For over a decade, major players in the UAE have been laying the groundwork for a dynamic tech and business ecosystem. With new frameworks, a skilled talent pool, and abundant funding, MENA’s ecosystem is ready to take the leap into a new decade of innovation.
It is hard to imagine a time where the digital solutions we have grown accustomed to did not exist. E-commerce, fintech service, and e-logistics, just to name a few, have become an integral aspect of daily life in Dubai, and in MENA in general. The truth is, however, that a mere decade ago, the digital ecosystem was considerably lacking in the region.
It is through the dedication and vision of a few disruptive entrepreneurial minds that the foundations were laid for the unfolding of the unique ecosystem that is the Dubai tech sector. Now the UAE is ready to take the next step in the digital revolution. New challenges await the ecosystem in terms of skilled talents, market reach and sustainability, but tackling them will unlock a great deal of possibilities.
Here are some highlights from our tenth anniversary event in Dubai, where our guest speakers shared their thoughts on building ecosystems from the ground up.
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Getting the Right Talents on Board: Vision, Purpose, and Impact
Ten years ago, founders in the MENA startup circle could fit in a single room. This is not a figure of speech, as Muhammed Mekki and Louis Lebbos, founding partners at AstroLabs can attest to. The first program they ran, Scaling Online for Startups, hosted and upskilled 15 entrepreneurs, who at the time constituted a large section of the Dubai entrepreneurial community.
The roadmap for AstroLabs was not set in stone. Mekki and Lebbos knew they needed to start somewhere in order to fuel the digital transformation waiting to happen. This first program made it evident that upskilling talents was the most efficient approach to inject a proactive entrepreneurial mindset into the early-stage ecosystem.
Chalhoub Greenhouse, one of the first AstroLabs pilot programs, is an accurate representation of the value of talent. The program’s end goal was to match startups with appropriate environments for growth, but it turned out to be much more than proposals and contracts. The scope of the program soon broadened to include an upskilling track for Chalhoub talents. This formula of elevating from within through building capabilities became the blueprint for future AstroLabs initiatives.
Ecosystem accelerators like AstroLabs have been optimizing talents in the region for years now. But back when the ecosystem was nascent, the narrow pool of talent in the tech industry needed to be compelled to contribute to the digital transformation.
Mudassir Sheikha, founding partner at Careem, insisted that vision is the defining selling point when recruiting a team. Creating real value, impacting the culture, these are the factors that drive talents to put their passion in ecosystem building.
Striking a Balance: Profitability and Growth
Evidently, talents perform best in environments where they can grow, but the impact of a visionary direction is not confined to team members. Investors and financial backers need to be aligned with your vision and purpose as well. An investor looking to make quick profits, for example, might be a hindrance if you are set on creating long-term impact. Investors of course must have some agency as to how their funds are being utilized, but as Ambareen Musa, founder and CEO of Souqalmal.com put it, “they don’t run your business, you do.”
Therefore, it is best to seek out investors who share your values and culture, and embark on this mission with a common purpose. But this is where a balance needs to be met. Obviously, the ultimate goal for any business is profitability. But neglecting growth in favor of profitability can have dire repercussions in terms of retaining talents and staying relevant in the fast-moving tech ecosystem.
On the other hand, constantly putting every effort and resource into growth and innovation can cost a business its sustainability and the efficiency of its risk management, as pointed out by Anis Harb, General Manager at Deliveroo Middle East.
Finding that sweet spot between pushing forward and breaking even is key for the survival of an up-and-coming business, especially in the relatively young UAE market. In principle, aspiring entrepreneurs should learn to seize growth opportunities, but do so at their own pace and within their own ideals as they find their footing in the Dubai tech ecosystem.
The Future of Entrepreneurship in MENA: a Network of Connected Ecosystems
While the local and regional ecosystems have been on an upward trend for the past ten years, entrepreneurs cannot get complacent. This is the perfect time for the entrepreneurial community, particularly in the digital sector, to capitalize on the ecosystem’s momentum.
The past decade has seen many initiatives which succeeded in creating and optimizing the digital infrastructure needed for businesses to come up with revolutionary ideas and models. It was a period of designing the frameworks on which the ecosystem can operate and grow. We have reached 10% of what the regional ecosystem can achieve, and it is up to us now to work towards 100%, Sheikha believes.
The years ahead will rigorously test MENA entrepreneurs by presenting them with a new set of challenges. Efficient capital deployment, consumer lifetime predictions, and adapting regulations in industries like fintech are just some of the challenges that await us. Most importantly, the MENA region would find unique opportunities by thinking regionally. This will require daring decisions from the entire community, whether legislative amendment, high-risk ventures, or being the first to embrace the newest advancements.
But mostly, key markets should understand what they can contribute to other markets in MENA, and how they can benefit from them as well. Saudi Arabia, for example, has been prioritizing the growth of SMEs as valuable contributors to the Saudi economy. Considering the impact made by Dubai-based businesses like Trella and Klaim in service of their own SME ecosystem, one can imagine the mutual benefits to be gained from their expansion into the Saudi market.
Similarly, the booming gaming sector in Saudi Arabia is a great opportunity for Dubai’s tech talents to explore promising new ventures.
It will be interesting to see how these two microcosms can come together and help each other evolve over the next decade, provided that MENA entrepreneurs adopt this regional viewpoint for growth.
The objectives for the coming decade are certainly more daunting. Completing the last leg and reaching 100% will require some adaptability, intelligence and a lot of hard work on behalf of the regional ecosystem players. Luckily, entrepreneurship in MENA has proven itself to be a diligent culture that is passionate about pushing the limits of technology and business. Ecosystem enablers like investors and financing companies, multinationals and corporates, government entities, and growth catalysts like AstroLabs already have plans in motion to make a resounding impact on the consumer market in MENA.
How did innovative businesses like Klaim, elGrocer and Trella disrupt the UAE and MENA digital landscape? Explore their journeys in our Community Spotlight series.