Game Over!

Earlier last month, the Board of our portfolio company Pinchpoint decided to shut down the company. Just like that, for Pinchpoint it was “Game Over!”.

Most startups fail. This is true for VC funds, and it is true for startup communities around the world. I believe that for a young startup community like ours, we are going to see many failures before we start seeing successes.

We’re all used to hearing about how failure is part of the entrepreneurial process, how fear of failure shouldn’t come in the way of entrepreneurs launching new ventures (or employees joining new startups), and how a culture of embracing failure is vital for a healthy and vibrant startup community.

All this talk is great in theory, but none of it changes the fact that – let’s face it – failure sucks!

Failure sucks for the founders, it sucks for the investors, and it sucks for the team who believed in a dream for which they have given usually several years of their lives in hard work and unwavering commitment. It especially sucks for first-time founders because it’s usually their first run in with failure publicly and at a grand scale. This often places first-time founders under financial and emotional stress, possibly mixed with feelings of responsibility, and perhaps even guilt, towards employees and investors.

We can’t change the reality of failure, but we can change how this reality impacts us as individuals and as a community. To do so, we need to celebrate, learn from, and embrace failure.

Celebrate

By celebrating failure we reaffirm to ourselves and to others that the journey is as, if not more, important than the destination. Pinchpoint may have not been the first funded startup in Palestine to shut down, but it is probably the first to shut down after having achieved significant milestones. Whether it was the cool games developed and produced, the new talent trained, the level of VC-funding raised, or the nascent gaming industry in Palestine which they helped advance – all these are achievements that deserve to be recognized.

When our community comes together to celebrate failure, we do so in recognition of such achievements and in recognition of the founders’ attempt to innovate and create value. In many ways, we’re reminding the founders and ourselves that we shouldn’t be deterred by failure, and that instead we should see this as one less failure closer to success.

Learn

Partly because it’s human nature, and partly because of what media tends to focus on, we mostly hear about and want to learn from successful founders. Some may believe that there’s some secret knowledge successful founders have, and that if they can just learn it, they too can replicate the same experience and become just as successful. Of course, this is rarely the case.

At the same time, we rarely hear about failures, and we rarely attempt to learn from the experience of startups that didn’t make it. While each startup’s experience is unique, there are many challenges and lessons that are common to all startups and founders. Whether a startup succeeds or fails, the common lessons we can learn in each case are equally important. Needless to say, there’s always going to be more lessons available from startups that fail than from startups that succeed.

Embrace

“Embracing failure” practically means absorbing it. When a startup shuts down, the company’s collective knowledge capital, experience, and skill are all back on the job market. In an ecosystem like ours where the talent pool is constrained, this is a treasure trove for other startups. At a minimum, other startups should open their doors to interview every member of the team even before the failing company starts winding down. This simple gesture sends a strong message that whether you are a founder or an employee of a failed startup, your experience is valued, and if you have what it takes, you will not be left jobless.

Many experienced tech and business talent (some of whom have entrepreneurial potential) are reluctant to either launch or join startups (at least partly) because they worry about job security. If we as a community of startups don’t come together to help absorb the team of a failing startup, we are effectively bolstering these fears. If every time a startup fails most of the team winds up unemployed, it will further discourage experienced talent from joining startups, and make it harder for founders to recover quickly and get back in the game for their next startup.

There are always going to be more failures than successes. This is why our attitudes and reactions when faced with failure are more important to the sustainability and continuity of the ecosystem than when faced with success. When we come together as a community to support the founders and the team every time a startup fails, a culture of resilience will start to emerge, and the notion that with each failure we are collectively closer to the next success will start to take hold.

Join Khaled, Ammar, Tareq, and me on Thursday, May 25 at 5:00pm for a “wake,” where we will celebrate together the end of the Pinchpoint story.

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Saed Nashef at TEDxTaybeh

Saed Nashef delivering his talk at TEDxTaybeh
TEDxسائد ناشف يلقي كلمته في الطيبة

Last Friday I spoke at TEDxTaybeh, so I thought I’d share with you my lessons learned preparing a TEDx talk for the first time.

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 lessons learned 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.

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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:

Do’s

  • 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’ts

  • 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.

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An Evening with Jeff Pulver

Jeff Pulver at Leaders Organization in Ramallah after “An Evening with Jeff Pulver” event, which was hosted by Sadara Ventures.

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.

 

First Place Winning Team at Startup Weekend Nablus

First-place winning team, Bi-Basata (Arabic for “Simply”), at SW Nablus, celebrating their victory Nabulsi style! They were joined on an elevated dance floor by organizers Dr. Samer Arandi and Akram Dweikat (standing right to left).

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.

Sustainability

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.

Quality

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.

Continuity

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.

I Blog, Therefore I Am!

On December 15, 2012 By

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