Web Summit: worth the trip to Dublin for Arab startups?

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Photo Credit: The Web Summit

And it’s a wrap! The Web Summit, the biggest event dedicated to startups in Europe, Africa, and the Middle East, has come to an end. Now, it’s time for Dublin taxi drivers to resume their normal activities, for Dublin dwellers to enjoy their bars and restaurants now that the hordes of techies have gone, and for hotels to go back to regular prices.

In four years, The Web Summit has grown from 450 participants to 22,000, with attendees coming from all over Europe, North America, North Africa, and Asia – and everyone’s talking about it. But is the growth surge a good thing?

Opinions differ. Some found the event to be fantastic; others, mostly from Europe, found it to be way too big, generic, and poorly organized. I talked to a handful of Arab startups – there were actually over 50 of them – about whether they would recommend the event.

Disorganization

The exhibiting startups were located in two massive buildings, 10 minutes walking distance from each other (the Food Summit, which was basically a big outdoor cafeteria, was another 10 to 20 minutes away). Further, a total of 720 startups were exhibiting each day, which means that no one could see all of the startups. 

Another big issue was the wifi, or lack thereof. Similar to last year, the wifi only worked in selected remote areas of the event (I couldn’t get wifi in the media lounge, but managed to use the internet in some isolated bathrooms). Being deprived of internet is particularly problematic since the Summit’s own Tinder-like app was the only way to set appointments with fellow participants. 

One could wonder if these issues derive from the event’s rapid growth, or the youth of the organizers (they average 27-28 years old). But rather than pass judgment, we asked the Arab startups about their thoughts on the event. 

Is it possible to raise money at The Web Summit?

All the startups I talked to came to the event with some hope of meeting investors, whether international or Arab.

Hussam Hammo is the CEO of the successful mobile apps & games publisher startup Tamatem – they’ve tripled their number of apps downloaded since we last interviewed them three months ago, reaching 6 million downloads.

He says that curiosity – mobile games from an Arabic producer may be unexpected for a European audience – as well as baklava drew people to their booth. “Among the curious could be future investors [that haven’t looked to the Arab world yet],” he believes.

Hammo also actively reached out to investors, and has therefore developed some investor relationships that could become something. “It will take some time but we have some leads,” he believes. Was it worth the trip? “You can meet investors anywhere,” he admits, “but [attending the Web Summit] does help.”


Zrikem caught the eyes of an official photographer. Credit Photo: The Web Summit

Morocco-based crowdfunding platform for Africa, JumpStart Africa, also used props, in their case green tea and traditional hats, to attract passersby. “We've met one investor like this,” cofounder Ahmed Zrikem told me, and this investor spread the word in the investor lounge, leading other VCs to visit the startup.

Have the Arab startups found business partners?

When it comes to finding retailers, business partners all the startups we met seem to agree: the Web Summit was the place to be.

Mohammed Johmani from recently launched car and taxi-sharing app Cary Pool (as well as car selling app Cary!), met a German competitor, and they’ve already planned to share APIs with one another. This kind of encounter makes it worth the trip, he believes. Khalid Al-Jaaidi from Turn8 video chat startup Vidium concurs, saying  that “getting a chance to talk to your competitors over a cup of coffee is something else entirely!”


Yamsafer and Cary Pool side by side

But representatives of Palestinian hotel bookings site Yamsafer were not fully convinced by the event. “It’s a bit overcrowded, there’s too much going at the same time, too many companies, it causes a lot of distraction,” says CTO and cofounder Sameh Alfar. He was, however, able to meet someone from a famous payment system, and a famous travel-related website; “If any of these connections convert, then [coming here] was worth it,” he says.

For Ali Elouafiq, from upcoming connected device iMote, one of the most interesting connections he made was with the cofounders and team of Indiegogo who are now helping him with his upcoming crowdfunding campaign.

Was the WebSummit a good place to get media coverage?

Not really, according to Tamatem’s Hamma. “The conference is enormous so it is hard to communicate.”

But Lebanon’s Sohati and Saudi’s Feelit disagree. “It’s important to be featured in international media to get investors,” explain medical content website Sohati’s cofounders Zena Sfeir and Elsa Aoun, who are currently looking to raise money to expand to the GCC.” Sfeir’s efforts in getting press to pay attention worked. When I passed by their booth, they were in the middle of an interview with BBC’s Arabic service.


Sfeir during an interview

The same goes for Feelit, the social app for emotion sharing, which recently raised money and left Saudi for the Silicon Valley. The startup will be featured in upcoming articles in The Irish Independent, and a few other Irish media outlets.

Going to Europe to enter the European market, a wise business move?

Many Arab startups with global ambitions were in Dublin, including Rize Innovation, an IT consultation and Product Innovation that published an indoor navigation system. Begad Hassan, Rize Innovation’s VP of Innovations, is disappointed with the media exposure, and the possibility to connect with investors, but he says he made lots of contacts that will help him enter the European market, and also learned a lot from other startups. 

 

What if the most important outcome were the things the entrepreneurs learned?

Sohati’s team came to Dublin to see what is happening in the health tech sector, and in the tech industry in general. “It’s great to be able to broaden one’s ideas, see what’s out there,” says Sfeir, even though she regrets that she only went to a couple of talks, since the talks were happening in a building 10 minutes away from the health tech building. “I’ve been running around all day,” she explains. The team, which has more than one million Facebook likes, was invited to a workshop at Facebook, something she found to be really valuable, she continues.

For many, the event was an opportunity to compile knowledge simply by talking to other entrepreneurs and receiving feedback. “It was worth the money,” said Feelit cofounder Albara Hakami. Some, like the iMote team, even won high caliber mentors. 

“The amount of information at those events is invaluable,” concurs Cary Pool’s Johmani. “You refuel your mind. It shows you the sky is the limit.” The networking alone makes going at the Web Summit worth it, he says, even though not having access to internet was a real problem.

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