We speak to one of the founders of the burgeoning consulting firm, gaining insight on how tech ventures are the talk of every town.
Rocking gently in the storm of the Coronavirus, never looking like capsizing, is one semblance of a success story: tech startups. ‘Success’ here is relative, of course, given that the economic downturn caused by pandemic has made ‘survival’ the status quo. However, in the midst of such uncharted territory, tech startups have triumphed (relatively, of course) by providing tech-enabled solutions to a world that is so ready to embrace the promise, potential and downright necessity of these services.
These industries, such as e-commerce, fintech, edtech and healthtech among many others, are topping the charts. According to the MAGNiTT & INSEAD Startup & Investor Sentiment Report, 27% of investors in MENA have admitted that they are honing in on industries that were ‘positively impacted’ by COVID-19. Fintech reigns with 16% of all deals in MENA, followed by e-commerce (14%) and delivery and transport (10%).
So while there’s an unprecedented rush by tech mavens to launch their tech-driven ventures, or to pivot to include these high-in-demand services, these founders must be weary that it doesn’t just take a smartphone app that supplies on-demand services - it also takes mastering the fine art of entrepreneurship.
“Egypt has a major pool of talent when it comes to engineers. The country’s rife with bright ideas that can propel the Egyptian ecosystem to great heights,” Mohammed Shahin, co-founder of consultancy firm and software developer, Softmills, tells StartupScene. “The only setback is that with this juggernaut amount of expertise and skill brought by them to the table, is that it needs to be complimented with the necessary entrepreneurial mindsets to lead and run a startup.”
Founded by Shahin alongside co-founder Adam Eldaba, Softmills is an Egyptian-born consulting and software development firm focused on the training and incubation of startups in the MENA region. Their repertoire so far includes a spate of tech-enabled startups that work in transportation, healthtech, petcare, fintech and loyalty and reward programmes among others. While Softmills is industry agnostic, their work is a reflection of what’s hot right now.
You’ll find many startups hailing ideas from, say, North America, believing they can usher the concept in locally, however the region was perhaps not prepared, or the concept simply can’t be cloned in the same shape it occupies elsewhere.
“Adam and I met about 11 years ago in Canada. We were working in the same company at the time, and it dawned on us to shoot for the stars, and start our own venture,” Shahin recalls. “We started Advantech, a loyalty and rewards startup based in Dubai. We raised about $1.5 million, and later found out that the product can’t be scaled to the degrees we had hoped it could.”
Shahin and Eldaba’s experience with Advantech then paved the path for Softmills. The goal was to help equip fellow Egyptian entrepreneurs with the industry know-how and business savvy it takes to turn a prototype into an actionable and scalable venture. “The criteria we set for startups to join our cohort is twofold,” notes Shahin. “First we look and assess the team behind the venture, how capable they are of steering their startup, and the second is how applicable the idea is to the market being targeted.”
Shahin and co focused on working with entrepreneurs, particularly those operating in the tech industry. Many simply don’t have the technical knowhow of how to actualise an idea into a prototype, which is one of the services Softmills provides The second component comes in the form of a very important question - are the overall business model and financial models feasible? Following on from that, is it an actionable idea? Does it fit within a market that Softmills is after? The last component is, of course, investment and raising the appropriate funds.
“A startup’s product applicability is measured in respect to the market it serves, “Shahin explains. “Despite that, some startups can create a fleshed-out business model, with everything laid out pristinely, but there’s still the matter of whether it would work in that market. You’ll find many startups hailing ideas from, say, North America, believing they can usher the concept in locally, however the region was perhaps not prepared, or the concept simply can’t be cloned in the same shape it occupies elsewhere.”
The lineup of ventures that the startup has in its portfolio very much reflects that philosophy. Shahin notes one particularly exciting startup that Softmills is currently working with, one that specialises in on-demand staffing. In the COVID era, a time laden with job cuts and losses throughout the first half of 2020, the planet is now, sort of, coming out of hiatus. The workforce is once again alive, and the demand for jobs is increasing. “The opportunities the startups among our lineup have aren’t entirely just a demonstration of what’s hot, but these startups were able to perfectly encapsulate and adapt these products to befitting what the MENA region is,” adds Shahin. “For on-demand staffing, we were absolutely intrigued with the idea and its ability to affect change during this crisis.”
In terms of how Softmills coped during the pandemic, it was, essentially, business as usual. “From the get-go, we were operating remotely, as the nature of the job involves connecting with startups in Egypt and the region while we’re based elsewhere,” says Shahin. “So while offices worldwide were still manoeuvring how to develop the perfect work-from-home formulae, we had already had a head start. One of the very initial challenges we faced was how to navigate leading teams from home, as well as allocating and managing resources in a way that gets things done. My message to tech startups is simple: there’s huge opportunities right now, it’s just all a matter of utilising this time to leave no stone unturned in how unyielding you are in every element of your business.”
Find out more about Softmills here.
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