Setting sail: Sharjah business accelerator Sheraa helping to develop startups

Startup magazine meets the founders of JuxtaPiece, CG Interactive and The Mawada Project, three graduate companies from Sharjah-based Sheraa’s first business accelerator programme

Hanin Abbas Hazeem, Arghavan Hatamabadi, Nora Mahdi and Fayez Barakji.

Hanin Abbas Hazeem, Arghavan Hatamabadi, Nora Mahdi and Fayez Barakji.

Entrepreneurship is on the rise in Sharjah and Sheraa (Sharjah Entrepreneurship Centre), the business accelerator housed in the American University of Sharjah (AUS), is helping to lead the way.

Ten startups have recently graduated from Sheraa’s inaugural accelerator program and following the intensive programme of training and mentorship that stretched over three months, are now better equipped to build viable, long term businesses.

The ten companies are diverse in their activities and range from an F&B startup and group buying site to a writing enhancement platform and a remote monitoring system for electrical devices.

Startup magazine recently visited the Sheraa co-working space at AUS to meet the founders of three of the companies, which include JuxtaPiece, a company that produces customised wooden art pieces; GC Interactive, a mobile game development company; and The Mawada Project, which offers skill-building community engagement programs for children.

JuxtaPiece was founded by an Iranian-Palestinian duo, Arghavan Hatamabadi and Hanin Abbas Hazeem, who are both interior design graduates of the American University of Sharjah. The idea for their company was planted when they were still studying at the university and working on a group project.

Hatamabadi’s interest was in pictorial walls, whereas Hazeem’s was in the use of wood. After short stints in the private sector following graduation, they returned to the idea and JuxtaPiece was born.

Their key selling point is what Hatamabadi describes as, “affordable customisation”. Offerings includes customised portraits, limited edition keepsakes and wall feature. JuxtaPiece’s products are made to order, using four types of wood with no artificial colours, and each item is different. “We invest our time for every client,” Hatamabadi says.

Fayez Mitch Barakji, a 22-year old Palestinian-American, is the founder of Camel Goat (CG) Interactive, a video game development company. His relationship with Sheraa began when he was approached by the accelerator in relation to work he was doing as a student on a t-shirt that detects sleep apnoea and heart palpitations. “To be honest, I didn’t know any of this ecosystem existed to begin with until I was approached by Sheraa when I was a student,” he says.

After seeing what Sheraa could offer, Barakji realised that what he really wanted to do was pursue his interest in mobile gaming. “I realised I wanted to do something creative, less engineering and more story and art oriented, and it just developed into video game making,” he explains.

It’s hard to think of a market space more competitive than mobile gaming, where hundreds of thousands of apps compete for customers’ money and attention on app stores. Barakji felt he could stand out by offering story-driven, art-heavy games. “We were honestly quite dulled out by all the repetitive, low-quality games on the App Store right now,” he explains.

“We wanted to remedy that specifically, we wanted story-centric, art-heavy games to be on there, rather than things you do a million times over like Candy Crush or Angry Birds.”

American University of Sharjah, where the Sheraa business accelerator is based.

Noha Mahdi, a 29-year old Canadian, is the founder of The Mawada Project, which creates ‘service’ learning opportunities for children aged nine and above. Mahdi studied bio-chemistry as an undergraduate, educational neuroscience as a Master and is an educator by profession. On returning to the UAE around for years ago after completing her studies abroad, she became aware of a lack of volunteering opportunities for children in the UAE, along with a lack of programs that help teach emotional skills.

“I’ve been an educational consultant for a number of years and just looking around the landscape over here, I noticed a few things,” explains Mahdi.  “One is that I lived in Canada for a while and there’s a lot of volunteering opportunities for kids. Those are experiences that, as a teenager, while I was there, really were transformative for me personally.

“Second of all, [in schools] there’s the academic focus, the extra-curricular sports and arts & crafts, but there’s a lack of social, emotional skills being developed, things like empathy or just leadership and critical thinking.

“Putting all that together, I figured why not create the opportunities for kids to go and do service work as a way to engage with the community, learn experientially by getting out of the school and build skills. So we provide programs where we help the kids build their skills and then use those skills to give back to other people.”

The three startups have now completed the three-month Sheraa accelerator program. In addition to extensive mentorship-driven learning opportunities, startups receive assistance in the form of seed funding (without equity in return), trade licenses, marketing credits, use of shared office space and access to customers and contacts through networking events. All three startups speak highly of Sheraa and emphasise the benefits of going through an accelerator programme.

“Sheraa has been a big support from the beginning,” says Hazeem of JuxtaPiece. “I found it very helpful to learn how to expose our products to the specific customer niche that we are targeting and how to orient our business towards them.

“There were a lot of details that we didn’t know about because we didn’t get the chance to study business courses during our academic years.”

Hatamabadi adds: “It’s one thing to have the idea, but what they helped us with is how to make it sustainable, how to scale, long term future plans, how to sustain the business on your own.”

Mahdi speaks positively of the community aspect of Sheraa, being in a place with like-minded people in similar situations. “What they offer as well is the community aspect and the moral support,” she says. “Being in this place with all the other entrepreneurs, the ten of us, feeling you’re in a community where people understand and support you through is helpful. As an entrepreneur, it is a very emotional, personal and challenging journey.

“The workshops, bringing in experts in different areas, have enormous value. They’ve brought in marketing, legal, branding, digital, sales and marketing people. All these specifics, I didn’t know much about.

“They pair us up with industry mentors and business mentors. Those are people who help us to scale and grow, and think about our business model.”

Barakji adds: “Their help is more with organisation, how to manage your people, how to create a plan to develop the product and move forward.”

Both JuxtaPiece and The Mawada Project speak highly of the contacts and networking opportunities Sheraa gives them. These offer both organisations, for whom personal introductions are crucial, the opportunity to meet with potential clients.

“If we have one Sheraa event, it sustains us for two to three months,” says Hatamabadi.

“For me as well, the connections and contacts are important,” continues Mahdi. “Sheraa is a government organisation and that in itself is helpful in opening doors for me to acquire some clients.”

Now that they have graduated from the accelerator, what comes next for the three startups? CG Interactive’s first game, Sweven, was posted on the App Store, Google Play and Steam, at the beginning of April. The iOS and Android versions of the game support Arabic, in addition to English.

Barakji says that he fully expects the game not to be a commercial success. He cites the nine in ten rule, that nine apps will fail before one succeeds. “I put up my first app [at the beginning of April] and I’m honestly not expecting it to make any sales because it’s my first try, it’s my trial run and I am expecting it to fail because the rule is one in ten,” he says, candidly.

Work is already underway on CG Interactive’s next title and Barakji is looking for animators and 3D modellers, both students and full-timers, to work on the project. “I’m planning for it to be ten times more refined than our previous project. It’s something really ambitious that I’m hoping will create a rift in the app market compared to our previous game.”

As for whether or not to seek external funding, Barakaji says he has given the matter a lot of thought and, for now, he prefers not to.

“Since video game making is really a creative pursuit, if somebody buys a chunk of the company, I feel that means I’m going to have somebody to tell me how to make the game or how they want the game to be,” he explains.

“I want to do it in the way I see it. It’s a passion, it’s something I really love to do. Whether it brings me money or not is almost irrelevant right now.”

Expanding on what developers call the one in ten app rule, he says, “Nine [apps] net you nothing or you end up with a negative. If the tenth sells a million copies and you sell it for a dollar, you make $800,000. “

As for whether he can wait till the tenth game, he says, “That is the golden question. Right now, I’m focusing on my Master’s Degree and I’m willing to wait. It’s not really me I’m worried about, it’s the people under me.”

Given the one in ten rule and the need to wait things out, it’s perhaps not surprising that Barakji says “perseverance” is the biggest challenge for him and his company. “We have to figure everything out,” he says.

“You don’t have a general mould where everything applies to you. You have to do a lot of research, talk to a lot of people and we do need to thank Sheraa for that, the connections they’ve given me. There is so much you need to figure out for yourself, either by asking somebody who’s been through this or just by trial and error. Trial and error means you’re going to fail again and again until it works out.”

JuxtaPiece has a number of items on its agenda as it looks to move forward. One key plan, described as “not so far away” is to have its products placed in retail outlets in prominent locations. “We get a corner, they sell for us and they get a percentage,” explains Hatamabadi.

The company is also keen to make its products more eco-friendly and zero waste.

As a result, says Hazeem, “we are trying to educate ourselves and suppliers how to reduce waste and use material more efficiently.”

JuxtaPiece is also looking at development of an e-commerce site, where customers would be able to upload images to be turned into portraits. “We want to experiment with e-commerce, to try it out and see if it fits with our product lines and our niche clients or not,” says Hazeem.

The two founders are not currently looking at external funding and, if they do eventually seek it, would allocate it to payment of salaries and hiring office space. At the moment, keeping up with demand and having the resources to do that is the company’s greatest challenge.

“Demand is exceeding supply – we’re very happy everyone is liking what we do,” says Hatamabadi. “Having enough resources is one of the things that we have challenges with in terms of machinery, in terms of equipment, in terms of manpower.

“It’s hard to hire someone. We have sub-contractors, like carpenters, in industrial areas. At this point, we don’t have anyone in marketing or administration – we do all that.”

Other challenges mentioned by the duo include stringent banking requirements, especially in relation to minimum balances, and some clients’ reluctance to give business to a startup.

For The Mawada Project, work is underway on programs for this year’s Ramadan and Mahdi is keen to contact more schools so that by September, it will have more educational institutions signed up to run programs. Longer terms, Mahdi wants to see volunteering and service work become embedded into the social fabric of the region, with The Mawada Project playing a role in helping to achieve that.

“I think I’d love for The Mawada Project to become a hub for all things related to community service and volunteerism, plus all those kinds of skills for children in the UAE, and maybe even adults,” explains Mahdi. “I’d love for it to become something that’s partly integrated into school curricula, maybe even something that’s mandated by the Ministry of Education.”

All three startups agree that going through an incubator has been enormously valuable for them. “If it wasn’t for Sheraa, I don’t think our work would have come to where it is now,” says Mahdi. “It’s been really instrumental in helping us grow.

Barakji also notes a difference between Sheraa and other incubators he has visited. “Here, it’s more relaxed. You’re here to pursue you passion, not just make a lot of money and leave. I don’t feel others provide what Sheraa provides. Sheraa is a non-profit and they really cater for students, to people with innovative ideas rather than just here to run a business,” he says.

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