Why start-ups in the region must make communications a core part of their strategy, by Kekst CNC’s Ben Curson

By Ben Curson, Partner, Kekst CNC Middle East.

The MENA region saw a record $1 billion investment in start-ups in 2020, with total funding up 13 per cent from 2019. This investment trend is likely to increase in the UAE helped by the introduction of a new law allowing full foreign ownership of onshore companies, which takes effect on 1 June 2021.

Both Dubai and Abu Dhabi are very popular destinations as innovation hubs and play host to accelerators, enterprise funds and entrepreneurs alike. Doha and Riyadh are also developing as hubs in their own right.

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But investment alone doesn’t equate to success. According to research by Harvard Business School up to 90 per cent of tech-focused startups fail, though that figure is disputed by some. The MENA region is no exception and has seen failures (and successes) across many sectors.

As the quote goes, attributed to everyone from Einstein to Jay Z, ‘you learn much more from failure than success’, painful though that can be. While there is a multitude of different reasons for these fledgeling businesses failing, one element can be not taking marketing and communications seriously, or thinking that it will just happen on its own.

A study by Forbes on startups failing included ‘poor marketing’ and ‘being outcompeted’ in the top eight reasons. While the link with the former is obvious, communications is a core part of a defence against the latter.

Communications should not be an afterthought. Done badly it can mean a startup’s value proposition lacks clarity and will not be compelling. In a crowded market, its differentiation may be poorly defined. Employees may not be engaged leading to low staff morale and retention rates. Communications may be deficient in strategic thinking, and the brand positioning may not align with customers’ culture, values or taste.

Against this backdrop, it is hardly surprising that a range of communications firms has launched offerings and products catering specifically to startups and high growth companies in the Middle East. At Kekst CNC we launched ‘Rise’ last year which attracted significant interest. But we are not alone. APCO has ‘Ignite’ for example, and Edelman has ‘Emerge’.

These offers cover a range of services to help clients accelerate their growth ambitions. In our case, Rise has been specifically designed to provide companies with high-impact communications during the early stage, seed stage and growth phases of their startup journey. Other firms’ offers focus more on SMEs, or perhaps have a sector focus, or are more focused on technology-driven small businesses.

Typically, the offerings are similar in terms of the services provided and may include narrative workshops, value proposition and differentiation studies, investor engagement strategies and presentation training as well as a suite of communications support from customer acquisition campaigns to social and digital media activations to engage target audiences.

Different agencies may offer more insight-driven services, more focus on execution, or tap into knowledge and expertise working with transformative or disruptive businesses elsewhere in the world, be it London, Berlin, Lisbon or Hong Kong, that can be tailored for the Middle East.

With the services seemingly homogenous or nuanced, it is important for startups to take their time and choose the right communications partner. While ensuring that the firm has the communications skills and capabilities to deliver on the mandate, it is also imperative that the firm has the following:

  • Creative ideas and an integrated communication offering to help craft compelling stories and deliver them to targets audiences across multiple channels and platforms
  • Strong media and startup network to support the media execution and help with stakeholder engagement across the industry
  • Passionate team members who have not only the experience of working with startups but also feel excited about the startup community, and are plugged in to what is happening across the space
  • Understanding of the startup journey and ecosystem including the funding environment, as well as knowledge of the challenges a startup is likely to face pre-, during and post-launch

Ascertaining these qualities is no easy feat, particularly over zoom, but it is vital for the success of the campaign. When judging firms for selection, the chemistry felt with the advisors during the pitching stage should not be underestimated. Each member, as well as the overall team itself, should be evaluated to understand their experience, expertise and campaign ideas.

The people are key. The team of advisers will act as the engine that drives the communications with audiences, helping startups to overcome the challenges, avoid the pitfalls and get their voices heard in a competitive and noisy landscape.

Ultimately, choose the right people and successful work will follow.