When Jordanian Entrepreneurship Goes Wrong

It’s been awhile since I’ve written anything on the black iris and that’s largely due to being a bit jaded with the political scene of the country. So, instead, the following is an incoherent rant on a completely different subject that has long annoyed me.

http://www.flickr.com/photos/seanrnicholson/6455672751/
photo credit

If there’s one thing I’ve learned about entrepreneurship, social entrepreneurship and/or the various initiatives that have popped up in Jordan over the past several years – and this is based purely on my observations, my interactions with the field, and my various coverage of it – it’s that many don’t seem to last too long. I find myself remembering odd names and wondering to myself whatever happened to them. I can’t even begin to count the number of startups or initiatives or whatever, that launch with a big bang, a glossy logo, and an endless barrage of social media buzz – talking endlessly about what they do, how great they are, and how they got a picture with someone important, or an award of some sort. “Oh, and here’s a picture of something nice I did that no one else is doing; shower me with your compliments and Facebook likes.” Unfortunately, they don’t last too long in the game. They’re unable to surpass that 5 year mark, and their logo returns to the dustbin of history.

In the past few years, entrepreneurship and social entrepreneurship are terms that have been thrown around like they’re the best thing since pita bread. But beyond the buzz words, I see organizations with little vision, and even less stamina. Behind all the PR and the marketing, behind the applause and pats on the back, there is something seriously amiss as to why those young ideas led by young minds run out of gas.

What interests me are ideas, the people behind them, and their ability to shape those ideas over a long enough timeline to build a solid community around them. How much money an investor has poured in to you after 12 months of operation is useless to me; how many people like your Facebook page is ridiculous. You are not the hashtag you created. The legacy your idea creates over time is dependent largely on the community around it. A community that is not only able to get on board with the idea but feel they are a part of its evolving story and are prepared to forge an emotional and/or intellectual relationship with it – take it, spin it, whirl it around, interact and engage with it, build on it, even create something new out of it. This is what matters, and all those things take time, patience, and experience. Having a good idea is great, but building a community around it is better. And in this domain, it always feels like most “entrepreneurs” and “social entrepreneurs” come up short.

We have a generation that rushes straight out of college (or even barely) to start the next Google and then spend a few years discovering that having a good idea isn’t enough. These are people who are eager to be employers but have never been employees. They haven’t gone through a practical learning process. Granted, there is a long list of global entrepreneurs or social entrepreneurs who manage to start things even while they’re in college, but it should also be noted that their ideas are usually innovative enough to rally a community. Even the Mark Zuckerburgs or the Steve Jobs of the world base their success not only on their innovation but the community that rallies around it.

For the sake of being constructive, the following are a few pointers for anyone starting out in the fields of entrepreneurship or social entrepreneurship here in Jordan, and I emphasize Jordan because these are the things that stand out for me in this specific environment. They are not based on 40 years of experience or some grand success story, but rather reflections by someone who is still writing their story and doesn’t mind sharing excerpts. People are free to agree, disagree, argue, debate, or rip it to shreds – and this list is also a work in progress. Most of these apply to both “entrepreneurs” and “social entrepreneurs”. So, in no particular order, and with the bare minimum use of jargon:

First: get a job. Seriously. Learn everything you can about it. Even if it’s a job you hate. You’ll eventually learn something. If you have a great boss you’ll learn about leadership, and if you have a terrible one, you’ll quickly learn what not to do. Learn from the victories and the failures, and in the meantime, you’ll be risking nothing. It’s a free and valuable life lesson.

Second: avoid the buzz. if you can help it, avoid being lured by the whole buzz surrounding entrepreneurs and social entrepreneurship – created and fueled largely by people who have a lot of money and are looking to make money off the backs of others. They will lure you, make promises, and more often than not, break them. They are mostly cut-and-run. They read the latest Malcolm Gladwell book, or some best-seller, and go around quoting it endlessly like it’s gospel. They are, at this point in your life, a distraction.

Third: have an idea. Be creative and innovative. Experiment with it. This is a process that cannot be compensated with a cool logo or a marketing gimmick. Those are merely the shiny objects that attract people, but once you do that, it’s your idea that keeps them there – that’s the only thing that let’s people say to themselves “hey, I want to be a part of this”. Allow the idea to be in constant beta mode. Allow it be shaped and reshaped over time, and not just by you, but by others. Friends, family, mentors, your community, your team.

Fourth: collaborate. No idea is an island. Keeping it in a vault means it’ll never grow beyond its container. Talk to others, work with others, collaborate and expand. If you’re worried about ownership you’ve already stumbled. If you’re worried about logo placement – you’re a lost cause. Even with social entrepreneurs and activists – the number of people doing similar things and not talking to each other is ridiculous, especially given how small the country is.

Fifth: stop thinking about the money. The number of young Jordanians who are concerned with creating something and selling it to the highest bidder so that they can retire a millionaire by the time they’re 30 is just plain ridiculous. Unfortunately, the degree to which this applies to people who call themselves “social entrepreneurs” is staggering. Make enough to sustain yourself, but invest and re-invest in the idea and the community around it. Making a quick dinar isn’t the way to go. If that’s the end goal, then you need to re-evaluate your life. Money should be used to grow your idea, not your bank account.

Sixth: build a team, and grow with it. Growing good ideas is something that requires the effort of many. Those ideas are more easily shaped when there’s input of others. Work as a group; not as a hierarchy. People are more likely to feel invested in the idea if they feel they’re part of a team that can sit comfortably with each other over a cup of coffee. Think horizontally; not vertically.

Seventh: start small; be lean. Crawl – don’t run. If you’re a startup with a big idea, whittle it down to its core and experiment with it. Try it out on people. Slowly grow the community around it and get their input. Most are eager to give you free advice. Some of it’s good, some of it isn’t – but it’s all there for you to choose from. Jordan is a great country to actually be comfortably small – its size helps facilitate experimentation be it with a business idea, or a socially-minded project. Do not – I repeat – DO NOT, use the term “scale up”. Those who tell you your ideas are not “scalable” are jackasses and it doesn’t matter how much money they’ve made. You’re not scaling, you’re building something – and that’s a process that requires doing so brick by brick.

Eighth: your community matters. Your idea will live and die by the community it manages to bring together. I cannot emphasize this enough. This community isn’t measured in hits a website receives, or the number of people who show up to your event at a five star hotel. It’s engagement, and the quality of that engagement. Whether you’re starting the next Amazon.com or saving trees in Ajloun, look to your community and how they’re engaging with you and your idea. Engage back. Don’t think of a community as something you “build” but rather something that you rally.

Lastly, and this is just for the heck of it – keep your ego in check. If you’re 24 years old and your business card says “CEO” or “Entrepreneur”- rip it up immediately. If you’re card says “activist” or “social entrepreneur” – consider throwing yourself off a bridge (metaphorically, of course). You are not the title on a small piece of cardboard. And stop holding these huge events and seeking out royal patronage for them. For the love of God – I am begging you – stop it.

24 thoughts on “When Jordanian Entrepreneurship Goes Wrong

  1. You said it. The very word ‘entrepreneur’ has been run into the ground. Half the people want to be bosses and without any of the hard work to go along with it other than simply having an idea for the ‘next big thing’. Most of the time it turns out to be a dud, and personally I can’t wait for this entrepreneurship fad to die out in this country. Too many people attempting to run before they can fucking walk.

  2. What an eloquent rant 🙂 it holds more truth now that some of the startups’ steam went out, and it shows. however, and maybe a point to add, this has not been completely the fault of the entrepreneurs alone. they simply saw opportunities and marched onto them.

    What they saw was a boom in the number of orgs and funds that ‘care’ for entrepreneurs. and focal point was investment. not sales, not impact as it should have been. i personally, with the http://SitatByoot.com project, chased an investment more than i did chase the business itself, and the value i was trying to provide. and this is what drived/drives entrepreneurs off track. they live from one competition to another, from one pitch to another and also from an event to another to draw the attention of patrons, media and investors/funders. the good thing is that entrepreneurs learn.

    I think its high time now for all to focus on what value they are working on and leave the world behind. focus on your constituents and markets, then get an investment.

    and Nassim be kind and fair too, there are many who are really working and working hard.

  3. The problem is that people want to create products that reap revenue and are financially successful more than creating something innovative and successful on the merit of it being a good product!

  4. I appreciate your thoughts and echo your lament about the short-lived nature of so many projects, ideas, and new businesses here in Jordan. Your advice is well placed and I couldn’t agree more. If you’re not willing to spend a lot of time planning, refining, and road-testing your idea before you even think about marketing it, you’ll be left with a lot of buzz and not a lot of impact — all form and no content.

    Creativity has to be backed up with serious critical thinking and strategy and a lot of hard work. Being a social entrepreneur isn’t easy–it takes a lot of patience, and a willingness to fail before you succeed. But if impact is your motive, it can be the most rewarding career in the world!

    Jordan is in great need of original ideas that have value, and entrepreneurs behind those ideas who are motivated by a desire to see their country progress and lead the region (and the world!) in innovation. It takes more than a catchy idea to bring that goal to pass!

  5. I belive this is so true. and almst the case of Morocco. Morocco might be different only in case of diasporic entrepreneurs, who are rare but hail back to some strong connections and they sometimes don’t need the local considiration. Thank you for sharing but i even expected to hear more about collectivism in Jordan and how it matches the inconsistencies with entrepreneurship … As for social entrepreneurship, the case is Utopic i believe !

  6. Excellent thoughts! although i skimmed through some parts! I would like to add that the recent trend of the so called “entrepreneurship” is nothing but quick win plans to get rich quickly through exit strategies. i believe thats the main reason as people are not worried about sustaining the business nor growing it but rather selling it to some investor whos willing to pay millions for their idea. ofcourse, this never happens as most of the initiatives are not thought through.

  7. Great read. In fact, a must read for all Jordanians in the entrepreneurship and tech scene.

    “If you’re 24 years old and your business card says “CEO” or “Entrepreneur”- rip it up immediately”.
    Last year, someone approached me (we’re both younger than 24 years old) with an idea. I said I will think about it and that in order to start, we need to build a team. I mentioned that we need a talented designer to join the team (by that, I meant a graphic designer to start with a nice logo and a web design). He called me the next day saying he found a great talented designer. He was talking about a business cards designer… and he had a prototype with “CEO” under his name. That was before we even built a product or a team. I backed out.

    One thing I don’t understand in Jordan is how it is very common to come across a “social media expert” (whatever that means), “an Adobe CS expert” or a “PHP developer”. People are specialising in very specific areas before mastering the fundamentals and basics. A “social media expert” should essentially be a marketer/advertiser who just added one extra medium in his toolset. What happens if social media dies out in 5 years? His “expertise” would become useless. A “photoshop expert” should essentially be a talented, creative graphic designer that uses Photoshop/CS suite as part of his skill-set. Similarly, a “PHP developer” should essentially be a software engineer or a front-end engineer.

    I’m not sure we are spending enough time investing in our skills and fundamentals. This world has become extremely competitive that being a “social media expert” or an “entrepreneurship expert” is no longer sufficient. Hence, many failed products.

    Most startups in Jordan are struggling with lack of talent, which is often a bigger issue than lack of money/investment. We need some sort of academy that actually teaches core skills. Skills that are useful in AND outside the startup world. Core skills that have the ability to generate new/innovative products whether it is now, in five or ten years when all these tools we are becoming “experts” in die out.

  8. entrepreneurship in a developing country would be cut-throat hard.

    you guys said something very important but didn’t elaborate, which is “lack of talent” , thats because the REAL TALENT and the great minds dont stay here, and for a very good reason.

    we have the brain drain problem just like every developing country out there since forever, nothing new.

  9. Thank you for a great article!
    I think the main mistake is not defining the word “Entrepreneur” to begin with! not anyone with a great idea is eligible to become a successful entrepreneur!
    I agree with what Tariq said, fast exit strategies are ruining the whole concept! a company to be ready for exist must at least spend 10 years creating a success story!
    I think also the mentality of the investors are encouraging these quick exits situations, none of the investors I have met are really interested in growing the business or even understanding the idea behind it! many are more interested in throwing and growing their money without believing in the idea itself!
    Nayef I like your ideas, lack of skills is an issue, when it comes to establishing strong teams to operate those start ups.

  10. I tweeted this a few years ago.

    “It seems that Jordanians have taken the word entrepreneur, placed it on a mountain, and started to worship it.”

    Few will cross the bridge. Most are there as dim, fallen stars that only in contrast to do others shine.

  11. I can agree with most of the points, I need to add one main point, the incubators and their role, for me it comes on top of the list, massive destruction is happening there…

  12. I agree with your premise on the prevailing ‘culture’ of obnoxiousness and fluff in the startup stage, especially when there’s no real inspiration and talent behind the guys and gals who embark on these ventures. However, I think some stats and numbers would alleviate your distress with the situation, because failure extends beyond being obnoxious, and crosses over to those entrepreneurs that do do the right things.
    Different sources reference different figures as data sets are hard to come by, but the dominant figure is that 90% of all startups fail at the angel/seed/series A round (typically 2nd birthday). Of those that do make it, only 50% make it past series B. This is a sobering reminder that competition is tough, technologies and processes are hard to implement, and getting the right service or product to the right market at the right time is a pretty gargantuan task even if founders and teams follow your 8 commandments.

  13. ” If you’re 24 years old and your business card says “CEO” or “Entrepreneur”- rip it up immediately ”

    My brain fluids dry out a little whenever I see this.

  14. @Saeed: Of course there are some out there who are doing good things and my objective wasn’t to paint a completely black and white picture – but rather to point out that behind all the glitz and glamour and calls of jordan being the next silicon valley, there are harsh realities to deal with. As you said, we need to assess what the value added is.

    @Shaylyn: “Creativity has to be backed up with serious critical thinking and strategy and a lot of hard work” – absolutely.

    @Hamza: i think it’s a problem relevant in much of the arab world. would love to hear more about what you meant with “collectivism in Jordan and how it matches the inconsistencies with entrepreneurship”

    @Nayef: i absolutely agree – tools have not become specialties for some reason and many have adopted that titling as a way to distinguish themselves in the market. and yet, core skills of the field remain unknown to many of them. this is also, in part, what i meant by learning to crawl before running.

    @Watheq: would love to hear more from you on the topic of incubators and their impact…?

    @Godot: well, i did not mean them as commandments, and as the disclaimer says, my “tips” are all subject to debate and scrutiny, and so, not to be taken as gospel. that said, they are based largely on what many fail to do, or what many have already done. i understand the numbers are generally not in people’s favor, but avoiding some basic pitfalls (as those suggested above) are a good start towards surviving. Yes, competition is cut throat for startups, but being pushed out by a competitor is largely due to ones own ineffectiveness. That said, much of this also applies in the social entrepreneurial world and probably even more so given that the nature of the field isn’t to make a profit. thanks for your input.

  15. I can’t sit here and fault any of these people for trying at least they have the guts to do that much and not worry about risking the total loss of their invested money.I know some people that have very good ideas and they have the money to support their ideas yet they don’t have the guts to go ahead and start. It could be the fear of losing the money, it could be the fear of fear itself, it could be the fear of the stigma that will be attached to losing, or it even could be the fear of succeeeding, yes, some people are fearful of success and that fear prevents them from starting. It is okay to fail because if one doesn’t try one will never know whether one will fail or succeed.If one fails he will learn from his mistakes and the next time around s/he will do a better job.

  16. @maxrobinson It’s not like they’re doing it for us or for our benefit. In fact, no one asked them to take a risk.

    Those of us who are giving constructive criticism are those who would love to see Jordan turn into the Silicon Valley of the Middle East. While at the same time recognise that the path to reach that level is a very, very long and difficult one. I was in SF at the top startups just a few weeks ago and going again in a few weeks. Trust me, we have one hell of a long way to get just half way there.

  17. rep’
    I understand that the road is long and it requires a lot of patience and hard work but I magine how jobs are created every time someone decides to open up some kind of business? As a matter of fact most recent studies shows that most job opportunities are found through people opening up small business.So if their actions result in creating job opportunities for others it is obviously a good thing.Right.Continuing to rely on the government to employ all the people in the country is not the right attitude to go about it. At some point in time private jobs by ordinary citizens need to kick in to fill the gap.Any business as simple as owning a Taxi cab employes at least 2 people.This means 2 new unemplyed people are suddenly employed and can provide for themselves and their family. I’m not trying to simplify the complex issue of unemployment, all I’m trying to show is that although we didn’t tell these people to take a risk and at the same time they are doing it for themselves and not for us.Yet, we do at some point in time benefit out of their actions with our efforts and they take the risk with their money it is more or less quid pro quo type of a situation and not a zero sum situation like in the case of the government emply all the people.

Your Two Piasters: