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Unicorns Vs. Zebras: Rethinking What Counts For Entrepreneurial Success In The MENA Region Unlike unicorns, which prioritize rapid growth and sky-high valuations, zebras focus on sustainability, profitability, and social impact.

By Shereen Tawfiq Edited by Aby Sam Thomas

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

You're reading Entrepreneur Middle East, an international franchise of Entrepreneur Media.

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I have lost count of the number of times I have heard startups express their dream of becoming unicorns. (For those who may not know, a unicorn is, to put it simply, a company valued at US$1 billion and more.) From fintech to e-commerce, edtech, and beyond, startups in the MENA region appear to set their sights on achieving unicorn status as the pinnacle of success. They are marveling at the stories of the likes of ride-hailing app Careem, the provider of tech-enabled mass transit solutions Swvl, and cloud kitchen and tech-powered restaurant service provider Kitopi.

Now, this thirst to become a unicorn among the MENA's entrepreneurs does not differ from that of any other region around the world. After all, becoming a unicorn reflects the ambitious growth aspirations of startups, and their quest to become globally competitive players in the startup ecosystem.

The Appeal Of Unicorns

Six main drivers summarize such entrepreneurial ambitions, and Startup Genome's The Scaleup Report tells a lot about them. The first is validation and prestige. Reaching the unicorn level demonstrates that the startup has achieved significant growth and garnered substantial investor interest. Second, is access to capital- being a unicorn can attract more investment from venture capitalists, institutional investors, and even sovereign wealth funds. These investors often seek out high-growth startups with the potential for large returns on their investments. Third comes scaling and market dominance: unicorn startups typically operate in high-growth sectors, and they have the potential to disrupt existing industries.

Achieving unicorn status often goes hand in hand with rapid scaling and market dominance. A fourth driver is the power to attract talent as many potential employees are often drawn to companies with a track record of success and strong growth prospects. Unicorns are also capable of offering competitive salaries, stock options, and other perks to attract and retain the best talent in the industry. Fifth comes recognition, as these startups often receive extensive media coverage and global recognition, and they are under investors' radars.

And last, unicorn status increases a startup's attractiveness to potential acquirers, and it can provide more favorable terms in the event of an acquisition or initial public offering (IPO). Many startup founders and investors aim to achieve unicorn status as a steppingstone towards a successful exit strategy, whether through acquisition by a larger company, or by going public. Startup unicorns are a rare breed- as of January 2024, there were little over 1,200 in the world.

A report by Saudi venture capital fund STV finds that in 2030, the MENA region is anticipated to have 45 unicorns. These startups are often characterized by rapid growth and disruptive innovation, capturing the imagination of investors and industry observers alike. They defy conventional norms, leveraging groundbreaking technologies and business models to carve out dominant positions in their respective markets. With their meteoric rise, startup unicorns not only attract substantial funding, but also serve as beacons of inspiration for aspiring entrepreneurs worldwide.

However, their journey is not without challenges, as they navigate through intense competition, valuation challenges, regulatory hurdles, and the pressure to sustain their valuation, while also scaling operations profitably. Despite the risks, startup unicorns symbolize the limitless potential and dynamism of the startup ecosystem, shaping industries and reshaping the way we live and work.

Related: Prince Khaled bin Alwaleed Urges Entrepreneurs To Leverage Regional Strengths Over Replicating Foreign Models

Enter Zebras (And Why They Matter)

It is within such a dizzying ecosystem that startup "zebras" emerge as somewhat more "authentic" alternatives. Zebras represent a contrasting approach to the entrepreneurial landscape when compared to their unicorn counterparts. Unlike unicorns, which prioritize rapid growth and sky-high valuations, zebras focus on sustainability, profitability, and social impact. These companies aim to build resilient businesses that prioritize long-term value creation over short-term gains. They also prioritize solving real-world problems, and creating meaningful solutions that benefit society as a whole.

While zebras may not capture headlines with billion-dollar valuations, they play a crucial role in fostering a more balanced and inclusive startup ecosystem. Unlike the "heroic" and "supernatural" characteristics of unicorns, zebras are a refreshing, more real alternative to the hyper-growth mindset often associated with unicorns, and they demonstrate that success in entrepreneurship can be measured in more than just monetary terms.

In the frenzied pursuit of the next unicorn, it's easy to overlook the value of the zebra. Zebras, with their slow and steady approach, embody resilience and sustainability. While the allure of rapid growth may be intoxicating, it often comes with substantial risks, as evidenced by the cautionary tales of unicorns like WeWork and Veev. Plus, the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic has prompted a shift in investor sentiment, with more emphasis placed on safer investments and profitability. Here, it's crucial to acknowledge that true wealth creation can stem from both growth and profitability. Companies must navigate the delicate balance between expansion and financial stability.

While initial focus may rightly lie in proving product-market fit and scaling, the ultimate goal should always be to maximize shareholder value. Striking this equilibrium ensures not only the survival, but the thriving of businesses in the long run. But even though zebras seem to be less risky than unicorns, they still may encounter difficulties in securing funding, as most investors in an ecosystem are often drawn to high-growth potential and flashy valuations. This can make it challenging for zebras to attract the necessary capital to scale their operations.

The MENA region presents unique market dynamics and regulatory environments that may pose challenges for zebras too. Navigating complex legal frameworks, bureaucratic processes, and market fragmentation can hinder the growth and expansion of zebra startups. Building a diverse and skilled workforce can also be challenging for zebras, especially in highly competitive sectors.

Plus, unlike unicorns, which often benefit from extensive support networks and resources, zebras may face a lack of ecosystem support. This includes limited access to mentorship, networking opportunities, and specialized support services tailored to their unique needs. The cultural perception of entrepreneurship in the MENA region may prioritize traditional business models and high-growth aspirations over sustainable and socially responsible approaches.

Overcoming these perceptions and educating stakeholders about the value of zebra startups can be a significant challenge. Infrastructure limitations and technological gaps in certain areas of the MENA region may hinder the growth of zebra startups, particularly those reliant on advanced technology or digital infrastructure.

Despite these challenges, zebras still have the opportunity to leverage their focus on sustainability, profitability, and social impact to differentiate themselves in the market, and build resilient businesses that contribute positively to society. Collaborative efforts between stakeholders, including governments, investors, and support organizations can help address these challenges, and create a more conducive environment for zebra startups to thrive.

Unicorns Vs. Zebras: What's Better For The MENA?

Whether it's better to be a unicorn or a zebra depends on various factors, including market dynamics, investor preferences, and the goals of the startup. Historically, the MENA region has seen a surge in unicorns, particularly in sectors like e-commerce, fintech, and technology-driven industries. Unicorns often attract significant attention and funding, which can be advantageous for scaling rapidly and expanding across different markets.

However, the focus on hyper growth and massive valuations may not always align with the socio-economic realities and long-term sustainability goals of the region. In the MENA region, whether a startup aims to be a unicorn or a zebra depends entirely on the context, market dynamics, and the founders' values and goals.

Each model carries its own set of pros and cons, and so, the crucial decision lies in selecting the strategy that best fits the startup's vision, market potential, and growth path.

Related: Five Steps To Build Your Entrepreneurial Community In The MENA

Shereen Tawfiq

Co-founder and CEO, Balinca

Shereen Tawfiq, the award winning Saudi co-founder and CEO of Balinca, stands at the forefront of financial education, driving transformative change through her edtech company. Shereen founded Balinca with the mission to demystify finance for non-finance individuals, establishing it as a pioneering force in cultivating financial literacy and decision-making skills by utilizing groundbreaking approaches that include games and simulations. 

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