We asked Jon Richards and Samer Chehab, co-founders of compareit4me.com, a MENA startup that has been successful in raising a total of over US$9 million in funding till date, to share their tips for aspiring entrepreneurs in the Middle East starting up and establishing their business in the region. Here's what they had to say:
Surround yourself with good people.
"That could be advisors, mentors, investors, co-founders and staff. If you happen to start a business on your own, just employ good people, and get them bought into the vision. Get them bought into the business so you get the most out of them, so they work as hard as you do, so they feel that they’re a part of the success of the business. I wouldn’t like to be an entrepreneur on my own. When the pressure’s on, it can feel like everything on you– even when there are two guys beside you sharing the burden of running the business. If you’re on your own, I think it’d be really tough.”
Connect with investors early.
“Speak to investors even when you aren’t ready to raise money. Let them meet you, let them see you, let them track you. No investor is writing deals within a month. People want to follow you– the due diligence process is going to take a long time. It can take six to nine months to get cash in the bank in the Middle East, but that process is a lot quicker if you’ve met the investor already, if they know about your story, if they’ve already had access to your projections, and they can check to see if you’ve hit those projections.”
Strategize human capital.
“The old mantra of ‘hire slow, fire fast’ is as relevant today as it’s always been. You have to have the best people working for you. They have to be driven, they have to understand the goal and the vision, and they have to understand what you need from them."
KSA is the biggest market in the region, so you have to have a Saudi plan.
"If you don’t have a Saudi plan, raising local, institutional funds is probably going to be tough. A few years ago, everyone talked about being mobilefirst. I wonder now if there should be a startup strategy which is Saudi-first. You make Saudi Arabia work, it’s the largest market, and you push from there around the region. Have a Saudi plan, understand how you can make it in Saudi, and start working on it significantly quicker than you think you need to. Saudi Arabia is a hard market to launch in– many big businesses have tried and failed. Do your research, get your license in, and consider Saudi Arabia as early as you can.”
Choose your investors wisely.
“Investors are going to be a large part of your business. They’re going to have rights, and access, and if you’re not doing what you say you’re going to do, your life could be pretty painful. Choose the right investors. We’ve got amazing investors who support us, who believe in us, who give us advice. I wouldn’t like to imagine what it would be like to run a business if that wasn’t the case.”
Commercialize your business ASAP.
“I’ve heard a lot of people say that raising money during a Series A was difficult. At compareit4me, we found it pretty easy, if I’m honest. As far as I can see, the simple reason behind that is that we had revenue, and we had a model. We’d already proven that we can generate revenue through this model. The businesses I’ve seen who have said it’s difficult to raise Series A are those tech-heavy, amazing products that are being built for the future, but the revenue will come later. In this part of the world, I don’t know how easy it is to raise money when you don’t have a way to commercialize your business in the near future.”
“The old adage of ‘perfection is the enemy of execution’ is something we live by every day at compareit4me. If I look back at some of the versions that we’ve put live, it’s almost laughable. But we just had to deploy, and we had to learn using real, human data. It’s the only way you learn. You push it live, you learn, you iterate, and you go again. It’s as simple as that.”
“Everything we do, we keep it simple. We don’t overcomplicate anything. We find the quickest way to do something, and we just make it happen.”