The Middle East Is Ripe For Technology Entrepreneurship
Technology is at the forefront of the Middle East's phenomenal present-day momentum. And where technology is driving profound change, the opportunities for successful entrepreneurship are expansive and compelling.
I'm a long-time believer in (and practitioner of) technology-oriented entrepreneurship. My most recent startup, Vitrue, which provides social media publishing software, was acquired by Oracle in 2012. Before Vitrue, I was CEO of N2 Broadband, one of the first video-on-demand technology companies, which was acquired by Tandberg Television in 2004. And before that, I helped shape the world's first online healthcare information site, WebMD, acquired by Healtheon in 1999. Today, I'm Senior Vice President of Product Development in Social Relationship Management at Oracle. I'm also on the boards of three technology startups, two in marketing and one in digital health. I'm also an advisor to a new, US$120 million venture capital firm investing in "digital lifestyle" startups in Europe.
So, while technology is not a new area, I believe the opportunities are only just beginning. First, technology is a multi-leveled avenue for innovation, both a platform and a commodity- sometimes both at once (think smartphone). Second, it offers a range of options, from the wide consumer market to the deep corporate enterprise arena.
The most compelling technology trends of the last several years -social, mobile, cloud, and data analytics- have leveled the playing field for ambitious entrepreneurs, and not just metaphorically. Would it surprise you to know that 85% of the traffic on Facebook comes from outside the United States and Canada? To borrow a well-worn phrase, the world is flat: It's a global marketplace, and technology is the support structure.
Which means, for one thing, that you don't have to be in Silicon Valley to create the next Uber or Airbnb. All three of my startups were founded and based in Atlanta, Georgia (USA), which wasn't known as a hub of technology development- at least, not back then.
A successful startup is really about five imperatives:
- Discovering a big, disruptive market opportunity
- Building the right team
- Solving the product/market fit equation
- Finding the right source of capital
- Identifying the right customers
Technology startups have certain characteristics when it comes to product innovation and development. In the business-to-business (B2B) realm, you can count on your customers to help you shape your product (for better or worse). In the business-to-consumer (B2C) market, it's about following consumer behavior- or, better yet, anticipating it.
Overall, one of the secrets to entrepreneurial success is finding regional economic drivers and then innovating around those. In technology, though, don't be too parochial in your thinking.
If you're located in Atlanta, or Dubai, you have one big advantage over more tech-entrenched areas when it comes to launching a well researched, creatively imagined, intelligently funded technology startup: you stand out. So think big! No less an ambitious entrepreneur than Larry Page, co-founder of Google, criticized today's technology startups for lacking ambition. "We're probably underinvested as a world in that," he said.
In terms of hiring, I will take enthusiasm over experience any day. Battle scars and gray hair may connote hard-won wisdom, but new ideas are the key to entrepreneurial success. That's especially true in the digital environment. Look for people who understand millennials, both their consumer traits and their work habits.
The Middle East stands at the crossroads of the old and new economies- literally. Dubai International Airport is among the top three in the world in total passengers. Its proximity to developing economies like Africa and India gives it a significant strategic advantage over those in Western countries, and creates tremendous opportunities for the region.
Cloud, social, mobile, and the sharing economy- these technology trends are happening globally, and are being driven as much east-to-west as they are west-to-east. It's a good time to be an ambitious technology entrepreneur in the Middle East. So think big!