LEAD

4 Lessons from the World’s Toughest Entrepreneurs

Gazans are launching startups in a disaster zone. Here’s what you can learn from them

Share on
BY Heather R. Morgan - 08 Jan 2017

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

When's the last time you had a bad day at work because explosions were rocking a nearby neighborhood? Because electricity was on for only four hours? Or because your country's border suddenly closed for two months straight?

It's hard enough to launch a successful business in a stable part of the world. The toughest and most inspiring entrepreneurs I've ever met are those in Gaza.

While they still share the same challenges as other startup founders, like finding customers, figuring out how to scale and securing investment, they have to overcome many more hurdles just to get things done, like finding enough electricity to finish work.

That's where organizations like Gaza Sky Geeks (GSG) come in. They're the first startup accelerator in Gaza, and they're providing Gazan entrepreneurs with a vibrant co-working space equipped with power generators and cutting edge technology. Through partnerships with Stripe, Box, Microsoft, Google, Coca-Cola, 500 Startups and others, GSG is bringing knowledge, finance and networks straight to Gaza founders and freelancers.

In order to pay for fuel for generators, staff to run their co-working space, rent, and other expenses, Gaza Sky Geeks has turned to crowdfunding, with the hashtag, #PowerUpGazaGeeks. The Silicon Valley tech community is lending a hand, and Paul Graham, Dave McClure, and Brad Feld have come together to match up to $60,000 of donations.

I asked Dave McClure about his donation and support of Gaza Sky Geeks, and he told me, "I'm a big fan of Gaza Sky Geeks...last time I was in Gaza doing a talk, the power went out. I figured they could probably use a generator. Geeks need electricity."

Here are 4 lessons from some inspiring entrepreneurs in Gaza:

1. Nothing is worth stressing about

Said Hassan is the manager of the Gaza Sky Geeks startup incubator and the founder of Zumrod. His mother died of health reasons a day before the Israel-Gaza war in 2014. The next week, Said's entire neighborhood was destroyed in the conflict, including his home. Soon after, he was living at a friend's house and back at work on his startup.

"Most of the time, Gaza is perfectly safe and we go about living normal lives," says Said. "But we all know someone who has died or lost their home. We know how bad it can get. Which is why we decide to take so much joy in the life we have. My business has lots of ups and downs, but I know none of it is worth stressing out about: it's never a life or death situation."

2. Starting small is better than not starting at all

Gaza's startup incubator knew it would have to start small. In its first cohort, four startups successfully closed investments of $20,000 each. While that may pale compared to average investment sizes in Silicon Valley, it was an important first step because it paved the way for future growth for the Gazan startup ecosystem.

These investments unlocked future investments by demonstrating to investors that Gazans are some of the region's most committed, passionate, and creative entrepreneurs. They also grew talent by giving entrepreneurs a chance to learn by practicing. Even the entrepreneurs who failed in that first cohort learned from those experiences. Now, they are launching their second companies or mentoring the next generation of founders.

3. Find opportunity in the markets you know

Because of the hurdles posed by isolation, few Gazans can currently compete with the Silicon Valley startups targeting the US market. Instead, the best startups in Gaza look for their niches in regional markets.

For example, Saudi Arabians are avid users of mobile and online technologies - and they have money. Since not enough entrepreneurs are focused on serving the Saudi market to fulfill its growing demand, there is a significant opportunity for Gaza's founders.

Baskalet is a gaming company which demonstrated this appetite by gaining half a million users in three weeks last summer by building a Ramadan-themed game.

"Lots of online games exist, but they're mostly built around American culture," says Baskalet co-founder, Mohammed al-Madhoun. "We've had great user acquisition because we tap into the fact that Arabs want games they can relate to."

4. It's never too early to commit to diversity

Americans don't usually think of the Middle East as the hub of women's leadership, but Gaza Sky Geeks has created one of the most female-inclusive startup environments in the world. In 2015, 50% of their event participants were female. Just last month, they ran a hackathon with 83% female participants - more than any other hackathon of the same type anywhere in the world, including San Francisco.

What was the trick to this success? Making it a top priority - even when that meant taking risks. A first step was accepting 50% women to their largest outreach events even when only 35% of applicants were female. Some of their partners worried that the women being accepted had submitted applications that were worse than men, and would thus dissolve the overall talent pool from which to select startup teams later. Gaza Sky Geeks chose to take the risk. In the end, women outperformed men at the event, receiving 2 of the top 3 prizes.

To see a video featuring these inspiring entrepreneurs, visit #PowerUpGazaGeeks.