By Moustafa Mahmoud
Moustafa Mahmoud, founder of ShopShopMe.com and AdRelated.com, recently returned from a trip to Silicon Valley where he and his co-founder Ahmed Hassan represented the UAE at Blackbox Connect – a Google For Entrepreneurs-powered programme for start-ups from around the world. He reveals what the experience was like, and the many benefits the trip brought.
Earlier this year, our start-up ShopShopMe.com was selected to join the prestigious Blackbox Connect programme in Silicon Valley.
The two weeks we spent there in August was one of the most amazing experience we have been through.
To give you some background about the company, ShopShopMe.com is a search engine for all products sold online in the MENA region. We started with UAE and Saudi Arabia, but expanded to other countries. We allow shoppers to search for any product, brand, or category and show them all the stores that are selling them online. Think of it is as the Google of shopping.
We also recently launched AdRelated.com, which is the first contextual product advertising technology in the world.
The selection criteria for Blackbox Connect was quite strict.
More than 600 start-ups applied to the programme from all over the world, and only 14 were selected. We had to go through several interviews via Skype until we received a formal invitation to attend the program. We were Batch #12.
This was the first time for us (me and my co-founder) to visit Silicon Valley, though we had visited other parts of the US before. We didn’t know what to expect, but we were really excited to go. Silicon Valley is the Mecca of technology start-ups, and as a tech start-up this is where we want to be.
Blackbox is a unique programme. The concept behind it is to bring together international start-up founders and immerse them in the culture of the Valley. It is packed with workshops from different thought-leaders, VCs, founders of successful start-ups, Blackbox alumni, and executives from large companies in the tech sector, such as Google, Facebook and Twitter.
The programme was held in a really cozy inn close to downtown Palo Alto, which is at the heart of all the action in Silicon Valley.
The inn is completely booked for the attendees of the programme, and this is perhaps the coolest thing about the experience. For two weeks, you and 22 other entrepreneurs and co-founders are all in the same place. You are attending the same workshops, brainstorming, discussing problems and solutions, asking questions, learning from each other, sharing knowledge, and having meals together.
A great bond developed between all of us. The essence of it is, whether you’re coming from Thailand or Dubai, we are all facing the same struggles and dealing with the same problems. It’s that unspoken bond and sense of camaraderie that is what I loved most about the programme.
We learned more in those two weeks than we would learn in six months on our own. It is the most concentrated form of knowledge acquisition that I’ve experienced. Whatever we were working on, or the challenges we were going through, someone had been through the same problem and had a lot of feedback and experience to share.
The organisers of the programme also took us on field trips to attend events and meetups. One of the highlights of our trip was attending a PandoMonthly event where Reid Hoffman (founder of LinkedIn) and David Sze were the guests.
After the event I noticed they weren’t talking to the audience and instead were heading straight out, so I snuck into the elevator and waited there for them. I gave Reid a very literal ‘elevator pitch’ about our start-up. He gave me really awesome feedback, as did David who used to work at Excite.
I was particularly nervous because I hadn’t done an elevator pitch in an actual elevator before. And I had much less than 30 seconds, just for the record!
We managed to secure a follow-up meeting as a result, which was really great. Reid Hoffman is one of the most humble guys I have met, and he has an incredible vision for the future of tech.
We also had pre-booked meetings with several VCs and angel investors prior to our trip to the Valley, mostly through connections and referrals. Cold calls never work if you want to get a meeting. This was important since we wanted to maximize our presence in the valley as much as we could.
We also made it a point to get one-to-one meetings with several successful entrepreneurs who started their businesses outside the US and relocated to the Valley. We learned a lot from their experience. Everyone is extremely helpful and kind once you get to meet them because they were all in our shoes at some point. The biggest challenge is getting that meeting, but once you have it you can get incredible value.
There is an unbelievably contagious energy going around in the area, everyone is working on something really exciting, with incredible passion and drive. And everyone has a great attitude of respect towards whoever they meet, even if it’s an unknown founder who barely speaks English. I found this really refreshing.
One of the greatest things that we experienced is that everyone we spoke to was extremely interested and excited about our business. And once they got to know more about our market dynamics, our traction, team, existing investors, etc, we got follow-up meetings with partners at those VCs which led to some really amazing results for us which we never expected, especially for our advertising product (AdRelated.com) which caused massive excitement whenever we spoke about it.
A lot of people told me that VCs in the valley aren’t interested in start-ups that aren’t based in the US. But I found this not to be the case, at least with a few VCs, which are really focused on the international opportunities out there. And these are the ones who we focused on talking to.
There was definitely a difference between the VCs in the valley and many of the VCs we have met locally. The VCs there focus on very different things, and valuate companies in a very different way. They put a lot of weigh and focus on the team, and give it more value than other metrics.
In one meeting, a VC partner told me right at the beginning: “We only invest in start-ups which could become game changers and multi-billion dollar companies. Convince me that what you’re doing could be huge.”
But the trip wasn’t just about funding for us, it was more about learning and acquiring knowledge, experience, and guidance from people who have done it before. This was worth more to us than anything.
At the end of the two week programme there was a demo day, where all the start-ups pitched on stage one by one to around 200 people from various VCs across the Valley.
We won the ‘best pitch’ award, which was defintely one of the highlights of our trip. And even though we have won a lot of regional events and awards, this was on a different level entirely.
We are planning a second trip to continue the discussions we’ve started, and I can say that this was one of the best international experiences we’ve had from all the events and boot-camps we attended in other parts in the world, and even other parts in the US itself.