Startup games: the dominion of business competitions

Vanessa Zainzinger
Vanessa Zainzinger
With entrepreneurialism on the rise all over the world, Vision.ae explores how some media-savvy business people are playing to get ahead

Innovation is the economy's beating heart, entrepreneurs are its backbone. Across the globe, beyond innovation hubs such as Silicon Valley and London's Tech City, thousands of smart minds with great ideas are looking for an opportunity to start their own business. Fuelling the movement internationally are a slew of alternative funding schemes, startup accelerators and crowdfunding platforms. At the same time, business competitions have mushroomed across the globe aiming to mentor and inspire future business leaders.

Concept vs reality

In Lebanon, the startup scene is taking steps towards becoming a catalyst for economic prosperity. Hind Hobeika, a mechanical engineer by trade and swimmer by passion, had an innovative idea in mind with the potential to become a huge success. But she couldn't imagine turning it into a reality.

Hobeika was about to finish her university degree and was aiming to start working for Procter & Gamble when the chance to participate in Stars of Science, a reality TV show initiated by the Qatar Foundation, fell into her lap. Before she even had a business plan, Hobeika was given the resources and budget she needed to build her prototype. Hind’s idea, Butterfleye, is a heart rate monitor that projects its feedback to the lens of a swimmer's goggles. With the help of the Pan-Arab reality TV initiative she built a functioning circuit in five weeks.

“I would have never had the initiative to take Butterfleye to start-up level without this chance,” says Hobeika. “It changed my entire concept of the product.” Two years later Butterfleye participated in another show, the MIT Enterprise Forum Arab Business Plan Competition. The start-up was announced as the winner in Dubai in June 2012 succeeding against 4,500 entries from across the Arab world.

Despite the cash prize, business competitions in the region are about much more than funding – with many entrepreneurs claiming that the experience gained is just as valuable. “In order for entrepreneurship to develop, we need the right support systems in place, and we need mentors,” Hobeika explains.

Techology infrastructure

Google is another high profile company seeking to grow a technology ecosystem in the Middle East through business competitions. In September 2011 it launched Ebda2 in Egypt, a competition that gave US$200,000 of start-up capital to one Egyptian idea, chosen from 4,000 applicants.

The winners, Bey2Ollak developed a cross-platform mobile app that allows users to share real-time information about urban traffic in Cairo and Alexandria. Bey2Ollak was already up and running when they entered Ebda2, looking for a chance to grow into a profitable business. They used the cash prize to expand – but, similarly to Butterfleye, took much more value from the nine months of leadership and mentoring the competition gave them.

“All of the 20 finalists deserved to win,” said Co-founder Gamal Sadek. “Seeing all these great ideas and having a competitive team by your side was amazing – there's nothing better for business than a competitive environment.” Bey2Ollak now serves more than 320,000 registered users in Egypt and is working on its further expansion.

In the region, competitions act as a rare channel to connect entrepreneurs with each other and new mentors. Outside the region, though, some business competitions have the reputation of creating much needed exposure for fledgling start-ups. In the UK, reality TV program Dragons' Den has shown wannabe-entrepreneurs pitching their ideas to a panel of venture capitalists since 2005. The programme is geared around investment rather than leadership and smart entrepreneurs use the huge television exposure as a vehicle for publicity.

Welcome exposure

These include former cameraman Danny Bamping, who signed up for the TV show in 2005 to raise money for his plastic-toy firm. On the show he was offered a £50,000 investment for a 15 per cent stake in his business but turned it down after the broadcast. However, the exposure had the desired effect: The day before the show, Bamping had sold a mere 23 toys online. On the evening after the programme was aired, he sold 4,500. “Two weeks later we had to close the website because we'd run out of stock,” he said. Today, the firm's annual turnover is estimated at £1m (US$1.6m)

As the entrepreneurial dream spreads its wings across the world, savvy operators prove that playing the media competition game well can translate into real business success.