Sara Al Mahmoud, a graphic designer, was keen on establishing her own printing press company in Qatar. But she was apprehensive, given the high costs and her inexperience. Enter coach Ahmad Al-Saygh. “He helped me study the market and create Colorant, a digital platform for designers and printing presses. Coaching taught me how to raise funds and handle government regulations. Having a coach is like having a business partner,” she says.
“Today, I am quite confident about my application, and I think it can work globally.”
Qatar’s commitment to technology and innovation and the abundant availability of high-quality incubator and accelerator programs have encouraged several businesses and tech enthusiasts to channel their investments into startups. And in this journey of remarkable highs and lows, Qatar-based tech startup founders such as Sara are leaning on coaches for help.
A coach helps reduce the risk of failure by sharing his experience with the founder, says Allan Villegas, Ph.D., Senior Research Fellow of Entrepreneurship and Innovation at HEC Paris in Qatar. “Ideally, they can enable access to other networks and resources to build the company from scratch. At the same time, coaches provide a critical view of aspects of the business that the founders normally miss.”
PROVIDE VALUABLE INSIGHTS
“Experienced mentors provide valuable insights based on firsthand knowledge of the industry and the challenges of operating a successful startup,” says Mohammad Zebian, Program Manager – Acceleration at Qatar Science & Technology Park, a leading incubator for tech startups.
He believes the role of a mentor can vary, encompassing tasks such as guiding day-to-day operational aspects related to the tech product, marketing strategies, team dynamics, offering insights into growth strategies, securing investments, and composition of advisory boards.
But primarily, a coach is someone the founder can speak with and relate to their journey, says Khalid M Aboujassoum, founder & CEO of Else Labs, who has guided many Qatar-based entrepreneurs.
“Founders can make or break the startup; coaching them through the process is key. But it is a very lonely job. It can feel out of place. A coach who has started a company before brings a lot of tangible experiences that founders can relate to and build on,” he says.
Once hired, different coaches have different approaches, but they all agree on two factors: asking the right questions and listening intently.
Marcel Dridje, who is among Qatar’s leading startup ecosystem advisors, has a seven-step coaching process that has him “challenging the founder,” giving them a “360-degree view of the situation”, and “asking questions at every stage.”
“First, what is the problem that you are trying to solve? Second, is the problem local or global? After their own country, startups in Qatar are mostly looking at Saudi Arabia and UAE. It’s my job to challenge that and direct them towards solving global problems. Third, are you doing it by yourself?
I suggest they do a SWOT analysis, see where they are not doing well, and then get people on board for those jobs. Fourth, have you spoken to customers? Fifth, do you know the competition, and what unique business value proposition are you sharing with me? Number six, what are you asking for? And, seven, what will you do with the money?,” explains Dridje.
He coaches at least six startups at a time and gives each one 90 minutes weekly.
For Villegas, the first step involves understanding the project, meeting the team, and setting expectations. “Second, create a direct communication channel with the team and the coach, like a WhatsApp group, and start by reviewing the company or project documentation, including pitch deck presentations, financial projections, and business model canvas. Third, create a milestones plan between the coach and the founders. Lastly, stick to the milestones plan and review it periodically.”
Part of his time is spent “listening to the daily constraints the founders are facing” and “guiding them toward a solution or at least to think differently on how to approach the setbacks better.”
DEEP UNDERSTANDING OF THE BUSINESS
Speaking of setbacks, startups must also rely on their inherent agility to quickly “pivot” and adjust to the new market realities, suggests Zebian. “This agility requires the founders to invest time in building an empowered agile team that can make timely decisions.”
Dridje also recommends pivoting in such a situation, “but I don’t change the tech, I only suggest a change of market.”
Ahmad Al-Saygh, Sara’s entrepreneurship coach, recommends doing a few things immediately. “Firstly, operating a business in Qatar is costly, and I advise founders to close a few branches and focus on one. Also, most tech startups focus on coming up with an app. But apps need to be updated constantly, which is costly. Sometimes, I tell them to focus on using platforms such as WhatsApp to present their product.”
Elaborating on the coaching process further, Indica Amarasinghe, Chapter Director for Startup Grind Doha, says that while the core coaching principles of “goal setting, leadership, and problem-solving” apply to all businesses, “coaching a tech startup involves addressing unique challenges like rapid technological advancements, product development cycles, scaling, and attracting investors.”
“It requires a deep understanding of the tech industry and specific strategies. It also requires balancing innovation with business fundamentals, addressing technical hurdles, and leveraging digital tools,” he says.
Villegas says another big difference in coaching a tech startup is in the funding cycle. “Not all businesses need to bring investors; only when you have high growth potential to scale is when you add investors to your cap table. Other businesses can bootstrap and reinvest their profits,” he says.
Fundraising is a core activity for any tech-based company, but no university teaches how to do it, he continues. “I try to coach on that subject, plus I introduce founders to some investors I know when they are ready. By ready, I mean when they achieve the milestones needed, as per my knowledge, to be attractive to an investor.”
To ease startups into the process of fundraising, Amarasinghe helps them create a good value proposition, develop a clear business model, and refine their pitch. “One of the things I tell startups mostly about pitching and fundraising is that you don’t get funding as soon as you pitch. It’s a journey.”
For Ahmad Al-Saygh, being honest or “even harsh at times” is a significant part of the job. “If it is a bad idea, I tell them right away. It is better to stop them at the right stage and tell them if they need more research,” he says.
Also, he continues, “Some tech startups just want to imitate a successful idea. That creates a ‘red ocean’, where market space gets crowded, and companies compete for a share of limited demand. I push them to come up with new ideas.”
So, how should a founder settle on a coach? Besides the many qualities listed earlier, an experienced coach encourages the startup team to make decisions. “This is part of helping the team build its competence and resilience. Mistakes will be made, of course, but mistakes are a valuable learning opportunity,” says Zebian.
Finally, Amarasinghe believes a founder’s checklist for a good coach must include “industry knowledge, experience, effective communication skills, adaptability, a growth mindset, and a genuine desire to support and empower founders.”
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