My interview with Wamda

One post I should have posted about a long time ago was my interview with Nina Curley of Wamda back in early May 2012.   This was during the second anniversary event of AmmanTT, and this is actually when I decided to bring the same model to Palestine.  It took a little over four months, but I’m happy to see that we were able to pull off something similar here in Ramallah and see such an amazing turnout.

Here is a link to the interview.  I would be happy to hear comments about it:

http://www.wamda.com/2012/05/is-outsourcing-good-for-entrepreneurship-in-palestine-feras-nasr-of-iconnect-tech

Hi Tech Hub in Ramallah – Things I liked about the first meeting

My previous post highlighted some of the areas for improvement for the Hi Tech Hub’s first event here in Ramallah.  The two main objectives behind the initiative were to 1. share the knowledge and experience of established entrepreneurs and 2. create a space where those interested in the Palestinian tech startup scene can meet and network.

I think we met the objectives, but in this post, I’ll also write about the things I liked the most about the event.

1. Attendance: I think we generally have a problem in Palestine that when 200 RSVP for an event, only 30 show up.  This event was packed, the seats were all taken, there were people in the back standing, some people could barely get inside.  I even saw a group of guys who squeezed 3 bean bags together so that the five of them could sit.  I think it terms of attendance, the event was outstanding.  There were around 500 people at the event.  I would have been happy with even 200.  Realistically, I don’t know if we can sustain the same number at every meeting, but it’s definitely worth trying.

2. Diversity: I think the diversity of attendees was also very impressive.  The fact that we had students, employees, developers, managers and CEOS, university professors, government officials, entrepreneurs of all ages, including an inspiring 12-year old entrepreneur who pitched his idea of “Not lost” application.  What was also noticeable is the significant amount of females attending the event.

3. Speakers: Both speakers did an amazing job in sharing their experiences and engaging the audience both during and after the speeches. Anyone can learn technical issues, but it’s the experience of how to build and manage a company that is the real challenge.  What students need the most is getting them exposed to what’s happening outside and I think both speakers gave the audience some knowledge of what’s happening.

4. Pitching: I actually liked the idea of having startups pitch their ideas, I wasn’t very happy with the organization of moving between startups.  I think however that giving startups the exposure and practice of pitching their ideas was very important.  I think these types of events open eyes on what’s needed to encourage entrepreneurship in Palestine and what areas our startups need help with.

5. Online community: Over 400 members on the Hi Tech Hub’s Facebook page, and all within less than a week.  Some interesting discussions have started to appear, some related to the event and others in technology-related topics.  There have been so many pictures online, that I’m seeing new pictures pop-up every few hours.  Twitter isn’t very popular here in Ramallah, but I’ve also seen a number of tweets with #hitechhub.  I’m hoping this habit catches up.

Overall, I would say a successful first event, with plans for the second event in late October already underway.

Again, I would love to hear feedback, both good and bad, regarding the event, so please feel free to comment below.

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.

Hi Tech Hub in Ramallah – Part 2

Less than a week to go and a lot of preparations completed.  A few more final touches and hopefully a successful PR campaign to really get people excited about the event.  The event will take place Wednesday, September 12, 2012 at 5:00 PM at the Movenpick hotel in Ramallah.  This will be the first Amman-TT-inspired event taking place in Palestine and we’re looking hoping to get a large crowd of students, entrepreneurs, developers, investors and others interested in the Palestinian tech startup scene.
We have three speakers that will join us for the event:
– Sami Shalabi, Head Engineer, Google’s Digital Platform, USA
– Ayman Irshaid, CEO, Areeba Areeba, UAE
– Wael Manasra, Founder/CEO at VoiceBeam, USA
A Facebook group page has been created: https://www.facebook.com/groups/hitechhub/ and a website is being created.  Hope to get it done later today.

Hi Tech Hub coming to Palestine

Ever since I attended the 2nd anniversary event of Amman TT in May, I knew we had to start something similar here in Palestine.  After a lot of hard work and some long meetings, the event is only a couple of weeks away.  The kickoff event will take place at the Movenpick hotel in Ramallah on Wednesday, September 12, 2012.  We’ll be having some amazing Palestinian entrepreneurs speak and share their experiences with the audience.  We’ll also have a display of startups pitching their companies to the audience and seeing who the crowd’s favorite startups are.  There’s still a lot of hard work remaining, but I have a feeling this will be an amazing night.

Regular updates to follow.

The Palestinian Entrepreneurial Spirit – Part 4 Ownership

Who owns what?  Should I share my company with others or keep it all for myself?  Do I need a partner or partners?  It’s human nature to want to keep as much as we can for ourselves.  There’s nothing wrong with it, that’s just how we are.  However, partnering in many cases can be very beneficial for the startup.   Unfortunately, I rarely see Palestinian entrepreneurs who join forces with others to come up with something amazing.  If it’s our idea, our business, we’ll stay on top of things and we get to keep 100% of the business.  While that can be fine in some cases, looking at most of the popular success stories in the startup world, Microsoft, Google, Yahoo, Apple and others, these companies started with at least two founders.  I’m not saying that one person alone can’t succeed, it’s just that it’s so much harder going it alone, and for a number of reasons:

1. Investors are more interested in teams.  Many investors will dismiss or negatively look at a one-man team.  Y Combinator is an example of an accelerator that will rarely accept a single entrepreneur for a startup.  It’s clearly stated in their application process that they prefer teams of 2 or 3 and rarely accept individual entrepreneurs.  In many cases, they like to see that the team members compliment each others’ skills, so if someone is strong technically, another has good market knowledge and maybe another has organizational skills.

2. Other people to bounce ideas off.  Discussions and brainstorming sessions can be a great way to solve problems or expand on ideas.  A few weeks ago, I came up with a brilliant idea for a startup.  The idea was to modify QR codes to hold much more than 7,049 bits of data.  That way, a single modified QR code could hold an entire image or brochure or event short video.  Being excited about my idea, I mentioned it to a close friend and asked him what his thoughts were.  He simply mentioned that while this might be a good solution here in Palestine, no one outside would use it because they have access to Internet over mobile phones (3G and 4G networks).  I immediately realized that my great idea wasn’t too great and that it wouldn’t have a global market.  I was so worked up about my idea that I didn’t even pay attention to something so obvious.  Had I kept the idea to myself, I could have wasted days, weeks or who knows, maybe even months working on an idea that had very little chance of success.

3. Keep the momentum going.  When I was in university, studying for really difficult courses, I found that studying in groups was always a better choice.  When one person would start to get tired or slack off, others would bring him back in the loop and renew his energy.  A little while later, someone else would start to lag, and the rest of the team would bring him back in.  I usually found my most effective studying was done in pairs.  Whenever one would start to dose off, the other person who be on top of things.  Starting a company is hard and can be very discouraging at times, definitely much harder than studying for exam or writing a paper.  It’s important that each entrepreneur has someone that can lift their spirits up when the going gets tough.

I hope to see more real collaboration between Palestinian entrepreneurs.  Personally, I’d rather have 50% of a million dollar company, than 100% of a company worth $100 dollars.  We study it in school and we read stories when we were children about the importance of team work and unity, however unfortunately, we seldom apply it to ourselves.

The Palestinian Entrepreneurial Spirit – Part 3 Education

Continuing on to my third post on the Palestinian entrepreneurial spirit with a focus this time on the education system in Palestine and how it contributes to the startup culture.  In brief, I don’t think it does whether we’re talking about grade school or college/university.

First of all, for most of us, we’re educated/trained/raised to believe that the best outcome we can achieve after graduation is to get a good job at a respectable company.  Unfortunately “good” usually refers to salary and/or stability when it comes to getting a job.  While I have no objections to people finding stable, well-paying jobs, I feel there are a lot of people who can do much more and that they’re limiting themselves by taking the easy way out in life.  I also believe that, as a result of this mentality, most people don’t like what they do.  They don’t enjoy it and they don’t find value in it, and as a result, they don’t innovate, they don’t try to go above and beyond what they’re asked to do.  They do the bare minimum to keep their bosses happy and not lose their jobs in hopes that another stable, better paying job comes along.

Second, our education system, unfortunately, is still based on memorization rather than innovation.  In most universities, I have no problem with the courses that are taught, but rather with the method of teaching.   We don’t push our students’ imaginations and we keep them in a very comfortable environment.  Instead of pushing our students and helping them reach and exceed their limits, we keep both professors and students in their comfort zones.  As a result, after graduation, students lack many of the soft skills that they should have gained during university, especially in terms of soft skills (i.e. communication, presentation, time management, etc…).  Students spend four to five years in university and yet end up with a lot of information/knowledge that really isn’t practical or useful in real life.  Sure it’s important for students to evolve their way of thinking, but eventually it all becomes just how much information a person can store in their head.  Information which really is useless in most real-life situations.

Third, the application of university research is an area where there’s a lot of talk and little action.  Universities should utilize their professors and students to conduct research.  Research that the private sector can benefit from either by existing companies or startups that spinoff from a particular research.  The private sector and economy would greatly benefit from such actions, but I think there also needs to be a loop where benefit also returns to the university professors, who hire more students to do more research and encourage other professors to conduct research.  This will generate more ideas for the private sector and the loop continues and grows.  The main problem is that university professors aren’t incentivized to conduct research.  There’s nothing in it for them, it isn’t required for them to keep their jobs.  They don’t make more money, they don’t get funding.  For them, it’s just a cause for a headache while they could be doing something more gratifying for them.

What we really need is to evolve our teaching methods in Palestinian universities (and hopefully even grade schools).  We should train students on solving real problems, not just storing information in their heads.  I think most university exams should now be open-Internet (very few are open-book), because if it’s available on the Internet, why bother storing it in a student’s head.  Give them access to the tools and push their limits, ask them difficult real-life questions.  Questions that don’t necessarily have one correct answer.  Have them present their findings, defend their ideas and pitch their initiatives.  Let’s treat universities like the industry, when it’s not just about doing the bare minimum, where a software application has to actually run and do what it’s supposed to, with minimal problems.  Let’s raise the bar for our students and they will follow our lead.

We need to encourage professors to conduct new research.  Give them the tools and funding they need to hire research assistants, purchase material and equipment and pay for seminars and workshops.  Since the Palestinian private sector will benefit most from their research, I think the private sector should be the leader in providing research funding.  Given the government’s financial situation, we’ll be waiting for a long, long time before we see any commitments to support and fund new research.

Impacting the education system in Palestine is probably one of the most difficult things to do, but I think there are a couple of universities who are adventurous and ambitious enough to actually try something new.  Getting a couple of success stories is usually the spark needed to get the innovation engine going.  But it needs to be planned, it needs to organized and it needs to happen soon, before Palestine is left too far behind in terms of innovation.