What it’s like starting up the first Saudi-American accelerator

Tristan Pollock
Aug 26 · 8 min read

It’s 2 a.m. and my wife and I are getting into an Uber to go to the airport. Our flight leaves at 4 a.m. Most would call that flight a redeye, but that’s prime time for King Khalid International Airport in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Despite the time or because of it, the newly remodeled airport is bustling with business. Flights are leaving to places like Khartoum, Frankfurt, and Dubai, a place that boasts it’s airport can bring you to ⅓ of the world’s population in 4 hours. That’s a claim Riyadh, which is just a two-hour flight northwest from Dubai, might be able to make and even exceed one day as the entire country opens up a variety of entirely new business categories in special economic zones, entertainment, and leisure tourism.

The tourist visa is just one aspect of business opportunities that are emerging as a part of the 2030 Vision strategy that looks to not just expand tourism but modernize the oil-wealthy country into a progressive state. There’s $64 billion alone for infrastructure and economic enhancements projected to create 224,000 jobs by 2030, including the King Abdullah Financial District (KAFD) that is set to host the 2020 G20. In part, that’s why I’m here. I’m working with a national nonprofit foundation called MiSK who brought in 500 Startups, one of the most active startup investors in the world who’s already invested in 140 startups in the MENA region, to run an accelerator program in Riyadh. It’s the first American-Saudi Arabian accelerator of its kind. This is a big deal because if you look on F6S you’ll see just two programs available for the entire 40-million-person country.

Funding Female Founders

Nineteen startups were selected from a pool of nearly 500 applications (3.8% chance) making it as hard to get into this accelerator program as it is to get into Harvard (5.6% chance). Each startup will receive a $50,000 USD investment from the 500 Falcons fund and 16 weeks of Silicon Valley growth coaching from visiting mentors and local always available EIRs (entrepreneur in residence) like myself.

Saudi Arabia isn’t always portrayed positively in the world news, but what really amazed me is that 37% of the startups have at least one female co-founder. That’s not a stat you’d think to see in Saudi Arabia. It shows progress is being made to support a diverse set of innovators throughout the country and the greater region. Founders also came from countries around MENA, including Algeria, Egypt, Kuwait, Palestine, and the United Arab Emirates. I have to admit, I was impressed and excited to work in a region that more now than ever needs to move forward and empower the people creating change from the ground up.

Work-Life Balance

“I’m freezing!” My wife Danyelle whispered to me. You wouldn’t believe it, but it does actually get cold (ish) in Saudi Arabia. When we first arrived in Saudi for the program at the end of February, we saw highs in the 60s and lows in the 40s (Fahrenheit). We wore coats, Danyelle wore hers over her dress-length, long-sleeve abaya. Abayas themselves are still normally worn by the majority of women in the country, but the rules have relaxed and many women of the younger Saudi generation modify their abaya to be more of an open robe and fashion statement.

We were treated exceptionally well as westerners and were surprised to find a wide assortment of American restaurant and retail chains, including the likes of Applebee’s, Quiznos, and even Fuddruckers. You just need to be aware of the four prayer times where businesses close for 30 minutes. Other than prayer times, the modest dress, and the absence of happy hours, things felt very… American. Often a midday meal would be at New York-born Shake Shack that was in the same strip mall as our coworking space covered with quotes from American entrepreneurs. Danyelle and I have been to 47 countries in the last 15 months and have found that people are generally very similar no matter what culture or country you are in.

Life in an accelerator is always exciting and it was no different here. I’ve EIR-ed dozens of 500 Startups programs in San Francisco and around the world (the last being Moscow), and I’m always surprised how similar they feel.

The daily flow always goes something like this:

  • Morning batch meeting to discuss the week
  • Mentor talks based on the theme of the week
  • Mentor office hours
  • EIR office hours
  • Fireside chats or batch activities
  • Dinner
  • More Work
  • Inbox Zero (if you are lucky)

The weekly themes are always something like this:

  • Foundations
  • Customer Development
  • Product
  • Marketing
  • Sales
  • Design
  • Legal
  • Finance
  • Operations
  • Fundraising
  • Pitch Prep
  • Demo Day

The entrepreneurs are always friendly and vigilant aiming to get the most out of these short months. The program speeds by faster than you would ever think. As I write this, it’s already halfway through the program. It feels like I’ve spent a long few weeks here, but it’s been two months. Time flies when you are having fun.

Diverse Backgrounds, Strong Results

This batch is also just as diverse as a Silicon Valley cohort. Pick your sector and you’ll find it: AgTech, B2B, Developer Tools, eCommerce, EdTech, FinTech, HealthTech, HRTech, Security, Transportation, Travel/Hospitality and Social. They are all represented within these 19 companies.

And even though there are some similarities, there are also some differences. Often I see startup ecosystems naturally carve out niches that are locally relevant. Here those play into the unique aspects of the market and culture more than most places. Despite the recent law allowing women to drive, women still often use drivers for their rental cars (Telgani). There also often aren’t dressing rooms in women’s undergarment stores (and poor return policies), so e-commerce is vital to finding the right fit (Kenz). If you have to fix your car, it’s normal to go buy the car parts yourself (Speero). Part of the Saudi 2030 vision is putting Saudis back to work and that entails job training and retention specific to the market needs (Sabbar). And those are just a few of the examples of the problems startups are solving in the batch.

Another macro trend I see more often is startup ecosystems are merging with innovation and social impact. The lines are being blurred between social entrepreneurs and tech entrepreneurs. That means more money into social ventures that could have been looked at previously as unfundable. Now with the additive of technology, they are scalable and producing change faster than most NGOs, governments or corporates. Think about the 1.4 million Filipino migrant workers living in Saudi and sending money back home to their families (Denarii Cash), or the agricultural future of a desert nation (Aquaponica). You can also look at the future of the region in its youth and how reading programs are becoming more commonplace than ever before (Quizzito).

It’s an exciting time and the market is responding. As an EIR, I work with half of the batch totaling nine startups. My companies have been growing up to 27% month-over-month in 2019 and last year one already made it up to $1M in revenue. The results are pouring in and demo day on May 13 will be an exciting event. To me, it symbolizes more than a graduation or investor pitch, but a step-change in leading the entire region forward.

Tristan Pollock is a traveling entrepreneur in residence with 500 Startups who is currently wandering the world supporting startup ecosystems with his soul partner in life Danyelle. You can follow his travels via WeDidThat and his blog at TristanToday, or connect with him on LinkedIn or Twitter.

Here’s a full list of the companies that went through the program:

  • Aquaponica: An agtech B2B company providing end-to-end aquaponics solutions for farm owners, from installing and operating, through selling the produce.
  • CyberTalents: A B2B and B2C platform that ranks cybersecurity professionals through CTF competitions for employers to hire talent for full-time or part-time contracts.
  • Denarii Cash: A fintech company enabling money transfer with zero fees to send money back to their home countries.
  • DentaCarts: The dentists’ platform to a wide range of genuine products and premium digital services.
  • FAYVO: An application to share your favorite moments, books, food, fashion, products and more, all in one platform.
  • Gameball: A SaaS platform for instant gamification and rewards management to help website and mobile apps improve their user engagement and optimize their conversions.
  • Gathern: A chalet booking platform to enable people to search, book and pay online while helping chalet owners manage and list their chalets.
  • INNORA: A creator of life-hacking products, with its first product being the Tesh.Tesh portable bidet.
  • Invygo: A car subscription app to allow a consumer to get a car on a monthly basis and return or exchange anytime.
  • Kenz: An e-commerce site selling intimate wear to the Saudi market, helping our customers find the best style for them.
  • P5M: An application to allow users to access gyms in the area, with one membership.
  • Pinoffer: A location-based ad and analytics platform to support physical stores increase sales through target ads on platforms like Facebook and Google.
  • Quizzito: A platform for educational centers and families to help children read books.
  • Sabbar: A recruitment solution for businesses in the retail and service industries.
  • Shieldfy: A web application protection and code security platform for developers.
  • Speero: An on-demand marketplace for used and new car parts in KSA.
  • Taker: An online ordering system through which restaurants can create their own branded ordering website and app.
  • Telgani: A car rental application to enable customers to rent a car at a competitive price.
  • Vetwork: An on-demand mobile app for pet care services and products at home.

Tristan Pollock

Written by

American entrepreneur, investor, writer, and artist. EIR @500Startups. Love @Dany_Pollock. Viking @Storefront @SocialEarth. @Forbes 30u30. @TEDx Speaker.

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