startup business competitions and conferences such as MITEF are growing in number regionally and globally. Many entrepreneurs question the benefit of joining these competitions and whether it’s worth taking time out of an already packed schedule to participate. I won’t lie, the prize money of $50,000 USD did motivate us at first, but in truth, we benefited from the competition in many others ways, despite not having won the grand prize.

The MITEF competition is one of the most prestigious in the region, sponsored by MITEF in partnership with Abdul Latif Jameel Community Initiatives. To participate in the startup competition, entrepreneurs submit an application describing their startup idea or existing startup. From this initial applicant batch, 50 are selected as semi-finalists in two tracks (ideas and startups). Then three winners for each track are chosen. The group of judges is diverse, ranging from CEOs of successful startups to investment managers and well-known business consultants. The resulting conference included keynote speeches, pitching contests, and coaching sessions. Ronaldo Mouchawar of Souq.com and Ahmed AlKhatib of MarkaVIP spoke at the final award ceremony.

Melltoo is a mobile social network for buying and selling, a social classifieds marketplace with offices based in Dubai. We were among startups that came from all over the MENA, including Saudi Arabia, Palestine, Morocco, Lebanon, and more.

The first place prize in the startup track went to Sudamed from Sudan, an online platform for patients to access the Sudanese healthcare system, the second place prize went to the Jordanian Little Thinking Minds, a multimedia platform for educational content in Arabic, and the third place prize went to Looly's Pearls from Morocco, a startup focused on bringing organic homemade food to the mass market.

While we didn’t end up winning the competition, we nonetheless benefited from the experience and have returned to Dubai with some lessons to share.

Lesson #1: What’s in a pitch?

The most important judging criteria in a startup competition is the pitch. We had six minutes to pitch our startup, with the aim to convince judges that our business is worth investing in. Ask any entrepreneur and she would no doubt tell you that pitching is extremely difficult, requiring one to present a business that is months or years in the making in mere minutes. But the point of the pitch is not to tell everything about a business. Having to pitch in six minutes forces an entrepreneur to focus on the core value proposition of a business. The ability to do so demonstrates that the entrepreneur has her eye on the ball, rather than being distracted by other less important aspects of a business. If you can win your audience in such a short time, it is both proof of concept and validation that you are focused and on the right track.

Lesson #2: Iterate your startup

Each time we pitch, we have something different to say. It’s not because we are confused, it’s because what is important becomes clearer and clearer over time. For instance, when we first launched Melltoo Marketplace, we thought that our built-in chat platform was what made us unique. In reality, while that in itself is a great feature, what it represents is even more important, i.e. privacy. With built-in chat, users don’t have to publicize their phone numbers and emails; this protects user privacy.

We also thought that our social features would help users by allowing them to reach a wider audience and sell faster. In fact, we’ve realized that social is not about selling faster; instead it’s about establishing trust in the marketplace. When the buyer/seller has an identity and a history in an online community, they can operate with greater peace of mind.

Participating in startup competitions forces entrepreneurs to take a step back to look at the big picture in order to move forward. Entrepreneurs are often bogged down by day-to-day tasks that distract them from their most important work, which is iterating and improving their product based on user feedback. Input from coaches, judges, and fellow entrepreneurs can help startups refocus.

Lesson #3: Courting investors

Many entrepreneurs think that as long as they have a good business and a great pitch, investors will throw money at them at the first meeting. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way. First of all, investors invest in people, not businesses, and people only become real when a relationship is established. So you have to make yourself known to investors before you ask for money.

A credible way to introduce yourself to investors is through startup competitions. Investors are human and if a bunch of other people think your business is a good one, then they are more likely to think so as well. Startup competitions are therefore a great way to network with future investors and to establish relationships before the issue of financing arises. After all, would you give $250,000+ USD to somebody you just met? And no, exchanging tweets is not good enough.

Lesson #4: It’s all about the ecosystem

One thing we discovered in Cairo is that the MENA region is awakening to a wave of innovation and entrepreneurship. It was eye-opening to meet so many people doing so many interesting things in varied conditions and with unequal resources. It made us re-examine the resources available and how to put them to use more efficiently. It also opened up opportunities for partnerships with other startups across the region.

Bear in mind that a thriving ecosystem means more support, resources, and funding for everyone as a whole. Venture capitalists do not enter a region with five startups; they come when there is a growing number of healthy startups to invest in. As an entrepreneur, don’t be on the defensive and view other startups as competitors that will steal your idea and deserve no mercy. In fact, there is much to learn from your fellow entrepreneurs. We met some very talented young people at MITEF, including the co-founders of GYEM Dubai who taught us that the youth are entrepreneurial and eager to be engaged. They opened our eyes to the various ways we can engage them through buying and selling on Melltoo. We also learned about the market for mobile apps in Algeria from fellow startup Quizzito.com. On the other hand, Egypt is ripe for mobile apps, especially social ones, as our fellow entrepreneurs KinTrans and CrowdAnalyzer can testify. And if anyone is thinking about creating a startup, the three big trends from MITEF this year are women-led businesses, social enterprises, and consumer empowerment.

We left Cairo physically exhausted but mentally revitalized and excited to take our startup to the next level. For you entrepreneurs who are still wondering about whether startup competitions are worth your time, they are. It is important to look up and out every so often to see what’s going on, to network, to learn, and then to refocus; without this, it will be a lonely struggle ahead. 

The 8th MITEF Arab Startup Competition is slated to take place in Morocco in 2015. Don't be surprised to find Melltoo competing again! Only this time, we'll be there to win. 

 

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