'Fail first, then succeed,' Techstars' Mark Solon tells StartupQ8

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Kuwait’s startup ecosystem, which is showing more signs of vibrancy than ever before, hosted “by far” its highest profile guest last week, according to StartupQ8 contributor and community leader Mijbel AlQattan. Mark Solon, the managing partner of global accelerator Techstars, along with the network’s VP of business development Kevin Tapply, were the guests of honor at the latest StartupQ8 event, held at the Global Tower in Kuwait City.

While Solon was tapped to speak to the rapt crowd about financing, after dropping a few morsels of advice (“raising capital is about building relationships” was a particularly memorable one), the successful venture capitalist-turned-accelerator manager changed tacks, instead focusing on what he believes is a fundamental part to any successful startup ecosystem, and something the region has been hearing a lot about lately: a cultural acceptance of failure.

The atmosphere was already a relaxed one – the entrepreneurs, bloggers, and members of partner organizations Google Developer Group – Kuwait and KW Tech Meetup were excited to either get acquainted or catch up with each other’s news – and Solon approached the talk from a similarly casual perspective. Perched atop the desk in the center of the small auditorium, he began with a personal anecdote.

“I never graduated college, and for many years, up until 5 to 10 years ago, I held this deep-seated fear that people would find out and think I wasn’t worthy of being a VC,” Solon shared with a rueful smile. “It wasn’t until some of the companies I invested in began exiting that I began to feel comfortable admitting it.”

Much like he himself was able to get over this insecurity, he urged the members of the audience, all current or potential players in the Kuwaiti ecosystem, to do the same. “Failure has to be accepted in order for entrepreneurs to succeed,” he insisted. “If all of you want this strong startup ecosystem, you’re going to have to change how everyone in and out of this room is thinking. While people continue to look at [failure] with judgment, it’s going to be difficult to raise money.”

According to Solon, the acceptance of failure is one of the main distinctions between startup culture in the United States and the Middle East (although he also reports being surprised at the stigma associated with failure in the UK). “The reason the US is holding on – barely – as the leading innovative country in the world is because failure is accepted there… it’s considered a badge of honor,” he asserted.

“Here, investors want to invest in profitable companies. In the US, we want to know how fast you’re growing.”

But open discussions around the topic of failure are happening more and more in the MENA region at least, if not the rest of the world. Earlier this year, San Francisco event series FailCon came to the Middle East for the first time, seeking to dispel negative connotations towards failure that have been endemic to the region. “It can often be daunting for an aspiring or struggling entrepreneur to only hear glamorous success stories,” said FailCon organizer and KarmaSnap founder Gautham Narasimhamurthy. “Failure is part and parcel of the entrepreneurial journey,” in the MENA as much as anywhere else, he went on.

There was also a dedicated failure panel at this year’s Arabnet in Beirut, held in March, featuring four now-successful entrepreneurs speaking about their not-so-successful pasts. “For people to learn from failure,” reflected Fadi Bizri, the managing director of Lebanon’s Bader Young Entrepreneurs Program, “we have to demystify the culture. We need to get people to come out and talk about their failures. Once it’s out there, it’s no big thing.”

Back in Kuwait, after Solon stepped down (to resounding applause from an enthusiastic audience), serial entrepreneur Abdur-Rahman El-Sayed (an Egyptian national who spent many years working in Kuwait and is now based in Dubai) presented insights from his extraordinary entrepreneurial journey, which has included launching ad platform Yabila!, personalized Arabic newsreader Nabd – the first Arabic language app to be featured on Google Play – and mobile game developer Elektron Games, among others.

Finally, three Kuwaiti entrepreneurs successfully running their own startups presented to the crowd on their journeys, their challenges, and their plans for the future, followed by a Q&A period led by Khaled Al-Zanki. The startups were obituaries site Wafeyat Kuwait, founded by Tareq Alothman; doctor's appointment booking app AbiDoc, founded by Dr. Mussaad al Razouki; and Deera, founded by Haitham al Hawwaj, which allows users to report road blockages, litter, and other civic annoyances to the municipality.

The StartupQ8 events, inaugurated by fishing vacation booking service Fishfishme founder Abdullah AlShalabi with the support of the Global Investment House and the Kuwait National Fund for SMEs to raise awareness and help foster connections among Kuwaiti entrepreneurs and the curious, have been ongoing since September 26, 2012, when the first event was held in the back of a coffee shop. “Our reach and audience numbers has definitely increased” since then, says AlQattan in an email to Wamda.

In the future, the StartupQ8 team, its partners, and other Kuwaiti stakeholders can hope that Solon’s talk – alongside more and more frank discussions among Kuwaitis who are interested in or in the process of starting their own businesses – will be the catalyst that diversifies Kuwait’s currently oil-dependent economy. Looks like it's already starting.

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