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Importance of Startup Incubators in Emerging Markets



Entrepreneurship, at different scales, always has an impact on individuals and communities as it brings independence and prosperity.

Entrepreneurship in developing markets grows economies and can be a powerful social equalizer. To break down barriers, it is imperative to further promote business creation in such nations on a wider scale and as quickly as possible, especially as emerging countries are continuing to lose their brightest minds who opt to move to more prosper regions of the world; a brain drain that further accentuates economic disparities between countries.

According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), this exodus affects African countries the hardest, since Africa has already lost one third of its human capital and is bleeding its skilled personnel at the rate 20,000 per year. These are highly educated university graduates: doctors, university lecturers, engineers and other professionals who are leaving the continent each year, for good!

Emerging countries desperately need to keep these skilled executives, managers and entrepreneurs. Many developing countries have understood this and have worked on trying to ease the problem by simplifying their company creation processes, and launching business accelerators and incubators. These initiatives remain scarce and are usually backed by the government or NGOs who tend to be the driving force.

NGOs tend to focus on projects that have local immediate impacts on disadvantaged communities. In a few cases, business coaches have launched private mentorship outfits, sometimes with the backing of government initiatives, but success stories are scarce and so often the impact is limited to the mentor having a successful mentorship business.

Developed nations, through regional investment and empowerment authorities, use the same acceleration models to promote projects that help employment and have an impact on local economies, but the most powerful effects, those felt worldwide, have always been initiated by the creation of startups that were backed by private funds through mechanisms like private incubators, accelerators, angel investors and venture capitalists.

Still, wide impact entrepreneurship isn’t exclusive to Silicon Valley, New York, Paris, London or Tokyo, and it is not always about using the latest technology! Simple solutions, developed by entrepreneurs in developing countries, can similarly have impacts on worldwide audiences.

Unfortunately “world reaching” ventures from emerging markets are rare, as entrepreneurs in these countries face major obstacles to building successful startups due to the local culture, the scarcity of experienced mentors and very inadequate funding. In fact the 2015 Africa Competitiveness Report details the most problematic problems for doing business in Africa. They are in order of importance: access to financing, corruption, lacking infrastructure, bureaucracy, and an inadequate workforce

Many entrepreneurs, in developing countries, simply do not trust themselves to compete on the international scene and stick to creating solutions that insure their local prosperity rather than embrace worldwide aspirations by building perhaps farther-reaching solutions, which may fail! It does not help that failure is often regarded as a form of inadequacy on the part of the entrepreneur, which further burdens, those that go through such stigma.

In the few cases where local entrepreneurs go with their ambition, they often have no recourse but go through banks, which seldom finance projects when there are no tangible collaterals and even then, they usually qualify these types of projects as risky and dictate financing at very disadvantageous terms.

Even with the Internet being the great equalizer that it is, startups who emerge from the developing word with worldwide ambitions remain very scarce, as investors often concentrate their investment in particular sectors or regions of the world and tend to shun investing in areas that present just too small of opportunities for them and thus, in their mind, are not worth the trouble of their time and investment, when in fact some of these startups can be lucrative investment opportunities, due to this very lack of competition for these projects! RoamStart in Tunisia, Fuzu in Kenya, Custos Media in South Africa, or Pointivo in Nigeria are examples of promising startups but there are still too few of them.

Some companies, especially from Europe, have seized on this opportunity and created private funds and incubators in several emerging countries. These incubators have launched startups for which they basically “hired” local entrepreneurs to develop local solutions based on “what already works” in leading nations. Rocket Internet, Seedstars and NUMA are some examples.

The market for such ventures being so open and at such an embryonic stage, the terms of the deals that the entrepreneurs get are often not as advantageous as those obtained by their counterparts in the US or Europe, but in light of the risk mitigation steps that need to be taken by these first movers and with terms being much more favorable than those of banks, this is an acceptable investment strategy since it is clear progress.

These investment outfits are growing very fast as a result of their first mover’s advantage and the lack of competition from other venture capitalists, so there is a bit of the “Wild West” effect. A few incubators, however, had to close! Hypercube Hub in Zimbabwe and 88mph in Kenya for example closed in 2015, Raizcorp on the other hand is a rare example of a profitable incubator not receiving grant funding. Other brave local outfits are launching, such as Wired Startups, out of Morocco, also a private company, who is launching its own brand of incubation, championing projects aimed at the U.S. market using unique co-founding partnerships.

This is encouraging for Africa, especially as we see in parallel that the number of investments is increasing. In fact, Disrupt Africa reports that African tech startups received funding in excess of US$129 million in 2016, with the number of startups securing funding up by 16.8 per cent year to year. Still, this remains a dismal number for such a large and full of potential continent.

In time, more local players will get over their fear of failure, especially as they accept that most startups can fail but that those startups that succeed can substantially cover the losses of a portfolio and even make it very profitable. Things should also stabilize even further as more local and international players get into similar forms of co-founders incubation types of agreements, and competition for talent and projects grows.


About the Author

This article was written by Mounir Elabridi. Mounir is Co-Founder and CEO of Wired Startups, a startups incubator, based in Morocco. Wired Startups brings together teams of developers, entrepreneurs and designers and helps them build investable prototypes for the international market. Follow Wired Startups on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn.

Callum Connects

Malcolm Tan, Founder of Gravitas Holdings



Malcolm Tan is an ICO/ITO and Cryptocurrency advisor. He sees this new era as similar to when the internet launched.

What’s your story?
I’m a lawyer entrepreneur who owns multiple businesses, and who is now stepping into the Initial Coin Offering/Initial Token Offering/Cryptocurrency space to be a thought leader, writer (How to ICO/ITO in Singapore – A Regulatory and Compliance Viewpoint on Initial Coin Offering and Initial Token Offering in Singapore), and advisor through Gravitas Holdings – an ICO Advisory company. We are also running our own ICO campaign called AEXON, and advising 2 other ICO’s on their projects.

What excites you most about your industry?
It is the start of a whole new paradigm, and it is like being at the start of the internet era all over again. We have a chance to influence and shape the industry over the next decade and beyond and lead the paradigm shift.

What’s your connection to Asia?
I’m Singaporean and most of my business revolves around the ASEAN region. Our new ICO advisory company specialises in Singaporean ICO’s and we are now building partnerships around the region as well. One of the core business offerings of our AEXON ICO/ITO is to open up co-working spaces around the region, with a target to open 25 outlets, and perhaps more thereafter.

Favourite city in Asia for business and why?
Singapore, since it is my hometown and most of my business contacts originate from or are located in Singapore. It is also a very open and easy place to do business.

What’s the best piece of advice you ever received?
Be careful of your clients – sometimes they can be your worst enemies. This is very true and you have to always be careful about whom you deal with. The closest people are the ones that you trust and sometimes they have other agendas or simply don’t tell you the truth or whole story and that can easily put one in a very disadvantageous position.

Who inspires you?
Leonardo Da Vinci as a polymath and genius and leader in many fields, and in today’s world, Elon Musk for being a polymath and risk taker and energetic business leader.

What have you just learnt recently that blew you away?
Early stage bitcoin investors would have made 1,000,000 times profit if they had held onto their bitcoins from the start to today – in the short space of 7 years.

If you had your time again, what would you do differently?
Seek out good partnerships and networks from day one, and use the power of the group to grow and do things together, instead of being bogged down by operations and going it alone from start.

How do you unwind?
I hardly have any time for relaxation right now. I used to have very intense hobbies, chess when I was younger, bridge, bowling, some online real time strategy games and poker. All mentally stimulating games and requiring focus – I did all these at competitive levels and participated in national and international tournaments, winning multiple trophies, medals and awards in most of these fields.

Favourite Asian destination for relaxation? Why?
Phuket – nature, resort life, beaches, good food and a vibrant crowd.

Everyone in business should read this book:
Rich Dad Poor Dad by Richard Kiyosaki

Shameless plug for your business:
Gravitas Holdings (Pte) Limited is the premier ICO Advisory company and we can do a full service for entrepreneurs, including legal and compliance, smart contracts and token creation, marketing and PR, and business advisory and white paper writing/planning.

How can people connect with you?
Write emails to [email protected], or [email protected]

Twitter handle?

This interview is part of the ‘Callum Connect’ series of more than 500 interviews

Callum Laing is an entrepreneur and investor based in Singapore. He has previously started, built and sold half a dozen businesses and is now a Partner at Unity-Group Private Equity and Co-Founder of The Marketing Group PLC. He is the author two best selling books ‘Progressive Partnerships’ and ‘Agglomerate’.

Connect with Callum here:
Download free copies of his books here:

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Women on Top in Tech – Pam Weber, Chief Marketing Officer at 99Designs



(Women on Top in Tech is a series about Women Founders, CEOs, and Leaders in technology. It aims to amplify and bring to the fore diversity in leadership in technology.)

Pam Webber is Chief Marketing Officer at 99designs, where she heads up the global marketing team responsible for acquisition, through growth marketing and traditional marketing levers, and increasing lifetime value of customers. She is passionate about using data to derive customer insights and finding “aha moments” that impact strategic direction. Pam brings a host of first-hand startup marketing experiences as an e-commerce entrepreneur herself and as the first marketing leader for many fast-growing startups. Prior to joining 99designs, she founded weeDECOR, an e-commerce company selling custom wall decals for kids’ rooms. She also worked as an executive marketing consultant at notable startups including True&Co, an e-commerce startup specializing in women’s lingerie. Earlier in her career, Pam served in various business and marketing positions with eBay and its subsidiary, PayPal, Inc. A resident of San Francisco, Pam received her BA from the University of Pennsylvania and MBA from Harvard Business School. Pam is a notable guest speaker for Venture Beat, The Next Web, Lean Startup, and Growth Hacking Forum, as well as an industry expert regularly quoted in Inc., CIO, Business News Daily, CMSwire, Smart Hustle, DIY Marketer, and various podcast and radio shows. You can follow her on Twitter at @pamwebber_sf.

What makes you do what you do?
My dad always told me make sure you choose a job you like because you’ll be doing it for a long time. I took that advice to heart and as I explored various roles over my career, I always stopped to check whether I was happy going to work every day – or at least most days :). That has guided me to the career I have in marketing today. I’m genuinely excited to go to work every day. I get to create, to analyze, to see the impact of my work. It’s very fulfilling.

How did you rise in the industry you are in?
I had a penchant for numbers and it helped me stand out in my field. This penchant became even more powerful when the Internet and digital marketing started to explode. There was a great need for marketers whose skills could span both the creative and the analytic aspects of marketing. I capitalized on that growth by bringing unique insight to the companies I worked with, well-supported with thoughtful analysis.

Why did you take on this role/start this startup?
I’m not sure this is relevant to my situation as I had been a marketing leader in various start-ups and companies. I took on the role at 99designs because I was excited by the global reach of the brand and the opportunity the company had to own the online design space. I especially liked the team as I felt they were good at heart.

The challenge I’ve faced in my time at 99designs is how do I evolve the team quickly and nimbly to address new challenges. The work we do now, is very different than the work we did a year ago and even the year before that. There is a fine line between staying focused on the goal ahead and being able to move quickly should that goal shift.

Do you have a mentor that you look up to in your industry or did you look for one or how did that work?
There is no one I’ve sought out or worked with over my entire career as my “mentee” needs have changed so much over the years. There are many people who have helped me along the way. For example, one of my peers at eBay, who was quite experienced and skilled in marketing strategy and creative execution, taught me what was in a marketing plan and how to evaluate marketing assets. As I have risen to leadership positions over the years, I often reach out to similarly experienced colleagues for advice on how they handle situations.

How did you make a match if you and how did you end up being mentored by him?
I learned early in my career that it rarely hurts to ask for advice. So that is what I have done. Additionally, there are people that are known to be quite helpful and build a reputation for giving back to others in advisory work. Michael Dearing, of Harrison Metal and ex-eBay, is one of those people. I, as well as countless others, have asked him for advice and guidance through the years and he does his best to oblige. Finding mentorship is about intuiting who in your universe might be willing and whether you are up for asking for help.

That being said, generally, I have found, if you are eager to learn and be guided, people will respond to the outreach.

Now as a leader how do you spot, develop, keep, grow and support your talent?
I generally look for a good attitude and inherent “smarts”. A good attitude can encompass anything from being willing to take on many different types of challenges to working well amongst differing personalities and perspectives. Smarts can be seen through how well someone’s done in their “passion areas” (i.e. areas where they have a keen interest in pursuing).

I try to hire those types of people because in smaller, fast-growing companies like many of the ones I’ve worked in, it’s more often than not about hiring flexible people as things move and change fast.

Once those people are on my team, I try to keep them challenged and engaged by making sure they have varying responsibilities. If I can’t give them growth in their current job or in the current company, I encourage them to seek growth opportunities elsewhere. I’d rather have one of my stars leave for a better growth opportunity than keep them in a role where they might grow stale.

Do you consciously or unconsciously support diversity and why?
I consciously support diversity. When I am hiring, I am constantly thinking about how to balance the team with as broad a range as possible of skill sets, perspectives, etc. to ensure we can take on whatever is thrown at us, or whatever we want to go after.

What is your take on what it takes to be a great leader in your industry and as a general rule of thumb?
I’m going to assume a great leader in my industry to mean a marketing leader in a technology company. I think a great leader in this industry is not afraid to learn new tricks no matter their age – it’s the growth mindset you may have heard about. I have a friend who inspires me to do this – she purchased the Apple Watch as soon as it was available, and was one of the first people I knew to use the Nest heating/cooling system. She’s not an early adopter by most definitions, but she adopts the growth mindset. This is the mindset I, too, have sought to adopt. In my field of marketing, it most recently has meant learning about Growth Marketing and how to apply this methodology to enhance growth. Independent of your industry, I think a growth mindset serves you well.

Advice for others?
I have been at 99designs for 3.5 years. During that time we’ve invested in elevating the skills and quality of our designer community, we’ve rebranded to reflect this higher level of quality, and have improved the satisfaction of our customers. Our next phase of growth will come from better matching clients to the right designer and expanding the ability to work with a designer one-on-one. We have the best platform to find, collaborate, and pay professional designers who deliver high quality design at an affordable price, and it’s only going to get better. I’m excited to deliver on that vision.

Pam Webber
Chief Marketing Officer of 99designs
Twitter: @pamwebber_sf

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