Last Friday I spoke at TEDxTaybeh. This was a first for me.
I speak regularly at various events locally and internationally on topics related to technology entrepreneurship, and early-stage investments. But this was different. TEDxTaybeh was the first time I publicly share bits & pieces of my personal story. It was a challenge to offer a view into a subjective experience while attempting to highlight common threads interweaving our individual humanity so that others can connect and relate. Not less challenging was the attempt to capture these common threads in a single overarching idea that’s worth sharing in 15 minutes.
Here are some random thoughts on my experience preparing and delivering a TEDx talk:
- The process of extracting from personal stories common threads that can resonate with others forced me to look at my own experience in new ways. It allowed me to draw lessons that haven’t been previously evident. Most of these didn’t make it into my talk, but I may share them here in due course.
- Speaking publicly about a personal experience requires some courage, but it is well rewarded. I found that when opening up, others will reciprocate by being more open and receptive to what I have to say.
- It seems that by our nature, we are wired for deeper engagement when listening to a story. Also, story telling is a core part of the Palestinian and Arab culture. A story can be a very powerful way to communicate an idea. It’s about reaching minds through touching hearts.
- I usually speak to the tech and business crowd. The audience at TEDxTaybeh was more diverse. This required content that’s broadly relevant yet neither superficial nor diluted. Therefore, while a TEDx talk may provide a learning and inspiring experience to an audience, in some cases it is also a learning and growth opportunity to the speakers themselves.
- This was the first time that I delivered a talk/presentation overwhelmingly in Arabic. While I still believe that in today’s world, the language of technology and business is English, I now also believe that there is an argument to be made for Arabic. This experience taught me that in order for a message to achieve wider and deeper reach in our region, it has to be communicated in Arabic. Therefore, I will start working Arabic gradually into all of my online communications – starting with this post! (see below)
I’ll add more thoughts here if/when I think of them. Of course, all of the above is completely subjective and specific to one TEDx talk. If you’ve done a TEDx talk before, and have different/additional thoughts, I’m happy to hear from you in the comments section. Also, if you attended TEDxTaybeh or watched the online stream, I’d love to hear your critical feedback on my talk and the event as a whole.
Earlier this year I announced that I will be having open office hours in Ramallah. Since then I’ve had three sessions (one per month and each comprised of 6 meetings). I think now is a good time to discuss how it’s been going.
I had my first session on Jan 28, and my third session just yesterday. All told, I met with 16 people, 8 of whom I did not previously know. These meetings exposed me to 8 new startup ideas, 4 of which I’ll be taking a closer look at. These addressed opportunities in local e-commerce, crowd funding, social networks, social-based marketplaces, SaaS-based ERP, and edutainment for mobile.
None of these opportunities are at a stage where Sadara can come in with an investment, but that’s exactly the point. Office hours meetings allow for engaging entrepreneurs at the very early stages when their ideas are still fermenting and taking shape. This early feedback can help cut corners and save a lot of effort going down a path of undesirable outcomes.
Based on my observations so far, here’s a list of Do’s and Don’ts for the next time you schedule an office hours meeting:
- Come to the meeting on time.
- If you can’t make it, make sure to cancel your appointment. Someone else may be waiting for your spot.
- Have something specific to discuss. You only have 20 minutes, and the conversation needs to be focused to be effective.
- Realize that I probe with my questions to understand, not to detract from your idea.
- Take my feedback as an opinion. Challenge it. Let the market (or research data) validate or refute it.
- Stick around after the meeting, meet other entrepreneurs coming to chat, have a conversation and share ideas.
- You can always come again if you want to.
- Tell others about office hours if you think they can benefit from it.
- Don’t try to come with the perfect idea or pitch.
- Don’t wait to come to office hours until you have a startup idea. We can use the 20 minutes to discuss anything.
- Don’t come with printed material. Focus on the discussion and the interaction. You can always email me the material.
- Don’t expect to have additional time. 20 minutes means 20 minutes.
- And most importantly: Don’t address me with “Mr.” or “أستاذ”. “Saed” will suffice.
For those of you who have attended one or more of my office hours meetings, I’d love to hear your feedback. Feel free to leave a comment with your experience, what went well, and what didn’t.
Last month, Sadara Ventures hosted Jeff Pulver in Ramallah on his first visit to Palestine. For those who missed it, this should be a good recap. For all of you who made it, feel free to share your takeaways/highlights in the comments section.
The goal of the visit was to get Jeff acquainted with the local startup community, and to give members of the community an opportunity to interact firsthand with an active angel investor. The Leaders Organization (home of Fast Forward accelerator) provided the venue for the main event: “An Evening with Jeff Pulver.”
Before arriving at the event, I wanted to give Jeff a brief tour of Ramallah and surrounding areas. I picked Jeff up at a meeting point in north Jerusalem, and headed towards Ramallah through Route 60. We got off Route 60 at the entrance to Ein Yabrud, and drove west to Dura al-Qari’. From there, we turned south towards Ramallah passing by Al-Jalazone refugee camp, and finally entering the city through the Al-Balou’ neighbourhood.
After a short tour of the city that included passing by Al-Mukataa, Palestinian Legislative Council, and other points of interest including Stars & Bucks and KFC, we arrived at Orjuwan restaurant. There we had a late lunch with a few local entrepreneurs. Jeff enjoyed specially prepared, gluten-free appetizers, complete with a vegan main course.
We then headed to Leaders offices for the event. The event was invitation-only. We had around 25 attendees including entrepreneurs and others associated with the startup scene in Ramallah. We started the evening with brief introductions. Following that, Jeff gave a talk where he weaved stories from his professional and personal lives into important and relevant lessons. This formed the basis for good Q&A and discussion.
Here are some of the takeaways that stuck from Jeff’s talk. I’m working totally from memory here, so if you attended, feel free to share your thoughts in the comments.
Like many other tech entrepreneurs, Jeff started as a tinkerer. Some of us tinker with code, others with circuit boards, and yet others with communication equipment. Jeff’s toy was his ham radio. He said he didn’t have many friends as a teenager, but that didn’t stop him from being connected and getting his voice heard. As a ham radio operator, he used to talk for hours on end with a community of other ammature radio operators around the world. He made a good analogy when he talked about how he views Twitter as the ham radio of the Internet – a medium where anyone can interact and make their voice heard at scale. Luckily, with Twitter no one needs to get an operator license from the US Government (as was the case for ham operators).
Tinkering with “stuff” was an important development outlet for many of us who grew up in Jeff’s generation, and had technical tendencies (aka geeks). Jeff felt that kids growing up today with the internet are not getting the same opportunity to “blow things up”, or perhaps are less interested. I see the same thing with my kids too. They are growing up in the dot-com generation where their virtual lives are at least as important as their physical lives. There’s just so much more to do for them there than in the real world.
On the upside, kids of this generation are using new ways to communicate, play, and learn. Jeff emphasized how we as parents, or as adults running education and business institutions, need to understand the shift that’s taking place here. We need to embrace it, and take full advantage of it. When kids use Facebook groups to collaborate on homework assignments, schools should be trying to figure out how to help develop and improve such new approaches to learning and staying connected.
Another example is my son Omar. He spends untold hours playing Minecraft. It all seemed like such a waste of time, until one day he told me about Redstone. It turns out that Redstone, along with other game components, enable players to build full-blown circuits. So now Omar (15) has good basic knowledge of logic gates and circuit design.
Entrepreneurs constantly pivot and reinvent. They not only do this in businesses they build. They also do it in their own lives. Hearing Jeff say that we were looking at “Jeff version 8.0″ brought this into sharp focus. He said entrepreneurship is hard, and it takes a lot of courage, no matter where you’re doing it. The same goes for reinventing yourself (or rebooting yourself as he puts it). It was inspiring to know that from his days at a bond-trading firm in the early 90′s, Jeff has rebooted himself 8 times.
Looking back at my own experience, I think I rebooted 3 or 4 times. Each time was a significant challenge. It was challenging not only because change is hard and introduces many uncertainties, but also because most people around you will not support you. Jeff said that at some point he had to stop listening to the naysayers, and had to follow his own intuition.
Among experienced entrepreneurs, Jeff is not alone in imparting such wisdom. The late Steve Jobs said the following during his 2005 Stanford University commencement speech:
Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma, which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition; they somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.
Jeff also spoke about his angel investing. Much of what he talked about reflected key principles that drive active angels. Among these are investing more in people rather than in ideas or revenue models. Investing to help those whom no one else wanted to help. Investing as the start of a longterm friendship, mentorship, and support. Investing to give back, to give innovators more runway to experiment, create, and innovate. To experience, along with investees, the magic that happens when you create something of value and take it to the world.
He said that when he invests, he likes to embrace his entrepreneurs, both figuratively and literally. So be on the lookout for a hug from Jeff.
Jeff also made the point that he never asks his entrepreneurs about revenue. He then added that “if they [investors] ask you for revenue, it means they don’t want to invest.” Needless to say, this generated many puzzled looks, mostly directed at me. The reason being that most people in the room (probably including Jeff) knew that I ask everyone who approaches us for funding about how they plan to make money. And here’s the punchline: I actually fully agree with Jeff.
So what gives?
Jeff is an angel. I’m a VC.
Angels like Jeff who invest at pre-seed stage come in at a point in time when an entrepreneur has a raw idea, a vision, and perhaps some semblance of a prototype. Everything else is yet to be figured out. There are assumptions to be validated, customers to be developed, technology to be proven, and many potential pivots. At this stage, any answer to the question of “how do you plan to make money” is at best a wild guess. You simply don’t know. Jeff understands that his investment is what’s needed to help entrepreneurs answer my question.
By contrast, entrepreneurs looking for Series A financing need to be at a stage where many assumptions have been validated, and questions like mine answered from real market data. Early-stage VC’s cannot afford to be investing at risk levels inherent in pre-seed stage. The economics simply don’t work. We have to look for market traction, and expect part of the risk to have been brought down by the time we come in. This is why we love angels, probably more than the entrepreneurs themselves. They (along with accelerators) do the groundwork necessary for us to be able to invest with relatively better visibility.
Jeff ended his talk on a personal note. He spoke about how he has decided to take control of his health. He’s been on a gluten-free diet, and an intensive workout routine, and the results are clearly visible through a dramatic body transformation. He reminded all of us that if we’re not healthy and don’t feel good about our body, then really there’s not much we can accomplish. “You can’t do anything if you’re dead.”
During the discussion that followed, Jeff said that next time he’s in the region, he’d be willing to come to Ramallah again for a “Breakfast with Angels” type event. Hopefully we can make this happen.
After the event, I drove Jeff back, this time heading south from Ramallah to Qalandia, skirting the infamous Qalandia Crossing, and then winding our way down towards Hizma to enter Jerusalem via the Hizma checkpoint. All this was not before we had a chance to swing by Zamn Premium Coffee for some cappuccino, a chance to unwind, converse, and get caught up on our Twitter and Facebook feeds.
The second Startup Weekend event in Palestine took place last month in Nablus, with over 120 participants, and 17 teams competing. I was on the judging panel with Huda El-Jack, Ibrahim Taha, and Farooq Ali. You can read Wamda’s coverage for more on the event and the winning teams.
Startup Weekend events, like other entrepreneurial events and activities, need to run regularly and over a long period before their impact on building a startup community becomes visible. So far, we’ve had three events in the area with varying levels of quality and results. To maximize the positive impact of future events, more effort needs to go into long-term sustainability, quality, and post-event continuity.
SW events in Palestine have thus far been sponsored primarily by Mercy Corps. NGO’s clearly have a role to play in contributing to the development of a local entrepreneurial ecosystem, but for entrepreneurial activities to be sustainable on the long run, the private sector has to step in and take a more active role. Sponsorship of entrepreneurial activities should be majorly covered by the leading companies in our ICT sector, all of whom stand to benefit the most in the longterm from the overall impact of these activities. To avoid having private sector companies be one-time sponsors, organizers should ensure expectations are aligned, and highlight the longterm outlook.
Startup Weekend is an event that is meant to enhance and develop core entrepreneurial skills by offering an environment and a setting where entrepreneurship is actually done. It would be a mistake to measure the success of such event by the number of startups launched, or jobs created. Setting as such the expectations of private-sector sponsors increases the likelihood that they will sponsor future events. Further, helping sponsors understand the longterm outlook on how such events play a key role in developing the entrepreneurial ecosystem makes way for a deeper level of engagement, not only as sponsors, but also as active participants.
Maintaining and raising the quality of future events requires highly diverse participation, well-prepared participants, and engaged, high-quality mentors.
In both Startup Weekends that were held in Nablus (the first of which was in March of last year), university students made up the overwhelming majority of participants. This should not come as a surprise since both events were organized by Dr. Samer Arandi and Akram Dweikat – both of whom are great folks, and are very active in entrepreneurial activities at An-Najah University. Lowering the percentage of student participation will likely increase the quality of the event, and create higher-value interactions among teams and opportunities for deeper knowledge transfer.
Addressing this involves creating an environment where interactions take place in teams with diverse levels of experience, skills, and professional development. This is another point of engagement for companies in the local private sector. Organizers can target employees of these companies for participation, both as teams and as mentors. Additionally, management at these companies can be evangelized to encourage participation by employees at various levels of seniority. Ideally, I’d like to see the next SW event having 30% of participants at minimum come from mid to senior level industry professionals.
Preparedness of participants is another factor that can significantly influence the quality of an event. For the latest SW, the folks from ThoughtWorks (Taha & Ali) held a one-day workshop in preparation for the event. This is a good start, but more is needed. Leading up to an event, a looser filter can be applied to selecting a larger group of applicants into a bootcamp. Think of this as ground training in SW essentials for potential participants before their actual takeoff at the event.
The training could touch on various topics including idea generation, business model generation, validation, and agile development. Training on pitching, presentation authoring, addressing specific criteria (what are investors/judges looking for), and how to best engage and get the most out of mentors, can also be included. This can take the form of learning by doing, as opposed to seminars or lectures. Having a mock or guided startup weekend may be one approach to achieving this. At the conclusion of the bootcamp, applicants who have demonstrated a high potential during training are invited to participate in the actual event. This can provide a better foundation for strong teams to emerge at the event.
Lastly, strong teams can accomplish impressive results on their own, but when paired with great mentors, the results can be phenomenal. Starting with recruiting high-quality mentors with deep knowledge and experience in various areas of business and technology is important. Equally important is the proper initiation of mentors (especially ones new to SW) to understand what the event is about and what’s expected of them. Some level of “train the trainer” may be required to brief mentors on what a SW event is attempting to achieve, what can they do to help, and how to best engage with teams.
For many of the teams coming out of a Startup Weekend event, there’s the nagging question of “Now what?” Participants come out of the event usually energized, supercharged, and having learned a lot through experiencing some of the highs and lows of entrepreneurship. What happens the morning after a SW concludes determines to a large degree if there’s any continuity to what these teams have started. This really has nothing to do with the quality of the event, the level of ideas, or the strength of teams. A Startup Weekend may be a success, yet it may not actually produce a single startup.
One could argue that if successful SW graduates are unable to independently take next steps, then that is a good indication the team and/or idea are not worth pursuing. This may be true in more mature ecosystems where the options for next steps are many, and readily available. However, in Palestine, this is not the case.
Offering the best of SW graduates a pre-acceleration program that can help them take the most critical next steps will go a long way in coalescing the team, solidifying commitment, and mapping a path to potential acceleration. The folks at SW HQ recognized this gap, and have introduce the NEXT program to bridge it. Needless to say, this doesn’t mean that teams won’t still fall apart or fail. But it does mean that the best teams won’t have to spend time and energy figuring out how to move forward.
With a program like NEXT in place, the Fast Forward accelerator coming online soon, and Sadara continuing to make new early-stage investments; regular, sustainable, and high-quality Startup Weekends will produce a whole new level of impact. Indeed, with these components in place, Palestine may for the first time have for its aspiring entrepreneurs a clear path they can follow to attempt going from a 60 seconds pitch to a full-blown thriving startup.
A little less than two weeks ago we launched ROCC at the same place with a total of 13 people in attendance. We started with a brief discussion on what it takes to build an entrepreneurial ecosystem in Ramallah. We then went around the room and had everyone introduce themselves and talk about what they’d like to get out of their participation in ROCC. The remaining time was spent as an open forum, where various folks shared topics/news on which they wanted to hear feedback from the group.
To provide some context, OpenCoffee Clubs are currently held in over 150 cities worldwide (you’ll notice Ramallah has now been added to the list). It was originally started by Saul Klein in London with the goal of offering a regular informal setting for everyone engaged in the entrepreneurial community to meet, interact, network, and grow. An important part of the OCC value is offering a platform that encourages interaction between people from diverse professional backgrounds. As such, OCC is not restricted to developers, techies, or entrepreneurs. It is really for anyone who is interested in startups and wants to engage in the community and get involved.
My first exposure to the OCC concept came from Brad Feld’s book on building startup communities (which I reviewed in a previous post). In the book, Brad has Jason Mendelson tell the story of how Boulder OpenCoffee Club came to be (Jason founded BOCC). I had a call with Jason last week to hear more about his experience launching BOCC. I also wanted to understand how they went from 9 people when they first started in 2006, to now occupying the Atlas Purveyors coffee shop to full capacity on every meeting, and in some cases turning people away.
Based on my conversation with Jason, the main takeaways can be summarized in 5 key factors that will contribute to the success and sustainability of ROCC. These same factors are also good reasons for why you should join the Club. I call them the NICER Factors
- Nothing: Jason drew an analogy between OCC and the Seinfeld show. He pointed out that the success of the Seinfeld show was in no small part due to the fact that it was a show about nothing! ROCC is an “un-meeting”, and similarly part of its success will depend on it being a meeting about nothing. This relative lack of structure, lack of formality, and lack of an overarching subject or theme allows room for everyone to participate and be part of shaping each event. You will have the opportunity to help make each ROCC unique in a way that is relevant to you.
- Inclusivity: ROCC is the type of event that is meant to engage the full spectrum of actors in the entrepreneurial community. Anyone who is interested in startups is encouraged to join. The more diverse the backgrounds of the participants are (business, tech, marketing, telecom, creative, etc.), the richer the interactions will be. You will have the opportunity to hear new perspectives, and expand your network’s reach.
- Communal: As is the case with other OCC’s, ROCC is lead and operated by the community. The success and sustainability of ROCC (and similar activities) will largely depend on it not being attached or dependent on one person. If you’ve been thinking about becoming more active in the community, ROCC is a great opportunity to do that. You own it! You’re regular participation and contributions will keep the wheels turning at ROCC, and potentially place you among an organically-forming leadership group that will keep ROCC going and growing.
- Engagement: At ROCC people will have enough room to speak and share, while ensuring participants continue to get value out of these interactions, and while constantly promoting new connections, and a culture of giving, and mentorship. Getting feedback from people on what they want to get out of their participation at ROCC will always be a priority. To help keep conversations at ROCC fresh and relevant, we’ll want to make sure everyone gets to participate, while at the same time making sure the conversation is effectively moderated. As Jason puts it, at OCC people share to make a point, not to prove a point – the conversation should be kept fast-paced. ROCC group can be your platform to make your voice heard in the community, or a sounding board for your thoughts and ideas.
- Regularity: This is probably the most important of all the NICER Factors. By keeping a regular place and a regular time (Zamn Al-Tireh every other Tuesday at 8am), ROCC becomes the pulse of our fledgeling startup community. A sign that we, as a community, are alive. A de facto place to go to for newcomers or visitors to get plugged into the developing entrepreneurial ecosystem in Ramallah. Chances are, a bi-weekly Tuesday morning routine involving good coffee and a great conversation will be much better than most other routines you now have going on on a daily basis. All you need to ROCC your calendar is to add an event that starts tomorrow (Tuesday) at 8am, and recurs every other week.
When I started writing this post, I wanted to come up with a “Top 10 Reasons” list for why you should join ROCC (David Letterman style). Then I figured it will be more fun (and better material) to have the community collaborate on it. You can post your reasons here as comments on this post, or on the ROCC FB page. We’ll figure out a way to select the best/funniest entries, compile them, and share them on the ROCC page.
One final thought: Boulder OCC launched with 9 participants, while Ramallah’s launched with 13. Let’s work together to sustain this advantage. Hope to see you at ROCC, and make sure you spread the word in your respective circles.
Saed Nashef سائد ناشفA technologist, entrepreneur, and investor, I co-founded Sadara Ventures – the first early-stage venture capital in Palestine – to invest in exceptional entrepreneurs and help them build great companies. This blog is my attempt to capture and share some of my thoughts and experiences along this journey. Read more ...