Iraq presents a unique ‘situation’ for aspiring entrepreneurs.
“The biggest challenge in Iraq is ‘the situation,’” Salih Zain, an 18-year-old entrepreneur from Baghdad, said. “The security situation [in 2014] is really bad… ISIS has started to freak everyone out!”
Zain has co-organized two Startup Weekends in Baghdad, and led the organization of a third. He suggests that rumors about ISIS arriving in Baghdad have had a serious affect on the market for startups, despite a successful Startup Weekend in August.
“Entrepreneurs are really scared and stressed… One of the most successful startups in Iraq had to stop because of ‘the situation,’” Zain said. “We have been hearing news about ISIS arriving in Baghdad, and many people focused on these lies… A lot of Iraqis would say, ‘You guys are crazy! You guys don’t think about those who are getting killed! You guys must stop and sympathize with others!’… [entrepreneurs] can not market a product during such a period of time.”
Zain referenced Miswag.net, a Baghdad ecommerce startup focused on selling and delivering cloths that was recently forced to suspend their service. Despite such setbacks, Zain remains confident that with simple mobile apps, Baghdad’s many infrastructural problems can be made less frustrating– and dangerous– for Iraqis.
“If I wanna go to another city [in Iraq], I don’t know what’s there,” Zain said. “I don’t know if it’s safe to go there or not. Imagine if there were an app– that with one tap– I could see peoples’ review of ‘the situation’ in that area [of Iraq]… Is it safe or dangerous? How is the road?… It’s really important to know these details.”
Zain points to the ubiquitous problems facing Iraqis in terms of government participation, medical infrastructure, and rampant traffic. In terms of dealing with ‘the situation,’ he emphasizes a paradoxical, creative balance of observation and isolation.
“After a long period of wars and economic blockades, Iraqis started to make excuses for all failures by comparing our ‘situation’ to worse ones,” Zain said. “If you want to be an entrepreneur [in Baghdad], you should create your own world– your own castle where you don’t listen to the bad news. You need to disconnect from some of the realities of ‘the situation’… and work like crazy.”
Zain is a 12th grade student, who while studying science, fell into the development of mobile applications. Zain is a UX/UI designer, and co-founded Fikra Space, a community hub for computer scientists and designers to share their interests and goals. He admits that most Iraqis don’t understand what ‘entrepreneurship’ means, and that the national educational system is outdated in training students in emerging tech.
“Since we have no internships [in Iraq], students and graduates see themselves in an infinite loop– they have the knowledge [to be valuable], but work experience is required to find a job,” Zain said. “Private companies and secure government sectors look for people who have experience.”
According to Zain, government jobs are alluring to Iraqis because they offer such luxuries as additional training and retirement compensation for selected workers. But after decades of war– and with the promise of a government pension obscured by competition and conflict– Zain has made other, entrepreneurial arrangements for his future.
Through Fikra Space, Zain has grown his personal experience in lieu of a professional internship, while organizing Startup Weekends as a means to grow his company’s community of talent. This practice has also helped him improve his skills as a designer, while encouraging other young Iraqis to do the same.
“As an Iraqi entrepreneur, you don’t need to scratch your head and wait for an opportunity– it’s right there in front of you,” Zain said. “Try to use technology to solve the millions of simple and complex problems facing the people around you… [Iraqis] need to believe that creating their own job is better than working in the government.”
If you’re an Iraqi looking to launch a Startup Weekend in your area, please visit http://baghdad.startupweekend.org/ for more information on past events, sponsorship, and the capable network of entrepreneurs near you.
This post is written by Marwan Ahmed – a NEXT Instructor, and co-organizer of the first two Startup Weekends in Baghdad.
As a co-organizer of the first and second installments of Baghdad Startup Weekend, I’ve learned first-hand how challenging it can be to create a sustainable entrepreneurial ecosystem in my city. But with events like Startup Weekend becoming more frequent, well attended, and featuring mentors of greater caliber, the ecosystem is growing broader and deeper than ever.
After the Startup Weekends were over, I was hungry for more and immediately started to looking for another relevant mission for me to implement. I wanted to keep the momentum from the Startup Weekends rolling, especially because teams and individuals had just exposed to a whole new business culture.
Taking into account the great success of two Baghdad Startup Weekends (in fewer than five months), UP Global in cooperation with Mercy Corps in Iraq decided that the time was right to implement the new program – NEXT. Based on Steve Blank’s Lean Launchpad, NEXT is a five-week, part-time, pre-incubator program for early stage startups. Founders learn about leaving-the-building culture and on how to deal with real world variables. They learn how to validate their ideas, how to conduct customer discovery and development, and how to bootstrap their startups and go to market with a close-to-zero budget.
While the program has strong potential and aims to teach a great wealth of information, there were still a few problems here and there. Participants were forewarned that they have a long road ahead with such an intensive program, requiring no less than 20 hours of commitment per week. Add to that, the uniqueness of the program agenda made it hard to find the suitable mentors for such specified topics. So the participants had to stay in touch with mentors online, getting feedback on their Business Model Canvases via emails and Google hangouts.
Nine teams entered the program, but only three graduated:
- A moderately popular website on Baghdad whereabouts with no clear revenue model sought to develop an integrated system that enables reservations on the website implementing a two-way revenue model. The original website was an alumnus of the first Startup Weekend Baghdad.
- A soccer-focused social network and pitches reservation system got advice from SW NEXT Geneva instructor, to stream the efforts on a gamification approach in order to scale world-wide in the future.
- Given how important it is to many Iraqis to send their students to pursue higher studies outside the country, the entrepreneurs at a promising study abroad app/website learned more about customer segments and acquisition from San Diego’s NEXT instructor.
Participants were wowed by the newness of the material and the eye-opening mentorship experience that they never thought they would be able to access. However, based on my observation, Iraq needs more Startup Weekend-type events, where participants can receive dense training and a crash course on pivoting and team work. The entrepreneurial mindset has just started to establish itself in the city’s typical tradecraft and commerce that largely resemble what our grandfathers used in their day-to-day lives. These aspiring startups have a lot to accomplish in the bigger scene of Iraq’s re-emerging economy.