What I know about building an ecosystem from scratch: Wassel Berrayana

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In 2000, Wassel Berrayana was an employee in HQ Sun Microsystems, one of Silicon Valley’s companies, when he decided to leave his job and pursue an MBA in France. There, the Tunisian engineer joined Eloquant, a startup that specializes in editing software, for three years and got more involved in the entrepreneurial ecosystem. In 2005, he decided to move back to his hometown Sousse, Tunisia, to realize his dream of founding a Valley of his own.

Arriving to Sousse, he founded his IT company Proxym IT. Back then, he was one of the first IT entrepreneur in the area, and had everything to prove, especially that he had no network and no connections.

Wassel Berrayana

With dedication and commitment, he kept on pushing his business forth, growing his operations from a single IT company, into a full-fledged group. Proxym Group, which now involves 120 employees, became an exporting firm of IT solutions, operating in Europe, the Middle East, and West Africa.
Besides the IT business, Berrayana managed to build around him an entrepreneurial ecosystem. Since 2011, Proxym IT has been developing a lot of spin off startups in Sousse, founding the bases of the entrepreneurial ecosystem in a city recognized as a tourist destination.

Currently, Sousse accounts for at least 30 IT startups, some of which are quite successful like Chifco, an IoT startup or Enova Robotics which manufactures Tunisian-made robots. Some of Proxym IT’s spinoff startups such as Valomnia, which specializes in enterprise solutions, e-government projects, and mobile apps among others, or Calyx It, an IT service and consulting startup, have just started their operations, and others are about to kick off their activities.

In 2011, Berrayana cofounded the Mecatronic Tunisia cluster, which is also headquartered in Sousse, and is now gathering 70 companies.

“When Silicon Valley was created, entrepreneurs there were having a good time, going to the beach and being innovative. If the environment you live in is agreeable, then you can always build an ecosystem and retain people,” he said. He spoke to Wamda about how he achieved that.

Decentralization is a big challenge but can be a huge potential. When you choose to start your company in an off-capital city that lacks any ecosystem, the challenges are big. You have no senior workforce to start with, no close business advisory to assist you, and little business connections. However, you will benefit from the first-mover advantages. Investing in young engineers was the first challenge to meet. To overcome it, you don’t only have to play the role of the boss, but also that of the coach, the trainer, and the protector.

Show confidence to your new recruits. One of the main challenges the founder of a new startup might face would be showing confidence to the employees, and assuring them about the business safety and their career sustainability. This is particularly true in Arab countries where young people prefer securing a job in the public sector, rather than being employed in a less safe private sector.

Create the network you need. Engaging in a venture and starting it from scratch, will enable you to promote your success and to encourage others to join in. If it’s working well, people would want to be part of it. They will trust you and will also be more akin to engage in business partnerships with you. When you partner with other startups in the city, or when you create, like I did, a federation (Mecatronic Tunisia) to gather every company in the city, you will create the network that you always needed, but has never been there. It will also get you business opportunities.  

The ecosystem will give back to you. The more the ecosystem expands, the more you can find new recruits, new talents and further grow. Spare no effort in supporting, helping, mentoring, and even investing in talents, especially if they are part of your company. You can be their guarantor and give them expertise to minimize the risks at the beginning of their journey.

Your location should not be a burden. Don’t let others discourage you if you are based in a remote area or off the startups hub in your country. Keep in mind that a successful concept will manage to shine and attract the right investors despite its location.  

Capitalize on the local area of the new generation. It can be an asset and a pride for young employees to work in the region they were born in, no matter how far it is from the capital. They can be useful to their area and stay close to their roots. It can also unite young talents under one cause, which is proving that they are as talented and can be as good as their capital compatriots.

Feature image via Ivan on Flickr

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