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Since its inception, Sirdab Lab has hoped to positively impact Kuwait’s entrepreneurship ecosystem, aiming to become a hub and gathering space for all the country’s startups and entrepreneurs. The group, founded in 2014, helps members of its growing community to launch their business ideas and innovations. While its strength is in tech startups, it caters to all entrepreneurs, offering support and educational workshops, networking opportunities, and connections to investors and domain experts, as well as fostering an environment for startups to mature and flourish in the local and global market.
Sirdab Lab has a founding team of five Kuwaiti youth: Mona Al-Mukhaizeem, Abdullah Alhussainan, Ghalia Faraj, Abdullah Al-Sayer, and Haider Al-Mosawi. Speaking with AGSIW, Haider discussed the backstory behind the initiative, changes to the startup scene in Kuwait in recent years, and Sirdab Lab’s vision of bringing a Silicon Valley-inspired environment to Kuwait.
AGSIW: Tell us how Sirdab Lab was founded. What’s the story behind the idea for the initiative?
Haider: Before us the only startup initiative we had in Kuwait was called StartupQ8, a monthly meetup that I am a part of. I had an interest in user experience design so I was working with startup founders who had ideas or were looking for developers who could make their website or application better and easier to use. But I felt that a monthly gathering wasn’t enough to create a community that can work and collaborate together; after our events we had networking opportunities but we weren’t meeting frequently, and there weren’t any workshops for startup founders.
So in January 2014, I met Mona who had just come back from Silicon Valley where she had been working with an accelerator and with Facebook and Google. She had connections and understood what was needed for a startup community. We met at a conference in Kuwait and we had a 10-minute conversation about a program she wanted to start. She said Ernst & Young, where she was working, was willing to give up its office space in the evening so we could use it for training or as an incubator. Initially, she wanted me to be a mentor in her program; I gave her suggestions on what the program could do and a bigger picture. It became clear that we both wanted to work on the ecosystem of entrepreneurship, so she asked me to be a co-founder. Mona, Abdullah Al-Sayer, and I became the founders. Abdullah had founded Mr. Babu and he was able to share his experience in terms of what kind of resources would have helped him had Sirdab Lab existed when he started. The three of us started out by putting in our own money – we didn’t have any funding.
AGSIW: What was your initial goal with Sirdab Lab and has that goal shifted as the landscape of entrepreneurship has changed in Kuwait?
Haider: We started out by introducing a co-working space for people to collaborate in person and having several events a week to help build a community. Ultimately we wanted to create an accelerator program: to work with batches of six to 10 startups at a time, and make sure they are ready for investors, and we would have equity in each startup. But at the time the market wasn’t ready for that, so we chose to focus on building the community. Now we have shifted away from co-working space and are focusing on events and training courses, and we are pushing for the accelerator program.
AGSIW: Tell us about the workshops and training courses Sirdab Lab offers for entrepreneurs.
Haider: Sometimes we are approached to do a workshop by people who are skilled at something specific. They offer their services to our community and we help them to make sure that the curriculum makes sense to our community and determine its level. Many of the workshops are presented by others, but we have a program called the “startup boot camp” – a three-week program, held two to three nights a week. Mona and I came up with the curriculum for this and we present it ourselves. People come to this program with an idea in mind; the purpose and the scope of the boot camp is to make sure they validate their business idea. People might come thinking they are building the next [big thing] but then when they start talking to others about it they find little interest. Some ideas initially don’t make sense, or seem too ambitious, but they end up being huge success stories. We help entrepreneurs make sense of the feedback that they are getting.
AGSIW: Tell us about the current startup scene in Kuwait, what has changed over the past couple of years?
Haider: In Kuwait we recently had the biggest exit [when a startup is acquired by another company]: Talabat [an online food delivery service)] was acquired for the largest sum in the Middle East. Before this, investors in Kuwait were not giving startups much attention; they were in real estate mostly and didn’t see startups as a space worth entering. After Talabat’s exit their interest peaked. When I was at StartupQ8 we used to say we need a success story to push and drive interest in tech startups. Talabat’s exit has done this – it has sparked more interest from both investors and startup founders People realized the potential of the space. Some investors are now willing to invest upward of 400,000 KWD [over $1.3 million] in the startup space. This can be a bit scary because people don’t always understand that most startups in their early stages need a lot less than this and you don’t want to dump that large amount at such an early stage. Another concern now is that people sometimes have a naive attitude about startups and they’ll ask for similar exits for their ideas.
Broadly speaking, there is strong interest in entrepreneurship. We have the biggest SME [small and medium-sized enterprise] fund: a $7 billion fund, the National Fund for SMEs. But, knowing that that money is going to be invested in startups makes people see it as an opportunity to enter the space.
AGSIW: From your experience with Sirdab Lab, what challenges do you see young entrepreneurs facing?
Haider: The biggest request people ask of us, is how to find developers. In Kuwait, we now have a coding academy, called Coded, and it is working on its second class of developers. Coded is creating talent that can feed into the developer pool, which is helping startups a lot. In terms of regulations, the government is working on improving them – some things are headed in the right direction. It used to be that you needed 10,000 KWD capital [about $33,000] to start a business and the government has reduced it to 1,000 [about $3,300]. It used to take ages to start the process and now you can do it within a month. In terms of hiring staff and getting work visas, that process is also improving. But culturally many people don’t have experience in business and some are not willing to take a risk and give up their safe government jobs for their business idea. Most of the people, even those with successful startups, come to our events in the evenings and are not full time.
AGSIW: You have said that Sirdab Lab hopes to bring a Silicon Valley-inspired environment to Kuwait. What do you think that environment can do for the country and its youth?
Haider: It can definitely help with unemployment and economic diversification, and with the huge dependency on oil. For a long time, it was as if we were in a bubble – even when the Arab Spring was happening many thought Kuwait was safe and stable. But when oil prices dropped, many of our ministries lost their budget for training, and were saying they can no longer spend much. People began to realize that we might be facing a crisis and started to ask, “If we lose our government jobs and the government can’t pay us as much as they do now, then what?” or, “What will happen to our children?” I think more people are now taking entrepreneurship into consideration.
Within the space of an environment like Silicon Valley, you have talent to build startups, investors to fund them, and potential for connections to make the startup idea a lot easier to pursue. To us, if you have no clue where to start – just an idea or maybe a skill, but you don’t know what to do with it, in terms of turning it into a viable business – you want the connections so that you can turn your idea into reality. That is what we are going for with Sirdab Lab.
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