Focusing on the foundation

Lebanese startups should address local problems, not imitate global trends

(Steve Garry | Flickr | CC BY 2.0)

This article is part of an Executive special report on entrepreneurship. Read more stories as they’re published here, or pick up November’s issue at newsstands in Lebanon.


When I was asked to write an article for Lebanese readers about developing tech hubs and how to look at regional specifics, at first I wondered if I could make recommendations applicable to a country I have never even visited. After all, apart from enjoying the food, Khalil Gibran’s “The Prophet” and appreciating the country’s rich history, I have no direct experience in Lebanon, as I suspect is the case for most people in the tech world. However, I did in the past build a startup accelerator in a non-tech hub (far away in Hong Kong) and I spent much of the past year reaching out to others who are working on building communities in emerging tech locations. So I know a little about this experience, but I don’t want to assume that my models of thinking about non-tech hubs elsewhere automatically apply in Lebanon’s case. Instead, I offer you, the readers, some questions to think through and some suggestions.

When it comes to the question of trying to duplicate tech hub success elsewhere in the world, the most common first movements seem to be to copy the façade, but not the foundation, of tech entrepreneurship.

Not just another event

When you copy the façade, you do the things that seem to be associated with success. The most common of these façades seems to be the hosting of events, the most popular often being pitch events. But, when we think about the value that these events often provide — getting a bunch of startup people together to compete in a contest where they are judged after a few minutes in front of an audience of people who are not their customers — this is actually a really bad way to choose good companies. Anecdotally, I believe that this is true because the only pitch event I ever competed in (five years ago in my old startup) we won. And I can tell you that we did not have a great business. We had to totally change the business in the months following the pitch event, as we started to learn from our customers. However, I was the best presenter that day and that is what matters in an event. I have also seen judges ‘fooled’ into awarding the better presenters, rather than the better businesses in events like these. After all, it’s a pitch competition, not a business competition. That’s façade instead of foundation.

When you build foundation instead of façade, you don’t worry about looking like a tech hub and think of other things. For example, you might work on how you can support university students who are developing skills that would fuel a tech hub (entrepreneurial thinking, programming, design, business, marketing and more) as they explore entrepreneurial options. You work to take people who have the beginning of a startup and match them with potential customers. These are examples of activities that probably do not generate much attention or buzz by themselves. And that is just fine, if you are making a difference in the quality of learning and the future prospects, then the entire tech community gains.

Find ‘local heroes’

Related to this is the question of playing to local strengths for tech hubs. These are often the strengths (such as manufacturing, finance, design, etc.) that specific locations have gained in their economic history. If you look at early stage startups, it often seems that there is no consideration to capitalize on these local strengths. In fact, I have often been surprised at how similar startups in very different markets can be. These similarities often have a good reason. One is that very early-stage startup founders have not been around long enough to have expertise in a local strength or to know others who do. Instead, they view the world though a startup culture lens and think of “building startups” rather than solving local problems. Another reason is that startup people often look to similar content as a taste-making guide. Another easy suggestion for you: don’t spend too much time reading tech news. Instead, read the news of the customers you want to serve.

When it comes to local strengths, every location has people who deeply understand the local situation, have built successful businesses and who, I believe, can be persuaded to guide the next generation of entrepreneurs. I often call these people ‘local heroes.’ These local heroes can do much more for any location than a startup celebrity who briefly visits and who does not fully understand local conditions. My suggestion is to cultivate your local heroes rather than trying to attract startup celebrities. The local heroes have an interest in making your community strong.

I hope these brief suggestions help. I hope to have the opportunity to visit Lebanon and see firsthand what you are building.

Paul Orlando runs the Venture Incubator at the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business. He previously cofounded Hong Kong’s first startup accelerator. Recently, he wrote a book for emerging tech hubs, called Startup Sacrilege for the Underdog Entrepreneur.