Why a War & Shrinking Economy Can't Stop Syrian Innovation

Despite the zeitgeist of violence throughout the nation, young Syrians are mustering an entrepreneurial spirit.

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“Entrepreneurship isn’t only about advanced technology startups; a lot of [Syrians] are starting [non-technical] businesses, initiatives, and projects to solve local problems,” Al-Amjad Tawfiq Isstaif, a co-founder at Wikilogia, said. “The local needs are huge, and I think there is great potential.”

Developers, industrial engineers, and designers echoed this sentiment, as more than 400 participants registered to support the country’s first Startup Weekend.

Between a crowded, youthful conference room and a procession of Syrian business mentors, Startup Weekend Damascus was cause for optimism in the nation’s business community. The Startup Weekend format is based on a 54-hour incubation period for entrepreneurs, allocating time for team-building, mentorship, and product evaluation. Ideas are judged at the event’s conclusion, and teams are awarded further startup resources for their business.

Startup Weekend, Startup Weekend Damascus, Syria

“Seeing my talented friends and colleagues disappointed and uncertain about their future[s], and about the future of their country is the main motivation for me [to organize,]” Isstaif said. “No jobs, closed schools and universities, having to leave the country to make a living for your family… Entrepreneurship is a good answer to face all these challenges.”

T3DMaker, the event’s victorious startup, designed a 3D printing prototype from local resources. The team also intends to develop and sell plastic filament “ink” to accompany their domestically-manufactured product. T3DMaker will be provided a $1000 cash prize, and complimentary month of mentorship and workspace access.

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Robox, an application-versatile robot that is easy to program, won second prize. Robox is programmed through a simple visual IDE that allows users to implement sophisticated applications without the need to write code.

Startup Weekend, Startup Weekend Damascus, Syria

Third prize was awarded to Pharmgram, an application dedicated to helping patients find more convenient pharmaceutical services, while providing drugstores with an easier means of informational exchange.

“The main challenge is to make the right balance between supporting and promoting entrepreneurship – which is of mid-long term [economic] importance – with the urgent [needs] of destruction and relief,” Isstaif said. “There are a lot of problems to solve, and cool ideas that can be applied locally, but you can’t build a scalable business around them… we are in a war, and there is no reliable entrepreneurial ecosystem.”

Isstaif said that the traditional approach preferred by many Syrian entrepreneurs is to build scalable businesses that do not relate directly to local needs, before moving business operations outside the country.

According to estimates by the WorldBank, Syria’s economy has shrank between 15%-20% during the last three years of civil war, and is ranked among the most difficult national economies in which to do business. This standard is evaluated by a general access to permits, basic utilities, property, investment, personal credit, and more.

In the case of Syria, an unrelenting, brutal war continues, despite UN-sponsored maneuvering in Geneva last week.

“The main problem we faced [in organizing] was uncertainty… and the safety problem,” Isstaif said. “Second comes things like electricity and internet availability.”

Startup Weekend, Startup Weekend Damascus, Syria

“The need for [Startup Weekend] came from huge community enthusiasm after launching an entrepreneurship program in Wikilogia Hackerspace,” Muhammad Al-Syrwan, a web developer and event organizer, said. “There were a lot of promising ideas that needed support, and at the same time there was no funding for them.”

Al-Syrwan suggested that Startup Weekend Damascus could help transition Syria from consumption to production in the global technology market.

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“In Syria, there are no big companies in the technology production field, so there aren’t many job opportunities for graduate engineering students,” Al-Syrwan said. “The only way to make a good career is to make a startup. Otherwise [graduates] find themselves working as IT support, coders, or system administrators.”

Students and business people mingled intently in Damascus, as they have throughout the middle east this month. Startup Weekends have been hosted in Syria, Jordan, and Iran during February 2014.

Organizer Ahmad Sufian Bayram explained that the goal of this weekend does not fall short of creating local startups.

“We want to expand our community with help from Syrians all over the world, in order to build a supportive entrepreneurial environment,” Bayram said. “Startup Weekend events can be [a catalyst], but much more work is still needed.”

While other tech communities do not face the same challenges as Syria’s entrepreneurs, there is hopeful solidarity in pizza, soda, and three days of hard work.

See all the photos from Startup Weekend Damascus HERE.

 








Startup Weekend Amman: Seeding Leaders in Jordan.

*Research and additional reporting contributed by Lauren Sauser. 

Amman, Jordan is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. The city is Jordan’s political, cultural, and commercial capitol; and from February 13th to February 15th, Amman hosted a Startup Weekend for the third time.

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Encouragingly, Jordan’s third Startup Weekend in two years attracted ideas around education, mobile, and health technology.

“I come from Iraq, where talk is cheap,” Ali Hilli, one of the organizers of Startup Weekend Amman, said. “The first time I participated in a Startup Weekend was back in June, when Startup Weekend Baghdad took place… [Now,] I live in Jordan where people are barely having a chance to excel.”

Prior to 2012, Startup Weekend had little-to-no representation in Jordan, and the process of organization there was untested. Hilli was initially concerned that Startup Weekend would follow the formula of summits like TedEX: full of motivational speeches, with little actionable direction for participants.

“Iraq and Jordan don’t need talk: they need action!” Hilli emphasized. “I was pleasantly surprised by the outcome of SW Baghdad… I participated in Startup Weekend Erbil two months later as a mentor, and was invited to Startup Weekend Basra as a judge. Only then did I look at Jordan, the country I live in, and decide to revive the Startup Weekend soul that [had been] absent for a year and a half.”

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But it wasn’t easy: Hilli and other organizers faced an exhausted national economy, a tense political climate, and a dramatic shortage of resources. According to Hilli, the complexity of the Jordanian economy makes people cautious about providing direct funding.

“I contacted more than fifty entities to sponsor [our event] and more than 45 of them closed their door,” Hilli says. “Eventually, I gave up asking for cash and started asking for services. Coca Cola gave us beverages; Nescafe [did], too. Zain gave us internet connections, and TAG, which I’m connected to as a consultant, gave us the venue…we provided food expenses from the ticket prices. “

Judges examined each team’s evidence for customer validation, product execution, and general business modeling. The judges also looked at how teams presented the concept and its potential in the market, as well as the direct functionality of the product for Jordanians.

Droid Press won first prize, creating a mobile-application generator that allows users to build Android and IOS apps. People with existing websites can build an app within 10 minutes using the Droid Press software.

e-Roshetta won second prize, through seeking to reduce the amount of errors genrated in writing prescriptions. According to the team’s research, this phenomenon is widespread throughout Jordan. Through the e-Roshetta database, doctors will electronically submit prescriptions directly to the pharmacy, which can be picked up by the patient using a unique patient code. This process is intended to reduce human error and allow patients’ medications to be tracked more accurately.

B Roll won third prize, a GPS-based platform through which users seek and exchange services for payment. The prize for “Best Design” went to simappz, which allows users to access their cell phone data through an online network, and allows them to make calls or restore information without physically possessing their phone.

“[Jordanian entrepreneurs] need to focus on the normal needs of a human being,” Hilli said. “During the event, participants focused on solving problems that occurred in their daily lives… Once these simple problems are solved, and hope is restored for entrepreneurship and growth [in Jordan,] peace will be served on a golden dish.”

The Jordanian economy is largely dependent on tourism. Compounding this influx of foreign traffic, refugees flood into Jordan intermittently to escape conflict within their own nations. As a social consequence, Jordan has struggled to provide equitable, basic resources for its population. Continuous government borrowing from the International Monetary Fund, and continued political unrest in Syria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Israel have made matters worse.

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“My country has a weak economy and a budget deficit of 17 billion JDs,” Hilli said. “You might say, ‘America, too, has a large deficit,’ but the two cannot be compared. America’s deficit is in dollars, and America can control the [value of the dollar]… the Jordanian dinar is a currency that is [inherently] attached to the dollar by its value.”

Population growth, the depletion of groundwater reserves, and other variables of climate change are likely to aggravate this economic plight in the decades to come. Jordan is considered among the ten most-water-scarce countries in the world, and its hydrological future is largely dependent on the efforts of its young, hopeful engineers. Jordan’s major surface water resources, the Jordan and Yarmouk rivers, are shared with Israel and Syria; a transnational dependency which leaves a proportionally small amount for Jordan.

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Amman is at the center of Jordan’s entrepreneurial community building effort, and will continue to attract innovators as such. The content of Jordan’s first three Startup Weekend events hints at the intellectual fertility of the tech community, as well as the progress left to be made. Jordan’s technologically-intrepid minority, while proudly building products in the vein of social service, must also battle the social and economic conditions within Jordan that limit technological access to such products.

See photos from the event here.

 

 








Startup Weekend Damascus: Entrepreneurship in a War Zone

Imperialism, ideology, and war are not historically unique developments in a city that predates human record. After ten millennia, there is very little that the city of Damascus has not experienced. A Startup Weekend; however, is one such event.

On February 18, 2014, the international community will gain its first introscopic look into the entrepreneurial community of Damascus, the capital city of civil-war-laden Syria.

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The 54-hour event will measure public interest in Startup technologies within Damascus, and will reward a winner with access to venture funding and publicity. The three-day event, organized by Ahmed Sufian Bayram, will be preceded by a “bootcamp” for participants, and will include a cast of international entrepreneurs scheduled to attend online.

Event mentorship includes: Rania Succar (Google); Kinan Sweidan (Shooofi) and Fadi Mujahid (Game Power 7). The event will be held in the city’s Al Mezzah neighborhood, west of central Damascus.

Startup Weekends have been a community rallying event among hopeful entrepreneurs across the Arab world for several years. Prior to Damascus, Startup Weekends have been hosted in Ramallah, Amman, Jeddah and Beirut, as well as Cairo, Dubai, and Casablanca. Iran will host its first Startup Weekend beginning February 12, and Libya is scheduled to host its second event on February 27.

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Registration for the event closed on February 5, with nearly 400 registrations filed.

The UP Global blog will host follow-up coverage of the events, people and ideas that made Startup Weekend Damascus possible; including interviews with the hosts, and a review of the Damascus’ brightest entrepreneurial thinking.

#SWDamascus & @SW Damascus.








Entrepreneurs vs. Healthcare

The American media teems with narratives concerning healthcare; particularly, who has it, who doesn’t have it, and who’s responsible for fixing the diverse inefficiencies within the system. In cultural discourse about such complicated fiscal issues, politicians often take media precedence over the entrepreneur.

It is for this reason that I would like to celebrate an entrepreneurial team committed to making healthcare administration more efficient in the years to come.

Flexminder is a Seattle startup and graduate of the Techstars accelerator, bent on more efficient administration of medical claims. The group focuses on flexible spending arrangements (FSAs), health reimbursement accounts (HRAs), and the claims associated with each of these tax-free medical resources.

Flexminder “[Solves] FSA participants’ biggest pains by automating the FSA submission process, making their FSAs easier to manage, and ensuring participants don’t lose money at year end [due to “use it or lose it” stipulations.]” Additionally, Flexminder has a strong value for the third party administrators (TPAs) responsible for managing FSA/HRA claims, as it automates and minimizes administrative procedures. This technology stands to save third parties a bundle of cash (up to a 50% reduction in administrative costs!) and could greatly alter the way young Americans approach their tax-free FSA spending.

As more young Americans are presented with FSA/HRA benefit options through work, technologies that simplify the relationship between workers, TPAs, and insurance providers stand to make a creative buck… while providing a relevant social service.

Bravo, Flexminder!

 

 

 








Are Social Media Management Jobs Going Away?

The following post is by Ross Buchanan.

“Social Media is Not a Career– these job titles won’t exist in 5 years. Social media is a means to get more awareness, more users or more revenue. It’s not an end in itself. I’d strongly caution against pegging your career trajectory solely to a social media job title.” – Jason Nazar, Forbes Magazine.

Forbes published a list on 20-somethings, for 20-somethings, because 20-somethings enjoy sharing lists on social media (it was nearly the 20th list on my feed this morning.)

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Jason Nazar is a Forbes contributor and business owner with startup experience. He has familiarity with what is valuable when staffing a startup, and understands social media trends within the tech industry. About 20% of the way through 20 things 20-year Olds Don’t Know, Nazar raises a point concerning many of his 20-something readers: he purposes the idea that in the near future, social media management jobs will be less abundant.

Currently, a great many 20-somethings work in lockstep with social media management responsibilities of some kind, including the measures necessary for maintaining a “personal brand” as employees and citizens. Social information has tremendous power: for collaborative thought, for national interests, and for fun. Brands and individuals will continue to pursue profitable avenues of social information online, and subsequent jobs managing technology in these fields will continue to exist.

In the last five years, the development of social applications (YouTube, LinkedIn, Instagram, etc) has produced widely publicized payoffs. The silver lining to the Great Recession has been a renaissance of connectivity; one exciting enough to encourage businesses small and large to rethink digital strategy… and hire.

In 2010, payroll and advertising giant ADP acquired The Cobalt Group, a Seattle-based web development company for automotive manufacturers. The same year, ADP began selling social “reputation” management services to several of its existing Fortune-500 clients, including a recently bankrupted General Motors Co.

Just two years into the global economic downturn, automotive wasn’t the only large American industry in need of a serious reputation makeover. The Department of Defense, the fast food industry, and at least one careless oil company followed suit with third party reputation management investment. Jobs were created for socially savvy grads the nation over.

In 2013, the servicing of massive reputation management contracts still takes bodies. ADP, among other financial services and advertising giants, has multiple departments working exclusively on grooming the social profiles of their clients. These social managers are paid better than they would be at startups, and they are used very differently.

Unlike startup culture– where diversification of individual skills is necessary for the locomotion of the group– larger firms tend to specialize workers in departments like social media. This structure allows the worker to develop expertise in their discipline, coach other departments, and encourage personal acceleration within a silo of the business. The worker will have the opportunity to interface and learn with other departments, but their success metrics will be in currency of their department (i.e. social media statistics.)

The natural, exciting progression of social applications includes several distinct and exciting points for business, among them: (a) the technologies will provide deeper measures of ROI as a function of marketing; (b) the technologies will become more self-reliant; and thus, (c) the technologies will become cheaper to maintain.

These are the points to which I believe Nazar issues his warning. This variety of social technology is thrilling, worth working for, and will always provide employment for those on the progressive front. However, innovation will erase bureaucratic social media jobs whenever a large seller of reputation management resources can implement technology in lieu of hiring a PR grad.

By 2018, I believe social technologies will be easier for companies of all sizes to manage internally, as the cultural threshold for understanding and taking advantage of social media will be higher with every employee. Greater personal understanding of social applications will encourage small business owners to manage their own social brands, rather than pay employees to do so.

Fortune-500’s curate user data and reviews as a part of their searchable brand, and will continue to do so during the next five years. This will likely occur through continued investment in scalable, multifunctional advertisers like ADP; bureaucratic groups that are both more likely to specialize employees departmentally, and stand to benefit most from technology that makes their departments leaner.

It seems logical that the importance of reputation/social management services will remain crucial into 2018. This is clear when considering the bad PR that can develop quickly from whistle-blowers, expansive wars, or a corporate indiscretion gone viral.

Yet, whether the number of social management jobs will grow, slow, or stay the same, remains opaque. Anticipating the demand for social media management positions might be gauged as follows:

  • If the demand for management positions continues to grow (and pay three-times the minimum wage,) companies will have greater incentive than ever to aggressively pursue more automated social technologies.

  • If the demand for social media management remains steady, current candidates will face indebted droves of younger, cheaper graduates seeking a job in the years ahead. Firms that sell reputation management services will maintain an inclination towards profitability in this scenario, intuitively seeking the most affordable option, be it cheaper technology or cheaper human resources.

  • Finally, if lower demand is anticipated due to the development of cheaper automated processes, or the higher minimum yield of internal staff when managing social media, the elimination of positions is inevitable.

In any case, I agree with Nazar that social media managers (and all workers for that matter) would be wise to diversify as quickly as possible in 2013.








The Authentic Brand Is An Endangered Creature.

“There’s more power in authenticity. Don’t try to be Silicon Valley.”Angela Benton.

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‘Authentic’ branding is not manufactured. The lone opportunity for communities (entrepreneurial or otherwise,) to earn a branding of authenticity is to focus on the originality of what they produce, and the way in which they produce it.

The authentic brand is an endangered creature: undomesticated, devoid of the ability to breed in captivity. In the abundant wilderness of creative production is where authenticity (and the entrepreneur) wishes to be. It is where authentic risks must be taken to grow, where complementary strength exists between singularity and solidarity, and where parasitic emulation is left to lurk fearfully in the margins. It is a challenging, genuine environment in which ideas are galvanized, and self-awareness in product and process is mastered.

Humans evaluate authenticity in leadership, expertise, and intention by reviewing large bodies of data, very quickly. Brands, transitioning from wild unknown to marketplace, are evaluated as an extension of this entrenched social process. When pitched on the authenticity of anything, we subconsciously rifle through every silver-tongued politician, motivational speaker, and snake-oil salesmen on record, scanning our instincts for the ticks and whistles that scream, “CHEATER!” A worthy leader faces this test in the same way that an authenticated brand does: through proactively focusing on production rather than projection.

When suggesting the power of authenticity, Angela Benton advocates that entrepreneurs choose focal self-awareness in lieu of mimicry. As a community, Silicon Valley has demonstrated its ability to authenticate certain products/services, but has never done so through trying to achieve an ulterior identity. At their best, successful brands from Silicon Valley have focused on authenticity in the cohesion, quality, and innovation that makes their product possible… not on branding aspirations of being deemed as authentic.

Authenticity is inexorably connected with a known, distinct point of origin: an original virtue that cannot be faked. Leaders who wish to brand with authenticity must undertake the unavoidable, precursory commitment to creating something new.