Inspiration, community-building and unicorns at #STEP2015

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The STEP Conference, in its fourth year, is quickly becoming one of the most anticipated events in the Arab region when it comes to new technology, mobile trends, gaming, design, and entrepreneurship.

Indeed, more than 2,000 people came to the Dubai International Marine Club to hear more than 70 global and regional thought leaders.

Some 15 topics were on the agenda, and they ranged from online payment and the collaborative economy to video content, auto-tech, entertainment and e-Healthcare. Bassam Jalgha, for instance, talked about his journey building his company’s product Roadie Tuner.

The three most popular speakers, based on the size of the crowd, were Dave McClure, San Francisco based entrepreneur and angel investor; Mike Butcher, editor-at-large at TechCrunch; Fadi Ghandour, founder of Aramex, and chairman and managing partner at Wamda Capital; and Jeremiah Owyang, founder of Crowd Companies, a Brand Council for the Collaborative Economy.

But there was more. Exhibition Square (paid space) gave entrepreneurs the opportunity to demonstrate their products and services. There was a pitch competition to help startups connect with investors and other support organizations. And a mentors’ corner gave entrepreneurs access to industry experts in a one-on-one session.

“Look at the vibes here, this is an amazing community filled with so much potential for the region,” says Kaswara AlKhatib, Chairman and CEO of UTurn, Saudi online entertainment channel launched in 2010.

Rafael J. Grossmann, surgeon, speaker and healthcare technology innovator

Building startup communities

One of the panels focused on the role of communities, how to build them, and their challenges. Panelists shared a lot of insight, and agreed that bits and pieces will come together even if does take time to build a community of startups. Here are their insights in their own words:

  • “Success stories are very important to build a community and an ecosystem, but funding is a barriers we notice. Without money, startups can’t grow and scale the way they should, which makes it very difficult for ecosystems to grow as well. We need Champions who are investors, like Fadi Ghandour.” - Hassan Haider, 500 Startups.

  • “We suggest for investors to have small sized tickets, building more portfolios.” - Hassan Haider, 500 Startups.

  • “Once your company is up and running, the money will find you.”- Felix Petersen, Amen.

  • "Government regulations are a barrier that limits capacities of startups, entrepreneurs should find their ways around them and we hope for supporting organization to help over comes these barriers as well.” - Jon Bradford, TechStars.

  • “Every city in the world has big companies with a lot of money, and they should re-invest some of their money in startups.” - Jon Bradford, TechStars.

  • “Main ingredient of an ecosystem is talent, without it investment and government doesn’t matter anymore.” - Kamal Hassan, Turn8/Fenox.

  • “Corporates are so important because they can be system integrators and customers at the same time, they can have a big role in the success of a startup.” - Kamal Hassan, Turn8/Fenox.

Inspiring a generation of young talents

Fadi Ghandour on stage

During his session with Matthew Hoffer Craig of the World Economic Forum, Fadi Ghandour explained that young people are afraid of working with startups because of stability and culture and family pressure. He said he hopes to see more initiatives pushing young talent to join startups, and pointed out that there is no better feeling than seeing a company grow and being part of it.

Ghandour also shared how he managed to attract and retain young talent at Aramex: “People refusing to work with us was a blessing, so we went to universities and hired people who had nothing to lose and were ready to take the risk.” These students ended up working at Aramex for several years, charting long career paths at the company.

Looking ahead: Unicorn valuations

Amir Farha on stage.

Exits sometimes are the main motivators when building a startup. During the exits and acquisitions panel, Amir Farha, cofounder and managing partner at VC firm BECO Capital, said that over 10 local technology startups are expected to exit in the next three to five years. “While many of these online ventures are experiencing strong growth and possess solid business models, a few of them will actually receive unicorn valuations, meaning raising funds at a valuation of US$1 billion or more.” BECO Capital focuses on technology investments in the MENA region and the GCC in particular.

Farha backed up his point by saying that exits are important because they recycle back into the ecosystem and inspire employees and talent to build their own startups.

Habib Haddad, CEO of Wamda, responded to Farha by saying: “I’d rather see 10 Talabats in the region than one Uber.” Haddad explained that one failure he sees among entrepreneurs is “building to exit.”

“An entrepreneur should worry about building a startup that can be successful. This can be a 10 years story,” Haddad said. “Build it, stick around for a while and you’ll get to exit.”

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