As startups in the Middle East we face barriers every day, whether it’s writing our first business plan, gaining access to capital, finding the right partners or team, or struggling to generate revenue – the region is fraught with every challenge imaginable. It’s easy to wish if only we had access to Silicon Valley’s capital, we too could be another Mark Zuckerberg. The bad news is that we aren’t in California, but the good news is that California doesn’t have a monopoly on talent, ambition, and drive. We too have what it takes to turn this region into much more than a frontier market. We simply need to confront our greatest challenges.
The Wamda Research Lab recently published its first report, The Next Step: Breaking barriers to scale for MENA entrepreneurs, in which it identifies some of the most common barriers that company founders face, including generating revenues, obtaining investment, and building a team. While I have personally faced all of these challenges, at my current job as Director of Communications and Partnerships at freelancer jobs portal Nabbesh and in previous roles, I’ve learned creative ways to turn them into opportunities. Here are three ways to turn barriers to scale into business success, from someone who’s learned these lessons the hard way.
Barrier: Generating Revenues
Marketing isn’t rocket science! WRL found that 41% of entrepreneurs said their biggest impediment to generating revenue is marketing their products and services. While you may not have the capital to hire the hottest sales and marketing team in the world, if you are creative, you will realize that there are other ways to market your products and services. Maybe you can’t afford a full-time marketing manager, but try hiring a social media or digital marketing freelancer on a part-time basis. At Nabbesh, we have used social media a lot to help us get our message out, and many of the people we have connected with through social media are now brand ‘ambassadors’ who have helped market Nabbesh far beyond the reach we would have gotten with traditional marketers. We have also established strategic partnerships with other entrepreneurs so we can help one another. Thinking beyond the challenges this region brings will inspire more creativity, which is often the key to successful marketing.
Barrier: Obtaining Investment
Become an expert in doing more with less. For startups in this region, we all face a huge challenge in access to capital. We must simply learn to do more with less. At Nabbesh, we successfully used the funding we raised to build a platform that created more than 3,000 freelance opportunities throughout the Middle East. While it is easy to complain about the lack of access to a million dollar seed round of funding, barriers to capital force a team to be creative. At Nabbesh, we reached out to partners throughout the region, used PR and social media to expand beyond the Emirates into Lebanon, Jordan, and Egypt, and ran a grassroots effort to reach our current community membership numbers of over 35,000 people in over 130 countries. Don’t be afraid to reach out to investors, partners, and potential mentors both from within and outside of the region. We have been lucky enough to connect with many well beyond the Emirates. As a startup, when you prove you can do a lot with a little bit of funding, you will eventually gain access to even more.
Barrier: Building a Team
Attracting A-level talent isn’t easy, but it isn’t impossible either. WRL’s report reveals that 63% of entrepreneurs cite finding talent to build their teams as a major impediment. While you may not be able to attract the young Steve Jobs, if you think creatively, you might just attract the team you need to build your company. Maybe you can’t pay large salaries, but attract talent by sharing your story or by offering equity in the company. Two of our senior team members at Nabbesh heard about our story and were so compelled by what we were trying to do, they reached out directly – not for jobs – but to see if they could help. Our story was bigger than us. When a much younger Sheryl Sandberg, now Facebook’s COO, was evaluating early career options, she sat down with the CEO of then-startup Google’s Eric Schmidt. She brought with her a spreadsheet to assess her different offers, many of which were from companies much more prestigious than Google. Eric Schmidt then gave her what she now cites as the best advice she’s ever gotten, “Don’t be an idiot... if you’re offered a seat on a rocket ship, don’t ask which one. Just get on.” If you can inspire this level of confidence in your employees, you will find that A-level talent will not only follow you, but will help you attract even more top talent.
I believe with the right outlook, we can turn some of our biggest barriers into business success. Entrepreneur Andrew Carnegie, one of the world’s most famous rags-to-riches success stories, was once asked why others were not as rich as him. He replied that the major difference was a matter of one’s mindset rather than one’s limitations. He said: “that which a person can accomplish through the use of their own mind will give them whatever they ask of life.” Let’s all start using our creativity to turn these common entrepreneurial barriers into business success.