Hi Tech Hub in Ramallah – First meeting evaluation Part 1

Close to 500 people showed up for the first Hi Tech Hub event in Ramallah on Wednesday, September 12, 2012.  The room was packed with students, IT professional, university professors, managers, CEOs, government officials and those interested in the Palestinian tech startup community.

We had two amazing speakers, Wael Manasra and Sami Shalabi, who both traveled from the US  to be with us.  The crowd loved them and after the meeting, it seemed that the two weren’t only entrepreneurs, but more like celebrities with people surrounding them trying to get a few words in and exchange business cards or emails.  The speeches were both fantastic and inspiring and for the most part, I would say that the event was a huge success.

However, I think it’s important to note that nothing is perfect and even the best event can have a few glitches that we can improve for next time.  I wanted to start with the areas for improvement and later write another article describing the strong points of the event.  In my view, the areas that we could improve are:

1. Sound: the hall was large, there were a lot of people and the speakers weren’t distributed/working properly.  The doors were open and there was a lot of sound coming from outside, especially in the back. The speakers were each holding a microphone which I quickly realized wasn’t the best choice.  Every movement and the volume would change.  If the speaker moved hands or shook his head, the voice would fade.  Next time, I think it’s very important that we try to replace the mics with the headpiece mics, it will give people the freedom of both hands as well a constant volume.  While we’re at it, there should have also been a clicker for the PowerPoint slides so that the speakers could control their slides without having to go back and forth to the laptop.

2. Organization: While great efforts were made to make sure that everything was planned properly, we started a little late, the pitching section got way out of control.  Next time, startups pitching will be told they have two minutes and understand there is a timer in front of them who will hold up cards to show them how much time has passed.  Anyone over 2.5 minutes will be disqualified from any prizes.  The intent was for the event to be informal, that doesn’t mean it has to be unorganized.

Other comments I heard:

3. The voting wasn’t fair:  I don’t really understand it when someone says that the voting wasn’t fair.  It was open, democratic and transparent.  Anyone could vote for whoever they wanted and everyone was given one vote.  Many times it is a popularity contest or those with the greatest supporters win.  That’s one of the facts of life, it doesn’t have to be fair because life isn’t fair and most of the time, neither is business.  So what can we do about it?  We need to do a better job of attracting customers/votes and show them why our product or service deserves their support.  The other option for voting was to have a committee evaluate the startups and then we would have an even larger number of people telling us that the voting wasn’t fair.

4. The selection of startups to pitch wasn’t fair: I can understand this point.  The only option we had at the moment was to get nominations of startups and ask them to pitch during the event.  We will need to find a better criteria for selecting startups, but unfortunately, the time and space are limited, whereas there are a lot of startups that would like the opportunity to pitch their ideas.

5. Better content was needed: I think the content delivered by the two speakers was great, we just needed a better sound system with the crowded room.  For the pitching, I think better organization of the event could have cut the pitches into two minutes each like they were supposed to be.  I don’t know if that would have solved the problem, but I’ll have to ask more about this point and get more feedback.

I’ll write another article soon to describe what I think are the strong points of the meeting.  In all cases, I’d be really happy to get feedback and comments on other things that we can improve.

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The Palestinian Entrepreneurial Spirit – Part 2 Ideas

For the second post about Entrepreneurship in Palestine, I want to talk about ideas.  I think this is where the real problems are, whether it’s creating, sharing or evolving ideas, this is one area where we are very far behind in Palestine and I think a lot of work needs to be done in this area.

Creating ideas: We seem to be obsessed with the notion that the great big million-dollar idea will magically fall down from the heavens and pop in our brain and we’ll be set.  We do think of ideas, but I don’t believe that we suddenly get the idea, I feel it’s more of a process and something that we need to train ourselves on.  What’s a good idea for a startup?  An idea that solves a problem for enough people who are will to pay money for it.  If there’s no pain, no one will pay you to solve their non-problem.  It has to improve something in their lives, it could let them save time, money, do things more effortlessly, but for there to be opportunity, there should be a problem.

We need to train ourselves in thinking of problems all around us, which we see in our everyday lives,  What are the things that bug us?  What is something we wish we had?  I was waiting at the doctor’s clinic a while back and was waiting for my number to come.  I was holding number 52 and the number on the board was 46.  After waiting for a while, I noticed that the counter had not moved.  I decided to go and run some errands and come back.  I came back later than I expected (maybe after an hour) and found that the number hadn’t changed.  There was an emergency and they needed the doctor.  I thought to myself, wouldn’t be an amazing app that would SMS/email/message people on their cell phones when the counter reached a certain number?  People could go around, utilize their time and come back a few minutes before their number appears instead of sitting and waiting for hours on end.  While this idea might not be perfect and I don’t think I’ll end up building an app for it, I think it’s the way of thinking that’s important.  Think of one thing everyday that bothers you and how you would change it to make it faster or easier.

Defining a problem that is a general service might be easier.  In Palestine, there is a huge lack of tech startups and I think mainly because people aren’t up-to-date on the latest technology advancements.  How do you design the next wireless technology or develop a new file system if you aren’t on top of the latest technological advancements in your field?  I’m not talking about rumors of what Google and Apple might be releasing in the near future, I’m talking about breakthrough university research.  Once Google, Apple and others are working on it, you’re already too late.  If you are interested in a particular area, read, read and read constantly.  The last thing you want is to spend months building a prototype only to find that company x already came up with a similar idea, but better and they came out sooner with it.

Sharing ideas: For me, this is the biggest problem we face in Palestine.  We’re afraid to share ideas, as if the idea alone makes us successful entrepreneurs.  I was reading a blog post by Sami Shalabi, who notes ” First, if an idea can be easily copied by just a conversation then it is an indefensible idea. Second, actually executing on an idea is really hard work“.  I totally agree with what Sami says.  The idea alone is nice, but it’s not what distinguishes one entrepreneur from another, it’s the execution that does.  If you can’t execute, you can create anything with value.

An essay written by Paul Graham of Y Combinator also talks about ideas.  Paul was pointing to the fact that ideas alone aren’t worth anything and the proof is that we’ve never heard of anyone pay money just for an idea.  I don’t think it’s ever happened where someone would say, I’ll give you an idea for a business and you’ll pay me for it.  Hence, ideas alone are worth nothing.  That is completely different from someone saying, I have a great idea, a qualified team and a solid plan on how I’m going to make money and I need you to invest in my startup.  Here, you’re delivering an idea and proving how you will make a successful startup based on your idea, otherwise, you won’t get the funding you’re looking for.

My advice to all Palestinian entrepreneurs is: Share your ideas.  Talk to people whose opinion you trust and get their feedback.  Again, as I quoted Sami above, if it can be easily copied by just mentioning it, then you can’t defend it.  Even if it was a secret and you were able to create it without talking to anyone about it, the moment people see it (when you bring it to market), it will copied before and launched before you know it.  You don’t need to share the secrets of how you’re going to build the system and spill out all the technical details, but talk about the business in general.  Will people use it?  Will people buy it?  Is it something they would use on a daily basis?

Evolving ideas: Another important reason to share ideas is to help them evolve. Get feedback, listen to what people are saying about your idea and think about their points of view.  Just because you like it doesn’t mean others will.  As a matter of fact, you’re probably a bit biased and feel it will succeed no matter what.  What you think is important, but remember that others will by the ones using/paying for it.  If they think it sucks or adds no value to them, then you’re going to have a big problem later on.

This is also another area Palestinian entrepreneurs get stuck.  They set their sites on a goal and they aren’t willing to change it no matter what.  That’s not what the entrepreneurial spirit should be.  Fail fast, continue to get feedback and evaluate.  If you see things aren’t going the way they should be, pivot on see how you can tweak your business to make it work.  Startup ideas evolve everyday and your idea can too.

I think ideas are the main problem in the Palestinian entrepreneurship environment at the moment.  We need to start thinking of really challenging and interesting ideas and not be afraid to share them with others.