3 Lessons Startups Can Learn From the World Cup

One of the most exciting World Cups in recent memory came to a conclusion earlier this week. Here are three lessons startups can take from the biggest tournament in the world:


Lesson One: Teams, not star individuals, create success

The 2014 World Cup showcased a stark contrast between teams that played as a cohesive unit, and teams that were built around a superstar player (Neymar’s Brazil, Ronaldo’s Portugal, Messi’s Argentina). When Germany won the tournament, there was a consensus that the Germans played as a well-orchestrated team that was organized, disciplined, and gelled to perfection. Germany did not have a superstar player. What they did have was a team with complementary skills that highlighted their strengths and overshadowed any weakness.

From afar, successful startups might look like they were the magnificent work of an individual or two. We idolize the Brins, Pages, Jobses, Gateses, Zuckerbergs, and Musks of the startup universe. But in truth, any founder of a successful company would tell you that the founding team is the single most crucial factor in the success of a company. A founder could be a genius computer scientist, or a seasoned entrepreneur, or a remarkable businessman. But that won’t matter if that founder doesn’t have a team around him/ her that are on the same wave length; that share one vision, communicate effectively, and, most importantly, have attributes and skills that complement each other. That sort of team is formidable and, with the right leadership, is destined for success. (Recommended reading: The Founder’s Dilemma, by Noam Wasserman)


Lesson Two: Being the underdog can be your biggest advantage

This tournament provided several underdog stories in which “minnow” teams knocked out “bigger” teams. The most incredible fairy-tale run was that of Costa Rica. Costa Rica were put in a group that included three previous World Cup winners who were expected to battle for first and second in the group while lowly Costa Rica fulfilled its role as the proverbial punching bag. But that wasn’t the case. Costa Rica won the Group outright without a single loss, beat Greece in the Round of 16, and lost in a very close quarter final to the Netherlands on penalties.

Like any underdog, Costa Rica had nothing to lose, and they played liked it. They were not afraid to take the game to the bigger teams, and played without any nerves.

Any startup, by definition, is an underdog. A startup is small, but flexible. It has minimal financing, but nothing to lose. It doesn’t have thousands of employees, but has a dedicated team with heart. Every successful startup realized that they were “Davids” that had to hustle (and hustle) below the radar before knocking out the “Goliaths” of industry. Goliath, remember, never saw that slingshot coming. (Recommended reading: David and Goliath, by Malcolm Gladwell)


Lesson Three: If it isn’t working, make a change

It was the 76’th minute of the quarter final. Holland were trailing 1-0 to Mexico, and unable to create any real chances. The Dutch were running out of ideas and seemed incapable of penetrating the Mexican defense. Then Holland’s Manager, Van Gaal, makes a change by taking off his star striker, Van Persie, and bringing on young striker Klaas Huntelaar. It was move that baffled pundits and fans. But immediately, Huntelaar’s different style of play caused Mexico huge problems. That change allowed Holland to play with different tactics and have a more potent attacking threat; and it paid off. The Dutch side scored twice in 5 minutes to win 2-1 (the winning goal in the very last minute scored by, you guessed it, Huntelaar).

There are numerous other examples in this World Cup of managers making bold changes to great success. For a startup, this equates to iterations or pivots. Most startups have to go through a journey of evolution before finding product-market fit. But that journey will only commence once the founders are willing to make significant and fundamental changes if their concept fails to generate any real demand from customers. A smart startup tries to learn the weaknesses and strengths of its value proposition, and initiates changes that play towards those strengths.



Interview with the SEO Expert

As promised, this is an interview with one of the SEO experts, Ian from Caliber. We’ve been working with Caliber for more than 4 months now and I must say they are very professional. We got introduced to them by one of our advisors, he tried more than 3 agencies and he said they are the best. I believe they are.

Below is my interview with Ian Humphreys, regional director of Caliber. Caliber specializes in SEO and has an office in Dubai.



Tell us a bit about Caliber?

Caliber is an organic marketing agency with offices in Dubai, London and Edinburgh. We work with some of the world’s biggest brands including Tesco, Orbitz, Expedia, Thomson Airways and Ticketmaster. We’ve worked in MENA for several years with brands such as HSBC and the American University of Sharjah. I started working with Caliber in 2010 as a copywriter and later led the creative department out of our Edinburgh office. I moved to Dubai in 2013 to co-found our MENA office.

What is SEO?

SEO, or search engine optimization, is a marketing activity focused upon ensuring that your target audience discovers your business through natural search listings (i.e. not paid ads). This breaks down into two activities:

a. Creating content that will be shared, linked to and read by internet users

b. Ensuring your website provides a good user experience and demonstrates that to search engines Businesses need to execute both of these activities in order to increase the amount of conversions (sales, leads etc.) they generate through the internet.

Why is SEO important?

Every day in MENA there are over 100 million Google searches. And in Kuwait there are 2.7 million internet users, 930,000 of whom transact online. Millions of consumers use the internet to search for products and purchase them. If your website does not rank well for commonly searched terms, you are losing the opportunity to engage with a whole group of customers. Any company with a website needs to invest in SEO to engage this digitally savvy audience. Otherwise you are ignoring an incredibly powerful modern marketing tool.

What are three most important things businesses can do to improve their SEO?

The three most important things to boost your organic traffic (via SEO) are:

1. Invest in quality content. Search engines and customers love high quality content, especially copy

2. Ensure your site is well optimized technically and has been audited by a top- class technical SEO team

3. Invest in online marketing that will get people talking about your brand and linking to it from their own websites


What are three common mistakes people make in SEO?

It’s very easy to go wrong in SEO. Though the basic principles are simple, the means of executing them are complex and best practice changes quickly as search engines evolve.

The three most common mistakes are:

1. Signing up with one of the many bargain basement SEO companies. These agencies often guarantee results by pointing a mass of links from low- quality websites at your domain. This leads to short-term results but can irrevocably poison your site. These companies are cheap, but you’re ultimately paying them to burn down your website.

2. Duplicate content.

Many websites have hundreds (or even thousands) of pages that display the exact same content—this is a negative signal to search engines and can make you vulnerable to penalties via Google algorithm updates such as the Panda update.

The Panda update is an algorithmic change designed to penalize websites that offer little unique content.

3. Assuming developers know how to execute SEO. Developers and SEOs speak the same language but they are different disciplines. We consistently turn up issues that slip past developers, yet cripple a company’s efforts to attract traffic via organic search.

Why SEO is so difficult? Do you need a professional to do it?

If you adopt the wrong course of action you can create enormous, irreparable problems. This is compounded as SEO is constantly evolving, so you need to understand how the landscape has changed and in which direction search engines are evolving. Unless you are a specialist you’ll need to hire a professional. It’s too easy to make a simple error that can cripple your website.

How can you know a good SEO advisor/company from a bad one?

Transparency is crucial in the world of SEO. If an SEO company guarantees you results but doesn’t tell you how they will achieve them, run the other way. No one can truly ensure specific outcomes, and agencies should be honest about the tactics they are going to use to boost your performance. Also be sure to investigate what type of companies your advisor/agency works with. Good companies tend to work with global brands.

Does Caliber work with startups? What products and pricing do you offer?

Although Caliber’s background is with enterprise clients, we work with a variety of start-
ups across the Middle East including TravelerVIP, YaDig and FishFishMe. We lead their digital marketing offerings and focus upon SEO, content creation and social media consultancy. We love investing time in start-ups, provided they are serious about digital marketing and have a robust business plan. We offer a premium service so our pricing is at the higher end of the scale, but the expertise of our staff is unmatched in this market.

Memorize the secret code before it’s too late!

If you are watching the world cup then I’m sure you saw this sign below:

The secret code

I always wondered what’s this code and what does it mean, and no one seems to have an answer! After doing lots of thinking and connecting the dots I believe I found the explanation for this secret code.

This code is sent by aliens and they will come later in the near future and conquer the world. They will ask you one question “what’s the code?” If you don’t know the answer they will kill you or keep you as a slave, if you know it then you are safe. They send these signs in global events were everyone in the world is watching, so that there are no excuses. You better memorize them before it’s too late!

alien signsThe old alien signs, not effective anymore

Thats my explanation, if you have a better one let me know!

What is SEO? – Podcast

This is our latest podcast. I made some changes according to the feedback I got from the previous post. The podcast is now in English and I covered SEO (was shocked that people liked the AdWords podcast). OK, hope you’ll like it:

Customer Feedback is Oxygen

The customer might not always be right, but the customer is always worth listening to.


Kevin Systrom, co-founder of Instagram, attributes the success of the photo sharing application to one simple factor: listening to customer feedback.


Before Instagram, there was Burbn, a “check-in service” application. It was a slightly different version of Foursquare, but with the ability to upload and share photos live from a location. While working on Burbn, Systrom was relentless about talking to users and drawing feedback in order to understand the value and “best use” scenario for their customer base. The extensive qualitative and quantitative feedback analysis conducted by the Burbn team lead them to discover a curious pattern: most users of the application seemed to use it in order to share photos, rather than “check in” and share their location.


Armed with this information, Systrom “left the building” in order to grab real commentary from actual users in order to understand how the application can better serve as a photo sharing service. After numerous customer interviews and analysis, Systrom came to a conclusion that would become the basis to Instagram’s success and hyper growth:


People wanted to share photos quickly from their smartphone, but photos taken on mobile simply didn’t look beautiful.


Hence, the infamous photo filters were born. Keep in mind, at that time (2009), smartphone cameras took poor quality photos that rarely looked good. The “filters” solved this problem, and allowed users to share beautiful photos instantly from their mobile.


Eventually, Burbn became Instagram, which recorded 25 thousand users in its first day of release.


In retrospect, what Systrom and his team discovered might seem obvious. However, only with an incessant approach to soliciting and analyzing customer feedback could the Instagram/ Burbn team have realized how widespread the problem was. Customer comments also put the Instagram team on the right track to building a feature set that tackled actual problems faced by their users.


Customer feedback is oxygen. It breathes life into a dying startup, and can help the startup ignite into a fire of hyper growth.


Slice of Advice

In order to build something that people want and use, you have to listen to those people. Don’t lock yourself in the office and assume you have an intuitive understanding of who your customers are and what they want. Leave the building, and listen carefully to comments from real users. It’s the only way you’ll build something worth anything to anyone.

StartupQ8 Podcasts, are they good or bad?

During last month I started a new podcast called StartupQ8, you can hear it in Soundcloud (either on your desktop, iphone or andriod device). You can find all of the podcasts here ().

I made the podcasts in Arabic and targeted to Kuwait so that it spread more in Kuwait and the GCC regions, especially since we had everything in English since we started 2 years ago.

I want to hear your opinion about these podcasts, are they good or bad? Should I do them in English or Arabic? Should I continue or stop?

I’m getting very little listeners, some podcasts had 2 listens only and I’m probably one of them!! Just saying, maybe I’m doing something wrong or maybe Soundcloud is the problem.

Below is the 2nd podcast (I made 7 podcasts in total so far):

Brace Yourself: Your Startup Idea Will Change

Be wary of emotional attachment; for a Startup, it can be a double edged sword.


PayPal went from nothing to a market cap of $1.5 billion in 4 years. The growth of PayPal was remarkable, and to this day, it is the talk of legends and myths in Silicon Valley. What most people miss about the PayPal story is the number of fundamental changes, or pivots, the company had to go through before finding product-market fit.


Here’s the Five Pivot journey PayPal went through to discover its “best use scenario”:


First it was an encryption platform for mobile phones. Then it became a “Cash on Mobile Phones” application. Then it became an email payments system. Then it became an email payments AND PalmPilot payment system. Then it reverted back to an email payment service with a focus on e-commerce, mainly for use on e-bay.


This entire journey took 15 months.


Once PayPal discovered its best use scenario, it focused all of its efforts on enhancing that service for users. In 2002, four years after a young team of entrepreneurs set out to build an encryption platform for mobiles, PayPal was sold to e-bay for $1.5 billion.


(Watch this video by Reid Hoffman, co-founder, as he describes PayPal’s blistering journey of pivots)


Pivoting is a science and an art. To pivot successfully, a startup must have supreme agility and blistering reactivity to customer feedback. The founding team must combine quantitative analysis with qualitative interpretation to fully understand what the market demands.


So why do most startups experience “pivot failure”?


The answer is that most founders treat a startup “like it’s their baby”. What that means is that founders get emotionally attached to the original idea, and convince themselves it’s a winner while ignoring all signals from the market. They are so emotionally invested in an unproven concept that they fail to recognize a need to change (or pivot). Emotional attachment creates blindness to reality and compromises objectivity.


There is no doubt that founders have to be inherently passionate about an idea, or they are doomed to fail. But that passion must be balanced with a flexibility to change according to customer feedback in order to reach the holy grail of product-market fit.


Slice of Advice

If you’re a founder, make sure that you and your team realize that your idea will most certainly require fundamental changes. Save your emotional capital to after your product has achieved product-market fit. At that point, you are free to pour your heart into it. Startup success requires agility, both in thinking and emotion.

Dropbox and the True Meaning of Competition

With extremely low barriers to entry, startups might feel they are entering a crowded space.


When Drew Houston pitched Dropbox to his friend, a successful entrepreneur, his idea met strong skepticism. His friend opened TechCrunch, navigated to threads dedicated to cloud-based storage systems, and showed Drew close to a hundred startups in that field, half of which were venture backed. It was 2007, and the hot trend of that time was Cloud Storage.


Put yourself in Drew’s shoes. You have a brilliant idea, but you find out that literally tens of companies already exist in that space, and it seems that there is very little room for competition. But Drew asked his friend a simple question (and one that he would repeat to all early doubters), “Do you use any of these systems?” The answer, 9 times out of 10, was “No”.


Drew believed that all the existing companies were “pretenders” who have failed to create a cloud storage system that provided everyday users a simple and straightforward tool to manage their files on the cloud. In other words: the current systems, although many, simply didn’t work. He was confident that the system he was about to build could infinitely improve on the current solutions. He was right. Today, Dropbox has over 200 million users, and is the number one cloud storage software in the world.


Google faced a similar proposition. When the company was founded, two giant search engines, Yahoo and Alta Vista, existed and controlled the market. But Page and Brin were aware that they had created a search engine that was exponentially better than the existing incumbents. We all know how that story unfolded.


The key takeaway here is that the size or quantity of competition can sometimes be highly irrelevant. The true relevance of a competitor is not market share, but rather how much room is available for improvement on their product or service. The less room, the stronger the competition.


Most people in Drew Houston’s shoes would have seen that TechCrunch page and would’ve been demoralized (or scared) by the number of competitors. But what was relevant to Dropbox is the quality of service provided by these companies, and how vastly they could improve on it. Dropbox recognized that although hundreds of companies existed, the best system among them still left a large void in user experience. They filled that void, and continue to fill it.


Slice of Advice

Analyze the competition in your own terms. Compare your idea or product to theirs, and clearly define where and how your product improves on theirs. If the improvement is vast or meaningful, than the size or quantity of competitors becomes relevant only to the space available for improvement and how effectively your product fills that space.

Someone Thought Google Was a Bad Idea

In the ever developing world of technology, a lack of vision can be fatal.


In January 1997, Larry Page was ready to sell Google (formerly BackRub) for $1.7 million. Yes million, with an “m”. Page was negotiating to sell his newly developed search engine to a company called “Excite”, an internet portal that hosted a collection of web services, including a search engine*. At that time, Excite was a publicly traded industry giant that was buying out competitors and partners left and right.


The deal, obviously, never took place. BackRub became Google, a company with a market cap of $375 billion. As for Excite, it went through a serious of mergers with “Ask Jeeves” and soon became part of the forgotten, dusty corners of internet history. So why did the deal fall through?


It wasn’t the price. In fact, Excite were able to negotiate Page down from $1.7m to $750,000, and Page agreed to it. But still, Excite’s then CEO, George Bell, turned down the opportunity.


Bell and his board turned down Google because they thought it was too effective of a search engine. That’s right: they didn’t want to buy Google because it worked too well and, more importantly, too fast.


What you have to keep in mind is that during the start of the internet revolution in the mid 90’s, banner advertisement was a powerful revenue driver. The key to a revenue-generating banner ad was to keep the user on the website for as long as possible, as to provide maximum exposure to the banner. Google’s main value proposition was that it did search “faster” and allowed users to “find what they wanted in seconds and leave”. It was a value proposition in which Bell could not see monetary turnover. He told Page that BackRub was a great search tool, but a bad business idea.


In retrospect, both Bell’s and Page’s lack of vision at that time is astonishing. Larry Page was about to sell a product to a competitor despite his belief that it was superior in every way (understatement). Bell didn’t take that opportunity because he failed to look beyond his current revenue model and create a new model that leverages better user experience.


For Excite, that decision driven by a lack of vision proved fatal. For Page, it was a lucky escape.


Slice of Advice

Have faith in your product, and be skeptical of what the incumbent “experts” might say. Often, these experts have learned to do something in a particular way, and fail to recognize the ingenuity and value of a new idea.

 [The most dangerous phrase in the language is, "We've always done it this way."] –Grace Hopper



*Reference: http://www.businessinsider.com/larry-page-tried-to-sell-google-for-16-million–358-billion-less-than-its-worth-today-2014-4

Q&A with Omar Soudodi

Ahead of our Event, we sat with Omar Soudodi for a quick Q&A on the state of e-commerce in the region. If you’re interested in e-commerce or selling your goods and services, don’t miss this talk:

For those who are unaware, can you describe Payfort and its value proposition?
PayFort is a trusted online Payment Service Provider enabling businesses large and businesses, government agencies, SME’s, Startups and Institutions with innovative payment options for both banked & non-banked online shoppers. We work closely with our customers (merchants) by understanding their financial and revenue models, identify areas of risk exposure, and formulate strategies to maximize their online payment acceptance. We work under the notion that “People are Different” and we assist merchants in offering payment options that mirror their online shoppers behavior for both credit card and noncredit cardholders.
What are the main challenges facing businesses that want to transact electronically? What about customers?
The challenge is in two folds, Going Live as quickly as possible with a trusted online payment acceptance while minimizing requirements from financial institutions such as security deposits and big setup cost. The second fold is the availability of online payment financial instruments used by online shoppers since the Arab world is underbanked with only 18% of the total Arab Population owning a bank account. In the case of Kuwait it reaches 70% of adults so it doesn’t apply for the State of Kuwait.
Are there structural differences that make e-commerce more acceptable elsewhere?
1-Awareness of the end-user: safety & security is a concern in the ArabWorld since most users want to pay for the item upon delivery in the case of e-commerce transactions.
2-Supply: with more services/goods being sold online shoppers are buying more online since it mirrors the offline supply at competitive prices; around 66% of online shoppers look for value.
3-Demand, with annual growth of 40% for the region (highest in the world) coupled with Mobile Commerce penetration at 41% in the region compared to 23% worldwide, users are becoming more affluent online shoppers. Kuwait has the highest IOS penetration in the region and ranks one of the top 12 countries in the world in IOS usage which is a signal of the high affluence rate and higher disposable income for online shoppers.
See you tomorrow!

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