Money doesn't always matter for Kuwaiti entrepreneurs [Opinion]

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Kuwait city, 5:30 am. (Images via Reine Farhat)

When my plane landed in Kuwait on Monday last week, I knew it was going to be a great trip and it's not because the queues were so short, that for once I got my visa straight away. It was my third visit to the country and the vibe and dynamism I noticed during my previous visits has started to grow on me.

My first visit to Kuwait was back when I attended the 8th MIT Enterprise Forum Arab Startup Competition in April. Wamda held two interactive sessions called Always be Selling. The challenge we put to them was what elements should they include in their media pitch to get a journalist to write about them and what metrics and numbers should they include in their investors pitch to book a meeting with an investor.

On the second visit we met Kuwait’s entrepreneurs and got a feel for the ecosystem and the main drivers pushing it forward. Interacting with the local players and knowing more about their journeys and challenges helped me find the gaps in the ecosystem which, albeit young, is dynamic and thirsty for knowledge. It wasn't all work - in between visiting entrepreneurs and running away from the heat, I slipped in some lunch visits and spoiled myself with fusion food at B+F Open Flame chicken.

This time around, it was all a bit different.

Mini-burgers colored in red and yellow at B+F Open Flame restaurant.

A small team from Wamda (there were only four of us) organized a casual meetup on Tuesday at niu collaborative community, gathering 15 entrepreneurs from different backgrounds such as agriculture, ICT, arts and creative services, healthcare, and web and mobile development.

All of the confirmed entrepreneurs actually showed up and on time, and the conversations kept going even after the meetup ended, which showed real dedication to giving back to the community.

We asked entrepreneurs what keeps them up at night, to get a better understanding of their challenges and worries. Answers varied between expanding outside the relatively small Kuwaiti market, targeting the right audience, opening up new sales channels and many more.

The vibe and dynamism of those I spoke to was contagious.

Almost every entrepreneur I spoke to went the extra mile to offer support and connect me to other entrepreneurs they know. Some even offered to physically take me to their offices and spent the entire day giving me leads on who to contact and reach out to.

From a personal observation, I learned that entrepreneurship in Kuwait isn’t a path people just choose after they decide to quit their day job: it is part of the culture. It's very normal for a person to have a project or a business on the side, but I do believe that in order for them to take their business to the next level, they need to dedicate their full time to it.

Kuwait is small and everyone knows everyone. Most of the entrepreneurs share common challenges, which could be very similar to the Arab region but very unique as well.

It’s not about the money, money, money 

Interestingly enough, funding wasn’t the most discussed issue.

Since the ecosystem is still in its early stages with only a few growth stage companies, there are other basic problems they need to sort out before seeking capital. These range from developing products, finding good mentors and learning from best practices, to having easier and shorter registration and visa issuing processes, and finding in-house local talent rather than relying on outsourcing.

The last two answers were the most common challenges I heard in almost every conversation with entrepreneurs. Wakim Zeidan from creative workspace Nuqat told us they'd cancelled an event because they couldn’t get visa approvals for their speakers. Many founders were also forced to outsource development services as they couldn’t attract Kuwaitis to work for a small company - it’s hard to compete with the public sector’s salaries. The problem is outsourcing isn’t the best solution when you’re constantly adding new features, improving websites and trying to fix bugs quickly.

Some even talked about human resources management and how to get employees to meet deadlines and maintain quality. Basecamp and Microsoft Project were among the tools suggested to track performance and delivery. However, when you have employees who aren’t performing up to the standards or aren’t delivering on time, the reason for that isn’t always related to a low motivation factor.

To fix this complaint, I've got a couple of tips.

One thing I learned when I took a Project Management Professional course recently, is that to motivate team members you need to meet and understand their basic needs: know their capabilities and accept that each individual is different (not everyone is a multi-tasker, not everyone is quick, and not everyone is an initiative taker). You have to provide your staff with the resources they need to perform their tasks, assign them tasks they are actually qualified to perform, and make them own something.

It’s always lovely visiting Kuwait. The easy commute - compared to Beirut - friendly people and great food seal the deal for me. While all ecosystems share common struggles, there’s a bigger thirst for mentorship and better infrastructure in Kuwait than any other Arab country I’ve been to, and it's quite inspring. I look forward to seeing how it evolves in the coming months, and I can’t wait to try that great restaurant again.


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