Last week, I sat down with Alan Weinkrantz during Expotech 2012 to share my thoughts on the Palestinian tech and startup scene. In short, there’s a lot of potential here in Palestine. Don’t believe me, come and check it out for yourself.
While participating in CeBIT 2012 in Hannover, I was interviewed by Mohammad Taha, BBC Arabic Technology correspondent. The interview was in Arabic so below is a translation for my English-speaking friends and followers. The interview can be found at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/arabic/multimedia/2012/03/120313_cebet_pal.shtml
Q: Here at the CeBIT exhibition in the city of Hannover, with a weak Arab participation, we found a number of Palestinian companies, which came from Ramallah and others which were hoping to come from Gaza to participate in CeBIT. Feras Nasr is the President of iConnect in Ramallah. Feras, what gave you the idea of coming to CeBIT and what do you have to present to the world?
A: Thank you Mohammad. Our participation in the international exhibition of CeBIT comes from our desire to expand our serivces to the world. There are many Palestinian companies that present services to US and European companies and we are one of these companies that have clients in the US and Europe. Our participation in CeBIT was important to show that there is a vibrant Software and ICT sector in Palestine.
Q: The general picture of the Palestinian territories is quite grim. To what extent is the environment ready in Palestine to sustain an ICT industry?
A: There are over a hundred companies in IT-related fields, from software, hardware and services. There are 13 Palestinian universities with thousands of graduates each year in IT and software related majors. Therefore, there is a sufficient amount of human resources capable of delivering IT-related services. For Palestine, with the difficulties of the situation on the ground, there is a huge potential to deliver ICT-related services to the outside world.
Q: Do you face perhaps difficulties in marketing and business development?
A: Of course there are difficulties. The Palestinian case is a special one, and there are difficulties but the advantage of software is that there are fewer challenges in exporting it to the outside world.
Q: What are the biggest ostacles you face and how do you think you can limit these obstacles?
A: In my opinion, the biggest obstacle is the perception of the world on the Palestinian ICT and software industry. While participating in this fair, there are many visitors who came here and were surprised that there is IT in Palestine or there are computers in Palestine or Internet in Palestine. with our precence here, we’re proving that there Palestinian companies and Palestinian ability to delivery IT-related services. This is the most important obstabcle to overcome, which is changing this perception to the world.
I just arrived back in Ramallah after my participation in CeBIT 2012 in Hannover, Germany, sponsored by CBI. I felt that during the past couple of weeks, I’ve been away from my laptop and had very few chances to send emails and barely was able to follow up on some important work items. Overall, I feel that iConnect’s participation in CeBIT 2012 was a very interesting and tiring experience, and I would definitely change a lot of things if I were to participate again. While CeBIT 2013 is still far away, I think some of the lessons I learned can be applied to participation in any trade fair, while some may be more specific to Hannover. Some of the general lessons I learned are:
1. Get comfortable: for any trade fair where you’re expected to be on your feet for 8-10 hours a day, I would say this is one of the most important lessons. By the end of day two, the stress and exhaustion will already start to show. This year I wore suits for the first four days and decided to dress casual for the last day. Next time, I’ll take only one suit just in case I get invited to a formal event, but would mainly wear a nice polo shirt with the company logo printed on the back and front and some nice comfortable jeans and shoes. Not only will I be much more comfortable, but it’s also a good way to show the company, especially if it’s a well designed shirt.
On the second day, I grabbed a stool from a booth that was close by and wasn’t being used. Sitting on a chair isn’t welcoming to people. They see you as uninterested and simply walk on. It’s also more work having to stand up and sit down hundreds of times everyday. With a stool, it seems like your standing while you’re sitting down.
2. Save the trees: Any way I look at it, brochures and company flyers are a thing of the past. I carried around 500 brochures with me and boy was that a waste of time, effort and money. Even a small legal size brochure takes time to design and costs money to print and carry on the plane. What’s worse is that once you present them at a trade fair, no one takes them. People don’t want to carry around brochures from every company they visit, so you end up with a big pile of brochures that you paid for, carried and now have to deal with. From a financial and environmental view point, I see it as a waste and it doesn’t add much value. I think a business card with a website and having a decent website with all the relevant information should do the trick. For those people who seem interested, it’s always important to follow up with an email after the fair and remind them of your services and possibly send them more information about your company’s products and services.
3. Get into people’s faces: The first day didn’t go to well and felt really slow. The lesson we learned on the second day (thanks to Paul Tjia and Mohammed Jaouni), was to get into people’s faces. Don’t wait for them to show interest, walk up to people passing by and ask if they’re interested in the services you offer. I was pretty amazed by how many people said yes, and asked for more information. These same people would have just passed by if we didn’t stop them.
It’s also important to have flashy attractive displays that grab people’s attention. Just offering an amazing service or having the best products doesn’t mean much if people don’t stop to see them.
These are just some of the points I want to list while I still remember them. I’ll be adding some more soon including some more specific to CeBIT and Hannover.
I moved from Toronto last August and I’m currently President of iConnect Tech, a provider of outsourced software development services located in Ramallah. iConnect was founded in 2007 by a Palestinian expatriate living in Chicago, and in less than five years has grown to around 45 employees, mainly software developers. We pride ourselves as being a leader in providing training to university students and creating job opportunities for new graduates. There is a large pool of talent in Palestine, and we are lucky at iConnect to have amazing teams of software professionals.
What we are lacking is exposure of North American and European businesses to Palestine. We are not seen as a destination for investments or outsourcing services, and this perception problem is something we are working hard to change. We are not looking for donations, but instead we are looking to create long-lasting mutually-beneficial business partnerships with North American and European companies. We want to compete at a global level and prove that we are just as competent as any other software company anywhere in the world. Since it started in 2007, iConnect has successfully completed multiple projects for its clients, and has the software development and outsourcing experience needed to take on complex software projects.
Many people would like to support Palestinians, but don’t know how. In my view, one of the best ways is to bring business opportunities to Palestinian companies. They don’t necessarily have to be to iConnect, but bringing business to any Palestinian company helps create jobs that will help improve the Palestinian economy and lower our dependence on foreign aid, in addition to building a brighter, more positive image for Palestine.
While not everyone might be in a position to outsource to Palestine, I’m sure there are many that can. We’re not asking for an unfair advantage because we’re Palestinians, we’re just asking for a chance to prove that we have the skills companies outside are looking for.
After over four months as President of iConnect Tech, an IT outsourcing company located in Ramallah, Palestine, I’m starting to see the challenges of signing outsourcing contracts. While there are many reasons why outsourcing works or doesn’t work, in our case, I feel that the most significant factor is perception. For someone who’s never visited Ramallah, it’s almost impossible to think of it as a safe and civilized city. A client of ours, who is originally Palestinian and has relatives in Jerusalem and Nablus, visited Palestine for the first time last December. Not knowing what to expect, he was happily surprised by what he saw here. Coffee shops, restaurants, bowling alleys, 5 star hotels, gyms, businesses and a ton or real estate projects, pretty much like any other city in the world. Even with occupation, Ramallah is comparable to most other cities in the world.
In my view, people’s perception of what they should expect from a Palestinian city under occupation, is the biggest challenge we need to overcome as IT outsourcing providers. We have a stable telecommunications and power infrastructure, 13 universities with over 2000 IT graduates each year, a large number of Western-educated professionals and a very loyal and proud workforce. What we need is for others to see Palestine the way we see it, as a destination for business and outsourcing. One way to change people’s perceptions and that has really made an impact is bringing people here to visit. Although I’m sure that visitors would enjoy seeing Palestine, coming over can be a bit expensive and time consuming. The other option, which is a lot more doable is seeing a promotional video about Palestine. I saw a video promoting Bangladesh as the undiscovered Gem of Asia. Seeing the video completely changed my perception of Bangladesh, a country I’ve never seen and may never see. I think that Palestine deserves at least one video to show its positive side, and this will be my next project, creating a short video profile of Palestine. I definitely hope to get comments, suggestions and support.