A Lebanese, a Briton, a Dutchman and an Italian walk into a London investment firm. They bond over hip hop. One year later they launch a delivery startup.
It’s not an unusual story: most startups are created through friendships and the shared drive to create something special.
It is also not unusual that in a cosmopolitan city such as London the friends concerned are not natives.
But why London? Why not another European city?
For Bassel El Koussa, the Lebanese cofounder of Quiqup, the aforementioned rapid delivery service of pretty much any item you’d like, London came about as a mixture of chance and choice.
He’d spent time in the US studying, then working. He then relocated to the UK where he again spent time studying and working. And there he settled.
Not being in his home country, let alone region, didn’t bother El Koussa. In fact, it was a driving factor.
Why the UK?
“UK was our dream, for the whole team,” Anwar Al Mojarkesh said, outside London’s bustling Euston Station. Al Mojarkesh is the cofounder of Braci, a ‘sound recognition platform’. They create apps that alert hearing-impaired users to noises like smoke alarms, babies crying, car alarms and snoring.
For Al Mojarkesh the UK market is perfect for their products. In the UK alone one-in-six people suffer from hearing loss.
The UK also has high health and safety standards for things like smoke alarms and monoxide alarms. “Each city council has a specific budget for people who are hearing impaired,” he told Wamda. “They actually provide services for them, more so than the US. So, from the start it has always been our target.”
Back in 2013 60 percent of the UK job market was accounted for by entrepreneurs. According to the UK think tank Centre for Entrepreneurs, since 2011 annual startup rates have increased from just over 440,000 to just over 581,000.
Braci had previously tried to launch in Saudi Arabia but found it very difficult to gain any kind of interest. “There is no awareness there [...] a deaf person’s house won’t have the the special smoke alarm etcetera, and there is no money to support, especially tech startups. But they are improving.”
Al Mojarkesh, a Syrian native, was based in Jordan but by the start of 2014 had relocated to the UK with the UK Trade and Investment program Sirius, which since 2013 has brought over graduate entrepreneurs from over 93 countries.
Initially based in Wolverhampton, in the middle of the UK, they are now in Birmingham.
Quiqup’s El Koussa also sees the UK as a better fit for what he and his team are trying to achieve.
“The internet speed, the talent. Lebanon has a lot of talent but they’re not in Lebanon,” El Koussa said from his North London headquarters.
He also stressed the market itself. “We launch something here, people adopt. Not as quick as the States but pretty fast.”
Lebanese startup Slidr has also made the UK their base.
Now a member of the UK Lebanon Tech Hub’s program to send a select number of startups to be accelerated in Britain, they told Wamda that their plan had always been to have their front of house operations in the UK.
“We thought the GCC would probably not be ready for such a model,” said Slidr cofounder Marwan Salem. So, at the end of 2014 they started to look for a UK base for the gamified shopping platform.
They saw the UK as more mature and having a ‘gambling’ culture, so decided from the beginning it was where they wanted to be.
A good base from which to target the Middle East
London is a strong market. But equally, the argument for using it as a base to target MENA markets is strong.
Cofounder cousins Oliver Muller and Rashid Ajami created their university social network platform, Campus Society, from London.
They told Wamda that despite living in the city at the time of the launch (September 2014) they wanted to target Lebanon first because the market was smaller.
Back in February Muller told Wamda they were based in London because finding talent and funding was easier.
Having built up a strong user base in Lebanon they are now pursuing the UK market where there are 109 universities and approximately 3 million students.
With £1 million in funding from private investors, they have yet to start looking for their Series A round, something Muller said they’re likely to do in early 2016.
Coming back home?
But some are surprised at the lack of Arab entrepreneurs making their way to London to make a go of their startup.
Hussein Kanji ofHoxton Ventures, an investment firm based in London, is surprised at the lack of Middle Eastern founders coming to the city.
With online content in Arabic being probably the most under-indexed portion of the web, Kanji thinks the UK is an ideal place for startups wanting to tackle this sector and others specific to the region.
“There are a handful of Indian companies, not in India, that have found a market in India,” Kanji said. Using Truecaller as an example he said he was surprised this hasn’t been the case for the Arab world.
“I think part of this is because the Middle East has […] matured over the last four or five years […] although I think there are scale advantages to being part of an ecosystem that is already developed. But we haven’t seen very many people do that. and those that we see of Arab descent who are doing things are doing them for the UK market, not for back home.”
For Quiqup the start may not have been in MENA but the region is certainly in their sights.
“We were thinking of going to the GCC much earlier,” El Koussa told Wamda. “We thought we’d be there by now.” But with London showing such growth potential in a short space of time they stayed to build on their investments.
“The question is whether to go for an easier win and expand in Europe first,” said El Koussa. “Or to go to the GCC where we know we have a very interesting market that is pretty much untapped.”
I think second half of next year we’ll be present in a couple of cities in the Middle East and here.”
Indeed getting the funding has been very successful for the startup. Earlier this year they announced their as yet undisclosed “multi-million pound” Series A round from Rocket Internet’s Delivery Hero and the VC Global Founders Capital (also a Rocket Internet offshoot).
So, while funding and support are so plentiful why wouldn’t one want to start out in the UK?