Dubai Future Accelerators Survival Guide

Dear DFA Cycle 2 participant,

I’m Marko Russiver, CEO and founder of Guaana, global collaboration and funding platform for researchers. I’m from DFA Cycle 1 and we successfully entered partnership with Dubai Future Foundation. Figured I’ll share what I know about the time that is ahead of you now.

Quite a few of you reached out to me before the new program begun. Unfortunately I did not get a chance to talk to all of you, so I figured I’ll write down a few notes that might help you to get the best out of your time in Dubai — a Dubai Future Accelerators Survival Guide, if I may.

Disclaimer: No-one asked me to do this, but I’m currently driving from Playa del Carmen to Isla Mujeres in Mexico and figured I’ll take a moment to write down what I believe you should know.

I know how you feel. I was there. It’ll be ok. 
*pat-pat*

Good news: You made it!

Dubai is an amazing city and I hope you enjoy your stay there. Get out often and get inspired, don’t just hang around in your hotel room. Considering how Cycle 1 concluded, I believe quite many of you will call Dubai their second home soon. Definitely participate in the cultural program, trust me — you will be pleasantly surprised.

The program

The DFA program is extremely intense, or very relaxed. It’s up to you. For me, this was the most intense period of my life where I was challenged on every possible level, both as the CEO of Guaana and in personal life. The program is fairly unstructured. As all companies have very different targets and needs it can’t have much of a structure besides some basic framework, but looking back at our 3 months there, I think this might be one of it’s strongest core values. It was also the main source of frustration. Wouldn’t it be nice if someone would tell you at all times what to do next and who to meet next? Well.. Not gonna happen. It’s all up to you.

You make your own success there. Everyone else around you is there just to raise your odds.

Here’s some more great news: We pioneered this for you. Cycle 1 and DFA team sharpened their machetes, went through the jungle fighting crocodiles, giant snakes and occasional nasty Chupacabras (I’m currently visiting Mexico, so bare with the metaphors). As a result You, dear Cycle 2 participant, have a path to follow and guides to consult with. We didn’t. I guess I’m just taking a moment to acknowledge Cycle 1 special snowflake status before getting to the important stuff.

You’ll have a few of us around there at all times. Karim, Mohamed, Sean and DK to name a few. Tap in to their knowledge as much as you can. They are friendly people, and they were part of building the path that you now follow. We all had wildly different experiences tho, so it actually makes sense to ask all of us, just not one.

I’ll also be around every now and then. Follow my Instagram, so I could also follow you and understand how you guys are doing, or ping DFA people to know when and where I’ll show up if you need to talk to me for some unknown reason.

Anyway, enough yapping. Let’s get to the applicable advice.

DFA Survival Guide

Rule #1 — Don’t feel entitled to anything. You are there to prove yourself, not to be showered with appreciation, media attention, partnerships, money, or whatever your unique agenda happens to be. In Dubai you have to work for it, prove yourself and get noticed. This is solely up to you. The DFA team is there to support you, not to build your business. Don’t ignore this rule. Seriously. This is the single biggest reason why some of the Cycle 1 companies failed to accomplish their goals. Be pro-active, get sh*t done.

Rule #2 — PR pays. There will be media companies like Inc, Entrepreneur magazine, BBC, CNN etc. showing up every now and then because of the amazing work done by Vera and they usually need to shoot some videos or take pictures. If your product/service/thing is visual, interactive and flashy then you are in luck. Brand your gadgets. Labster was in the front page of every daily newspaper because H.H. Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid put their VR set on:

H.H. Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid demoing Labster. Every daily featured this photo.

Rule #3 — Don’t get frustrated. Patience and perservance are keys to everything during the program. Every now and then (minimum 3 times a day or so) you will have highs and lows on your progress. At first it seems okay and manageable, but around day #43 (unique to every participant.) you will lose your cool big time. Guaranteed. So instead of going ballistic on DFA people I highly recommend going to some Korean karaoke joint, rent a private room and introduce yourself to some therapy by flawlessly executing a few heavy metal tunes. Bring friends, it’s fun. If you need recommendations just hit me up, I’ll send you the address.

Rule #4 — Think big. Nobody cares about incremental progress. Change the world or stop wasting everyones time. Let me remind you that 45 years ago the place you are visiting now was a desert. Take a moment, look around. I mean it. Close your laptop, walk out of the building and look around. This is how Dubai approaches progress. This is the real zero to one. Can you handle this level of advancement? Of course you can. You were invited there for a reason.

Just acknowledge that maybe you are not the only innovative person in the country. High-five to H.H. Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid right here.

Speaking of the Sheikh — his book, The Vision, gives a proper understanding how the culture and the country has evolved over time and where it is heading in the future. Read it if you want to get a crash course to the way of Dubai thinking.

Rule #5 — Don’t fall in love with your ideas. This is overall a good advice for any entrepreneur, but considering how fast things move in DFA you really need to pay attention to what battles are worth fighting for. Be ready to ideate, change methods, grow an additional team overnight and kill your own ideas to start all over again.

Here’s a pro tip — read government mandates and strategies. They are all up on your respective authorities webpages. Dig in, understand why things are as they are. And model your presentation to it if you can help them reach the goals presented.

Rule #6 — Make friends. One of the biggest benefits of DFA you have already received. It’s the people around you. These people are innovators, misfits, geniuses — people who will be or already are world leaders in various fields. They are there for a reason. As are you. And these people are awesome, if your Cycle in any way resembles mine.

They will introduce you to their network, give you a place to stay in any part of the world (been staying with Max from Labster for the last 2 weeks in Mexico), help you brainstorm, provide solutions you had no clue about. Just be open with everyone and give back. Be the first one to help out a fellow participant with your network. Get the ball rolling! Be the Change you want to see!… I ran out of clichés. You know what I mean… Just do it! (squeezed one more in there). Seriously tho, just step up and make things happen for other people as much as you possibly can. Karma, dude. Karma!

Rule #7 — Respect DFA people, they are working day and night to make things happen. You might think I’m exaggerating the day and night thing but no, they go through the same process as you do. But instead of dealing with one company like you do with yours, they are dealing with 30 and they take everyones progress very personally.

I’ll take a moment to introduce some of them:

Abs — The Arabian Viking. It’s a nickname we gave him as he is an ultimate badass. Neurologist and entrepreneur who has made 3 exits by now at the ripe age of 24. That’s nice, but.. the amazing value he brings to the table is that he is the caring heart of the program.

Go to him if you need to vent, if you need to talk, if you need to solve things but you don’t know how. If you just need to spar or when you feel that everything just collapsed. Abs is the reason why Guaana stayed in the program after 3 weeks. He asked me to trust him. I did. And that was one of the best decisions I’ve made. He also gave me very valuable personal advice when I did not expect it. Advice that I highly appreciate now even months later.

Paul — Le Paul is secretly a complete badass. Abs is kinda open about it, but Paul.. Paul is like Clark Kent. He looks all nice and mellow but when sh*t hits the fan he will fight alongside you like a Superman. If there is a problem, a critical one that needs attention right now, then run to Paul. His background in TechStars has prepared him for any kind of shenanigans that you can throw at him. Trust me, you are incapable of surprising him with the amount of ridiculous problems you manage to generate. I tried.

Vera is a sweetheart. Yet she provides unsurpassed amount of tough love in DFA. If your communication sucks or you really don’t have much to say she will not sugarcoat her feedback and you should be very thankful for it. Get your communications fixed and go back to her. She is being straight-forward because she wants you to succeed. She has seen and done a lot in her career before DFA that provides her with an amazing vetting skill regarding your company image and communications. Use that.

Enda — Enda is a wizard when it comes to words. Irish Harry Potter. I abused his talent a lot to get our copy right for communications. He comes from recent start-up background so he instantly “gets it”. Also, he really likes Mars and Elon Musk. If someone can provide him with Occupy Mars T-shirt before I get there then I’ll high-five that individual several times when I show up in March.

Carmen — Endless amount of awesome feedback. She is like Paul, but has a lot more patience for your repetitive shenanigans. She will actively support you with her extensive network. If you impress her.

Wild cards:

Dr. Noah — COO of Dubai Future Foundation. M.I.T. background. Knows everything there is to know about how the government works, he is a member of World Economic Forum, knows breakthrough tech and science the second it surfaces. I think he actually is a genius. I’d lock him to a lab, but meanwhile..

Use his feedback when you can. He is very hard to catch for a reason. Don’t abuse his attention for incremental stuff, he really does have a lot to manage. It’s easy to talk to him as he understands what you are trying to say in half a sentence. PS! Noah is an amazing techno DJ. If someone can figure out his artist name, then I’ll provide dinner at Asia Asia. He has been around the world and really DJ’s like a badass.

PK — Approach him about investors globally. The most networked human being I know and I know many. This guy takes the cake and he is amazingly sweet and lovely person.

JD — Jon is a veteran when it comes to dealing with entrepreneurs. He has built and managed over 20 accelerator cycles in tandem with Paul (I might be mixing up the number, but it was quite an impressive amount). He can be a strong ally, give you very insightful feedback and ideas how to solve things, but first you have to be able to deal with his straightforwardness. He just seems to be deathly allergic to small talk and beating around the bush in general. He is not around all the time, so when he arrives, go grab him. Behind all that rough and rugged talk and walk there is a very kind human being who wants you to be your best. Or even a little bit more. Whether you like it or not.

The rest of the team is just as impressive, I just figured I’ll highlight some people and leave you to explore who the others are. Karin, Gehna, Sara, Hunter, Bailey. Go find out on your own.

Rule #7 — Adapt. If you don’t feel there’s a fit with your Government Authority then feel free to talk to others and even switch if there is a better match.

For example we were with KHDA, who are absolutely amazing people, but 3 weeks in we found out they are a regulatory authority, meaning they can’t fund a pilot or enter any contracts. After a quick re-evaluation of the situation we pitched our pilot to Dubai Future Foundation as our strategic partner instead. Think outside the borders and move fast when needed. Don’t drag your feet with these decisions, make em quick. Don’t let anyone tell you you can’t do it either. We did, so can you.

Rule #8 — Build your network outside DFA. As valuable as DFA and DFF have been for us I put equal importance in the outside network we built. Most of the world’s top companies have offices in Dubai. Also Dubai and Abu Dhabi governments are very approachable if you know the right people who believe in your vision. And do not, I repeat, do not underestimate the family offices.

Alice and I pitching to Jeff Bezos and H.E. Gergawi who dropped in out of blue. H.E. Gergawi approved our pilot funding 3h later.

Rule #9 — Focus on the right stuff. Raising angel/VC money is near impossible in Dubai. At least it was in late 2016. My personal advice would be to not spend any time courting local investors, but instead count on DFA to get you in touch with global ones when they fly them in. The family offices that I mentioned earlier are an exception. They are driven and very good people to know. Seriously, do your homework and get to know them. DFA brings them in every now and then.

But.. you know, remember when I mentioned that raising money in Dubai is hard? Well, you should be ready for some surprises… Like Jeff Bezos and H.E. Gergawi dropping by out of blue.

All in all, focus on partnerships in Dubai, not raising money. Guaana did raise money successfully during the program, but I think we might have been the only ones. It’s simply not the point of the program.

Yup, that’s us. I’m not a very humble person.

Rule #10 Be respectful. Everywhere. With everyone. It’s just a great thing to do and in Dubai it’s expected. Dubai and UAE in general is a very polite society. Take this habit of respectfulness with you when you go home. World will be a better place. Understand local customs and follow them. You are visiting someone’s home, know the rules.

Random tips:

  • Drop by 1776, high-five Taerk and check how he can help you out. They are all very nice there. I used their office a lot when I needed to think in peace and quiet.
  • Travel in the region. Go to Abu Dhabi at least. Yes, the best way to get there is by uber or taxi, Hyperloop One guys are working on a long term solution. Abu Dhabi doesn’t allow Uber so take a taxi back even if you took an Uber there. Have cash.
  • In general use Uber instead of taxis. Taxi drivers might confirm to you that they know where you need to go but that might not be the case half the time.
  • Dubai metro is awesome and faster than cabs. I recommend getting the gold card, it doesn’t cost much more than regular one. It gives you access to gold class and guess what… it’s Dubai. There’s no driver. You get to enjoy the cockpit view.
  • Leave half the plate unfinished when you eat out. You will get fat otherwise. Google Dubai Stone.
  • Go to the Talise gym next to DFA space. It’s the best one in town.
  • Drink insane amount of water. Try to buy the low sodium ones, otherwise you’ll bloat. Always carry a full bottle. Don’t play around with this. Drink constantly or you’ll get dehydrated.
  • Go to Pier 7. All seven floors are great, but I especially liked Asia Asia. Dubai Marina in general is amazing. They also have great running tracks.
  • Go to Aji at the Palm. Amazing Japanese+Peruvian fusion. I was invited to the opening night by a friend and this place ended up as my favourite spot in Dubai.
  • If you want the best chicken on planet Earth go to a new Jamaican place called Ting Irie.
  • Go to Blue Marlin for the day. It’s a bit of a stretch distance wise, but trust me, you’ll love it. Also, I’d say the private beach clubs are completely worth the commission to get in. Zero Gravity is great.
  • Buy your touristy stuff from Groupon. You pay half the price and get benefits such as not waiting on the line when visiting Burji Khalifa.
  • Don’t go for a run with the Loyyal guys. They are insanely fit. Save yourself from the regrets. Also I’m positive they are all robots mimicking humans.
  • Reach out to us, the Cycle 1 people. There is a good chance we have already found a way how to solve problems that you are facing right now. Accelerate your progress with our knowledge and experience.
  • Don’t buy an iPhone from UAE. They have FaceTime blocked at all times even when you exit the country. It’s blocked permanently, no matter if you run updates.
  • Only VoIP that works is Skype.
  • Get a local number asap. No-one will call you otherwise. Seriously, not a single person will call a number that is not local.
  • Start using WhatsApp. Everything from government to services is run in WhatsApp.
  • Print business cards with your name and details in Arabic on one side, English other side. It shows that you give a damn and is widely appreciated. The print shop next to DFA space can do awesome job with that.
  • All e-mails start with “Dear X,” and end with “Kind regards, Y”. Etiquette.
  • For laundry use the Washmen app.
  • For food deliveries I prefer Deliveroo. Had so many problems with Uber Eats regarding deliveries. Deliveroo link I shared will grant you and me both with some credit. Good stuff, we can throw a taco party.

Good luck! I’ll visit you soon in Dubai. You can follow me here to be in the loop with my life after DFA or feel free to add me in LinkedIn if you want some intros or there is anything else I can help with.

Kind regards,

Marko Russiver
Founder & CEO of Guaana, 
Dubai Future Accelerators Class 1 Alumni