Flat6Labs CEO Ramez M. El-Serafy: Abu Dhabi's Ecosystem Just Erupted, And Your Startup Might Fit The Bill
"Abu Dhabi is a perfect fit as a rapidly growing market. Abu Dhabi has more than US$100 billion earmarked for education, housing, and transportation under its 2030 Economic Vision. Abu Dhabi is also ranked 23rd of 189 economies for ease of doing business. The UAE is a highly conducive digital market with 78% smartphone and 94% Internet penetration- among the highest rates globally. Beside the ample government support in Abu Dhabi, twofour54 has successfully become the home to leading media companies and a growing production base for Hollywood films. Also, Abu Dhabi is now becoming home to large industrial companies that could benefit from innovations generated by startups."
That's what Flat6Labs CEO Ramez Mohamed has to say about why they've chosen Abu Dhabi as their newest venture-base. Mohamed agrees that the newly appointed Managing Director of Flat6Labs Abu Dhabi, Nina Curley of startup-centric Wamda fame, is perhaps what one would call a dream fit for the operation. Her extensive background and network is one of the biggest value-adds of the region's new accelerator. Mohamed smiles as he mentions the flurry of headlines that accompanied the announcement of Curley joining the company. "She just recruited 50 mentors for Flat6Labs Abu Dhabi; mentors on design, mentors from LinkedIn, Facebook. She's amazing!"
The question, as Mohamed puts it, is not why not Dubai, but rather why not Abu Dhabi. He doesn't agree with the pervasive idea that Dubai is considered the region's Silicon Valley. He points out (correctly) that while the upper management or business development startup personnel are often based in Dubai, their actual production hubs are based throughout MENA in their home cities that are much more affordable, and afford them a multitude of plusses: "You can't say that Dubai is a 'startup hub'. You can say that it's a place to find opportunity to start a business, to scale and to develop your business. Abu Dhabi is similarly very well positioned, and we saw that no one was making use of that. As Arabs, in our home countries, we know the talent, we have market access, we know how to do things there, and we are good at it. We always make use of this as a good sell to investors when talking about our startups. So, as a founder, when my development office is in Beirut or in Cairo or in Amman, I'm paying them way cheaper than what I would in Dubai or London or San Francisco."
The 30-year-old CEO's background in technology spans various arenas over a 10-year period; he's worked in mobile applications and software, and his passion for the MENA startup scene is enough to keep you riveted while he opines on everything from the somewhat pervasive startup "entitlement" attitude to where he sees deficiencies, and still better, where he sees potential for growth and expansion. Prior to being recruited by Flat6Labs for the regional CEO position, he oversaw and developed the mobile business app area of Sarmady, a Cairo Vodafone Company. A Computer Engineering graduate of Alexandria University, Mohamed is extremely engaged in the space- a day after this interview took place in the UAE, he was off to participate as a panelist at BDL Accelerate 2014 in Lebanon, a two-day startup conference. He is, like many successful people, realistic about the kind of time investment it takes to do things well. This isn't to say that just because he works "between 16 to 18 hours a day", and doesn't take weekends off that he expects startups to do the same: "I've been thinking about this a lot- I don't want to be preaching about work-life balance and then doing something different. A huge part of my life is my career and seeing the company grow and progress. Almost all of my friends have the same work cycle I do."
He's also got personal startup experience: "It was nothing exciting, but we made some good money." And now he's got the professional experience- all of these factors combined, paired with Mohamed's realistic enthusiasm helps propel Flat6Labs as a whole, and subsequently their startups case by case. "Two of our great success stories are Egypt's PieRide –they've created a community and they're addressing the traffic problem- and Nafham. Nafham is one of the biggest educational platforms in the region; they have more than 15,000 videos on their website now. More than 100,000 lessons are watched on Nafham per day, and they're partnered with Google and Intel." Nafham graduated from Flat6Labs Cairo's second cycle, and the videos covering Egyptian, Saudi, Syrian and Algerian school curricula are aggregated by teachers and volunteers. There are more than 4,000 crowdsourced videos "growing at a rate of 70% per annum, Nafham is undoubtedly positioning itself as the leading educational platform in the MENA region." Mohamed also mentions KSA- based Sawerly as a significant success story from Flat6Labs Jeddah.
"Sawerly graduated from Flat6Labs Jeddah's first cycle as one of the first online marketplaces to book photographers in the KSA and the greater MENA region. Sawerly has been making great strides and expanded their database to over than 350 photographers, and delivered tens of photo shoots across the Kingdom in the past few months. Sawerly have made numerous media appearances, attended many conferences, and recently won the first place prize for ArabNet Riyadh 2014 and the Get in the Ring Competition in Saudi Arabia."
Launched in Cairo in 2011, Flat6Labs celebrated their three-year anniversary in October of last year. After Cairo, Flat6Labs Jeddah was developed in partnership with SME-champions Qotuf Al Riyadah in KSA. Their new base in Abu Dhabi isn't the only announcement; late last year they announced that an early stage investment company is on the agenda. The goal? To invest 50 million Egyptian pound (approximately $7 million) in 100 startups over the next five years. In the same announcement, Flat6Labs also stated that they have plans to get even bigger with later expansions across MENA, including Turkey.
What does it take to make Mohamad warm up to your startup idea? "I don't look at the startup as a 'person'. I don't feel like I have to be personally attached to the startup or like them to be able to deal with them on a daily basis. It's mainly about the team: are they really passionate about this? You can really see it in their eyes- are they hungry to make this work? Do they know what they need to get this up and running? Do they have the skills? Do they have the right people on their team? Some startups haven't even Googled the competition; they don't know the market that they're trying to enter! This is the most frustrating part of our work- they don't do the research to see and understand what they can offer better than their competitors. We mainly counsel our startups to be as professional as possible- we have many sessions and mentors on everything from communication to the more detailed parts of business. We offers training and tons of sessions."
Ultimately, Mohamed is clear on what the new accelerator sees as a recipe for successful startup candidacy: your business needs to have the right elements, in the right order, and that includes dedication and know-how. If your startup has the potential, then they're behind you all the way with everything from skill-building to financing. Startups heading to Abu Dhabi, you're about to capitalize on the region's newest (and possibly most proactive) ecosystem in the region. Their philosophy starts at the very top, and it pervades every aspect of the process.
By the Numbers
57 The number of companies created across Egypt and KSA by Flat6Labs jeddah and Flat6Labs Cairo.
160 The number of entrepreneurs behind these same companies.
15 Amount in millions of Egyptian pounds raised in funding in Egypt alone. 400 The number of jobs created in KSA and Egypt by these companies.
50% The percentage of Flat6Labs companies registered regarding their follow-on funding rate.
40 The number of different investors from across the globe to date.
60 The number of mentors and speakers available to provide tutelage to Flat6Labs startups, in addition to more than 30 local, regional and global partners, prior to the launch of Flat6Labs Abu Dhabi.
7,000 The number of training hours given to Flat6Labs startups over a three-year period since inception.
80 The number of companies Flat6Labs Abu Dhabi is targeting for launch over the next four years.
"Flat6Labs Abu Dhabi will utilize twofour54's local expertise and facilities combined with insights from Emirati business leaders, global technology experts, local and regional investment experts and leaders to be one of the fastest and easiest routes to set up digital businesses in the UAE. twofour54 has also seen Flat6Labs as one of the best accelerator models in the region to grow a startup ecosystem based on innovation in the capital of the UAE. twofour54 is supporting Flat6Labs Abu Dhabi with seed capital, facilitated licensing, and regulatory services, office space, access to media production facilities, exposure to twofour54's network of experts and mentors, integration with twofour54's training programs and access to venture capital for graduated startup companies."
"Flat6Labs Abu Dhabi's vision is to be a global hub for digital innovation that will support a generation of entrepreneurs from the UAE and abroad to launch media and digital businesses in Abu Dhabi, and scale to regional and global markets."
"We accept startups in any stage: idea, prototype or released product. Its main focus will be on digital content and ecommerce, social media and citizen journalism, media and video production, and mobile applications. Flat6Labs Abu Dhabi will be open to any entrepreneur from around the world to apply. We don't have specific quota based on a certain demographic, although we would love to see more local entrepreneurs applying to join the program as we always work closely with different local ecosystem stakeholders in markets we operate in to support local entrepreneurs. We believe that the community is the main pillar for the long-term success of any accelerator program, so we are planning several programs and activities to engage the local community and encourage local entrepreneurs to launch their businesses through Flat6Labs Abu Dhabi."
"We will provide each one that joins Flat6Labs Abu Dhabi accelerator program with seed funding of up to $50,000 for equity of 10% to 15% with opportunity for matching funds upon graduation. We are also providing them with a large array of services like strategic mentorship, a creative workspace, legal support, a multitude of perks that are worth more than $300,000, facilitated visa acquisition, licensing, and regulatory services, entrepreneurship-focused business training, and directly supporting them through an expansive network of partner entities, mentors and investors."
"We usually focus on three main criteria when selecting teams to join any of Flat6Labs' programs. Firstly, the idea; how innovative and disruptive it is. Secondly, the market; how big the target market is, the potential for growth and scaling, and how the competition looks like. Third, the most important of all is the team, its members' background, and if they possess the skills needed to successfully build the product, enter the market, and scale the business in the future."
"Our model is based on an accelerated pace of investment cycles. We will be running four month cycles twice every year- in each cycle, we are expecting to accelerate 10 startups. We opened the application of the first cycle during the Abu Dhabi Media Summit in November and we expect to start our first accelerator cycle in this quarter."