StartUp Weekend Amman will be one of a few start-up weekends around the region that focuses on the importance of entrepreneurship in different fields. We sat down with Aysha El Shamayleh, who will be a keynote speaker at the upcoming StartUp Weekend in Amman on September 11.
Could you tell me a bit about how you got involved, and maybe share some of the topics you are hoping to speak about at the conference?
I was asked to speak at the conference by one of the organizers. I’ll be speaking about the online economy in the Middle East and North Africa, more broadly in terms of its potential, its problems, and the current challenges new startups and established online businesses are facing in the region. I’ll also be sharing some tips for aspiring e-entrepreneurs, such as how to assess and choose realistic business ideas, what challenges to expect and how to avoid them, and some do’s and dont’s regarding implementation.
What do you think is the importance of entrepreneurship in the region, and what changes do you hope it helps to achieve?
Many articles and Arab influencers are promoting entrepreneurship as a solution to the unemployment problem in the Arab world, however, this hasn’t proven to be valid just yet. I find myself preferring that we avoid romanticizing entrepreneurship until the startup ecosystem in the Middle East proves to be mature enough to produce sustainable and profitable businesses in the first place, and subsequently, stable jobs. We’re on the way towards that, but we’re not there quite yet. For now, I believe the importance of entrepreneurship is to foster and support an Arab presence in the global economy and improve economic self-sufficiency. As far as the Internet economy’s story goes in the MENA region, when the internet arrived, we got online but there was little for us to do or read in Arabic. For those of us who are privileged enough to have a good command of the English language, we relied on international companies, such as Amazon and eBay to satisfy our needs as online consumers. In the meantime, the majority of the Arab World’s population was excluded from this economy. Furthermore, our needs weren’t being satisfied 100% — consumers in different parts of the world have different needs. If you look at online businesses in emerging countries today, you’ll notice that local e-commerce sites are surprisingly much more successful than their international counterparts, because they understand and address the local consumer’s needs in a customized way. Today, while Arabic content is indeed growing, internet penetration in MENA is high enough to justify the birth of billion dollar online companies, and the proliferation of trusted online services in Arabic, however, the Arab consumer is still complaining of shortages. If this is addressed, then this will achieve three things; we enable the Arab consumer to have equal access to the online economy, we address the needs of the Arab consumer in an efficient and customized way that best satisfies us, and we achieve a better sense of economic self sufficiency, a “by us, for us” pride that other developing economies managed to attain, one our generation is eager to experience.
How can people get involved in start-ups or learn more?
There are many resources online and offline. iMENA Holdings has a blog on its website where our executives discuss the most recent trends. ArabNet is quickly becoming an important online resource for young entrepreneurs. There’s also incubators such as Oasis 500 that are helping entrepreneurs kickstart their journeys, and offline events such as Startup Weekend Amman that have helped grow and support a community for entrepreneurs.
What kind of start-ups do you believe are the most sustainable in the region?
Although e-retail (such as Souq.com) is attracting a lot of attention, I believe online marketplaces are the most sustainable for the time being. E-commerce is still facing its own challenges in the region when it comes online payment, due to the banking sector’s conservatism but also lack of trust on the consumer’s part. Furthermore, e-commerce startups require very large capital and high overhead costs, such as warehousing and transportation. On the other hand, online marketplaces, such as OpenSooq (Arabic online classifieds sites) SellAnyCar.com (online car selling service), ReserveOut (online restaurant reservation service), Easy Taxi Middle East (cab booking app), HelloFood Middle East (online food ordering), present themselves as low hanging fruit for several reasons. For one, their market isn’t saturated yet while their business models have been proven to be successful outside the region and hence the business risk is negligible. The technology they use is simple and easy to implement and maintain. Furthermore, they are affordable to set up while also presenting huge potential for growth and profitability. They offer a simple service that doesn’t require you to educate the consumer – we know how traditional marketplaces work and hence the concept isn’t foreign. Lastly, they provide a solution that is clear and necessary to the consumer, using the internet’s power in connecting people people to offer the consumer the convenience to shop for meals, transportation, goods and cars from the comfort of their desks.