Exclusive interview with Asher Siddiqui, member of the Investment Approval Committee at FITD, for the Internet portal Local

The startup world is a marathon, not a sprint!

How to respond wisely to the challenges ahead, to stand firm on failures and not be guided by the success of other startups are key factors that influence the development of a successful startup. Exclusive details on how to create a successful business plan will be revealed by Mr. Asher Siddiqui, recently a member of the Investment Approval Committee of the Innovation and Technological Development Fund, which is responsible for the process of evaluating and selecting project proposals. Asher Sadiki has over 20 years of experience in corporate development, part of the "500 Startups" in the United States and part of the management team that led the transformation of "Etisalat" in the UAE. Etisalat is the world's leading telecommunications group in developing countries, offering services and solutions to more than 141 million customers in 15 countries in the Middle East, Asia and Africa.

When you evaluate a business plan, what’s the most critical element you look for?

Asher: Obviously, we look for attractive businesses with solid business plans in sizable and/or growing markets. But given the early stage of many businesses, when assessing business plans, we look at several factors to assess how credible the business plan (BP) is, such as (not an exhaustive list): (1) the underlying assumptions and how defensible they are; (2) what process the team followed to arrive at those assumptions?; (3) did they use credible sources of information to back those assumptions?; (4) does the CEO know all of the assumptions in the BP?, (5) does the team assembled have the ability to execute this business plan?, etc.

What would be your advice to startups from our part of the world? What should we work on most?

Asher: the Republic of North Macedonia is a small country with a small population, therefore a small market. This is not necessarily a bad thing, and I think of it as an opportunity to create the mindset amongst entrepreneurs to think regional/global from day one and solve wider problems which leads to building bigger, regional/global businesses.

So you’ve seen thousands of startups. Do you already have some definitive criteria that lets you know almost instantly – these guys will make it to success?

Asher: Unfortunately, I am still learning and there is no magic formula that allows me, at least, to assess whether the team has what it takes to make it a success, as there are so many unknown factors at play - especially for early stage startups. What I do look for are signs that the team potentially has the ability to execute and solve problems, and do that well. For this, when looking at teams, I typically focus (during a pitch) and try to get a sense of how credible this team is by observing: (1) what is their origin story / background? what led them to this point in time? (2) what are their motivations? why are they doing what they are doing? (3) how the team thinks?; (4) how committed are they to the business?; (5) how well they understand the market opportunity; (6) whether they have the ability to execute the business plan; (7) are they coachable? / do they listen to and reflect on divergent views?.

In your view, what does a company have to do, to get noticed by an investor? What makes it stand out? What do you look at personally?

Asher: This really depends on the investor and what makes them tick. My recommendation to entrepreneurs trying to get noticed by investors, is to be prepared and do your homework - do your research to figure out what type of investors are typically interested in your type of business, and once there is a target list, speak with teams / companies that they have invested in to get a better sense of what the investor is like and what they are looking for. A warm introduction from someone they know goes a long way to setting yourself up for a good first impression and a successful engagement.

We talk about failing a lot in the startup world, but have you ever come across people that are more afraid of success, e.g., the responsibility that comes with success? What would be your advice to them?

Asher: That is an interesting question. One has the potential to learn a lot more from failure than from success. What worries me, personally, when I have experienced success without significant challenges is "what am I missing?". I think of failure, or facing significant challenges, as critical to having enduring success in life and career. Failure toughens you and teaches you important life lessons. When I come across those "lucky" entrepreneurs who have not experienced significant challenges, I typically advise them to try to better understand and recognize what drove their success (often, but not always, a combination of timing. mentorship and "unfair advantages" from privileged family or network ties) so that they may learn from that experience and put their success into context. In terms of the responsibility that comes with success, it is important to give back to the community and further develop the ecosystem - this leads to greater opportunities for them and for others.

What are some common mistakes startups make?

Asher: There are too many to list! I encourage entrepreneurs to go online and research this as there are several sources of insights freely available online. Some critical mistakes that stand out for me are: (1) not understanding who your customer is; (2) not focusing on serving your customer; (3) not providing your customer with an exceptional experience that they are willing to pay for - if you focus on solving real problems that people are willing to pay for, then you have created something of value - the rest is just noise.

What are some main life lessons you’ve learned from being in the startup world?

Asher: It is a marathon and not a sprint. There are no shortcuts and easy ways to achieve successful outcomes - those that find it easy are either lucky (equivalent to winning the lottery) or have unfair advantages (such as family wealth, network access, etc.) at their disposal that sets them up for success with limited effort - unless you are one of those people, I suggest that you don't get distracted by other peoples success, but do try to understand what drove their success and learn from it, so that you can apply those learnings for yourself. Everyone has their own definition for "success" - figure out what yours is.

What would be your advice to people who have just started their startup?

Asher: Focus on building a sustainable business with products that actually solve customer problems and provide an outstanding user experience. Don't get caught up in the hype of venture funding and valuation - just focus on building a real business. Carefully consider whether you need outside funding, and if you do, make sure that you "recruit" your investors who are aligned to your vision and can add value and not just provide capital. Be careful when hiring critical team members - hire slow, fire fast.


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