Keeping It Real: Lessons From 2020 (Through The Lens Of Dubai's Startup Ecosystem)

(This article was published on Entrepreneur Middle East - Article link)


We at Dubai Startup Hub and Dubai Chamber of Commerce and Industry recently conducted a round table centred on Dubai’s entrepreneurial ecosystem, which saw us reconnecting with our peers from other government entities working on the matters of entrepreneurship, along with the management teams of the diverse and vibrant incubators and accelerators based in the Emirate. In my presentation at the event, my opening line went something like this: “We certainly could use some bravado for our dialogue, but we will not; instead, we will keep it real, just the way we teach our entrepreneurs.”


I like to think that this focus on “keeping it real” is a change that’s quite characteristic of the year we’ve had so far. In the paragraphs to follow, I will delve into the subject of change, as well as the lessons that are imperative to remember if a worldwide disruption like we saw in 2020 is to repeat due to any possible far-reaching externality- which doesn’t necessarily have to be another virus-driven pandemic.


Lesson 1: What we are missing, finding ourselves in between a factory life of the past and the complete automation of the future, is creating a sense of belonging.


As a unit of a large organization with streamlined processes and a clearly defined business continuity plan, Dubai Startup Hub did the transition to work remotely quite seamlessly. The spirit of a (fairly) young team was up, and one could sense an almost competitive enthusiasm to tackle the challenge that had emerged, and be there and available to support members of the the entrepreneurs’ community in the Emirate, which counted in thousands.


By the end of the week three or so, the efficiency reached that stage that it became impossible to ignore the fact that we felt nearly like super computers and machines: efficient project management - check, rigorous quality control - check, effective task performance - check. Task in, task out. Task in, and task out again.


This was the moment when you start losing something important and fundamental for an employee of the 21st century: a sense of belonging, shared values, and a fundamental understanding about why, in today’s world full of opportunities, you have actually chosen to work for a specific organization, spending, at a minimum, one-third of your precious day there, both virtually and on-site.


The sense of belonging to a community of people with the goals of organization- those shared goals, and more precisely, values, can be hardly translated through a corporate corporate social responsibility report, or an inspiring video presentation. They emerge and get engrained with one-on-one talks, chats around a coffee machine or a water cooler, or even small talk about weekend plans next to an elevator. And as Charles Duhigg elaborated in his bestseller, The Power Of Habit, organizational habits evolve from the collective habits of employees- not from rational decisions. You can perhaps try to control business continuity, yet it is much harder to manage people’s habits and values.


At Dubai Startup Hub, we realized the mounting issue early enough, and that it needed prompt “intervention” and action. What did that look like? It was a mix of weekly team activities, each time organized by different team members, reflecting their strengths and personal interests- we used Zoom to conduct everything from sports sessions, charades, quizzes, and more together. We also introduced team cheat chat time, when team members had time slots booked in their calendars as a reminder to give a phone call to each other, on one condition– do not speak about work.


Indeed, it was a system that essentially installed a discipline to recreate and maintain the sense of shared values, interests, and belonging. It was a managed intervention in unusual times– and this is the lesson to take forward to future externalities. Because in the 80/20, the shared values fall within the critical 20.


Lesson 2. Everyone needs to become a customer care representative.


In times of undisrupted economic cycles, an average organization would have a well-defined (not adding “well-functioning,” as an adjective of such kind would appear as an overstretched generalization) customer care department or team. There are practical and pragmatic reasons for this– trained personnel with clearly defined key performance indicators (KPIs) can be on the frontlines of communication with customers, while employees in other departments are excelling in their respective areas of responsibility and expertise. However, in times of disruption, every single employee in an organization has to jump into the shoes of a customer care representative.


In times of a radical change of “the norm,” one of the important mandates of an organization, and especially a governmental one, is to stand by the customers. On the part of Dubai Startup Hub team, there was no time to spare on our own frustrations- this was a time when everybody from a junior professional to a senior manager had to put a new hat on– i.e. being a customer care representative. A virtual inquiry (which came in the forms of emails, phone calls, Zoom calls, or the plethora of social media channels) from a struggling, frustrated customer was being directed to almost every person in the organization. Indeed, among the techniques that we are to carry to ensure a future-proof performance would be the continuous development of emotional intelligence of employees- preferably preemptively, before another crisis strikes.


The essential process adjustment required here was in terms of organizing the internal communication process. This meant an intensive and timely communication with team members, equipping each and everybody with information about our organization’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and what the broader ecosystem (in the case of Dubai Startup Hub, this was the government of the Dubai and the UAE) was implementing. The result of this directive was that virtually everybody had the same, cohesive, and relevant information to be shared when requested by customers.


Finally, we also worked on getting even more close to customers– which, in our case, was our entrepreneurs and founders. The Dubai Startup Hub team promptly rolled out weekly community member sessions to discuss the most pressing questions, and provide mentorship support and guidance wherever it was possible. With that, in many instances, it involved inquiries about connecting entrepreneurs with the peers from their industry to learn how they were managing common challenges. This was another important reminder of how important it is to invest in and build platforms where entrepreneurs could first and foremost interact with each other- live long, Station F’s paradigm of “95% of founders questions can be answered by other founders.”


Lesson 3. We’re lucky to be able to work with technology startups in Dubai.


The speed with which Dubai Startup Hub managed to transition its services and programs to an online format was remarkable. It felt like we were assembling a new plane with advanced cool features on the fly, be it with the Market Access program, the Dubai Smartpreneur competition, or the Emirati Development Program. Certainly, I would wish the team to take full credit for that. Yet, the reality was a little more complex. To a great extent, that success can be attributed to the nature of customers we serve– tech-savvy innovators, many of those started building their minimum viable products using remote developer teams located miles away, in between Bali and Bogota.


Another interesting observation was in terms of Dubai’s continuous investment in positioning itself as a hub open to international business, foreign direct investment, and a test bed of cutting-edge solutions, which truly paid off during 2020. In the context of Dubai Startup Hub’s service portfolio, this year was marked with a spike (more than 60%) of applications and inquires received from overseas founders, all of whom were eyeing Dubai as the place to be, to test in times of the pandemic, and even settle- which was the case for dozens of alumni from some of our core programs.


With that, we also learnt that in times of unprecedented change, any business could run into a situation when your customer does not need anything. And yes, you read that correctly- however, here, we are not referring to some paid product you would like to offer to your customer. This is about when in prolonged time of stress and mounting business challenges, a founder develops sense of apathy. And that’s a very human thing to experience, irrespective of your professional affiliation. Throughout 2020, we observed and tracked those market engagement swings from month to month. How did we go about it, and how will we tackle it again, if needed? The answer is grit. You just carry on. Consistent action, executed relentlessly, will always pay off, at the time of any change.



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