Transparency in 48 Hours: Iran Startups Open to The Economist  


World Startup Report collected data from over 50 startup ecosystems to identify the top Internet companies around the world. The idea was to use those as a proxy for the respective market size and potential. But one country was problematic: our local sources did not agree on Iran’s data. What follows is a tale of how transparency helps the commons.

The Back Story

About two months ago, we set on a mission to show the world what is the definition of “success” in different countries. We used a very simple metric for that — the size of the biggest internet companies built in these countries. The goal was to show that even given very similar market conditions, population size and geographical location, the size of the companies that can be built varies significantly. We hope that by using this data, people can have realistic expectation of the level of “success” they can achieve in their country.

Our Approach

In order to collect this data, we reached out to WSR community members all over the world. In many cases, the top internet companies were public, which made our job of validating the data straightforward. In other cases, we based companies’ valuation on news related to their recent investments, acquisition talks, revenue numbers, etc. In the case of private companies where little or no information was available, we turned to our community members who often are connected with the key personnel in the relevant companies. These people shared private data with us to support this research, and in return we treated their data with utmost confidentiality. It was challenging to sometimes accept data without a second source to double check, but we made the decision to trust our community because they are often the best people to provide this information.

Iran

Iran proved to be the latter case. Hardly any information was available online. However, we had one knowledgeable source of information which we ended up relying on. When The Economist published our data, criticism flew in regarding the Iran data. Numerous community leaders supported the data, but many others cried foul as the data came from a single source.

The debate became so intense it ended up splitting this young ecosystem in half. In one entrepreneur’s words:

“The Iran we live in now is different from the Iran we lived in a week ago.”

What was really frustrating was that the arguments in the community were more personal than fact-driven. While many folks complained, no one was able to give us any solid data to support their claim, even worse, no one could help us put together the correct data.

We were in a bind.

With the time running out and pressure mounting, we agreed with The Economist’s tough decision to remove Iran from our global research. We swallowed our pride and admitted to The Economist that Iran data is too controversial at this point to remain on the publication. It was a very sad moment for us, but much more so for the community because Iran rarely gets this level of international coverage on their startup ecosystem. And the one time they finally received it, it was forced to be removed.

The story didn’t end there. We saw how passionate these Iranian entrepreneurs were and we had a feeling that if we just had a single unified cause, we could unite them and push this community to a higher level. Getting removed from The Economist was exactly the spark that this community needed.

What we did in the next 48 hours should serve as a guide on how communities can be united, no less than it should be a guide for our peers on how to get back up when fallen to the ground. Instead of rewriting the story again, we’ll share 3 emails that started and ended this journey. We highly recommend you to read and learn from our experience.

Last Words

While a degree of secrecy is necessary to compete, opaque ecosystems suffer from a lack of recognition and friction, communication, investment and business. It’s a tragedy of the commons.

The Economist’s stance provided the spark that brought a healthy amount of transparency to the Persian ecosystem, putting it officially on the world map. It should also lubricate the flow of information in the country’s ecosystem, allowing it to thrive. We hope this remarkable example of a joint effort will inspire others!

— The World Startup Report Team —

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Iran Email #1:

Dear All,

As some of you are aware, the World Startup Report and The Economist recently partnered up to take an in-depth look at the biggest internet companies around the world. We published a very popular article that showcased the top 3 internet companies in 50 countries, which Iran was a part of.

This was an impactful article because for the first time in history, it shined lights on the ecosystem outside of Silicon Valley, and showed the size of companies one can build in every part of the world.

Unfortunately, it was brought to our attention that the Iran data we had was highly controversial, to say the least.

We have tried to reach out to many of you already, but the response we are hearing is highly conflicting, and most of response are opinion-based vs. fact-based. As such, The Economist has decided to REMOVE IRAN from this research until further notice, which we will all see in a bit.

This is an extremely big disappointment. Not only did Iran startup ecosystem miss out an amazing chance to be highlighted on the world stage, it also showed the lack of unity within the ecosystem.

In order to put Iran back on the research, what we need to do is to provide reliable data to The Economist within the next 24-48 hours to validate Iran’s list of top internet companies. If you believe you have some relevant information, e.g. valuation data, revenue data, investment data, please kindly contact us. The data is for internal use only, please be assured that we will not share your private information publicly.

It is our hope that you guys, the leaders of the Iranian startup community, can come together and put Iran back on the world startup map.

Sincerely,

The World Startup Report Team

P.S. Feel free to share our email and add others to the conversation who might be able to help contribute _positively_ toward this research.

Iran Email #2:

Dear All,

As you know, it has been an intense last few days (or almost a week) for most of us. We think we have come to an end. We are very very happy with the results we achieved with all of your support. The collaboration was just incredible. You all deserve a big Thank You from our team!

And now, here is a summary of what we feel is important to share with you.

Community

Up until last week, we knew very little about the actual startup community in the country. Other than a big population and a little information on Google, our knowledge was pretty limited to say the least. The last 48 — 72 hours have been an incredible eye-opener about the possibilities, key players and overall about the market itself. Right now, we are proud to say we have a much better understanding of what an interesting market Iran is. This is something we could not have done unless all of you agreed to help us on a such a short notice.

Update to The Economist

So, our final decision has already been presented to The Economist. Here is our updated list:

  1. DigiKala ($150M)
  2. Aparat Group ($30M)
  3. Cafe Bazaar ($20M)

LINK

We can already confirm that the data was accepted by The Economist and has been successfully updated online.

Methodology

For those of you who were less involved in the last few days, here is a quick explanation of our choice.

This time, we had a chance to look at each of the company’s internal financial situation, potential investment/acquisition term sheets and a lot of other relevant data. Hence, we are very confident with the information we provided to The Economist. As you can see, the numbers we used before either remained the same (DigiKala) or were even increased (Cafe Bazaar). This shows that the information we were given before was correct, or in the latter case was even lower than it should have been. This proves that our corrections to the data were done not because the data provided was intentionally incorrect, but mainly due to a very simple reason: the lack of available data even within the best connected people in the ecosystem!

Next steps

At World Startup Report, we had an incredible opportunity to look inside the Iranian startup ecosystem within a very short period of time. Repeating what was said before, we were really impressed by what we found, the people we had a chance to talk to and the fact that so many people have agreed to help us. We wish more people could see what is happening in your country and take a deeper look at the Iranian startup ecosystem. Having said that, if you decide to use the momentum and continue putting together the information, we would be more than happy to help.

We have witnessed that the Iranian startup community can come together driven by a bigger goal — to help Iran get on the global map. We truly believe this should last! However, it has to come from the whole community and it is up to you to make that happen.

It was great working with all of you. Hope this is only the beginning!

Regards,

World Startup Report Team

Iran Email #3:

All —

Thank you for all of the kind words. It has been an intense last few days. We cannot be more proud of how this community got together and helped us give the world this unprecedented inside look at the Iran startup ecosystem.

To answer some of your questions and to shed a bit more light on our research process, here are 3 things you should know:

1. How did we find the list of top companies?

In order to find the top 3 companies, we requested everyone in the community to independently submit their list of the top 10 companies in their mind. This resulted in a list of about 40 unique company names. Of this list, it was very easy to spot what the common theme is so we narrowed down our search to about 15 companies. Through a miraculous effort, got into direct contact with every and every one of these companies that we wanted to talk to.

Is there a chance that the real top 3 companies are not on this list? Yes, everything is possible. Is it likely? Not really. The folks behind this research are the top founders/investors/journalists/community leaders in Iran, some of them are on this mailing list, many more are not. From our years of experience, the chance is very slim that none of these folks are aware of a company that is really one of the top 3 companies in country.

2. How did we estimate each company’s valuation?

The company valuation is a subjective matter, but there is a standard set of ways you can evaluate a company. It also helped that we are evaluating these companies from a single perspective with the same set of rules everywhere. So relatively, people will be able to get a sense of where Iran stands in comparison to every other countries in the world.

For this particular research, we actually consulted some of the top founders around the world (in one case, we even reached out to the founder of a very well known billion $ company for advice). We spent quite some time with the founders to come up with reasonable valuation, even sending a thousand word evaluation feedback to explain our rationale in one company’s case. This is why after our process, a number of founders actually approached us for help on how they can better evaluate their company in the future. We did our best to give them our honest feedback and connect them to the right folks who can help them further.

We are not perfect, no one is and the company valuation will change as each day passes. These valuations is not meant to be exact, it’s only a rough estimate for people to gauge what size of companies people can build in each part of the world. But if you get a chance to speak with any of the founders we worked with, the least they will tell you is that we’ve done our homework, and our valuations for them were fair and back up by solid reasoning.

3. What data did we collect?

The depth of data we collected for this research were far and beyond what is typical asked for in this type of research.

We requested for full company information, including audited financial information, projections, web traffic, mobile traffic, conversion rates, time spend per visit, traffic growth and even down to the Rials/USD conversion rate these companies used in their reporting. In the case of the e-commerce company, we asked for size of the distribution center, distribution fleet size, number of orders per day, order size, total SKU numbers, delivery times and much more details.

When applicable, we even asked for details of the existing investments and termsheets. In contrary to some belief, investment history and termsheets are some of the best source of information because all valuations are guesstimate until someone is ready to pay that amount for it.

We didn’t stop there. Once we have these data, we compare them with what we know about the companies as well as performing our own background checks via various resources to make sure the data is valid (in some cases, the data didn’t match up and we did further investigations). We went as far as background checking the reputation of the founders, investors and even the accounting firms used to audit information. It was not a small undertaking by any means, but we had the entire Iran community behind us that’s how we were able to do so within such a limited time. It was an amazing sign of unity from the Iran startup system and we honestly could not seen coming.

Could we be wrong? Yes, it is very possible that someone people have gone out of their way to spend the last few days faking data just to lie to us, but that seems rather unlikely. As a fellow entrepreneur myself (my last company was sold to LinkedIn in 2011), I can tell you nothing is worse than having an inflated valuation because unrealistic expectation can ruin a company. So even if someone found a way to fake us, ultimately they will be the ones paying for the heavy price in the future.

Our last words on this matter

From our third party perspective, the fundamental issue with the Iran isn’t so much that people lie, it’s more that the culture of sharing and the culture of mutual community support has yet to establish. It will take time, but judging from what we see, there are many positive signs that the community will move toward this direction. For that, we sincerely wish these last few days can serve as a small trigger a bigger positive change towards a better future for the Iran startup ecosystem. Please feel free to share this message with everyone in the Iran community to encourage them do the same.

I’ll end my long email here so everyone can finally get some rest. It’s been a pleasure working with all of you, I can’t be more excited for what’s to come for this community.

GO IRAN!!!

Sincerely,

Bowei Gai

Founder, World Startup Report

In case your ecosystem is still lacking transparency, shoot us an email:

hello [@] worldstartupreport.com

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