Winners struggle to start up after Al Fikra competition

PROMO TWEET- Young entrepreneurs face challenges to start up after business plan competitions

Hundreds of young entrepreneurs have entered the Al Fikra Business Plan Competition since it was established two years ago. However, among the 12 winning plans, only one has officially established as an operating business in Qatar.

Al Fikra, run by Enterprise Qatar, aims to encourage entrepreneurs to establish innovative businesses in the country.

The competition is designed to help budding entrepreneurs turn their business ideas into financially viable business plans.

Most of the winning plans in the past, however, have failed to turn into operating businesses after the competition. What’s more, the only winner who has officially registered her business in Qatar, Raw ME, a vegan food supplier, describes uphill struggles just to keep her business afloat.

“The process is tedious,” said Layla Al-Dorani, founder of Raw ME. “There is a lot of rules and regulations, and information is not readily available.”

In the preparation of this article, nine of the twelve winners were contacted. Among them, only one business is successfully registered in Qatar, and another one is registered in Lebanon. Three are still unregistered but active. The rest are dormant at this point, especially among young students.

Year

Category

Prize

Name

Business idea

Current status

2012

Professional

First

Ziad Sankari

Cardio Dianostics

Registered and operating in Lebanon

Second

Layla Al-Dorani & Sarah Al-Dorani

Raw ME, organic food

Registered, preparing final product launch

Third

Sarah Abbas,
Mohammad Jannahi and
Bilal Kadhe

Tassawaq,
Online Virtual Shopping
Website

Unregistered, could not find investors

Student

First

Haya Al Noaimi

ALIMNI, online Arabic tutorials

Unregistered

Second

Najla Alkuwari

Mujala-TEC, interactive magazine

Unregistered

Third

Hamad Al Rewaily

Ticket Fun

Incubated at ictQatar

2011

Professional

First

Khalid Al Mohannadi, Abdulla Rashid Al-Obaidan and Chris Bulman

DinoSawUs

Incubated at ictQatar, currently is still a New Zealand business

Second

Pregnant & Pretty

No contact information

Third

Stephen Rhodes

Entalek, outdoor activities for kids

Unregistered

Student

First

Arash Enayati Khorzoghi and Ahmad Mohamed Al-Salama

ConnectME

Unregistered

Second

Radical Sports – Qatar

No contact information, no hit in web search

Third

AlDallah

No contact information

Ziad Sankari is a Lebanese entrepreneur who had moved to Qatar hoping to establish businesses here. He won the first place prize of QR 50,000 at Al Fika last year for his biomedical business plan, which helps patients monitor cardiac diseases. He envisioned his polished biomedical business plan would attract funds from the country’s major investors in new technologies, like Qatar Science and Technology Park.

But, after the competition, Sankari hoped that Enterprise Qatar would officially introduce him to potential investors, but they didn’t. He searched, but could not find anyone in Qatar to invest in his idea. So he left the country after nine months of trying.

The competition organizes a series of workshops designed to coach participants on business planning and financing as they are writing their business plans, according to George White, entrepreneurship professor at Carnegie Mellon University in Qatar and Al Fikra’s key academic partner. But that coaching ends when the competition does.

To be sure, Enterprise Qatar emphasizes that the Al Fikra competition is educational in nature and does not necessarily promise to help winners navigate all the obstacles to establishing a business in Qatar, according to George Salem, a senior associate at Enterprise Qatar.

But many winners complain that that Enterprise Qatar’s follow-through is weak.

“I have only met them three times,” said Sankari. “The first time, I presented the business; The second time was the gala dinner when they announce winners; The third time, I received the check. That’s it.”

Last year’s ceremony took place at the Four Seasons Hotel Doha. The Minister of Business and Trade HE Sheikh Jassim Bin Abdulaziz Bin Jassim Bin Hamad Al Thani attended the ceremony along with other investors and officials. The event was an important networking session for prizewinners, according to Mohammad Janahi, third place winner of last competition.

He and his teammates grabbed attention from one investor, who showed interest in their e-commerce idea, but they stopped hearing from this potential partner a few months after the ceremony.

Janahi’s business plan still remains dormant.

The few Al Fikra winners who have been successful say they were left alone to navigate Qatar’s dizzying bureaucracy and to find potential investors without any assistance from Enterprise Qatar.

At last year’s ceremony, Layla Al-Dorani found out that she won second prize and a QR 30,000 check with her name on it. The young Qatari entrepreneur hoped she would get the chance to present her healthy fresh food business plan to the minister and potential investors. But all she only got was the chance to take a photo with the minister on her phone.

“That was pretty fast. What just happened?” was her reaction afterwards. Enterprise Qatar never followed up with Al-Dorani about her business, Al-Dorani said. She had to seek financial and management support from her friends and family, and tackle with a long list of requirements at the ministries.

The prize money she received was not substantial enough to fund the costs of starting up, Al-Dorani said. To start a business in Qatar, an applicant needs to have QR 200,000 in a bank account and fulfill additional criteria for location approval and food certification, in this case, for Al-Dorani’s healthy food business, Raw ME.

Enterprise Qatar should have offered prizewinners more help in business registration apart from the prize money, Al-Dorani said. In order to keep the business alive, she has spent all her savings on the project and has to work jobs as a yoga teacher and as fundraising manager at Rouda Center in addition to operating Raw ME to prepare for the final launch of products. She is also prepared to sell her own apartment if necessary.

“The scope of Al Fikra is to identify potential entrepreneurs, encourage them to take the crucial first steps of putting together a business plan, and then help them develop their ideas,” Salem said.

Apart from giving prize money, Enterprise Qatar also offers services to all small and medium enterprises in evaluation of feasibility to start up in Qatar, accounting and auditing advisory, legal advisory and coaching. This program started last December.

“The competition was a life-changing experience,” said Hamad Al Rewaily, third prize winner in last year’s student category. His plan to start a web-based entertainment management is incubated at ictQatar.

He often sought advice from Enterprise Qatar, Al Rewaily said. Now he is very confident that his business idea will deliver in a year.

Incubation with the Supreme Council of Information & Communication Technology, ictQatar, provides an office space, legal support, technology assistance and a small budget.

The first prize plan from 2011 is also currently incubated at ictQatar. They met representatives from the incubation program at Al Fikra’s closing ceremony, Khalid Al Mohannadi, a member of the winning team said. But it took them eight months to get the incubation by himself.

Another obstacle expatriate entrepreneurs face after they enter the competition is favoritism toward Qataris.

Enterprise Qatar, as a governmental agency, tends to favor teams with Qatari nationals, the entrepreneurship professor said. “The competition is open to anybody”, White said. “But it’s a good idea to have a Qatari on your team, especially if you hope to be a functioning business after the competition.” The country’s business law requires any company to have at least one Qatari who owns least 51 percent share as a partner.

However, expatriates born and raised in Qatar form the majority of the student contestants in the competition. “They are the ones who are most interested in becoming entrepreneurs,” White said.

Qatar is too scared to invest in foreign entrepreneurs to set up technology companies in the country, although it tries to lead the region’s development in research and development of new technologies, said Lebanese entrepreneur Sankari, who was turned down by many investors in Qatar.

Several months after Sankari left the country, his business is successfully up and running. In Lebanon.

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