Three years in making. Startup Hub in the Middle East.

Updated: Sep 2

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


11 years ago, the world "learnt" about the most important question successful organizations ask: “Why?” It was 2009 when we all watched that viral video by Simon Sinek, and the lessons from that talk by the acclaimed author continue to resonate even today.


Three years ago, Dubai Startup Hub, the entrepreneurship initiative of the Dubai Chamber of Commerce and Industry, was born, and here I am sharing my experience being part of it, and my personal perspective on why it was meant to succeed in building one of the most vibrant entrepreneurship communities in the Middle East region.


Back then, my decision to leave a dynamic and promising career with a leading international company and join the public sector was named “an interesting move” by some, and  “an opportunity to pace yourself, and then get back on track” by others. But I had my own answer for the “why” question- I did have my “because.”


My “because” was the excitement and potential of a new journey with Dubai Chamber, and back then, its non-existent entrepreneurship department, which I was yet to build and grow.

The journey started with something familiar for an ex-consultant: a lengthy PowerPoint deck, a weighted and calculated direction of one of the most reputable and oldest organizations in Dubai, which aimed to catalyze positive change for both itself and the Emirate by bringing technology, innovation, and entrepreneurship into its mind and heart.


And here comes a three-year anniversary review.


STARTING WITH WHY

Calling yourself a founder, a CEO of a company, or an entrepreneur has never been more popular and easier than today, thanks to both the ease of starting a business now, as well as the glamour of creating a relevant image for oneself while on the internet, and particularly, social media. (Of course, calling oneself an entrepreneur is easy; being one is quite hard.)

And corporate organizations aren’t any different. An ever-growing number of institutions have been stepping into the startup domain, many  driven by a pragmatic business interest (procurement, P&L, industry diversification), while some are merely seizing a PR opportunity to boost the innovative image of their own organization.


But neither of these reasons explain Dubai Chamber’s interest in investing time and effort in building a startup hub- answers can be perhaps better found in the history of the world as we know it today. When we look at the past century, we can see it was governments that were driving breakthroughs in space exploration and adoption of atomic energy in the 1960s.

At the same time, it was the private corporation who made data a commodity (think Google, Alibaba, etc.) in the 2000s. Today, we see that the next leap of technology application creating an impact on the life of individuals and organizations are technology startup ventures and their visionary founders.


Dubai Chamber has always served as a unique bridge between the private sector’s interests and the public sector’s vision. This time, with Dubai Startup Hub, it was about building the bridge to the future for all- established companies, family businesses, entrepreneurial individuals, and technology innovators by creating platforms for collaboration.


THREE DILEMMAS (OR THREE OPPORTUNITIES?)

During the implementation of a strategy around entrepreneurship, it’s expected that we will face a number of challenges. However, I prefer to call those opportunities, as each of them can prove to be a turning point on the take-off lane.


1. TALENT DILEMMA In my first three months in my new role, Dubai Startup Hub was approved to be the official umbrella name for all entrepreneurship programs and services run by Dubai Chamber, and the program portfolio for the next two quarters was also confirmed- while it was still a one-man (or, rather, in this case, a one-woman) show.


So, why does it take a lot of time for a governmental entrepreneurship department or initiative like ours to hire someone? That’s because, fundamentally, there are almost two conflicting traits you are looking for in a candidate:

  • They need to have a commitment to public service and a selfless adherence to the public good

  • They need to have private sector knowledge along with hands-on experience. They must also be entrepreneurial enough to feel and live by startup interests and needs.

When the first trait dominates, it keeps a person in public service for a long time, but that could also make them rigid to evolving customer needs and market demands. Or, it might give that person a false sense of confidence, like, say, a coach who teaches squats without ever doing one themselves. At the same time, the second trait keeps a person relevant to customers, but that will mean “pulling” them away from public service to explore their own business aspirations, start ventures on their own, and ultimately leave.


A silver lining of my first months’ struggle? I had the true privilege to hire all resources who are now, with their talent and knowledge, driving the department relentlessly forward.


2. CUSTOMER DILEMMA “Government, unlike private sector companies, can’t choose customers to serve.”  I heard this quote somewhere many years ago, and its relevance was underscored during my time with Dubai Startup Hub.

On my first day of joining Dubai Chamber, I managed to retrieve a list of 100 tech entrepreneurs. 10% of those were reachable, and this is where our community of innovators began, which has grown from 10 people then to more than 4,000 today.

In the entrepreneurship realm, perhaps more so than in any other field, definitions are vague. The understanding of what makes a “startup” or “SME” is different not only across different countries and legal jurisdictions, but even within the same geography.


As such, before you think of strategy implementation through service design, one of the important basics is to have a very clear customer definition. From day one, Dubai Startup Hub has been focusing on supporting early-stage, technology-enabled companies with an innovative component (business model product, service, or its delivery) and high potential of growth, along with individuals interested in exploring such paths.


This semantic -and on first glance, simplistic- exercise is a fundamental one for anything you would want to do later. The customer base can evolve over time, but you have to be clear with definitions at all times.


3. SERVICE DILEMMA You can’t serve customers without service. In the case of Dubai Startup Hub, we had to keep in mind that such a service would always be of an enabling nature- none of the entrepreneurs have to avail it, but they will choose to do so out of their own accord. And it must be so valuable that hundreds and thousands of individual startup stories would start to continuously contribute and drive the societal and economic wealth of the city.


There is a big difference between the public and private sector when it comes to product or service development. In the private sector (with an exception of Apple and similar unicorn companies), you tend to build a product that consumers want. With public sector services, you do that while also having a bigger agenda in wanting to direct the development of the economy and society.


With that, the way Dubai Startup Hub does service development is just as our entrepreneurs run their ventures. After delivering more than 40 programs and hundreds of matchmaking and networking events, I can say that approach works: we build a prototype (pilot project), we run a pilot to test the product or service, we measure the result, we improve, and when the measures of success are satisfied ,  we scale it, and convert into a full-fledged regular program.


MISSION (IM)POSSIBLE


Three years ago, the mission of Dubai Startup Hub was formulated : “ to provide clarity and guidance for entrepreneurs’ journey in Dubai.” In times like today, with COVID-19,   such a mission could sound impossible for some. Indeed, it’s in times like these that the relevance and trust between the organization, the team, and the customers get tested. But having essential dilemmas (talent, customer, and service) addressed in the very beginning of the journey makes both the Dubai Startup Hub team and the community we serve part of the solution to today’s challenges. And we remain steadfast in our goals, moving steadily to another anniversary, with more lessons to be learnt and shared.

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© 2020 by Natalia Sycheva