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Making It Big: Four Tactics That Enabled UAE-Born Startup Ziina To Make It To Y Combinator In 2021, Ziina became the third-ever startup from the UAE accepted into the acclaimed accelerator program run by Silicon Valley-based Y Combinator.

By Faisal Toukan

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The Ziina team

As the co-founder and CEO of Ziina, I am running a Dubai-based startup that is heralding a new age of online payments with its award-winning digital wallet for the UAE. With a mission to bring money online or consumers in the Middle East, Ziina, in 2021, became the third-ever startup from the UAE accepted into the acclaimed accelerator program run by Silicon Valley-based Y Combinator (YC). But how did we manage to accomplish this feat? Here are four tactics we employed at Ziina that I believe helped it get recognized by YC:

1. Launch, experiment, learn, adapt "Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth." Mike Tyson may have been referring to the art of boxing when he said this, but his words are also the core principle behind the lean methodology of running a business. It's a process that favors experimentation over excessive planning, feedback over intuition, and iterative design over traditional "big design up front" development.

The lean methodology is what defined the first few months at Ziina. We launched our first product in just two months. My co-founder, Sarah Toukan, designed it, my other co-founder, Andrew Gold, engineered it, and we hired a part-time designer (who is now our Head of Design) to help polish it off. As can be expected, the result was a little rough around the edges- but people still used it! We came upon countless insights and learnings from that first version.

In fact, we discovered that although consumers wanted our product, it was the small businesses that needed it. Thankfully, YC recognized this scrappiness for what it truly indicated: speed. We embraced the fact that there is much we did not know about our potential users, and launched a minimum viable product as quickly as we could. When the feedback came rolling in, we iterated. The co-founder of LinkedIn, Reid Hoffman, has repeated that if you're not embarrassed by your first product, you've launched too late. We were proudly embarrassed of ours.

Source: Ziina

2. Craft your dream team Our hiring process has always been selective, yet this was even more amplified pre-YC. We never enlisted someone new for the sake of filling a seat, always keeping a position open until we found the right person. When your team has a need, it's very tempting to fill it with the first qualified person you find. But this is very dangerous. In the early days, it's best to have existing team members step up until you understand your hiring needs. If you identify a role that appears necessary to your company's growth, your current workforce can be a gold mine for both leveraging existing know-how and finding new talent.

Related: We Need An Entrepreneurial Spirit To Tackle Women's Issues In The Middle East

I believe the best approach is to ensure your team evolves in tandem with your needs. Many people think it's easier to close candidates if you have a relaxed hiring process, but in fact, having an intensive hiring process helps demonstrate the caliber of the team to the candidate, and build their interest at each stage. Prospective hires have told us that our recruitment process is more intense than Netflix, a testament to our belief that finding the right people doesn't (and shouldn't) come easy.

3. Hustle, hustle, hustle In the early days, my co-founders and I each pored through our friends list to find any link to YC. We reached out to friends (and friends of friends) who had YC-backed companies, soliciting them to recommend Ziina even before our application was submitted. The team at YC wants to see that you're able to connect with the right people. There's no better person to put your name forward than someone who's been through their approval process already.

The Ziina team. Source: Ziina

4. Excel at the art of storytelling I firmly believe that the number one attribute of any successful startup is their ability to tell a compelling story about themselves. Our story revolved around three plot points: - Dubai had just witnessed a massive exit (i.e. Careem), which proved massive companies could be born in the region and instilled a sense of newfound optimism. - The UAE was actively implementing new regulatory structures to foster a growing fintech ecosystem. - International venture capitalists were now looking to the Middle East as an untapped investment horizon.

The conclusion? This perfect storm created the ideal conditions for a player like Ziina to emerge and thrive. However, having facts, figures, and evidence isn't enough. You have to put that evidence into a good story.

Good storytelling requires two elements: high stakes and a shared experience. With Ziina, the stakes were high because we were trying to simplify payments in a way the region had never seen, which tied directly into the shared experience: everyone in the Middle East could relate to moving through transactions faster than their funds could.

For YC specifically, they want to see a narrative of continuous improvement. Mainly that what you've accomplished over a given period of time is substantial- whether you've been in business for a week or decade. For too long, startups could raise on hype and user numbers, even if they weren't paying users. Savvy investors need to see that at the end of the day you will create a money-making business.

Related: Fueling Success: Five Tips For Hyper Growth (Courtesy Lessons Learnt At Google And Pharmacy2U)

Faisal Toukan

Co-founder and CEO, Ziina

Faisal Toukan is the co-founder and CEO of Ziina, the UAE’s first peer-to-peer payment app that is on a mission to simplify finance for everyone. 
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