Image source: smartwealthplanner.com (link)
At the end of each year, we like to take some time out to regroup and go over the year’s major stories and developments. Last year closed on a successful quarter for the MENA’s startup ecosystem, with the acquisitions of Cobone and Shahiya, a $2 million investment round for ArabiaWeather, and Careem’s acquisition of Enwani.
As we kick off another year, let’s now take a moment to look back at the rough patches some of the region’s noteworthy entrepreneurs faced in 2014, and how they overcame them. (Of special note are the superhero entrepreneurs of Gaza, to whom we've devoted a special section at the end).
Based on a poll of startups in our networks, cash flow seems to be one of the most common challenges for regional entrepreneurs.
“The beast we struggled with this year was keeping a positive cash flow. We always feared not having enough cash to survive the month,” says e-health startup Altibbi’s Jalil Allabadi. Before 2014, Altibbi was using its own funding for operations, but those reservoirs couldn’t last forever. Although the startup had investor interest, bureaucratic issues delayed their closing the round.
Zoomaal founder and CEO Abdallah Absi’s beast reared its ugly head while the startup was raising investment: “I was raising a Series A round for the company, and the runway was barely two months. By then, we hadn’t yet received enough commitments from investors to close the round,” Absi shares.
In order to keep the company running, Absi had to reach into his personal savings. But then, Absi, used to thinking fast, had the idea of approaching the big funders on Zoomaal (those who had previously invested over $500) with an investment opportunity in the platform itself. “Obviously these people used Zoomaal, believe in it, and have enough money to invest.
"And it worked perfectly. I sent personalized emails and got 10 replies from funders, three of whom invested around $50k each,” the young entrepreneur says. But how do you keep on running if you’re not seeking investment?
For Zaidoun Karadsheh of Media Plus Jordan, Sketch in Motion and Bee Labs, without taking risks, there is limited growth that is possible. Karadsheh explains: “We’re spending the money from our own companies or our own investment. We’re not seeking and didn’t get investment so that was our challenge. The money that these companies make help us run the startup and these are the cash cows."
So the extra money that is coming in is how we are bootstrapping the startups.” Think of it as internal investment. It seem be risky to some as the returns from plugging their funds directly into the startup can't be guaranteed, but it is by far the best way to test. To do so, the team implemented a system of milestones to effectively gauge what has worked, and what hasn't.
If you think this year has been crazy for you, you’re going to love reading about Roadie Tuner. Theirs involved one Kickstarter campaign, moving operation to China, and manufacturing and shipping to over 55 countries. “After that we entered what has been called the "bridge of death"; it is a phase that marks our move from "pre-orders" to "orders". We used most of our crowdfunding money to produce and ship our first production run and we had to keep a positive cash flow while we work on the second production and pick up demand and distribution. For a bootstrapping company, this can either make it or break it.” explains Jalgha.
Officially, start your funding round early: begin at least six months before you're out of cash.
“Unofficially, you should always be fundraising,” adds Absi.
Factor in a buffer: “We planned our financials in a way to keep a buffer that will allow us to survive until we pick up demand again,” adds Roadie Tuner’s Bassam Jalgha.
Keep a very close eye on your expenses: “We had to cut on a lot of expenses while being much more productive. I am not saying it’s a negative thing, I think its a great lesson and showed us that many things we thought we needed, we were better off without. We still invested in hiring the right talent, but we became better at it,” shared Altibbi’s Allabadi.
Finalize financial commitments as soon as feasible. Investors are likely to be more responsive when other investors are interested in your company.
Be creative in raising financing: “the money you want may not be with the top-known VCs in the region. It could be from your direct clients, local telcos, etc.” says Zoomaal’s Absi.
Your business model is not set in stone: “We changed our business model to generate cash directly from users, got funding and reached an agreement with a bank to have financial facilities that would cover us during rough months. We also generated more money from advertising as our traffic continued to grow and that helped sustain the business until investment was closed,” adds Allabadi.
Be resilient: “This year was tough in general for the region (politically). It affected the positive energy, youth, and industry because people are reticent in dealing with businesses based in unstable countries,” shares Bee Labs’ Karadsheh.
Don’t be quick to dismiss marketing: this will help you drive sales and ensure at least some revenue.
Invest in key partnerships: “We built up trust and partnership with key distributors, and we gave exclusive deals in return for pre-paid orders,” adds Jalgha.
Startups in Gaza
We've been following Gaza Sky Geeks’ fundraising campaign to keep the accelerator operational and asked Director Iliana Montauk to weigh in on the above challenge:
"The biggest challenge for us as a startup accelerator has been obtaining funding to be able to continue supporting Gaza's startups and doing outreach to bring more talent to the startup sector. If Mercy Corps' Gaza Sky Geeks doesn't exist, startups in Gaza won't be able to access investment, a global network, and the resources they need to be successful."
What did they learn?
For startups in Gaza, the lessons were twofold, the first being on entrepreneurship itself. “For our funding and sustainability as an accelerator, we realized that we, too, have to be entrepreneurial. We reached out for mentorship on our business model and business development / fundraising,” says Montauk. As of January 8th, Gaza Sky Geeks have just closed their fundraising campaign, raising a total of over $200,000. “It's been an incredible experience not only because of the funding it has brought in, but also because of the global network it is bringing into our community.”
The second lesson was on validating the need for support. Montauk explains: “As important as it is for us to be supporting existing startups, we also have to be working on the pipeline of startups and tech talent in the region. Some of the top universities in Gaza are downsizing their computer science departments due to lack of enrollment, while at the same time startups around the Middle East and the entire globe are aching to hire more developers and would be excited to hire them from Gaza.”