Pitching on the open road: Uber brings MENA entrepreneurs and experts together in 5 cities


Pitching on the open road: Uber brings MENA entrepreneurs and experts together in 5 cities

Entrepreneurs pitched their startups in cars they hailed through Uber's mobile app. (Image via Maysaa Ajjan)

Pitching a business in a car, in traffic, in the busiest cities in the Middle East may sound like a recipe for disaster. But for entrepreneurs seeking face-time with seasoned investors and advisors, UberPITCH worked without a hitch.

Following the announcement of the competition, organized jointly by ArabNet and Uber, droves of digital dreamers submitted their ideas for consideration in the hopes of getting face time with some of the region’s most accomplished entrepreneurs and an opportunity to attend the ArabNet Digital Showcase slated for late May.

But just 150 contestants made the short list. They received a special Uber app promo code that they used to hail a car between 11 am and 3 pm on Saturday, May 9. But Just a handful of contestants in Dubai, Cairo, Beirut, Riyadh and Amman got to share a car with an expert. Once on-board, entrepreneurs had just seven minutes to make their case and seven minutes to hear feedback.

“UberPITCH is a radically different experience,” said Cairo finalist, Ahmed Saad of Crowd Analyzer.

“There’s no stage, no audience, no formal presentation even,” he continued. “You don’t know if you’ll get a ride and if you do, you don’t know who the judges will be. You have no visibility on how you compare with your competitors because you don’t know who they are and how their pitches went...essentially you compete blindly.”

That afternoon, judges in UberPITCH cars across the region listened to diverse tech ideas that included a real-time bidding platform for last-minute travelers (LastSeat), a location based voucher redemption app (Guzzle), a healthy food box subscription service (Goodybox), and an app for real-time live debates (Qallout). Beyond the initial hesitation of getting into a vehicle and making one’s pitch in close physical proximity to the judges, it was immediately apparent with each of the contestants in our car that the setting allowed for a more casual and conversational vibe.

As we drove through various neighborhoods in New Dubai,  the importance of clarity and focus on one’s business idea was repeatedly emphasized. “It’s simple,” said Samih Toukan, CEO of Jabbar Internet Group and founder of the world’s first Arabic email service Maktoob.com. “What is the consumer problem? What is your solution? How will it make money?”

Samih Toukan, CEO, Jabar Internet Ventures, advises Yasmina Jraissati during UberPITCH (Image via Natasha D'Souza) 

A literature portal Mubtada wa Khabar, conceived by Yasmina Jraissati, who calls herself the Arab world’s first professional literary agent, intrigued the judges. Toukan praised her efforts. “Nurturing and promoting literature and the arts is an admirable and critical cultural prerogative,” he said. “Your idea could be pivotal for the future of Arabic literature.” As the team had not fleshed out their business model as yet, the judges unanimously urged them to take their project to the next level. “Passion projects can pave the way for great businesses,” said Joanne Kubba, Uber's Director of Policy for Middle East and Africa. She added: “You can transform your hobby - be it a niche blog or community portal - into a viable and disruptive business. You just need to differentiate, capture your market and sustainably monetize.”

Of the seven pitches we witnessed in just one of the cars in Dubai, the level of preparation and methods of presentation vastly varied, with several contestants opting to only speak about their idea and only one - Khaled Zaatarah of 360 MEA, bringing a presentation, including a demo of the app and revenue projections.

Feedback was brief, targeted and actionable.

“What I appreciated about UberPITCH is that the judges were actual entrepreneurs and businessmen, not just investors,” said Beirut finalist, Rami Khawandi of Tari’ak. “Their feedback touched upon various business model fundamentals, not just an idea’s revenue potential, which investors typically focus on.”

Ali Abdel-Hafiz, CEO and Founder of iSolarWorkx reflected: “We were advised to apply the ‘Lego’ concept to iSolarWorkx, as in create a product that allows children to be creative and explore as they please, instead of being prescriptive. Exploring the online market was another suggestion the judges made and we’ll give it some serious attention.”

While a car might seem like an unusual place to pitch a business, ArabNet and Uber's event business event pitching event yielded interesting business ideas and quality feedback. 

And the winners...

Ultimately, UberPITCH Middle East chose to extend their sponsorship to four startups (versus the original two) to present at ArabNet Digital Showcase (listed in alphabetical order):

Crowd Analyzer (Cairo), an Arabic focused social media monitoring tool that allows brands and agencies to monitor, analyze and respond to people's opinions on social media. According to Tarek Nasr, managing director of Juice Labs and one of the Cairo judges: “They’re a great team with great traction and know their business inside out. Crowd Analyzer is definitely a startup to watch coming out of the Middle East.” Reflecting on the win, Saad said: “We’ve just released the new version of our dashboard with greater analytic capabilities and coverage of more social media sources and we’re looking forward to sharing it at ArabNet.”  

iSolarWorkx  (Dubai), designs and manufactures creative renewable energy educational DIY kits for school students to teach them about various scientific concepts. Jean-Pierre Mondalek, Uber’s UAE General Manager commended their “clear vision” and “understanding of the kind of funding and partnerships required to get the business off the ground.”

Tari’ak (Beirut), a simple and accurate app that uses crowdsourcing to advise on real-time traffic conditions. Khawandi commented: “We'll be using ArabNet to launch our product and service in the UAE, as well as to pitch to investors... Also, we’d like to meet people working in the Smart City space.”

Yaqut (Amman), a gamified and ad-supported ebookstore for the MENA region that enables users to download thousands of free books and store them directly on their device’s memory to view at their convenience. The founder, Ammar Mardawi expressed: “We're currently raising our first round of funding and hope to meet with investors who can join and help transform the book publishing industry in MENA.”

Entrepreneurs were given just 7 minutes to pitch their projects and 7 minutes to hear feedback.

Below are some additional entrepreneurs, their startups and the feedback they received:

Founder: Sara El Sayed

Startup: Sociotag, an online platform that solves access and logistic challenges for events and offers analytics insight to help them amplify revenues

Judges’ advice: “Events don’t always make a lot of money, try approaching sponsors for better revenues.”

Founder: Ziad Dagher

Startup: The Bayrut Express, an eco-friendly online fashion store promotes sustainability by offering green brands from all over the world

Judges’ advice: “Try choosing high-caliber brands, because people would be more inclined to go green if the choice comes with a status.”

Founder: Ibrahim El Khawam

Startup: IZEM, a security sensor with alarm system that notifies authorities and family if the user is in mortal danger

Judges’ advice: “You’re selling to a very niche market, and your vision of getting the authorities on your side might be too idealistic. Try targeting high-caliber people in foreign markets, and raise your price.”

Founder: Stefano Fallaha 

Startup: Fallound, a social networking app that bridges the “sound” gap in social media and helps in growing personal bonds

Judge’s advice: “Choose a more unique angle or idea. Have a more structured thought of how people use audio in their everyday lives.”

Note: Only 16-years-old, Stefano is a self-taught programmer and UberPitch's youngest contestant. “You’re welcome to come test your ideas at our offices,” said Habib Haddad, and indeed we couldn’t be more excited.

Founder: Zouheir Sandid

Startup: Ebag, a GPS sensor attached to the traveler’s bag, complete with thumbprint identification so that travelers will no longer worry about losing their luggage

Judge's advice: “You might have some serious competition from large bag manufacturers who decide to incorporate this themselves. Taking coding courses is a good method to help you narrow down if an idea is applicable or not.”

Founder: Bassil Ouais

Startup: Heroic, a video game with cool graphics that turns everybody into a superhero through its skill-matching system. People can find someone qualified with the skills they want and ask for assistance, turning them into a “superhero"

Judge's advice: “Your game is market based, meaning you need huge supply and demand. You should go for more aggressive marketing.”

Whether it was UberPITCH in Riyadh (above) or Amman, the rules - and pressure - were identical.

And finally, some advice that any entrepreneur can benefit from:

Pitch with passion, precision and preparation. Enthusiasm, conviction and self-confidence make people take you seriously. Refine and focus your idea, do your number crunching, consider opportunities to scale and monetize and investors will take you seriously too. 

Start small and keep it simple. Toukan’s advice to one of the contestants, Asad Jaffery of Tibstr, a social rating app, bears mentioning: “For any app, or for that matter any business idea, just focus with laser eye precision on a specific problem and find a simple solution. Uber did it. Instagram did it.”  

Know your numbers. As one of the Dubai judges, Feroz Sanaulla, founder of Dubai-based venture capital firm Emerging Circlewas surprised at most entrepreneurs’ poor command of finances, saying: “It’s a glaring issue. Without a proper financial analysis and budgeting, entrepreneurs will struggle with the harsh realities of fundraising.” The solution? “The ecosystem needs to offer more intensive financial training to aspiring entrepreneurs. I hope my incubator colleagues will take up this challenge and work on elevating the financial acumen of aspiring entrepreneurs.”

Diversify when the time is right. Many contestants had ideas consisting of multiple business verticals. In Toukan’s view: “Don't diversify from day one. Get the basics right and build from there. If you have multiple products or services, they need some fundamental commonality, especially when you are starting out.”

Get it right for today but think about tomorrow. Kubba emphasized the importance of innovation and disruption when developing a business model. “Don't just think about creating efficiencies for today. Think disruptive. How can your idea change the landscape of the industry in say 5 or 10 years?"

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