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The startup upstart

Making a scene on the international stage

by Tara Nehme

When you live in Lebanon and the startup you created, or work, for is taking you to France — you know you’re doing something right. That was the recurring thought running through my mind as I and 11 other unique startup founders headed to Paris in December, to showcase the achievements of the Middle East startup scene at the Arab Pavilion at LeWeb 2013. 

LeWeb, as described by its creators, is “an international conference for startups and all web entrepreneurs looking to kick-start and accelerate their business, reach global media or discover the next great idea,” and we were there to sell our souls. This might seem like an extreme move. But when you’re paying obscene amounts of money to enter a massive room with Guy Kawasaki on stage, and representatives from every media and investment powerhouse floating among crowds trying to seek out the next big thing, soul-selling seems like the best plan to set yourself apart from the entrepreneurial herd. 

From hardware to health, matchmaking to crowdfunding and online entertainment to retail, the 12 of us successfully seized the attention of everyone that mattered. A euronews journalist said it best when he titled his article ‘Middle Eastern startups the talk of LeWeb 2013’. 

Let’s talk about conferences. Conferences, in general, are not the most thrilling concept and are usually associated with monotonous speakers, bad coffee and sleep-inducing boredom. For me, that misconception was cleared up as soon as I began my startup life, and even more so after LeWeb; an unparalleled experience to say the least. 

layers of opportunity

High powered, large-scale events such as LeWeb offer four essential layers of opportunity. First comes the networking, the toughest yet most valuable part. My business cards were my arsenal; I just needed to figure out whom to hand them out to and how I could speak to the important people that initially seemed inaccessible. A proper alignment of teamwork and hustling was the key. You will never get to everyone, so referring people whose interests better suited other startups to them and having them do the same worked like a charm. During our three days there many of us set the basis for potential partnerships that could catapult our startup out of the Middle East and onto the global market. 

LeWeb was graced by Google and their mini kingdom of powerful workshops — the second opportunity — which addressed topics such as measuring the impact of effective brand campaigns to monetizing video traffic. Third were the startup pitches, where early stage companies presented to an array of investors, a process that has been proven successful at these types of events worldwide, and specifically in the Middle East. Winning second place at ArabNet in Riyadh at the end of last year, for example, provided Presella.com with the opportunity to go to Silicon Valley for a month as part of a mentorship program by Progress in Technology Middle East. 

Fourth come the speakers: international success stories and panelists. Hala Fadel, chair of the MIT Enterprise Forum for the Pan Arab Region, challenged the many misconceptions of the Middle East and discussed — with Instabeat founder Hind Hobeika as an example — how the many hurdles faced by startups in the region have actually proved beneficial as they have forced companies to come up with innovative, bulletproof solutions, making startups more immune to future setbacks. 

I left LeWeb having met hundreds of cool people and one major contact; the potential for that one key relationship is what makes conferences useful. The real question is whether you are going to do whatever it takes to find it and grab it. 

Our presence at LeWeb marked a monumental achievement for the Middle Eastern startup scene. We were all people that were a part of or created companies from nothing more than an idea on a napkin. Somehow, we turned these ideas into real companies and found ourselves in France talking to international press, investors and potential partners, ending 2013 on a high note. LeWeb’s tagline reads “Where revolutionaries gather to the plot the future” and that’s exactly what we did. I don’t think the term “revolutionary” is more suited to anyone than us Arabs because, where we come from, being revolutionary is the only thing that works.

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Tara Nehme

Tara Nehme is the founder of ticklemybrain.com and partner at www.presella.com

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