World Entrepreneurs’ Day: MENA Founders and Investors Share Their Top Business Advice

MENA founders and investors business adviceIf it takes a village to raise a child, then it will take the entire Middle East tech ecosystem to raise a successful startup. And as a young and emerging startup ecosystem, there will be crucial growing pains for first-time entrepreneurs and high risks for tech investors in the MENA region.

Yet with great risk comes big rewards, MENA is home to 3,000 active startups where the top 100 companies together raised over $1.42 BN in funding. With the acquisition of the Arab e-commerce by online retailer behemoth Amazon and Careem’s financial deal with Chinese ride-sharing giant Didi Chuxing, we are moving the needle forward in the positive direction of becoming a global entrepreneurial hub.

As we celebrate entrepreneurship and innovation today on World’s Entrepreneurs’ Day, we highlight some of the region’s successful entrepreneurs and angel investors. We ask them what entrepreneurship means to them and their best piece of business advice for up and coming entrepreneurs.

Christopher Queitsch, CEO and Co-founder at

  • Entrepreneurship means being able to do something every day you love. It does not even have to mean starting a company. We even have many intrapreneurs at working on internal projects. It means creating something from nothing, building something from scratch.
  • Business Advice: Don’t start any business without first having customers lined up. Focus on sales and customers early on pays dividends in the future. But also – just do it, don’t let little details hold you back.

Elissa Freiha, Angel Investor and Co-founder at WOMENA

  • Entrepreneurship is a stubborn desire to create. To build a solution that we hope will make the world better.
  • Business Advice: ALWAYS write everything down, date everything, and have a legal paper trail for every decision and change. Also – Don’t raise money if you don’t need it: keep that equity as much as possible because too many cooks can ruin a supper.

Gaurav Dhar, Angel Investor, Mentor, and Co-founder at Stukk

  • Entrepreneurship means the ability to create businesses with like-minded people at every level imaginable. No matter if you are a seasoned expert in your field doing something completely new or a person who is in the midst of their college years looking to solve a problem on a regional or global level. It truly is an exciting and unknown blank canvas. You create everything from scratch and can be your own boss and create an ecosystem of your own to nurture and grow with jobs, CSR and more!
  • Business Advice: The entrepreneurship sword is double-edged. Success and failure are not far apart, especially in the early days of laying your foundation which has to be solid. Be disciplined, be relentless and surround yourself with people who are better than you in every way possible. Never stop learning or advancing forward. Remember what inspired you to start and always remain hungry to grow and do more.

Shaheeda Abdul Kader, Angel Investor, Operations, Express Print Publishers LLC

  • Entrepreneurship, to me, is about Giving and Never Giving Up. My father is my role model. As a young man, building his companies, he did not scrutinize the Addressable Market Size or estimate how many Multiples he will return to his investors. He capitalized on the opportunities presented to him because he wanted to Give, his family a better life. It is not only about passion, or creating something or leading an organization. Some of his ventures failed, while others were roaring successes. He never gave up and never hesitated to start or invest in a new venture. Therefore, Entrepreneurship is an Ode to the Human Spirit.
  • Business Advice: Be cautiously optimistic. Know that it’s just as important to learn how to Close a business as it is to open one. I know it is counter-intuitive to talk about entrepreneurship and closing businesses. If 90% of Startups will fail, it behooves us to prepare a soft landing for the founders. Young entrepreneurs should be aware of the closing costs and so should have some safety fund in case of such unfortunate events. In UAE, if the company is an onshore establishment, along with government fees, closing costs may include sizeable payments to the local sponsors as well.

We would love to hear what your best business advice are, join the conversation over on Twitter. Tweet to us @womenaco with hashtag #TwentyFirstAugust.

How A Startup in Dubai Can Succeed

Dubai Investors

When you think of Silicon Valley what do you think of? Maybe you think of Elon Musk going to space or Peter Thiel searching for immortality. Maybe you think of scrappy entrepreneurs using breakthrough technologies to change the world. In Silicon Valley, entrepreneurs benefit from networks that provide insider information, venture capital, human capital, mentorship, and support resources galore. It has a sprinkling of hippie counterculture in there to encourage outside-the-box thinking.

Now what do you think of when you think of an emerging startup ecosystem, such as the one in Dubai? What is Dubai’s brand as a startup ecosystem? What kind of startups come out of here? I’d argue Dubai has some advantages to leverage:

  • A headquarters for the Gulf region: The UAE’s macroeconomic conditions and lifestyle make it an ideal hub for the region’s entrepreneurs to flock to. Dubai’s reputation makes it the most trusted source of capital, customers, and talent in the Gulf region. It is a dynamic, global city that people want to buy from and be in.
  • High barriers to entry: A lack of available data makes insider information and insider relationships far more valuable in the Gulf. Access to these is a barrier to entry for outside competitors. Licensing is difficult here. You can look at this as a negative, but you can also realize that an entrepreneur who understands how to handle this process and has their setup taken care of has overcome a high barrier that is hard to surmount. Next, there are certain industries which have built in barriers to entry. They are best launched locally.
  • Hidden billion dollar markets: There are about 50 million people in the Gulf with a GDP per capita of about $40,000 per year and unique consumption patterns. Knowing how to cater to these unique consumption patterns gives a local edge. There would have to be some major cultural shifts before there could be a pan-Arab brand and each Gulf country requires its own licensing, so “scaling regionally” looks different. Think of it more as franchising your startup to different, similar markets. Investors should bear this in mind when honestly assessing the scalability of a startup. That being said, these 50 million people consume transportation, housing, energy, healthcare, clothes, credit, etc.
  • An access point to other hidden billion dollar markets: Much of the developing world is within arm’s reach from Dubai. A startup that solves bottom-of-the-pyramid problems can have the managerial and technical talent it needs in Dubai and keep a close relationship with regional offices.
  • Tech early in its lifecycle/user experience could be improved and localized: There’s a lot of interest in incorporating technology into business practices and there are many activities that are done inefficiently due to the fact that people are still adopting startups that were in the 90s/early 2000s wave in the US (e-commerce, marketplaces, portals, etc). In other words, there is low-hanging fruit (these are unlikely to be unicorns, but that’s for another post).

Startups in emerging ecosystems have major opportunities where they can be competitive by specializing where they have competitive advantages. At the same time, there are enough resources for ecosystem builders to develop down one vertical where there are significant, existing advantages which make it make sense to focus on a specific market. Look at London and fintech. Or Tokyo for robotics. A startup should be where it has the highest chances of success and in some cases that’s Dubai.

Questions related to startup success are overlooked in startup education available now because this education is created from Silicon Valley experiences most of the time. Based on the emerging ecosystem advantages and disadvantages, I’ve outlined questions a founder starting in an emerging startup ecosystem should answer in assessing feasibility in addition to the basics. This can also be used by investors interested in startups in emerging markets:

  • Does the industry I’m in have built in barriers to entry that make it unattainable or unattractive to international competitors?
  • Does it have built in barriers to entry against local competitors simultaneously?
  • How can I capture value and scale as a tech startup despite the need for a localization element?
  • Does the user experience resonate locally? Is the technology too complex for the adoption stage?
  • Does my startup cater to a hidden billion dollar market, as defined by the unique regional consumption patterns, and/or by advantageous access to other markets (i.e. for Dubai, developing world)?
  • Can I scale through the challenges of scaling in the region? Think of scaling like franchising. For my business, do these challenges put me in a stronger or weaker position in the face of competitors?

A few of my favorites that answered these questions well are:

They cater to local problems, are scalable regionally, and use technology to beat out old systems currently in place. These are the types of startups which will build the startup ecosystem in Dubai and give it a respected brand.
Successful startups are being built here now and will be built in Dubai in the future. The ecosystem has a lot to offer and I look forward to seeing it evolve and grow.

Contact us if you want to talk investment or startup growth strategies.

Originally posted on Medium.

Successful Emerging Markets Startups Solve Emerging Markets Problems

Emerging StartupsSuccessful venture capital in fragmented, emerging markets differs from the developed world.

Since WOMENA’s launch a year and a half ago I have seen over eight hundred pitch decks, listened to over a hundred live pitches, conducted due diligence on about thirty startups, and finally overseen investment in four startups. My investment thesis has changed and the startups I do due diligence on are different. For one, I now outright reject startups that solve first world problems but target emerging market customers.

When I first arrived, I evaluated “first world startups” with the same framework as I evaluated them with back home. If a startup solves a real problem and it is in a large, untapped, and growing market, why wouldn’t it be of interest to me? Let’s say said startup provides a similar solution that has already been successfully implemented, scaled, and acquired in the US. Of course I would want to take a closer look. Right?

No. It is a real problem in my eyes — eyes shaped through years of values and behaviors inculcated by the culture I was in — but consumers in the region don’t respond to the solution at scale. Not because they can’t afford it, not because they can’t access it, and not because it wouldn’t be useful for them, but because they just don’t care to solve the problem.

I define first world startups as those which make a first world process more efficient, more accessible, and/or cheaper. The emerging market consumer would have to adopt first world processes before he or she would be interested in a technology to make these processes cheaper and more efficient. These startups’ solutions are for consumer behaviors too far in the future.

First world startups in emerging markets can experience deceptively impressive growth for the first 100k or so users or first 100k or so in revenue. There is always the cohort ahead of the curve, but growth eventually hits a ceiling where the customer acquisition cost skyrockets or margins dive negative. The startup founders may change strategy to try to educate the market, but broad market education is not a cost a startup can afford.

Oftentimes, the founders of these startups and their investors can visualize the undefined day when the market will recognize their solution’s value and adopt it. Sadly, more often than not these startups end up zombies, never quite a success and never quite a failure. A close look at consumer behavior in due diligence and post-pitch follow up with founders told me this story time and time again.

Fortunately, I wouldn’t categorize any of our portfolio companies as facing this destiny, but I’ve learned thorough due diligence on the intricacies of consumer behavior is crucial in an emerging market.

It is exceedingly easy for founders and investors to only consult their networks and take their feedback as proof of concept for a startup investment. Naturally, we surround ourselves with people like us. This method is flawed and leads to flawed investment decisions.

If you want to invest in early stage companies in emerging markets:

  • Get the data where you can. I know this isn’t always easy to do in opaque, emerging markets, but it’s crucial to collect as much as possible and extrapolate where necessary.
  • Compare to benchmarks you already have in mind (so not to be misled by the deceptive early adopter growth I mentioned earlier).
  • Consult with a broad swath of consumers, not just those who think or live like you.

There are fantastic investment opportunities in the region and value can be captured if the investor reframes their view of the market and its challenges properly, and approaches due diligence correctly. If you ever want to discuss more, I’m always open to chat, so don’t hesitate to reach out.

Article by Chantalle Dumonceaux, co-founder at WOMENA. Originally posted at Medium.

Welcome Executive Women!

Executive Women

Womena is happy to announce that we have a new ally in our journey to increase women’s opportunities and empowerment in the MENA region. Enter Executive Women, a magazine that serves as the perfect resource to women in business and female angel investors.

Executive Women provides a platform to highlight the achievements of inspiring women who are changing the face of business in the MENA region, including educators, humanitarian pioneers, media personalitiesentrepreneurs, scientists and business leaders. In addition, Executive Women offers useful tips and coaching on business subjects such as leadership, management and career advice, as well as curated content on social events, fashion and culture. The website even offers a monthly personal development and wellness to do list.

The magazine was launched by the UAE chapter of the CEO Clubs Network Worldwide, one of the largest business networking clubs in the world. It’s accompanied by the CEO Clubs Business Women, a social club designed to provide MENA businesswomen with business opportunities, business development and support, as well as special women international delegations and networking events for ladies at all levels- from start-ups and sole traders through to director level.

Womena will be partnering with Executive Women throughout the coming year, so keep your eyes peeled for upcoming events!

To learn more about Executive Women, head over to their website or contact them directly here.

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What resources are there for entrepreneurs in the Middle East?

There has been an explosion in entrepreneurship in the Middle East in the last five years and this has corresponded with an increase in the number of organisations supporting entrepreneurship. These include incubators, coworking spaces, accelerators and angel groups like WOMENA.

At WOMENA, we’ve been trying to track this growth to ensure that we know as much as possible going on in the region. To that end, we’ve created a document for Middle East-based entrepreneurs listing a variety of resources across the region. It’s very much a work in progress and there are still a lot of resources to add.

We wanted to get your thoughts though: is it useful? How can we make it more useful? What else should we include? Would you rather the resources are broken down by country than by type? We always love to hear from you so add a comment below or email us!

The Multiplier Effect from Maktoob’s Acquisition

Maktoob was the Middle East’s first big entrepreneur success story. After Samih Toukan and Hussam Khoury grinded away to make the company a success (read Christopher Schroeder’s excellent book – Startup Rising: The Entrepreneurial Revolution Remaking the Middle East – for a full story), they sold the company to Yahoo! for $170 million in 2009.

At WOMENA, we knew the Maktoob story well but what we didn’t know was how significant the multiplier effect on the wider ecosystem was after its acquisition. Until, that is, we came across Endevour’s fascinating report: “Multiplying Impact: Amman’s High-Growth ICT Industry”.

As the image above succinctly shows, there was a significant network effect in Jordan and across the wider Middle East following Maktoob’s sale. Toukan setup that is the Middle East’s first unicorn and has seen strong growth across the region. Some of the other well known startups that can be directly attributed to Maktoob include Nibras, Arabia Weather, Khodarji, Sukar, Marka VIP and Jabbar Internet Group.

It shows how powerful the entrepreneurship ecosystem is. If one company can have such a significant multiplier effect, imagine what the multiplier effect is of the thousands of startups that have since emerged? What’s even more exciting is that this is only the beginning! The Middle East is very much in the early stages of its entrepreneurship development and the next few years will undoubtedly be exciting.

How An Entrepreneur Should Approach A Pitch


Strong pitching skills are critical to a startup’s success. To receive investment at any stage of the funding lifecycle, a startup will usually need to pitch many times, be it to WOMENA members or a venture capitalist. Entrepreneurs may find themselves pitching their company hundreds of times over the company’s lifetime. Hence, it’s important an entrepreneur hones these pitching skills early on for the best chance of success. While the pitching process may seem mystifying and intimidating at first, there are a few simple things an entrepreneur can do to boost their chances of success.

Check out successful pitches online

There are a plethora of websites out there with advice on what to include in a pitch and videos of startups pitching at demo days around the world. These give you a really good idea of what you need to do and you can pick and choose the best parts from each pitch you watch. Do this before you prepare your own pitch, particularly if it’s your first time.

Refine your pitch to the audience

Every pitch is different but most entrepreneurs give the same pitch to each investor. Entrepreneurs pitching to the WOMENA members might want to highlight how their company is targeting women, for example. The point is that each investor is different and each pitch should be too to reflect that difference.

Keep it short and snappy

An investor might hear dozens of pitches over the course of the week. If an entrepreneur doesn’t hack it right from the start, the rest of the pitch is going to be an unnecessary uphill battle. Immediately, tell them who you are, what the problem is and how your company will solve it. If your pitch is more than 10 minutes long, then you’re entering dangerous territory – the investor’s attention is probably waning (if it hasn’t already gone completely) and you need to wrap up quickly to keep that attention.

Back up what you’re saying with numbers

Numbers are an excellent and simple way to show the strength of your business and/or market. They’re easily digestible and can provide considerable insight. Make sure you know relevant statistics, you can back them up (i.e. you don’t make them up on the spot) and understand what these numbers mean. It’s very easy to state an incorrect stat but it’s so much harder to recover once you’ve been caught out.


The idiom practice makes perfect really does hold true when it comes to pitching. The more you practice, the more comfortable you will be pitching to investors. Practice with friends, colleagues, advisors … anyone really. Get feedback too! The people you practice with could have some very useful advice.

Look the part

Startup founders’ dress is often associated with jeans, hoodies and T-shirts à la Mark Zuckerberg. While that might be the standard dress at work, it might come off poorly to a potential investor who doesn’t have a similar tech background. Notice too how Mark Zuckerberg has smartened up in recent years? There’s a reason behind that. You want to look respectable and show the investor you mean business. This doesn’t mean wear a suit and tie: that would probably look a little odd unless you’re pitching to a very formal investor or investment company.

Bayt’s Entrepreneurship in the Middle East Survey

As we are all well aware, entrepreneurship in the Middle East has exploded in recent years and becoming an important source of growth and employment in the region. Evaluating quantitatively entrepreneurship is difficult though and Bayt, the Middle East’s leading recruiting platform, has released several studies and surveys about entrepreneurship in recent years.

In November, Bayt published the results of one of their most comprehensive surveys into entrepreneurship the Middle East has seen. Bayt’s Entrepreneurship in the Middle East Survey 2015 set out to see what the state of entrepreneurship is in the Middle East and there were some very revealing findings. The clear result of all the data is that more and more people in the Middle East are interested in entrepreneurship and are looking to become entrepreneurs themselves.

Here are Bayt’s main takeaways from the results:

  • Given a choice, 64% of respondents would prefer to have their own business
  • The top advice respondents would give to aspiring entrepreneurs would be to not be afraid of failure (38%)
  • Almost half of respondents (48%) do not have any preference when it comes to the best time to set up a business
  • 7 in 10 respondents think that entrepreneurs are ‘profit-driven’
  • 97% of respondents know at least one successful entrepreneur in their country of residence

To see the full results, click here.

Introducing Our New Partners

As you may have gathered from our Year in Review post, it’s been a busy year for WOMENA and that extends to partnerships! We believe the development of partnerships with other organisations in the entrepreneurship ecosystem is very important. We want entrepreneurs and investors we speak with to benefit as much as possible from the exciting entrepreneurship ecosystem and our partners all provide excellent resources and programmes for precisely that.

We’ve profiled our partners previously, which you can find here, here and here. So without further ado, meet our new partners!

Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority conserves and promotes the heritage of Abu Dhabi with a variety of programmes and events throughout the year. They are keen to promote entrepreneurship within the emirate and will support startups’ expansions into the UAE.

Dubai Business Women Council (DBWC) is the official organisation for women professionals and entrepreneurs in Dubai. They host business events across the year, designed to promote women’s involvement in business and entrepreneurship.

e7/Promise of a Generation is a year long programme for women aged between 18 and 25 to develop and implement projects that benefit their community with five participants from each emirate.

Iliad Partners is a Dubai-based venture capital firm that invests in seed stage and Series A startups that are globally minded.

in5 is WOMENA’s ecosystem partner and run an excellent coworking space for entrepreneurs in Dubai. They support entrepreneurs in various ways from licensing to acceleration.

MAGNiTT connects entrepreneurs to investors, mentors and cofounders.

Meera Kaul Foundation works to eradicate gender inequality in all walks of life through education, programmes, seminars and conferences.

Oqal is Saudi Arabia’s first and only angel group with branches in the Eastern Province, Riyadh and Jeddah.

MENA Exits

It’s an exciting time to be working in the Middle East entrepreneurship ecosystem. 10 years ago uttering the world ‘startup’ may have been met with a quizzical look. Today, there’s a real buzz and excitement from all those working in entrepreneurship (and many outside too) and the explosion in the number of startups is evidence of this.

While the increase in the number of startups across the Middle East has been very welcome, how has this translated to exits? The first ‘big’ exit, and arguably the catalyst for the growth in entrepreneurship in the Middle East, was the sale of Maktoob, the first bilingual Arabic and English email provider, to Yahoo! for $164m in 2009.

It was not until this year that this acquisition was matched in financial terms. First, Rocket Internet acquired Kuwait’s Talabat, the online food delivery service, for $170m in February. Only a few months later though, this was blown out of the water in terms of size with Delivery Hero’s acquisition of Turkey’s Yemeksepti, another online food delivery service. While you may not have heard of Yemeksepti, you are probably a lot more likely to know the name under which it operates in the GCC: Foodonclick.

In the preceding years, there were numerous smaller acquisitions in a variety of sectors, including (but not limited to):

What’s interesting to see as well is the number of late-stage startups acquiring other early-stage startups to further expand. For example, Careem acquired Taxiii in Morocco and Souq acquired Sukar. Exits have not been limited to global investment management firms, private equity firms or the like. If anything, Middle East based firms have been more active than non-MENA firms with startup acquisition.

We’re also seeing an increasing number of large and later stage rounds in the region. Just last month, Careem, the car-hailing app, raised a $60 million Series C round. Fetchr was the recipient of New Enterprise Associates’ first investment in the Middle East as part of its $11 million Series A round and last year Souq raised a $75 million round.  

So what does this mean for MENA? Well it proves that the entrepreneurship path can lead to big rewards for founders, their employees and investors. There’s a clear uptick in both exits and large rounds across the Middle East and we only see that trend continuing. For angel investors, the trend is particularly welcome news. With greater exit opportunities for startups, the chance of seeing a return on their investment increases.