Significant support is on hand from all sides for Qatar’s potential startups and SMEs as it seeks to inspire budding entrepreneurs to turn their ideas into reality with practical, financial, academic and bureaucratic help from entities such as the Qatar Business Incubator Center (QBIC). Its CEO, Aysha Al Mudahka, offers valuable advice for entrepreneurs and explains the dynamic initiatives in the emirate encouraging the launch of new businesses and helping to take fledgling SMEs to the next level.
How do you think the work you are doing, fostering SMEs and entrepreneurship, is going to help Qatar to achieve its National Vision 2030 goals?
For over 20 years, Qatar’s government has been striving to develop a knowledge-based economy, moving away from being a rentier state and developing a solid, booming private sector. The country has built the necessary infrastructure, fostered education, technology, research and innovation, as well as many other aspects that support this ambition. We’re already witnessing change and development in various areas, especially when it comes to education and personal development.
The government is investing heavily in new opportunities and projects to diversify the economy from the oil and gas sector. Meanwhile, there are several governmental entities such as Qatar Development Bank (QDB), Bedaya, the Social Development Center, and Qatar National Bank, which are investing in the development and growth of startups and SMEs.
Our organization fits within the entrepreneurship, startup development and incubation aspect of the SME vision that QDB is executing, as well as the Social Development Center—they are our founders.
At QBIC, we welcome startups with potential to grow, and equip them with the tools and facilities they need to reach new levels and scale up. Our mission is to create the next 100 million Qatari riyals (QAR) companies in Qatar, and to make sure that they survive the initial stages of joining the private sector and eventually grow into an SME.
You mentioned two programs: one dedicated to start-ups and other to SMEs that have already managed to create a business and are trying to take it to another level. How are you working in this regard with the private sector?
We work with two groups of entrepreneurs: those who have an idea and would like to turn it into a business, and those with an existing small-scale startup looking for support to accelerate and grow. We provide them with office spaces, mentoring, coaching and a chance to enroll in one of our flagship programs, which are called the LeanStartup (LSP) or the LeanScaleup (LSUP) Program, both which are based on the “lean” methodology, initially founded by Eric Ries.
Our program allows entrepreneurs to partake without having a business plan or specific degrees required to start a business. We take the idea and quickly transform it into a tangible product or service (Minimum Viable Product), while being as cost-efficient as we can, to test it in the market and find out if this is needed and wanted by their target customers. We don’t want entrepreneurs to be intimidated by the risks involved in starting a business, so we provide them with the support and funds they need to do this and get the results needed to determine whether their business ideas are good or not. So far, we’ve seen great results from our first six waves of LSP.
QBIC also offers entrepreneurs a seed fund of up to QAR 300,000, which is then turned into equity shares. If a company requires additional funds then we refer them to our founder, QDB, as they have specially dedicated support systems and services for entrepreneurs.
To date, we’ve incubated over 50 companies in a variety of different industries. We also have industrial workshops for startups that need it.
We’ve also recently partnered with Qatar Tourism Authority (QTA) to set up a specialized incubator called QBIC Tourism. It will enable entrepreneurs to develop products and services to enhance the Qatar tourism experience, by providing them with unique business development tools and access to insight and guidance from QTA decision-makers.
Their offices are already full of people working on exciting tourism-related projects. We have incubated 10 companies so far, and have received hundreds of applications for aspiring entrepreneurs.
Similarly, we have partnered with Ooredoo Qatar, focusing on digital solutions. Together, we set up a specialized incubator called Digital and Beyond, which focuses on startups with digital solutions in a variety of sectors, including healthcare, sports, public services and finance. So far, we have incubated five startups, and we have many more ideas and applicants in the pipeline. Given the fact that we’ve only launched this project four months ago, we’re proud to say it has a promising future, and has already gained tremendous popularity amongst aspiring entrepreneurs.
The great thing about this project is that is exposes our entrepreneurs to the key influencers in the private sector, and grants them access to advisors and mentors in the technology and innovation sector. In line with Qatar’s National Vision 2030, we want to build strong ties with the private sector and increase our entrepreneurs’ input and role within it.
You mentioned many sectors in which you are working. Which sectors are the most relevant? Where do people see more opportunities?
We’re here to provide entrepreneurs with support regardless of their sector choice. However, we’ve taken it upon ourselves to provide specialized support and access to experts in the fields of digital solutions and tourism, as they are some of the most prominent industries of our time and important ones for Qatar as a whole.
Qatar is a unique country in that the market here is relatively young and there are many opportunities for small businesses to succeed. I strongly believe that our entrepreneurs know and understand this, and therefore we receive numerous applications with startup ideas in a variety of industries, including luxury businesses, services, marketing, media, education services and tourism.
As Qatar moves deeper into the digital realm, we see most business that start with us always have an e-element, such as a mobile application, e-commerce system, or a website etc.
Another relevant aspect is the creation of a proper entrepreneurial culture, which is not that simple. What were the main challenges that you faced when starting QBIC?
I think the ambition of starting of your own business is an endeavor on its own, and it constantly one of the biggest challenges we face at QBIC.
Choosing entrepreneurship as a career path is a relatively new concept in this region, and not widely understood by most. If an entrepreneur doesn’t have a business-oriented or entrepreneurial family background, then changing this mindset and dedicating himself to a startup becomes more far-fetched. Many people keep their day jobs, and spend the afternoons at the incubator working on their business.
We are focusing mainly on local businesses because we want to invest in local talent. We want to create Qatari business leaders through this incubator. I’m proud of the dedication I see put in by our entrepreneurs, who even bring their kids to work so they can stay longer hours.
From a governmental perspective, we see a lot of reforms taking place in the laws for starting a business, and new ways are being introduced to make registering a business an easier task. For example, the Ministry of Economy and Commerce recently launched a new mobile application where you can register your company and manage most of the official documents needed!
When it comes to regulations, one of these changes is the sanction of a law by which 30% of public tenders are going to be dedicated exclusively to SMEs. How is this going to affect your initiative?
I think this is a very strategic approach, and will ensure that SMEs and startups can find good business opportunities and chances to grow. It’s really a perfect time for such policy to be in place, and I hope to see our entrepreneurs making use of such support which is offered by QDB through a conference known as Moushtarayt aimed at creating business opportunities for SMEs and startups.
Another aspect is education. Working with Junior Achievement and many other international platforms, you are very aware of the importance of creating an entrepreneurial culture. How are you working with educational institutions in this regard?
I am on the board of Injaz Qatar, which is a member of Junior Achievement worldwide. Injaz Qatar will be celebrating their 10 years in Qatar later in 2016. It is very exciting and rewarding to be part of their journey, and to see such a large number of students attending the program. We started with 500 students and now there are around 19,000 or more.
Many of the programs Injaz Qatar offers are hands-on learning programs that take volunteers from the private sector to dedicate their time to go to schools and talk about entrepreneurship and the corporate world. Exposing children at such a young age will instill this in their DNA, and will help them work towards developing their soft skills and encourage them to explore entrepreneurship.
Therefore, we hope that future generations of entrepreneurs are more prepared to embark on their entrepreneurial journey before joining QBIC. Our programs are more sophisticated, and aligned with the programs provided by Injaz and other similar initiatives, which prepare students for their future career options.
We’ve incubated two of Injaz Qatar graduates in QBIC, and although this is a relatively small number, it’s a first step towards unifying our organizations’ efforts and maximizing our impact in Qatar.
With regards to education, one of the main highlights is the establishment of six of the most prestigious American universities in Education City, which is the largest incubator in the region. Do you think all of this is helping Qatar to become a hub for innovation, research and development?
Certainly, the establishment of top schools, both American and European, are playing a pivotal role in driving Qatar towards becoming a knowledge-based economy. We have top-notch experts who are relocating from their home campus in the US, UK, Paris, and so on, to bring their expertise and experience and share it with our students here.
At the same time, the Qatar Foundation built a Qatar Science and Technology Park (QSTP) that is home to top tech and research companies such as Brookings, Vodafone and Microsoft. Inviting such renowned institutions to Qatar is changing the way people think, and encouraging them to be more involved in research and innovation. Qatar is also dedicating large sums of money towards research grants and investing heavily in entrepreneurs with innovative ideas, which is really helping the country evolve into a hub for R&D.
Almost 70% of students in the universities are women. Qatari woman are very active and well educated. What are the main challenges for entrepreneurial women?
I think there is actually more of an opportunity for women to start their own business than to join the workforce, because the latter requires 100% commitment. Unlike a full-time office job, entrepreneurship grants women the opportunity to work from home, or from a place of comfort. I think this is great for a woman to join in and start her business.
A recent report by QDB and SDC showed that there was significant amount of Qatari women working from home, and their contribution to society, if they registered their companies, would affect the current market considerably.
When it comes to Qatar Business Incubation Center, we have a large number of women who are with us. We have quite a few businesswomen who work full time, such as QTalent, Hissa Zainal, S.IShira, Nmoona. They’ve taken their startups as a full-time job, and if you meet these ladies, you’ll be inspired by their determination and passion, and how driven they are to make a change in society. S.IShira, for example, launched the first luxury Qatari perfumery brand. She’s a master perfumist and has decided to turn her hobby into a job. She sells out of Paris Gallery, and has recently returned from Exsense 2016, an international perfumery conference in Milan where she secured a few international deals.
Women are playing a significant role, whether they are doing it from home, from an incubator, or from the different services the government provides. There is a huge opportunity for women to grow even further, given their education level, and being an entrepreneur could be more flexible than entering the workforce.
QIA has shifted its strategy to focusing on the US, opening a branch in New York and aiming to invest $35 billion in the following five years. How do you think this can help the start-up sector here in Qatar?
Qatar’s US relations are very important for the private sector, and anything that benefits the economy is therefore beneficial to our entrepreneurs as well. US ties will bring with it new chances for international investment, sharing of knowledge and ideas, and allow for collaboration between American and Qatari entities. For example, Microsoft or Apple might be interested in investing in a startup company. We also have greater chances for exchange programs, visits between American business incubators and QBIC and other similar endeavors.
Is there a particular message you might want to share with current or future entrepreneurs?
My message to aspiring and current entrepreneurs is to live life with an open mind, open eyes and open ears. Opportunities are all around you. We are lucky to be living in Qatar at a time when the country is booming and the chances to succeed are endless. With the FIFA 2022 coming up, and the QNV 2030 well on its way, you are definitely in the right place at the right time.
Believe in your startup, and dedicate time for it. Be open to criticism from customers, and be willing to change your idea at any point in time.
I would also encourage you all to be involved in the entrepreneurial scene, and network with potential partners and investors and customers. It never hurts to have a good relation with individuals.
Take part in our Speaker Series events, learn more from experts, read as much as you can and devote your all to your startup. You don’t need to create the next WhatsApp or Snapchat to be ‘successful’.
Finally, never put off today’s work to tomorrow, the time is now.