There’s a need to normalise failure for start-ups to eventually succeed: Emirati entrepreneur-turned-mentor

“It was hard and heart-breaking to let go of my first start-up that failed. After six years [2013-19] of hard work that I had put into developing Jamalytic, a FitBit-like tracking device for camels, it failed to take off,” shared UAE national Saeed Alnofeli.

In a region where camels are an integral part of the Arab culture one would expect such a unique concept to click. An engineer by degree, Alnofeli developed several prototypes with the hope to launch a unique product. But the start-up failed to even enter the market although it won many competitions.

While the idea was unique, it was ahead of its time, and required large-scale funding. Even though Alnofeli won several competitions, he couldn’t secure that kind of funding.

“Today when I look back, I feel reaching out to investors from the same space would have been prudent. I should have tapped into the investor ecosystem in countries like the US interested in hardware start-ups instead of trying to secure grants and funding locally,” Alnofeli shared.

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Entrepreneurs are known to turn ideas into reality. That may not be the case always, and not for everybody.

During an exclusive interview with Gulf News, Alnofeli, who is currently a director at in5 Innovation Centres and mentors start-ups in the country, emphasised on the need to overcome the fear of failure while also touching upon how the UAE entrepreneurial landscape has evolved over the years.

If failure is a reality in the start-up world, how can it be used as a positive reference point as opposed to using it as a tool for discouragement?

“There is a genuine need to normalise failure. Having open and honest conversations about failure as opposed to treating it as a shameful incident can help start-up founders overcome the fear of failure. Even though my start-up failed it taught me the importance of accepting failure with grace and that risk is a constant in entrepreneurial pursuits. If anything, surviving a failure has given me the confidence that if needed, I can do it again.”

What lessons did the failure of your start-up teach you?

“The concept was exciting and based on research conducted at the Abu Dhabi-based Masdar Institute. But it was forward-looking for the time for two reasons. The idea of introducing a health tracking device for camels was unheard of and therein required a lot of understanding and education. Back in 2013 the entrepreneurial ecosystem was not as matured as it is today. For context, even today there aren’t many hardware start-ups in the region. At that time start-up ideas that were incubated and accelerated alongside mine were mostly software based. I naturally felt somewhat directionless due to the lack of mentorship in the hardware space. Being a first mover in a market with an innovative product isn’t enough if the market itself isn’t ready for it. This is one of the biggest lessons I’ve learnt from the failure of my start-up. Even Apple didn’t launch iPhone until June 2007 although the product was ready nearly 10 years before. The telecom infrastructure needed to be ready to support a product like iPhone.”

Even though my start-up failed it taught me the importance of accepting failure with grace and that risk is a constant in entrepreneurial pursuits.

– Saeed Alnofeli

Would you suggest entrepreneurs with forward-looking ideas to pursue them even if the time isn’t right?

“Is the industry ready to take on a highly disruptive idea? Is the right technology available to develop the idea? Is there a strategic plan to nurture the idea with investment while building a community of people who will support the idea and buy into it? These are some key questions that an entrepreneur needs to ask. If the answers are yes, I’d suggest the entrepreneur to go ahead even if the idea seems ahead of its time.”

In case a hardware start-up can’t bootstrap is it okay to raise funding at an early stage?

“I’d advise a hardware start-up to bootstrap as long as possible, and then launch a campaign to raise funding. Try to reach angel investors first keeping venture capitalists for the later stage. The overall funding landscape has improved with the entry of several investors with an appetite to invest in early-stage start-ups. Having that said, I still don’t see a lot of hardware start-ups [building niche products] in the region compared to the Western world. Perhaps the investor landscape that has evolved considerably needs to become more matured.”

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Saeed Alnofeli: “The overall funding landscape has improved with the entry of several investors with an appetite to invest in early-stage start-ups.”

When to scale up and when to quit are some crucial decisions that entrepreneurs are often faced with? What’s your advice to start-up founders on these two aspects?

“Trial and error are an important part of a start-up’s journey at least until reaching the seed stage to validate the idea and gauge if the concept is gaining traction. The issue is once a start-up sees some traction, they get impatient and are often unwilling to wait to get feedback. We always recommend start-ups to see if within 6 to 18 months 30 to 40 per cent of their customers are returning organically. That’s when the start-up can think of scaling up.”

“It’s crucial to know when to scale up as much as when to quit. For instance, the hardware start-up ecosystem has developed considerably over the past few years. If I were to launch my start-up today, I could have easily secured $300,000 [Dh1 million] in funding with the existing prototype. At that time, I couldn’t even secure Dh300,000 in funding. But today I don’t have the drive to revive the project. That’s why timing is so crucial.”

Trial and error are an important part of a start-up’s journey at least until reaching the funding stage to validate the idea

– Saeed Alnofeli

Your message for the start-up community.

“If you are keen to start a business, enjoy the journey, the process of setting it up, learning, even failing as much as the outcome. Sometimes entrepreneurs are misled into believing that they can become wealthy quickly by starting a business. Investors are also misled into believing that just by putting in money they can become wealthy overnight. That is where everything fails. Only after my start-up failed teaching me several lessons that I fell in love with the idea of building businesses which should always be based on an urge to solve a problem.”

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