In the five years since thousands of Egyptians filled Cairo’s Tahrir Square, startups in Egypt have multiplied as have the number of funds and startup accelerators.
At this past Riseup, an annual Egyptian startup event, over 4,000 men and women from across the country came together in downtown Cairo, just a few short blocks from Tahrir Square, for workshops and two days of panels on entrepreneurship.
How much of this excitement about startups in Egypt is a result of the 2011 “Arab Spring?”
For Mai Medhat the 2011 revolution in Tahrir Square, in which she partook in, inspired her to quit her job as a software engineer. Along with Nihal Fares, she designed and developed an online platform for event organizers and attendees.
“I love events and meeting people, but found that when I went to an event it was hard to meet with someone in real time,” Medhat said. Linkedin was an after thought – a way to stay in touch, not a way to seize the moment.
The platform that Medhat and Fares build is Eventtus, which has been used at Riseup and a number of other conferences throughout the Middle East. The company is looking to roll out their services at sporting and entertainment events. Eventtus has offices in Cairo and Dubai.
“I didn’t know what a startup was back then,” Medhat told me. “What I knew is that we had managed to get Mubarak out and I thought ‘Wow’ – if we, as Egyptians, can do that, we can do anything.” Medhat had no business experience. “I had to educate myself about human resources and finance,” she said. Medhat and Fares have raised funds from Cairo Angels and Vodaphone Ventures.
The Tahrir Revolution meant something similar to Omar Gabr. Gabr is the CEO and co-founder of Instabug, a B2B in-app feedback platform for mobile apps.
“There was a huge sense of ownership among all the young people involved in the revolution; it (the revolution) showed that people can do things – for the country and for themselves,” he said.
No longer did Egyptians have to wait for the government or someone else to move forward. Since 2011 Gabr and his co-founder have been moving forward on their mobile app, which a number of angel investors including Cairo Angels has backed.
“Taking part in the revolution was a huge risk,” entrepreneur Ahmed Ramy said. Ramy is the CEO of TMentors, a Cairo based tech consultancy and software developer; TMentors is currently working robotics.
“It was the highest risk – because you might lose your life.” After such an experience, he told me, it made the notion of starting -– whether a startup or another endeavor easy. “Taking risks after the revolution was easier; you think ‘I have been in a tougher position – I don’t mind doing this risk or making this investment.’”
In fact, Ramy noted, he and others he knew were conducting business during the 18 days that he and thousands of others occupied Tahrir Square in 2011. “Everyone was there – the customer, resources, other companies.” That coupled with the enthusiasm that Tahrir had instilled in him and others increased confidence and started to, as he noted, to “think bigger.” “People discovered themselves during the revolution – they discovered their potential,” Ramy said.
Potential is something that Ramez Mohamed believes that Egyptians had long before Tahrir. Mohamed is the head of Flat6Labs in Cairo, which had to push back its plans to launch in early 2011. Flat6Labs launched in June 2011.
“Many people mistakenly link the growth of entrepreneurship and Tahrir Square. The rise of entrepreneurship in the region is not an outcome of the Arab Spring,” Mohamed told me. The men and women launching startups are the same people who went out to Tahrir, who had long wanted to change Egypt’s narrative as well as their own. “These are the people who want to be the masters of their future.”
If anything, Mohamed said, the Arab Spring happened as a result of this startup spirit. It is why, he noted, that Ahmed Alfi, the successful entrepreneur and investor who founded Flat6Labs, believed that Egypt needed to have an accelerator of its own, focused on Egyptian enterprises, long before the Tahrir revolution.
Startups were going to happen in Egypt – just as they were and are happening around everywhere around the world. Tahrir showed this spirit. Ramez Mohamed, founder, Flat6Labs
“Startups were going to happen in Egypt – just as they were and are happening around everywhere around the world. Tahrir showed this spirit,” Mohamed said. “It did not unleash it.”
For Perihan Abouzeid, a serial entrepreneur and most recently the founder of Moviepigs.com, a digital distribution platform, Tahrir did make a difference in terms of the kind of entrepreneur she was – and wanted to be. When you’re an entrepreneur, Abouzeid explained, there is a temptation to try everything – even if it veers off your original focus. “Tahrir forced me to stick to my values,” she told me. In the same way that thousands came out to drive out Mubarak and call for increased freedom and democracy, she reassessed her own vision – for herself and for her company. If Tahrir unleashed anything, Abouzeid said, it was accountability – not just for the state but also among the Egyptian people.
“The power of people was greater than the people in power,” she said. “And when that happens anything is possible.”