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 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.