Recently, we had a chance to talk to Omar Christidis, CEO of Arabnet, the largest entrepreneurship networks in MENA, about the startup ecosystem in the region, get insights on how it has changed over the past 10 years, and discover what is unique about young founders in Arab countries.
What do see as the major difference between the MENA region a decade ago and today?
When Arabnet launched 10 years ago, the ecosystem was at a nascent stage, so we had a different role to play: we were helping to build an industry from the ground up. Our focus was on developing a platform for startups and investors to connect, engaging new corporates into the digitization sector, and connecting stakeholders across different markets to share insights and do business together.
The ecosystem has substantially grown since then. There’s been a tenfold increase of VCs in many markets, there are over a dozen $100M startups, there’s been an exit at over $1B which we would not have dreamed of before. Verticalization of the industry is another big one. In the past, the conversation was as an industry more broadly, whilst today there’s focus areas such as fintech, foodtech, adtech, etc. Many governments across the region are prioritizing programs focused on growing the sector, such as Circular 331 in Lebanon, the Kuwait National Fund, and SME Authority in Saudi Arabia.
We have recently seen interest from big family offices and corporations in investing in startups, and have witnessed a good number of corporate venture capital arms and corporate accelerators and innovation programs.
What do you find unique about entrepreneurship in the region? Is there something that you see in the local founders/CEOs that you would not see in entrepreneurs, let’s say, from Europe or the U.S.?
The resilience of entrepreneurs working in the region. Entrepreneurs across the globe have a shared set of challenges in launching and growing their startup - like raising funding and finding talent and growing their customer base. In the MENA region, entrepreneurs face an additional set of challenges related to emerging markets: in some markets, entrepreneurs have to deal with weak infrastructure or face political instability, in other markets, lots of client education needs to be done. To top it all off, the MENA region is fragmented - with major regulatory differences and even cultural differences - which adds the challenge of scaling across borders in the region.
The competition in MENA is growing, thus it’s more difficult for startups to stand out and get the attention of investors, partners, funds, media, customers, etc. Based on your more than 10-year experience of work with startups, what do you think the most successful teams have in common?
Startups succeed and fail by the people that bring them to life. A startup can have all the potential in the world but can be hindered by its people.
For instance, although there’s nothing wrong with being a solopreneur, being a solopreneur adds additional challenges for the get-go. Startups with 2 or more founders are more likely to attract investors and take less time to grow and scale. The main reason behind this is because solopreneurs do not have someone to bounce ideas with or have diverse skills which you have in multiple founders.
Additionally, mid-career professionals are primed to launch startups that tackle the problems that they experience directly. These are people who are between the ages of 35 and 40 who have been working in the industry for 10 or 15 years. They understand the pain points of that specific industry, have the right connections, have built a reputation, knowledge, expertise, and experience. They are familiar with all the issues and they’re much better positioned to tackle that problem than anyone else.
You and your team managed to build one of the largest entrepreneurship networks in MENA. What’s the main aim of your annual event Arabnet Riyadh? What topics and issues will be highlighted this year?
Arabnet’s vision has always been to catalyze growth in the tech industry by being a platform for knowledge and connections - bringing together government policymakers, corporate leaders, and startups and investors to unlock emerging opportunities in the sector.
Arabnet Riyadh is the largest and most influential event for digital business and innovation in the Kingdom that brings together thousands of decision-makers and innovators to connect and learn. With the increasing importance of Saudi Arabia as an entrepreneurial hub, and with startup around the region flocking to expand into the Kingdom, Arabnet Riyadh is the ideal platform to engage with the region’s largest and fastest-growing digital market. It is the perfect platform to understand what it takes to enter the Saudi market, find the right partners or investors, and connect with potential customers.
What do you consider your core strength as an organization?
At our 10 year anniversary, we did a lot of soul searching and dreaming - about what our vision should be for the next decade of our business. In the process, we came to realize that our core strengths are our extensive knowledge in the tech industry, and our access to the largest and widest group of digital experts and decision-makers, and to opportunities.
As technology proliferated over the past 10 years, the sector transformed, and technology went from the IT department to the boardroom, where innovation and digitization strategies became a priority. To answer their needs, we launched our Insight division and Innovation Programs division and we’re focused on growing these two divisions during our upcoming phase.
Arabnet Insights is collaborating with clients to position them as thought leaders through publications and research. Our specialized content dives into disruptive technologies and startup trends, and provide guidance for decision-makers, with tools such as op-eds, whitepapers, reports, case studies, and more.
In Arabnet Innovation Programs, we collaborate with our partners to conceptualize and deliver tailor-made innovation activities, from hackathons and startup competitions to full-year incubation programs. With the rise of corporate interest in innovation and startups, we’re excited to help build new bridges and create new synergies- as we did when we started our business.
How do you envision the future of Arabnet and see your role in shaping the entrepreneurial landscape in MENA?
I see Arabnet becoming more engaged with policymakers in the region. We’ve developed strong relationships with government decision-makers who are focused on innovation and digitization, and we’ve been supporting with data and analysis, as well as advising and proposing solutions. We’ve also helping convene government leaders from across the region in our Digital Policy Forum, where they can share experiences and best practices for building a flourishing digital economy.
Lastly, my aspirations, as I believe is similar to many founders, is to build a strong, independent and sustainable institution, that continues to thrive after my departure, whether that’s in the next 5 years or the next 20. I believe Arabnet has been a positive influence in the region’s tech world over the past decade, and I hope that it will continue to spread knowledge, open up opportunities, and build relationships that lead to lasting impact.
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