By Neil King
Namshi co-founders Muhammed Mekki and Louis Lebbos are helping small businesses get bigger with their new initiative, AstroLabs
Sustainability for start-ups and small and medium enterprises can often depend on one thing: Growth.
The ability to scale your company could be the difference between success and failure, but is one of the most difficult aspects of business to navigate without a strong and active support system.
This network – a vital part of the entrepreneurial ecosystem – is something which has underpinned much of the success of business communities such as Silicon Valley in the USA, but is something which many start-up business don’t have access to in the Middle East.
The lack of a community comprising SMEs, mentors, investors and advisors has been a barrier to the growth of many of the region’s start-ups. But with so many willing participants and quality business ideas, the potential for scaling is incredibly high.
This is why two men decided to make a difference and address the issue head on.
Louis Lebbos and Muhammed Mekki made their names as co-founders of online shopping company Namshi, which went into full operation in January 2012 and was able to grow after securing $20m in financing from JP Morgan Chase and Blakeney Management.
Having successfully traversed the tricky world of funding and scaling themselves, the duo have put their money, time and energy where their mouths are and set up AstroLabs, a company which aims to help small businesses grow and thrive through workshops, courses, access to capital, and a vibrant network of like-minded people.
“Doing Namshi, one of the major goals, as well as becoming a growing company, was the human element,” explains Lebbos.
“Namshi scaled and we thought ‘what is the next step?’ How could we make more of a difference? One of the main problems we encountered as online entrepreneurs was access to support. There are lots of great networking opportunities in the region but after that you’re left alone and you don’t have the type of support you need to move on and grow.
“Like a lot of entrepreneurs here we don’t come from Silicon Valley, with generations of start-ups behind us. That’s missing here. But we’ve been successful in growing our business, so we wanted to continue that momentum and give value to the community of entrepreneurs.”
Having launched in May with an intensive two-day course in Dubai, AstroLabs focuses on three main pillars; those of an educational curriculum, an active network, and access to capital.
The launch event brought together a collection of Dubai’s most promising start-up businesses, and put them in close contact with a number of high profile partners, which Mekki and Lebbos insist will be a staple of each workshop they host.
“The first event was originally meant to be a two-week programme, as there was so much ground to cover,” says Mekki. “But people obviously wouldn’t be able to take two weeks off to do a course. So we put it all into two days and put all the participants in touch with people in the know – experts who know what it takes to grow a business, or have the knowledge these start-ups need in order to move on.
“This is really something we want to do with every course we run. We’re trying to build a network of doers, to create a forum, a space where we can bring together entrepreneurs who are making things happen.”
Lebbos adds: “What made the programme in Dubai so good was our partnerships. We had Mohamad Gawdat [VP of MENA, Central and Eastern Europe] of Google, as well as Elias Ghanem [general manager, MENA] of PayPal. The information these guys have is very important for tech businesses.
“We’re very lucky to have such strong support from these people, and many others.”
The strength of the partnership with Google has already paid dividends for AstroLabs and its aim to reach small businesses. The company has been selected as one of a handful of organisations from across the world to be sponsored by Goolge for Entrepreneurs, allowing AstroLabs to make an even bigger impact across MENA.
This impact was felt strongly by participants at the inaugural event, which included the team from sports networking site DUPLAYS, and Shant Oknayan of GlamBox, both of whom have featured in previous issues of StartUp. Other businesses involved included designer sunglasses company hotandshady.com, translation website Qordoba.com, and comparison website Souqalmal.com.
The response by the attendees after the event was unanimously in praise of the course.
Brian Sigafoos, co-founder of DUPLAYS, said it was an “invaluable weekend for start-ups to learn the best practices across marketing, analytics, team building and more,” while founder of Qordoba.com, May Habib, called it a “re-energising experience”.
But founder of Allinque, Mohamed Kazim, probably gave the best acclaim when he called the session “an amazing outlook into the realm of online scaling. Learnt everything I need to know in the span of two days from the top most influential people in the field. Truly motivational, educational and inspiring.”
But Lebbos claims the success of this, and future, events, is dependent on the participants.
He says: “Lots of people complain about the situation, and we believe that while you can’t solve all issues, it’s important to try to deal with some things. That’s what the whole doer mentality is very important to us.
“Having an interesting topic doesn’t mean much if there’s just talk. There’s a new model necessary for the region and that is to be active – you need to make an impact, and that’s what the people on the programmes can do.”
Mekki adds: “In Silicon Valley there is a lot of interaction. The events bring together leadership for start-ups, and that’s a trend we’re trying to start here.
“The workshop in Dubai was a great success. The people who attended gelled really well together and shared their own experiences. We really need people who take part to be positive contributors.
“We can deliver great content in the programme but lasting impact requires this kind of sharing. We want it to be part of the ecosystem, so sharing is key.”
Since the first event, AstroLabs has already hosted a taster programme in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and has plans to launch programmes across MENA.
“Lots of companies across the Arab world are hungry for this kind of support,” says Mekki. “We have plans for Beirut, Amman, Cairo, Riyadh, and Jeddah. Then we’ll see what opens up after that.
“And we have already been receiving a lot of support ourselves. In Saudi Arabia for example we’re co-ordinating with the Prince Salman Youth Centre and other companies like Bader and STC Ventures to help us reach the ecosystem.
“In fact, after the Riyadh taster session, several entrepreneurs reached out to us the very next day to ask what they could do to help bring the programme to Riyadh full time. It was a great response and is in line with the fact we want to have a long-term impact – we want to see businesses who scale come and give back to AstroLabs, to help the ecosystem even more.”
Partners have already been lined up in Lebanon, where MEVP, MIT Enterprise Forum, and Bader Lebanon will collaborate with AstroLabs, emphasising how Lebbos and Mekki hope the community will grow.
Mekki says: “There are a lot of local partners who are living and breathing their own ecosystem, and that’s so important for our model. The people attending the workshops are not at the idea stage, but running a business.
“We need these kinds of people to be involved. Those who are willing to contribute and share their successes and failures and be open to learning from each other.”
Underpinning Lebbos and Mekki’s passion for AstroLabs is the belief that Dubai, the rest of the UAE and MENA in general is full of quality entrepreneurs with first class ideas, and the drive they need to succeed.
The online market has grown enormously in the Middle East in the past few years, spearheaded by Yahoo!’s $165m acquisition of Maktoob in 2009, Thomson Reuters’ $40m purchase of finance and business website Zawya, the aforementioned cash injection Namshi enjoyed, and the continued growth and success of online delivery service and angel investor company Aramex.
But while a select few are enjoying scaling success, Mekki and Lebbos believe the numbers need to grow, and are pleased to see well established companies pushing for growth.
“We were so happy to see seasoned entrepreneurs join the programme,” says Mekki. “We actually approached May from Qordoba and the DUPLAYS team to ask if they would share their experiences as experts, but they turned around and asked if they could participate in the programme themselves.
“It was great to see that there was value to businesses that are larger and more established, and that the founders wanted to do more than they already are.
“Then there were the newer companies such as hotandshady.com. We were struck by the quality of their site and the amazing positive attitude of the founders that we invited them to join despite only being online for a few weeks. They took away so much from the sessions.
“We know there is so much potential across the Middle East and these entrepreneurs could really bring a lot of success to the region.”
Lebbos adds: “The entrepreneurs joining the programmes are fantastic entrepreneurs who know how to run a business. They are facing scaling challenges and other optimisation challenges, so if they are given the help to overcome these things, then a lot of them could really do amazing things.”
As for the long-term future, AstroLabs aims to continue bringing help to entrepreneurs in need, and is ready to adapt to any hurdles which may stand in the way of start-ups.
Mekki says: “What we need to do is keep evolving as the ecosystem grows. There will always be a need for giving top-end content and bringing serious people together, but the type of work we do with evolve.
“We’re also learning along the way, and that’s an amazing and immeasurably gratifying part of what we do. We’re stepping outside our business and learning from other people with different perspectives, experiences and ideas.
“There are a lot of questions that people need to find answers to, and there always will be. Hopefully we can help people answer these questions and give them the tools they need to scale properly and effectively. Then we should see the ecosystem grow and become stronger than ever.