Boosting Potential: Sheraa Sharjah's Participants On What An Accelerator Experience Means For Your Startup
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As an early-stage entrepreneur, a typical day in your life may see you juggling the art of refining your product, along with your efforts to capture those initial sales to win over the market. And though you may be quite adept at this juggling act, you may agree that businesses are rarely built in a vacuum. With a prominent and well-promoted boom in the region today in the entrepreneurship and startups space, there are countless programs, ranging from incubators, accelerators, startup hunts, and other support organizations, to help you grow your company. The challenge then lies in understanding the value of each of these drivers, and ascertaining which one is right for you and your startup.
Consider startup accelerators, for instance. Accelerators are playing an increasingly critical role in building and nurturing entrepreneurial communities around the world, including emerging economies. If you’ve been keeping track of the pace at which new accelerators seem to be launching across the MENA region, you’d be happy to hear what Ian Hathaway in the Harvard Business Review has to say about the role of accelerators: “Early evidence demonstrates significant potential of accelerators to improve startups’ outcomes, and for these benefits to spill over into the broader startup community.” However, the author is quick to note that “the measurable impact” accelerators have on the ecosystem and its participants is the most important factorbut that’s also not too easy to measure. “Not all accelerators are created equally; quality matters,” he notes.
So, what exactly are accelerators, and what is it that makes them a valuable support system for startups, that are often vying with one another to get into an accelerator? Typically, accelerators select startups (usually in their early stages) in batches, and in return for a small share of equity, they offer advice, space, sector guidance, investor connections, and mentorship. Programs usually culminate in what’s usually called a “demo day,” where startups have a chance to pitch to a gathering of investors. While the benefits may seem attractive for any entrepreneur just starting out, and current trends too are heavily stacked in favor of an accelerator program for your early-stage venture, it would be safe to say that entrepreneurs remain quite confused when it comes to decisions on accelerator programs- more so in a nascent entrepreneurship community like that of this region.
So, is an accelerator the right choice for you? If so, what are a few key factors you must be cautious about before getting into one? Well, the journeys of your peers could come in handy to help you navigate your way through this critical decision- and so we talked to a bunch of UAE-based entrepreneurs who have gone through the accelerator program at the Sharjah-based entrepreneurship enabler Sheraa to share their experiences with us- and what the rest of you can learn from them.
RETHINKING THE BUSINESS
Co-founders (and sisters) Zaina and Rania Kanaan of UAE-based startup Charicycles are entrepreneurs who stress that an accelerator’s biggest benefit is to help give you a bigger picture of your business and its direction. “It pulls you away from your daily roller coaster, and lets you see far beyond your next step, which if accelerated in the right time could be a pivotal point for any business,” say the duo. The entrepreneurs, who graduated from Sheraa earlier this year, believe they have more clarity today on their market and business thanks to the stint. There’s also the intense and immersive experience of the programs that compress years’ worth of practical learning into a few months. For instance, Vaibhav Doshi, co-founder and CEO of UAE-based online rental portal RentSher, says a good accelerator can provide one or more of the following: a tailored agenda and support for growth, quick access to network of investors and mentors, a conducive coworking space, seed funding, and industry specific expertise.
Advising entrepreneurs on the decision to enter an accelerator, Doshi says, “If you are in need of two or more of the above, then look for a good accelerator, else look for specific support.” RentSher too graduated from Sheraa earlier this year. “This was our first experience with any accelerator…Sheraa team, the mentors, and the curriculum forced us to rethink why we are doing what we are doing, and to formulate the core strategy. Where we benefited the most was getting concrete feedback on our value proposition, brand positioning, and the growth strategy,” says Doshi.
For Mashal Waqar, the co-founder and COO of The Tempest, a digital media and technology entity, the process of evaluating an accelerator begins with a self-assessment by entrepreneurs of their own strengths and weaknesses. “Joining an accelerator takes commitment in the form of time and efforts- both need to be effectively utilized by entrepreneurs,” she says. “You’ve got to be smart about where you invest your time and what you commit to.” Her pick for key aspects to consider include institutional partners to the accelerator, the investor network, the time commitment, and other portfolio startups, among others. “During our accelerator program, all the startup founders got to pitch to Sheraa’s VVIP board, which included the likes of H.E. Sheikha Bodour Al Qasimi, Fadi Ghandour from the Wamda Group, and Badr Jafar from Crescent Enterprises,” she says, when speaking about her experience at Sheraa.
THE RIGHT FIT
While the benefits of an accelerator program are clearly aplenty, like any business decision, there are also challenges that you need to consider and work around. As joi’s Celen and Tilani point out, all said and done, going through an accelerator program can definitely be “a bit of a distraction from the actual business,” given the demands on a founder’s time. “It’s a balancing act, and spending time going through the program requires a trade-off with time working on the actual business’s day-to-day activities,” say the entrepreneurs. This is why Charicycles’ founders Zaina and Rania Kanaan too consider the skill of "keeping the ball rolling” very critical for entrepreneurs in this phase, so that traction isn’t lost.
Another pitfall from the time at an accelerator could be the presence of too many opinions floating around you- while offered with good intent, it can often be very confusing, and at times frustrating for any entrepreneur, says RentSher’s Doshi. “If you work on incorporating every bit of feedback you get, you may be completely lost. So, as a founder you need to be clear on what is the core idea, what is negotiable and what is not and work accordingly,” he adds. “Too many cooks can spoil the broth,” add joi’s Celen and Tilani, who urge founders to collect as much feedback as possible, and then “sift through” the guidance.
One also needs to be clear on what the accelerator actually offers you as a startup. “It’s possible that your startup may be at a muchlater growth stage, and the program caters to startups at an earlier growth stage- in such a case, the mentors, resources, and program structure may not be as effective to you, as it would to another startup,” says The Tempest’s Waqar. She also warns on potential burn-out for entrepreneurs trying to do it all. “This is where having good co-founders can prove to be invaluable,” she notes. Al Abd of Solva Technologies also sounds a warning note about resource burn as well. “With a turbulent vision and a certain extent of flexibility, accelerators might indirectly channel entrepreneurs into different visions and approaches, resulting in a higher cash burn, which leads to ending the life of a startup,” he says.
For the Charicycles founders, benefitting from an accelerator is all about some good ol’ time management. “Being part of an accelerator and benefiting from it means making time to actually do the work, show up to the classes, and hold extra meetings outside of the scope of the program.” RentSher’s Doshi agrees, and believes that to maximize value out of the experience, entrepreneurs should “review each agenda item, and communicate with the accelerator team, if they want to focus on some other topics, or be exempt from a particular session.”
WHAT HAPPENS AFTER
And for those among you who prefer to go by tangible evidence to back up these claims by your peers, you’d be happy to hear how the stint at Sheraa has changed the lives of the entrepreneurs we spoke to, and how it impacted the trajectory of their enterprises. For RentSher, for instance, the Sheraa stint has led to betterment of critical areas of their business. “I would say that we became more organized on some aspects of the business, increased internal communication within the founding team as well as the rest of talent, and lastly started to work with some other cohort members for business partnerships,” says Doshi.
The joi founding team too admits of noticeable differences in their operations. “We’ve continued to scale up, partly because of the soul-searching we did while we were at Sheraa, and the resulting focus,” say Celen and Tilani. “It allowed us to identify some of our strengths and cut out some of the noise. It helped us widen our network a little bit; we also got more exposure in Sharjah, which is a market we were keen to tap into, and we now have some additional corporate contacts in that market thanks to Sheraa.”
For a very early-stage venture such as Solva Technologies, Sheraa has been a support to it right from creation to establishment. “The monetary grant we received helped us develop our hardware division, which was crucial to initiating our operations,” Al Abd says. “Thanks to Sheraa, we have strategized ourselves in the UAE market, as they’ve granted us access to many government entities, investors and clients. Today, having Masdar and BP investment, we are expanding our team, accelerating our growth and strategizing to tap into other countries in the region, while building the ‘brain’ that will drive the electrification process of the logistics industry through utilizing big data analytics and blockchain technologies.”
All said and done, it’s pretty clear that participating in an accelerator can be helpful to your startup, but there’s not much doubt that entrepreneurs should be extremely discerning in choosing a program that fits their specific needs. While a good accelerator program can send entrepreneurs into the orbit of greater success, one can’t put too much onus on the accelerator alone to be the magic potion- as hustlers, the responsibility is on you to make best use of the opportunity. Carpe diem!
Q&A with Sheraa’s Venture Growth Manager Tarek Ahmed
What are the key challenges that early-stage startups that enter an accelerator typically face?
“The main challenge that startups in the accelerator face is raising funds in the region. They need support in not only getting investor-ready, but also connecting to the right investors and pitching their idea in an investor-friendly way. Other than that, they also come in with a lack of focus. They need help in pinpointing their key focus areas and sharpening their growth ambitions. In most startups, one other key challenge is the founding team leading and executing all tasks. This leads to founders finding themselves overwhelmed and overstressed by the amount of work and drowning in the details of the day-to-day. They need help in pulling themselves out of the daily grind to get a bigger picture of their business, where it is headed, and then set priorities accordingly.”
ACCORDING TO YOU, WHAT ARE A FEW ASPECTS IN WHICH ACCELERATORS IN THE MIDDLE EAST SHOULD DIFFER FROM THEIR GLOBAL COUNTERPARTS?
“Accelerators in the region are catering to a younger ecosystem, rather than the more mature markets that can be found globally. This means that one of the key pillars in the program is the education component, which highlights the entrepreneurial mindset and differentiates the way startups run from the more commonly known corporate structure. Accelerators are the foundation of the entrepreneurial ecosystem, building up the startups and providing them with the support needed on each stage of their journey.
1. Support in business set-up As policies and procedures for business set up is not transparent in emerging markets and early-stage startups can’t afford expensive consultancy services, accelerators come in to help with the paperwork. A majority of the time, just the hassle of the set up can deter aspiring entrepreneurs from going any further. In an accelerator program, not only is the process laid out in a more clear and concise way, but the experts are always around to help with any hiccups, allowing the founders to focus more time on the startup itself.
2. Intermediary between investors and startups As investors -both from the region and globally- don’t have the most trusting view towards the founders from the region, accelerators are building an integral intermediary platform. Accelerators are the entities brining together both parties. Therefore, it is important that accelerators in the region should have a different operating model, instead of getting startups onboard for the sake of equity. Accelerators need to work closely with the startups to identify their unique growth needs, which would make them ready for investors. The trainings are tailored to the problems startups face specifically in this region, while also utilizing latest growth tools and techniques. The end result is a more confident startup, with better market-fit and more investor-ready.”
Entrepreneurs on the key benefits their startups enjoyed thanks to their time at Sheraa Sharjah
Vaibhav Doshi, co-founder and CEO, RentSher
“[Firstly], B2B business development support- through the support of Sheraa, and under the Arab Supply Chain Impact Initiative we were able to get a MoU with Shurooq Sharjah and contracts from other Sharjah-based entities to be their rental partners. We already secured business of more than AED100,00. [Second], strong exposurewe had the opportunity to present the RentSher story to an esteemed audience at Sheraa showcase day. [Finally], mentorship- Sheraa had some high-quality faculty members and mentors guiding us during the program. Also, the Sheraa team itself is very supportive and worked closely with us to shape our growth strategy and priorities.”
Yousif Al Abd, co-founder and CEO, Solva Technologies
“Working with Sheraa and The Catalyst [a tech startup accelerator based in Masdar City Free Zone] has given us access to the following advantages. [Firstly], visibility to investors and access to capital- Many investors are invited to different presentations during the programs which help entrepreneurs get connected directly to interested investors who are on the look for the next big thing. Both Sheraa and The Catalyst invest in startups that show the industry serious novelty in the solutions they bring to the market. [Second], market access- the advance publicity can help validate your product/service and give you a structured timeline to work through. So, you keep those future partners ready and waiting for your launch, which builds your momentum in the market by providing you with the so-called early adopters. [Third], accelerated learning- the intensive program enables rapid improvement of essential business skills such as sales, marcomm, finance and even some technical skills in such a short time. [Finally], continued support- building relationships during the program allows entrepreneurs to seek support, reach to investors, or get feedback as they proceed.”
Zaina and Rania Kanaan, co-founders, Charicycles
“It’s in being surrounded by so many other ideas and startups that are learning and growing, and also in particular having access to leaders in their industries during the fire side chat, which allowed for learning transparently on what these leaders are doing right and what they’ve done wrong.”