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.

  • Thanks for mentioning wamda’s piece Saed, I agree – continuity and building on past success is key for this model to take root and have a real impact.

    • Glen, your piece in Wamda provided good coverage of the event. Thanks for dropping by.

  • Ibrahim Taha

    Well done analysis Saed! I totally second you with this and I hope that a
    sustainability model is being considered seriously by someone!

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