Three lessons I learned from Startup Weekend (Kuwait)

Last week, the third version of Startup Weekend Kuwait took place at The VIVA Coded Academy. The whole weekend was exhilarating and intense! Over 120 people participated, forming 21 full teams that built MVP’s, put together business cases, and presented in front of the judges and audience after 54 hours of non-stop work. The turnout, energy, and resounding success of the event showed how far the startup scene had come in Kuwait over the past 18 months!

It’s always amazing to see how real life situations and decision making play out in teams over the course of the Weekend. Mobile or Web? Focus on marketing or building the product? Subscription Vs Freemium? Designs Vs Functionality? I saw every team dealing and struggling with these decisions, as would a real startup in “the real world”.

Along the same lines, as an organizer and observer during Startup Weekend, I learned a thing or two (or three) about what it ultimately takes to be build a successful startup:

Lesson one: It’s (mostly) about the team, not the idea

One of the participants, called Mohammad, was looking for a team to join late in the first day. Most teams had already formed, but I knew Mohammad personally, and knew that his marketing and event management background made him him a valuable member to any team. As I was walking around with him trying to find a team, I was surprised that several teams declined his offer to join them. Eventually, we found a team that had only two members who I knew to be talented and driven, just like Mohammad. He like their idea and they recognized the value they brought to them (both of them were coders/ designers). They formed a small but strong and balanced team of three.

Their initial idea was ambitious, but they pivoted to something entirely and extremely different. It wasn’t as ambitious, and I personally thought there were at least 4 or 5 more exciting ideas in the competition. I didn’t like their chances. But, lo and behold, Mohammad’s team won first place. Their idea, Mukancom, is a platform to find co-working space in Kuwait. Arwa and Shahd, Mohammad’s team mates, did a stellar job building an MVP. But, going by the judges score cards, what really set them apart was Mohammad’s final presentation. There might have been better ideas out there, but Mukancom’s overall execution and presentation was superb, and their team was strong on all fronts, and that made all the difference. (There’s another lesson here about pivoting too).


Lesson two: It’s not about the money, money, money

One of the things that caught my attention was the participant’s seemingly lack of interest in the cash prize. Over 210 people had signed up as participants before we had event announced the money reward. I made the announcement on stage during the event, and I distinctly remember listing the non-cash prizes first (free co-working space at Sirdab Lab, free UX consultation from Catalyst) and leaving the cash prize at the end, anticipating it would get the biggest cheer. That wasn’t the case. The non-cash prizes got a lot more noise and excitement than the cash prize announcement.

In fact, not once during the Weekend did I hear people talking about the cash prize. I got asked a few times about the non-cash prizes. It seemed that no one really cared about the money at the end of it all. And yet here there were, 21 teams working 54 hours straight without much regard for the possibility of monetary reward.

You often hear successful people say something like “Don’t start a business for the money” or “At the end of the day, it’s not about the money” but those sayings often get dismissed as idealistic mantras reserved for the already rich and successful. But the lesson I learned here is that passion, competition, and the desire to build something worthwhile are far bigger motivators than money. (I’m happy to report that the top 5 teams have all continued working on their startups after the event!)


Lesson three: The true value of having a co-founder

In Startup Weekend, most dropouts occur late in the second day. It’s around that time when participants start feeling exhausted, and the finish line is oh-so-far without any guarantee of success. Our lead organizer tells me the following story: two participants from the same approached him around midnight on the second day. One of them, the “CEO” of the team (she came up with the startup idea), told him she wanted to quit. She was mentally drained and didn’t think her team had a chance of winning, so she wanted to pack up and go home.  But her teammate (the co-founder) insisted she stays. She was asking the organizer to convince the CEO not to give up. She was begging her friend to see it through until the final presentations, for the sake of the team, because she knew that if the CEO quit, the rest of the team would too. The CEO, quite literally with tears in her eyes, decided to soldier on.

That team ended up winning second place, and were in close contention for first place.

It goes to show that, above all else, the greatest benefit of having a co-founder is having someone to lean on when you’re ready to give up. In the emotional roller coaster that is a startup, co-founders must take it in turns to support each other through the tough times.


I can’t wait for next year’s Startup Weekend, where I’m sure the ideas will be even bigger and better!






Announcing this week’s Coffee Meetup + Lessons From Silicon Valley Talk


This week’s Coffee Meetup will once again take place at The VIVA Coded Academy on Wednesday evening (7.15pm). If you haven’t been to our Coffee Meetups before, they’re a casual get-together for local entrepreneurs and tech enthusiasts to meet, network, share ideas and collaborate over some good coffee.

As with previous weeks, there’ll be a talk following the meetup directly. This week’s talk is by Ahmed Aljbreen, General Manager of Saudi based digital and social marketing company, Smaat. Recently, Ahmed was in Silicon Valley for an extended period of time working on some partnerships for Smaat. During his time there, he also had the chance to visit and assess some of the world’s tech giants, such as Google, Facebook, Instagram, and more.

In this talk, Ahmed will talk about his experience working with Silicon Valley based companies, and the most important startup lessons he learned during his time there. The talk will be a great chance for startup founders to discuss with Ahmed some of the challenges they face here in the gulf, Silicon Valley culture, and whether the idea of moving to Silicon Valley is actually feasible or necessary for success. Pass by if you’re interested in knowing what it’s like to spend time working in Silicon Valley!


When: Wednesday, September 16th


7.15 pm- Startupq8 Coffee Meetup
8.00 pm- Ahmed Aljbreen
9.00 pm- Networking & Pizza

As always, this is an open invitation, and everyone is welcome!

Where: The VIVA Coded Academy at Al-Tijaria Tower- 35th Foor

Note: talk will be in Arabic

Snapchat Vs Facebook (Part 2): The Real Advantage Of Being A Startup

4 minute read


In Part 1 of the “Snapchat Vs Facebook” feature, I briefly described the scene of battle between the two companies, and how Evan Spiegel and his Snapchat team won the war.


But Part 1 didn’t tell the whole story. Although Snapchat’s decision to focus on a core feature set was instrumental to its success, there is another equally important strategic insight that put Snapchat on the course to grabbing market share from Facebook (and Instagram). Simply put, Evan Spiegel understood that customer perception is the only thing that mattered when it came to why a customer favored one product over another identical product that preformed the same function. The key word there is “perception”; that customer might not be right, and the company might refute any customer claims, and make a substantial effort to alter that perception. Ultimately, however, customer perception is hard to influence.

The story of another well-known startup can shed more light on the importance of customer perception. Chatroulette, a website that randomly paired people in a video chat, experienced the good and bad of customer perception.

When Chatroulette became a hit in 2009, most experts doubted that the website would take off because users would fear that the website would store the video chats, and as such there was a trust issue between users and the company (person) running the platform. However, despite what experts predicted, the site continued to grow to the point where it had thousands of daily users logging in and video chatting endlessly.

How did Chatroulette gain the trust of users so quickly? It didn’t. Chatroulette had poor design, shady exterior, and a primitive interface. As such, users thought the website’s runner lacked the technical ability and prowess to store user information or videos. The customer perception was that this website is so basic that there is no way it was set up to source videos, hack their cameras, or infringe on their cyber privacy.

Ultimately, however, user perception changed. People started to perceive Chatroulette as a dangerous and unregulated outlet for perverted individuals. That perception lived on for too long, and by the time Chatroulette installed methods and regulations (banning explicit material and so on), it was already too late. Chatroulette user engagement dropped dramatically, and the website eventually faded into oblivion.

In Facebook’s case, Evan Spiegel understood that after seven years of global popularity, the social network was no longer a small startup operating out of a living room. Facebook has become a multi-billion dollar cooperation, with powerful means and capabilities. In that light, customers now perceived Facebook as a “big-brother” type of website that stored and leveraged user data for advertisement, and, perhaps, more. It is not uncommon to hear people talk about Facebook as a sort of “intelligence” operation with strong ties to the CIA and FBI (mainly, that Facebook was providing governments with private information disclosed by users).

While there is no evidence of such ties or any “spying” activities, Facebook continuously refutes these claims and unremittingly publicizes a thorough privacy policy. However, these efforts could not overcome the stronghold of customer perception.

Spiegel understood that Facebook Poke (Facebook’s answer to Snapchat) would not succeed because customers could not trust that Facebook wouldn’t “steal” ephemeral pictures and messages. Unsurprisingly, Snapchat came out with a strong, clear, and simple policy: “We do not store pictures, videos, or messages anywhere”.

Snapchat was new; there was no prior customer perception to fight and overcome. It could create and shape the way users viewed the company and the app, and it did that successfully.

As mentioned in the conclusion of part 1, Evan Spiegel understood that he had won the war with Facebook before it had even started. A more accurate analysis is that Facebook had entered a war it simply could not win.


Slice of Advice

As a startup, the biggest advantage you have is that you are completely new to customers. Understand how your customers perceive the competition (both negatively and positively), and assess any advantages to be gained from that perception.


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.

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



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