Palestinian VC Saed Nashef keeps telling people that building a startup ecosystem is a decades-long process. Why are so few people listening?
If you’re writing a story about startups in Palestine, Saed Nashaf is probably one of the guys you’ll call.
The co-founder of Palestine’s first VC firm Sadara Ventures, Nashef lives and breathes the daily realities of starting up in the region, so it makes sense that he’s an oft-quoted source. But when I phoned him recently to ask how things had been going since Sadara made its first two investments, he seemed eager to correct the record when it comes to a lot of reporting on Palestine’s entrepreneurial ecosystem.
“If you read the articles,” he says, “you’d think Silicon Valley has moved to downtown Ramallah.” The media, he continues, bears part of the responsibility for cranking up the hype machine around the region’s nascent startup scene.
The Talent Example
Take the high proportion of computer science graduates turned out by the Palestinian education system. Article after article cites this army of educated, tech-savvy job seekers as one of the drivers of the ecosystem in Palestine. But Nashef cautions that hype may have run far ahead of reality. “Definitely talent does exist in Palestine, but what has been written about it is exaggerated,” he says.
“The numbers are really high in terms of the graduates that come out of universities in computer and IT related fields, but are a high percentage of these guys trained to a level where they are skilled enough to be able to build world-class startups? The answer is no,” he adds. Of course, with the proper investment in training, raw Palestinian talent can we molded into top-shelf startup founders and employees, but fledgling companies are still facing a dire shortage of marketing, mid-tier management, sales and business development talent as well. “Functions that have developed serious talent pools in more mature markets, virtually don’t exist here,” Nashef says.
Jumping on the Bandwagon…
In Palestine, as in many other places around the world with budding startup scenes, the frothy reporting has brought more interest. “There’s been a growing number of organizations that have been jumping on the entrepreneurship bandwagon. I think this has been happening not only in Palestine, maybe even globally.” he says. “Entrepreneurship is going to be the solution to all our troubles! There’s been a bit of hype.”
What does it really matter if a few reporters have oversold the skills of Palestinian IT grads and the general scale of the scene? Everyone likes a feel-good story and positive news out of place with so many difficulties is bound to get people excited.
… and Falling Off Again
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There’s nothing wrong with being excited, according to Nashed. He’s excited himself — for the business opportunities in a region with so many consumers and so many pressing problems awaiting solutions, as well as for the ability of entrepreneurialism to grow the economy and expand perceived possibilities. “Building this kind of ecosystem can really change mindsets. It can really change culture and ultimately it can really change economies,” he says. “The thing of it is that it’s not something that happens overnight, and that seems to be the thing that I struggle most to convey to people in the tech scene.”
Enthusiasm is great, in other words, but it needs to be on a realistic time scale otherwise sky-high expectations will inevitably lead to disappointment — and then disengagement. “The real entrepreneurs are going to stick to it. They’re going to fail. They’re going to get up and they’re going to continue,” he believes, but he also thinks “that we’re going to go through a bunch of iterations before we’re seeing the real nucleus of what will become a mature ecosystem for startups.”
And while the diehards will stay through the bubble and bust cycle brought on by too much boosterism, perhaps the hype is making the road bumpier than it needs to be — in Palestine, and maybe elsewhere too.
“The biggest risk in not looking at the long-term is we will take the first few steps and fall and just then we will think we have failed, although we’re only at the very beginning,” Nasef says. “We need to be expecting successes to come in very, very, very slowly and we need to be willing to do the work one person at a time.”
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