3. Four tips to naming your startup – The Story of a Startup in Palestine

What’s in a name?

Propozal.com was our first official name, but we changed it after several months.  The main problem with that particular name is that after we pivoted a few times and changed the focus of our business, the name stop reflecting what we were doing.  When people heard Propozal.com, many were under the impression that we were a proposal builder or database (which we were when we first started).  Another problem with the name was that by replacing the “s” in proposal with a “z”, it was very difficult to find us online after hearing the name mentioned.

While there are many sites and tutorials that provide much greater insight into choosing a name for your startup, I can share the criteria we stumbled upon when we selected the name AidBits.

  1. Keep it short.  Selecting a company name that is 20 letters long can be hard to remember and spell.  We decided to combine two short words or modify an existing word.
  2. Make it relevant, but not too specific.  Propozal.com was not a good choice because it seemed like it was directly related to writing proposals.  The moment we shifted our focus, the name stopped reflecting what it is that we did.  You will definitely change your business a number of times so have the name focus more on the area or sector rather than what the tool is.  AidBits on the other hand reflected the sector we were targeting (Aid – both humanitarian and development aid) and Bits in reference to computer bits and bytes to reflect the technology focus of our company.
  3. Be careful of a play on words (intentional misspelling), because most people won’t be able to find it in the future.  If you’re on the phone or in many cases, a meeting or an event where you mention the name of your company, unless you have a business card to hand out, there’s little chance that people will find you even if they want to.  A common response when we gave people our business cards is: “Oh, Propozal with a z, we were looking for proposal.  Now we know why we couldn’t find you when we Googled your name”.
  4. Find the domain name.  This is one of the more difficult exercises.  If you’re building a mobile app or game, you could probably get away with a domain name with any TLD, such as .co or .biz or .info. If you’re building a web application, you should definitely have a .com or .net.  You can easily check whether a domain name is available or reserved.  Godaddy and Network Solutions are a couple of sites where you check and purchase domain names online.  Note that this process takes a lot of time unless you have a really weird and unusual name.  The chance of finding a good domain name on the first day is very unlikely.  I can’t remember exactly how long it took us, but it took weeks, not hours or days.  Some tools to help you find both a name and domain name at the same time are: http://impossibility.org/ and http://www.bustaname.com/

The most important thing is to get feedback and ask others what they think of your name.  If everyone else but you thinks the name is terrible, chances are it’s terrible.  If you’re juggling around a few options, survey people and ask them which name they prefer and why.  Make sure you reserve the domain name if you think the name is a likely option for your startup.

Deciding on a name for your startup is a big step.  Once you have a name you’re happy with, you can start sharing your name with others and start to get your brand known, even if it’s only to the people around you.  What I would highly recommend after that is designing a logo. In designing a logo, you have a number of options:

  • If you have decent design skills, you can design it yourself
  • There are a number of free logo design tools available online.  From my experience with them, I haven’t found any that are even half decent
  • Hire a designer to create a professional looking logo.  This can be someone from within your network, or you could probably find people on elance or other freelance sites.  This option will probably set you back a few hundred dollars.
  • Start a competition using sites like www.99designs.com

Now that you’ve picked out a name and your logo design is ready, create a quick website.  It doesn’t have to be anything fancy at the moment, as long as it’s not an “Under construction” page.  The last thing you want is someone to be interested in learning a bit about your company, only to find that your site is under construction for weeks or months.  There are a number of tools, such as wix or even WordPress, that will help you quickly create professional looking sites.  For a start, have some basic information about your product, your target market and some way for people to contact you.

If you have a designer, I would also suggest having them design business cards for you and your future team.  Again, it doesn’t have to be anything complex; your name, company name and logo, phone, email and website should be enough.  You can throw in an address, a QR code, your Skype ID or anything else you think is important or nice to have on your card, but I definitely wouldn’t overdo it.  In Ramallah, I found that iPrint does a great job and we use them for our printing needs.  The quality of their work is great, they’ll usually finish the work for you same day or the next, and their prices are reasonable.

2. The co-founder: What to look for? The Story of a Startup in Palestine

I’ve been dreaming of starting my own company ever since I was 17, maybe even before that time.  There have been numerous attempts to execute on the great ideas that pop into my head while I’m lying in bed at night or staring at the television in the evening.  The one common theme is that all these ideas ended up fading away, some in as little as 15 minutes and some took weeks before they left.  In some cases, I would actually register a domain name and start working on a prototype and try to write up a brief business plan.  Looking back, one of the reasons that I didn’t pursue these ideas wasn’t that they were bad ideas or they didn’t have a market, but what I feel were due to a lack of a co-founder.  We all need someone to talk to when the going gets tough, which it definitely will, someone to bounce ideas off of, and someone to help carry the burden of creating and running a company.

While I had known my co-founder, Ibrahim, for a while, we never really thought of starting a company together.  Like me, he had a lot of ideas that he was trying to bring to life.  We would sit together every once in a while and discuss ideas and talk about how we each individually wanted to create something for ourselves.  It wasn’t until one evening that we were sitting down together that he said he had this idea and asked if I was interested in joining.  He had the name and the idea, but still hadn’t really started execution.  He had validated the idea with a few people and saw this as a pain that we can address.  As we began to talk about the idea, we both saw amazing possibilities.  We both agreed that we’ll work on this together, and that’s how the partnership was born.

In my view, having a co-founder is a must. Many investors won’t, or are at least hesitant, to invest in a startup with only one founder.  Having more than four is usually a bit too much as well.  Even the big names that we think of like Yahoo, Microsoft, Apple, Google and Facebook all had more than founder.

If I had to look for a co-founder all over again, here’s a quick checklist that I would use:

Not a “Yes man”, someone to challenge you

The last thing anyone needs when starting a company is people around them agreeing to everything they say.  It’s crucial that someone plays the role of devil’s advocate and brings up all the what-if situations.  Remember, that if the co-founders themselves aren’t 100% convinced of what they’re building, it will be extremely difficult to convince customers.  Having someone to challenge you can cause serious headaches, but will also result in a much better product.

We have had many discussions where the whole team wanted to pull their hair out.  I think that’s normal as long as people know how to resolve their differences and not be sensitive if someone critiques their ideas.

Someone you can get along with

As co-founders, the two (or more) of you, are going to spend a lot of time together, and when the real work begins, such as incorporating the company and getting an investment, a split-up is a nasty thing that could destroy many things, including the company.  Having someone that you can get along with is crucial.  If you can’t stand the person while you’re still starting the company, chances are you’ll hate them even more in the coming weeks or months.  Save yourselves from the agony and headache and think of other people you could partner with.

Someone who you can rely on

Building a company is hard enough as it is.  Having to hold someone’s hand along the way will most likely cripple the company you’re trying to start.  A clear telltale sign that the co-founder isn’t right for you is if you have to tell them what they need to do and assign tasks to them.  If your co-founder treats the startup as a job, chances are they’ll leave you the moment things take a turn for the worst, or when they get a better offer somewhere else.  You need to be able to trust that your co-founder will take care of their part and help you carry the company in the same direction that you both agreed to.

In our case, we decided to divide our roles.  My focus would be outside the company and Ibrahim would focus more on the internal operations.  I’m more involved in sales and marketing, talking with customers and the finances, while Ibrahim is taking more responsibility over product development, working with the team and making sure the inner house is in order.  This doesn’t mean that I don’t know what’s happening with the team or Ibrahim doesn’t know where we are terms of finances or doesn’t help out with marketing.  Quite the contrary, we’re both aware of and involved in all aspects of the company, however each person has a different list of tasks that they need to complete.  It’s very important that, as co-founders, we’re each aware of what’s happening in the company.

Someone with experience who can complement your skillset

If you’re a developer, finding another developer as a co-founder will probably help you create a well-structured application, but you’ll have a hard time building something customers will buy and you’ll probably find it difficult to sell to customers that don’t understand how great your product is.  If you’re a marketing expert, finding another marketing person as a co-founder can help you sell like crazy, but you probably won’t have anything to sell.  It’s very important that you find someone with skills that compliment your skills, and you’re each able to focus on different areas.

One of the problems that we ran into was that we would do everything together.  When we were meeting with potential customers, we would both work on the presentation, then we would realize that we needed to work on the platform, so we would both run off to development for the next couple of weeks. If we were talking with a potential investor, we would both leave everything and spending the next week or more preparing answers and spreadsheets for the investor.  We quickly realized that when we start to work on one thing, everything else gets left behind.  That’s when we decided to split the work, agree on tasks and have each one of us focus most of their time on specific areas.

1. The Idea – The Story of a Startup in Palestine

This post is a continuation of the previous post.  The title of this series of blog posts is “The Story of a Startup in Palestine: What I’ve learned in the past 16 months”

The idea itself is useless

While we read it over and over and hear about it so many times, some people here still have the notion that their ideas alone are valuable.  That’s the reason they never share their ideas and protect them as if their lives depended on it.  No one cares about your idea.  No one is going to steal it, and even if they do, it doesn’t matter.

So why doesn’t it matter? If you share idea with others, this doesn’t mean you’ll execute on it, so if you don’t, you really have nothing to lose if they actually use it to build a company.  You just inspired someone else to build something and it didn’t cost you anything except saying a few words.  If you do execute on it, then you run the risk of competition.  However, if someone has the intention of “stealing” your idea, they can just as easily “steal” it after you’ve gone through all the trouble of building your company.  So, after you spend months and months trying to build your company, the moment you announce it to the world, someone else could build something similar and better.  It’s BS that just because you’re first to market you will remain number one.  There are many examples of where being first to market did not result in the company surviving.  Some simple examples from our present time are:

  • Yahoo, Alta Vista (who?) and Google.
  • MySpace, Friendster and Facebook
  • Blackberry, iOS and Android
  • Netscape, IE, Firefox and Chrome

I’m sure some people had never heard of Alta Vista, which at one point of time was the best search engine available.

Validate, validate, validate: It doesn’t matter what you think, you must validate, challenge them to hate your product. 

The upside to sharing your idea is that you can get constructive criticism on it.  Many people will tell you that it sucks if they think it does.  Don’t take this is an insult and never try to defend your idea.  Instead, ask why they think it sucks and what they would change to make it better.  In the end, it doesn’t matter if you have the best idea in the world, the best team, the best market and the best product.  If your product or service doesn’t sell, you won’t last for very long.  And the only way to sell is to have people who are willing to pay for what you offer.

Customer validation is key to determining whether people are interested in your product or not. It’s important to try to find people who are willing to give their honest feedback, and to spend more time listening to their problems rather than talking about your solution.  If everyone you speak to tells you your product is great, that means you’re not asking the right questions or you’re not talking to the right people.  Go out and challenge people to find problems with your product or service.  Ask them why they wouldn’t pay for it rather than trying to get a good feeling that you’re amazing.

Don’t be afraid of change

As a result of customer validation, it’s almost guaranteed that your initial idea isn’t the best thing you can build or offer customers.  Many people will give you advice on what to build and how to make your product better.  Listen carefully to these comments, think about them and try to validate them with customers.  Many entrepreneurs feel that changing their idea is an insult to their intelligence.  It shouldn’t be like that.  The main reason you started a business is to sell to customers.  If most people agree that they would rather buy a modified version of what you’re trying to build, it would make more sense to at least consider the idea.

When we first started, the idea had nothing to do with what we’re building today.  We started off as a database of tenders and Requests for Proposals (RFPs), and we initially called the company Propozal.com.  We then went out to try to validate our idea.  During one of our first meetings, we heard a comment that we’re trying to do too much, and a suggestion to focus on one sector, such as the non-profit sector, which we thought was a good idea.  We continued to brainstorm and thought we would add more features, like a proposal builder, since the RFPs are already there.  We then thought of adding a project implementation module to capture the entire cycle from requesting proposals, to writing and submitting them, to project execution.  For the non-profit sector, one of the most important aspects of project implementation is monitoring and evaluation (M&E).  So, we created our slide deck and went around presenting our idea of a complete end-to-end platform, RFP database, proposal builder and M&E tool.  During one of our meetings, we received a comment that all the services we’re providing are great features to have, however the most important one by far is the M&E tool.  Using this knowledge, we went around some more and asked people what the most important feature was in their view.  In all the cases I could remember, it was the monitoring and evaluation tool.

Clearly, we found something here and there was some sort of need.  We redesigned the slides showing only the M&E component and again started asking around.  The feedback we received showed us that there really is a need for a dynamic M&E tool.  When we saw that we’re moving away from both the RFP database and proposal builder, we realized that the name Propozal.com didn’t reflect what we were building, so we decided to change it to AidBits.  I’ll talk about how we chose the name in a later blog post.

On the other hand, had we stubbornly stuck to our initial idea, we would have built a great product that no one was willing to use or pay for.  Companies die because no one is willing to pay for the products or services they sell.  It doesn’t matter how good or even amazing your product is, if you can’t make at least enough money to cover your expenses, eventually your company will cease to exist.

Bottom line: who is your customer and why should they care

This is one of the more challenging areas, because many people have the wrong impression that if your market is everyone, then you’ve just increased your chances of selling.  On the contrary, if everyone is your customer, no one will buy from you.  Simply put, you can’t market and sell to an athletic male teenager, the same way you would to a 40-something rich business man, the same way you would to a 70-year old grandmother.  You stand a much greater chance of success by focusing a segment (or few segments) of customers and identifying what your ideal customer segment (or segments, but don’t choose more than 3 at first) looks like, talks like and how and why they would buy your product.

When you figure out who your customer is, then you can jump to the next step of determining why they should care about you, your company or your product.  Just because you believe you’ve found the miracle product of the 21st century doesn’t mean anyone else feels the same way.  The best way to really know whether they actually like what you offer and are willing to pay for it is through customer validation.  If you get to a point where you think that you’ve exhausted all possible questions and the person you’re talking to likes the product, then you should go ahead and ask them to buy it.  Whether it’s discounted or not, if someone (other than a friend or relative) is willing to pay you for your product, that means you’re on to something.  If you can repeat this a dozen or more times, then it’s likely that you’re on the right path.  If you really, really want to test if there is a need for your product, after you have them completely convinced of your product, try to persuade them not to buy it and that it’s not a good fit for them.  This isn’t something I recommend you do frequently, but would be interesting to try and see the reaction.

The Story of a Startup in Palestine: What I’ve learned in the past 16 months – Introduction

What this series of blog posts is all about

It’s been 16 months since we started AidBits. While it definitely doesn’t feel that long, going back through the first emails we had about AidBits (or Propozal as it was called at the time) shows that time moves on and it’s up to us to make the most of it.  While there are tons and tons of resources, both online and offline, that discuss entrepreneurship and how to build a startup, I found very little experiences shared about building a startup in Palestine.  While there are many successful entrepreneurs here, I felt that what is missing is a guide for entrepreneurs in Palestine.  While I won’t claim that this series of blog posts is a complete guide for startups in Palestine, it is a collection of the experiences I went through during these past 16 months.  I hope that the stories I share will help other entrepreneurs avoid some of the mistakes we made.  I welcome comments, questions and advice, as I would be extremely delighted if this series turned into an interactive discussion.

Creating and running a startup involves many different aspects, and while I won’t be able to dive deep into every single aspect of what we’ve been through in the past 16 months, I will try to organize my content in 11 blog posts.  For the first post, I’ll start out by talking about the idea and the process we went through.  Next, I’ll talk about finding a co-founder or co-founders and what to look for and what to avoid.  In blog post 3, I’ll discuss how we got started with AidBits and some of the things we had to do in the beginning.  Then, how to find and acquire customers, and building the team that will help you deliver your product or service to your customers.  Along the way, there were opportunities for contracts or jobs that I was offered, and blog post 6 discusses saying no to these opportunities.  The next blog post talks about financing your startup and then I walk about some of the legal challenges we went through.  Perhaps one of the more difficult aspects of creating a startup is the psychological and social pressures, which I’ll cover in blog post 9.  I’m leaving the investment post until near the end, as I feel I’ll have a lot more experience in this area by the time I launch post 10.  I’ll end off with some final thoughts about what we feel is next for us and the company.

My goal is to release a post every Monday.  While reading this, please let me know if there are certain areas that I haven’t planned to cover.  While I’m in no means an expert, my goal is to share what I’ve learned so far.  I’m hoping that we can not only learn from each other, but also use our collective knowledge and experiences to really improve the startup ecosystem in Palestine.

Why we started AidBits

“To change the world” or “to become a millionaire” seem like the more common answers to this question.  While everyone has aspirations of having a large influence and financial stability, these should never be the reasons to build a startup.  The real reason we started AidBits was because we wanted to build something great that we can be proud of, both as a product that we can offer our clients and as a company that we can call our own.  More importantly for us, we go to sleep every night and wake up every morning thinking about how we can make AidBits a great company.

I left my very-nice-paying day job because, although the money was good, I wasn’t satisfied.  I didn’t feel that we were building an amazing company.  I didn’t feel that we could sustain ourselves for the long-term.  Back then, it was difficult for me to stand up and tell people why we’re better than anyone else and why customers should come to us.  I felt that I really couldn’t shape the company or my future in the way I wanted.  So after having spent over 14 years in a number of technical, leadership and managerial positions in Palestine and Canada, I felt that now is the right time to take the plunge and start something of my own.

Starting and running a company is very, very hard, but don’t lose hope.

The reason I mentioned my experience is because I believe this is something that is almost always overlooked. There is a tendency to believe that startups are created by college drop-outs or young, energetic new graduates.  Hence, most organizations are focusing their efforts on how they can help young entrepreneurs.  While I definitely think it’s extremely important to focus and train new graduates, the majority of startups are built by 30-somethings who have built products, worked with customers, managed teams and eventually reached a point where they’re sick of their current situation and they believe they can build something much better.

Despite my 14+ years of experience, I found that building a company is extremely hard.  There are so many things you have to think of and account for, and so few resources available.  I find it very strange that people believe in the idea that someone who just graduated from university and who has never worked a day in their life, can start and run a company successfully.  It can happen, but this is not the norm.  I don’t want to get ahead of myself and will talk about some of these challenges in the upcoming weeks.

Still, if a team is focused, committed and willing to listen, creating a successful company is definitely possible.  It does however take time, so don’t expect any overnight successes.

Palestine isn’t the easiest place to run a business

The last I checked, Palestine was number 138 on the World Bank’s ease of doing business list.  Unfortunately, that’s no surprise and there are a lot of issues that discourage investors and entrepreneurs to create something in Palestine.  While there are many discussions on how to encourage and train entrepreneurs, a main problem appears when entrepreneurs actually take their first steps, only to find that they’re alone and no one is there to help them during their early days when they need help the most.  I’ll discuss some of the legal challenges we faced along the way, and how we overcome some of them and how we had to cope with others.

No one to blame but yourself. The Bottom line: build a successful company

Many people try to justify why things didn’t work out or how it was someone else’s fault that the company is failing, or how they did everything they were supposed to do and everything is fine but they can’t make any money.  Whatever the situation, if you’re truly set on creating a successful company, that should be your main focus.  The tools you use, how you manage your people, the investors you bring in, and everything else, should revolve around how you’re going to make your company successful.  It requires a lot of hard work, but it’s definitely something that can be achieved.

I’m writing this series of blog posts while we’re deep in startup phase. It remains to be seen whether AidBits succeeds and becomes a hit or whether we use the experiences of AidBits to learn from our failures.

A new chapter

It’s been such a long time since I wrote a new blog post.  All I know is that it’s time to get back to regular writing, especially now that I’ve started a new chapter in my life.  Earlier this month, I took the daring step of quitting my day job to dedicate my full time to our new startup, AidBits, an online data management platform for NGOs and the non-profit sector, which I co-founded with Ibrahim Abu Kteish.  The idea has been in the works since November 2012, and after much refining of the idea and a lot of customer validation, we’ve assembled a fantastic team and dove into the development process.

Our goal with AidBits is to create an online platform that will help organizations in the non-profit sector operate more efficiently and effectively, which we believe will lead them to provide a greater impact on the communities they work and beneficiaries they serve.  We would like to introduce new tools that will help non-profit employees spend less time with mundane, time-consuming tasks that can be automated, and spend more time on tasks that require human intelligence and decision making.

The one thing that really stood out for me when starting AidBits is that entrepreneurship is much harder than it first seems.  There are so many details that need a lot of attention, such as building a product/service that people will like and use, finding the right team that complement each other and work well together, the legal aspect, finding financing and one of the most challenging areas which is planning.   Creating plans has taken a lot of our time and I believe will continue to do so.  Marketing, sales, human resource and development plans to start with, and many more to follow.

We’re always searching for feedback and comments, so please check out our site www.aidbits.com and drop us a line on our blog or on our Facebook page and let us know what you think.

My follow up interview with Wamda

Following the success and great turnover of the Hi Tech Hub event, Nina from Wamda has once again stepped up to help us spread the word and tell people about this inspiring story that brought together close to 500 people from all over the West Bank.  Following the event, I chatted with Nina over Skype.  Unfortunately, the voice can be a bit choppy at time, but I’m hoping the message is clear.

I could sit and write about the events that night, but I think Mohammad Kmail did an excellent job of summarizing the event on his blog.