Al-Ahram Weekly Online   22 - 28 December 2011
Issue No. 1077
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

The other Google search

Google has launched a competition among Egyptian start-ups for promising young entrepreneurs in which everyone gets a world-class training, says Nader Habib

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Clockwise from far left: Google buses touring the governorates; Sadek and Wasfi; gathering for the lectures; Ayoub

Blue, red, yellow and green are the four colours that greet you when you use the famous Google Internet search engine. They are also the colours designers have used to decorate the venue in which Google is holding training sessions for 200 Egyptian start-ups. This time, however, it is Google that is doing the searching and not the curious public.

Wael El-Fakharani, director of Google MENA, is pleased with the interest the "Start with Google" project has generated. "We are thrilled to bring together 200 Egyptian start-ups, chosen carefully by the judging panel," he said. "The Google team has been scouting out participants all over the country since 26 September, and I have personally visited governorates that I have never seen before."

"We went to the South Valley University in Aswan. We went to Sohag, Port Said, Mansoura, and Alexandria. We also visited many universities in Cairo and learned a lot about the way Egyptian universities function. Our aim was to persuade the young to apply to the Start with Google competition. We told them that the worst thing that can happen is that they don't win. In all, we collected more than 4,100 applications, with 200 participants then being chosen by a 15-member judging panel formed from experts from Ericsson, Vodafone, Schneider, USAID, Oracle, Planet 360, Endeavour Egypt, ITworx, eBranding 360 ICANN, Cairo University, and the AUC," he said.

At one point, some bloggers started to criticise the project, forming their own rival group called "Start without Google," but El-Fakharani didn't have a problem with that. "I was very pleased with this development: all I want is for everyone to start working, with or without Google," he said. "What matters is to try something new. I am pleased with the criticism. It is possible that the judging panel has made mistakes, and a good entrepreneur must keep trying. We don't select start-ups just because they are already successful. We select them because of their chances of success."

Each judge assessed between 100 and 140 applications without seeing the names of the applicants or knowing anything about their sites or backgrounds. The judges had to rate the applications according to a group of pre-defined criteria, including innovation, social impact, market size, track record, working team, and presentation.

Later, there was a three-day training course for the 200 companies taking part in the programme. The training covered technicalities, marketing, theory and finance. Investment specialists were invited to speak to the young executives about the best way of setting up companies, and lawyers briefed participants on the legalities of running a business.

The intricacies of running a company are just as important as the quality of its products, apparently. "A young man can set up a good company and have a good product, but if the procedure used to create the company was not correct, this could undermine everything," El-Fakharani explained.

The three-day course is not the last round of training the participants will have. Soon, the number of participants will be reduced and more specialised training will begin. El-Fakharani said that everyone benefits from the training, including Google executives. "At one session, we brought in an idea developer called Tareq Asaad, whose presentation was useful to everyone, including myself!"

Egypt's General Investment Organisation has promised to organise another round of training for the remaining finalists, but for now the young entrepreneurs are getting a taste of how major companies operate, and these include not just Google, but also Apple and Microsoft.

In El-Fakharani's view one thing that it is essential for any entrepreneur to learn is that ideas alone are not enough. A good idea can only become a great idea with the aid of a good business plan. "It's nice to have a good idea. But not all the 200 companies we saw are ready for actual work," he explained. "Some have a working model, and some have a half-model, and some only have an idea. I keep telling the participants that a good idea is only one per cent of the work. The rest is implementation."

After the current round of training is over, Google will ask the participants to submit an executive summary of their ideas and a business concept. These two papers will then be given to another set of judges, and the young entrepreneurs will be allowed five minutes to pitch their projects to investors, with another five minutes allowed for questions.

According to El-Fakharani, the aim is to encourage the participants to present their ideas quickly in front of real investors. The next round of training, which Google calls guidance training, involves a more specialised approach. "Each company will have two coaches, a technical one and a business one. The companies will proceed to build a model, and we will organise an exhibition to present their products to investors. In March next year, 20 projects will be chosen for the final selection. It is quite a process and it pretty much resembles a set of exams," he said.

Ahmed Wasfi, a young entrepreneur taking part in the project, is pleased with the opportunity to meet other young developers and programmers and learn more about the ways of the business world.

Wasfi is developing a mobile phone app called Backpack that can supply smart phone users with information about the weather, football, business and other matters. "The idea started with a small network hosting people on Blackberry," he explained. "When the number of users reached 15,000, we thought that developing a special app for them could be helpful."

Another participant, Gamaleddin Sadeq, is the co-founder of a company that came up with a mobile phone traffic app called Bey2ollak. "The idea is that there is always someone on the road who knows something you don't, and that person is in a position to warn you to avoid certain roads and so on," Sadeq said. In his view, the most important thing about any start-up is the working team, which should include many specialisations.

Sherine Ayoub is a programmer with an interest in photo editing, and she is working on an app that can help people with photo editing on Facebook. "There are many apps that can edit photos on Facebook," Ayoub said, "but mine combines many applications in one in much the same way as Adobe's Photoshop."

Ayoub learned about the Google competition by chance when talking to a friend. "I have been working on my project for the past year and a half, and I am still working on it today. It has become a kind of hobby. I know my chance of winning is only around 0.5 per cent, but this doesn't matter: I appreciate the chance of getting more experience and meeting other people who are interested in programming."

"The training we're getting here is not something you can get in courses outside. You don't find many courses showing you how businessmen evaluate projects. I am benefiting a lot just from being part of the Google competition."

While the eventual winner will receive a substantial cash prize of $200,000, no one at the recent training course seemed to be concentrating too much on this aspect of the competition. Instead, like Ayoub they appreciated the exposure, the attention, and the opportunity to connect with the wider business world.

El-Fakharani's hopes are bigger, since he hopes that by promoting Egyptian entrepreneurship greater creativity may begin to form. Egypt, he said, will be able to expand its business horizons as a result. "If an Egyptian product makes it onto the global market, we will then be able to market other products in its wake. This will be a great step forward for all Egyptian start-ups."

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