January 27, 2022 in success stories

Top 10 pieces of advice for early-stage startups in the Middle East, North Africa and Turkey

At Village Capital, we work with a community of over 550 mentors across the globe with deep expertise and a passion for supporting impact-driven entrepreneurs. We asked our mentors what their advice would be for entrepreneurs in the Middle East and North Africa. Here’s what we heard the most:

1. Be open and vulnerable about your company

Embracing vulnerability is a benefit for entrepreneurs. Receiving feedback from mentors and experts can add a lot of value to your company, but only if they can see the full picture. If you want to get the most from mentors, you need to be open with them -- especially regarding the most vulnerable parts of your business. 

Investors value the self-aware founder. Being open and honest about your stage, market and competition (even when it isn’t a pretty picture) makes you a realistic founder. As Berat Kjamili the co-founder of Migport, says “Feel free to be open about vulnerable topics and get the best from the mentors.”

2. Learn from your peers

Some of the best advice comes from fellow founders, especially those who understand the MENA region and its unique challenges. Peer learning has the potential to unlock some of the best idea exchanges around areas such as growth strategy, market mapping and other common challenges. You might even find yourself a potential partner or collaborator. 

We hear from a lot of founders in our network that they suffer from anxiety, stress and feelings of isolation. Creating communities of founders who can support and encourage one another is among the best remedies for an overwhelmed founder.

3. Focus, and keep things simple 

At the early-stages, it's extremely important to stay focused on what you do well. While it’s exciting to develop new products and features or scale up to new target segments, sectors or markets, it can cause your company to lose focus and even fail. 

First, try to focus on the problem you solve, not the solution. It will help you streamline your business model and identify your  target customers. As an early-stage company, it can be hard to have enough data. Whatever data you do have, use it to justify your business model. To sum it up, focus on your current situation instead of your next steps and leverage existing data to make informed business decisions. 

4. Articulate your social and environmental return

If you want to raise capital from impact investors, you’ll need to articulate your social and environmental return. 

When considering the impact of your company, start by thinking about the long-term benefits for people, the environment or the economy that your business creates or contributes to. To really impress impact-minded investors, you need to be sure your business model is aligned with your intended impact. Measuring social impact can be difficult when starting out, here are some of the tools that can be used:

5. Make your market size numbers reasonable 

There are multiple ways to estimate your market size: top-down, bottom-up approach or value theory. 

For new market segments, it is not applicable to use a top-down approach, as it ignores many variables such as operational constraints. So, depending on the stage of your business, getting your market mapping numbers through a top down approach methodology could overstate the market size you’re trying to measure. One of the best ways to analyze your market is to consider your competitors. Always ask yourself: What is the market I am going after? Is it realistic? How will I capture it?

If you want to get an accurate picture of your market size, you need to be realistic in your estimates and projections. The goal is not to make your market mapping numbers as large as possible, but use it as data. 

6. Do not forget about your stakeholders

At the early stage, it’s very important to make the first contact with the potential customers and clients to secure investment in the future. Create a table listing all your stakeholders, including strategies outlining ways to approach them.

Ask yourself what you need from your stakeholders, how you affect them and how you are affected by them. To connect with the right people early, utilize the networks of mentors you meet. 

7. Create cultural change among your customers

In many sectors across the MENA region, changing the fundamental behaviors of potential customers is vital to ensuring a robust consumer base. There can be a lot of mistrust and hesitation from customers, especially in regards to new tech products and services. Companies need to change consumer behaviour so that they use your new products or services. Many people believe marketing can control consumer behaviour, but that rarely holds true. Marketing can attract customers, but it doesn’t control or affect the choices they make as much as extrinsic factors like culture. This is a key reason we see many startups in the region fail, especially those copy and pasting models from Silicon Valley. 

A prime example of this is the service delivery market, which in MENA has lagged behind other regions due to the fundamental role personal interactions still have to many consumers. We’ve seen campaigns for cultural change succeed in a number of ways, but some of the greatest success stories come from social media. Justmop, a MENA-based home cleaning service executed a wisely planned marketing strategy on TikTok that enabled them to reach a massive potential audience across the Middle East that increased revenue by 3X and app installs by over 7X. Do not underestimate the power of cultural phenomenons like TikTok, it’s worth exploring.

8. Know your audience

Whenever you are pitching to a new audience, consider their background and adjust your pitch accordingly. Have backup slides and information easily available for the different audiences you pitch to, especially if your product is highly technical or in a niche market. As a founder, it’s also your responsibility to manage the time and focus of any meeting, and to ensure that you come away from every meeting with the intended results. Be sure your pitch is timely, relevant and focused. In the era of virtual meetings, you should also have a backup plan for technical problems. You only get one shot to make a first impression.

9. Know your investor

The first thing to consider before approaching an investor is KYI - Know Your Investor. Make a target list of investors and conduct your due diligence to identify the sectors a particular investor is interested in, the companies they have previously invested in and at what stage of business. Generally this type of information can be found by the investor’s website, but you can also make use of social media platforms to get a sense of who they are talking about and who they are talking to. Target one or two investors who you think are a best fit for your business. 

There are tools out there to help you narrow your search, including Village Capital’s Abaca.app.

10. Talk about your Origin Story

When pitching to investors, entrepreneurs often focus heavily on data, financials or specifications of product, but your pitch shouldn’t stop here. Investors want to hear about your origin story, they want to know who you are and why you founded your company. 

Storytelling is a powerful tool. It builds memory, empathy, and trust between the storyteller and the listener. For founders, it can be used to convince people who can help grow and scale your venture to jump on board. Many investors in the MENA region place a high importance on the founder at the early-stage. Work on telling your story and articulating why you’re the right person to tackle the problem your company is solving. 


The advice above is inspired by the many Village Capital mentors who share their wisdom, experience and time with companies in our programs. In particular, this advice is inspired by Ahmed Hazem, Berat Kjamili, Beryl Isiji, David Nettleton, Didem Altop, Dilek Bil, Edgar Harrel, Fida Taher, Ghassan Noursi, Hale Umul, Hassan Mansi, Husam Barham, Jennifer White, Martina Boccia, Mathias Gonzalez, Matt Sornson, Muhammed Teleb, Rasha Laswi, Selen Ucak, Sewar Nowwar, Sirine Fadoul, Sonia Weymuller, Tamer Al-Salah, Tara Lutman and Waleed Samarah. Thank you all. 

Interested in joining our mentor network? Indicate your interest using this form.

Related Posts