Made in the UAE

A small but growing number of technology startups from the Middle East are appearing, but can they ever compete with the cachet of western companies? Mohamed Hamedi, CEO of Sphere Networks argues that they can, but it’s down to attitude.

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By  Mohamed Hamedi Published  September 3, 2006

|~|hamedi200a.jpg|~|"There are few other places in the world where an entrepreneur can start a business and have a good chance to develop and launch a successful technology company." Mohamed Hamedi, CEO, Sphere Networks.|~|Attitude: we buy Western, and especially US-made, technology because it has attitude. Putting aside all political views and opinions, the US is the heavyweight champion of the world in marketing; it has dominated the business world by knowing exactly how to package and create an image (the only major exception being the US automotive industry; as they old adage goes, it’s like “putting lipstick on a pig”). The US has perfected the art of image management and brand awareness. The vast majority of US products are made completely outside the US, yet the US-based company that owns the brand enjoys huge success in comparison to more superior non-US products. You want to meet the developers of the latest American IT technology? It’s only a three hour flight from Dubai, straight to the heart of India’s Silicon Valley, Bangalore. So why is it that we in the Middle East have this ingrained concept of superior technology only coming from the US? What is it in a US work environment that leads to great ideas? Why is it that we in the region feel incapable of producing world leading products? There are possibly hundreds of PhD research papers on this topic, but I will take the liberty and have an amateurish stab at it, and boldly claim that this is mainly due to two reasons; vendor impotence and buyer incompetence – I’ll come back to these points. To take an example from my own experience: when Sphere Networks first showed our product at Gitex, people all assumed that it is an American product, and were amazed – some didn’t even believe – that this level of technology can be developed in Dubai. (For those who don’t know Sphere, we develop enterprise management software to manage networks and security, supporting all the main hardware vendors.) People seem to find it difficult to even consider a Dubai-based company can develop technology that would compete head-on with large established US companies, with technology that is targeted at large enterprises with critical functionality. In our case, we were fortunate enough to be able to partner with Dubai Silicon Oasis, which promotes local and home-grown technology companies. Sphere was founded on a few basic yet critical concepts; open and unrestricted thinking, minimal bureaucracy and red tape, and most importantly, a focus on goals. At the end of the day we want to produce products that would have worldwide appeal; our products should not just compete on price, but on functionality. We are not trying to be cheaper than our western competitors; we want to win on technology and performance. Spending the majority of my education and career in the US, I experienced what I would say was an ideal working style: the way the US corporate environment encourages self expression, motivation and team work. I want, I need and I encourage attitude in my company. At Sphere we work hard and we play hard (we have toy shock tanks and mobile missile launchers, got held at customs for weeks but that’s another story [and not for this magazine – Ed]). Now, the question that we need to ask is: can UAE-made technology have attitude? I feel the answer to that is a resounding yes, it can. In my opinion there are few other places in the world where an entrepreneur can start a business and have a good chance to develop and launch a successful technology company. To achieve this task both local businesses and consumers need to change the way they think – they need to tackle ‘vendor impotence’. As local entrepreneurs and business owners there are many basic common sense things that any aspiring company in the UAE needs to do to achieve an impression of ‘US made’ status. For starters, professionalism seems to be something that is a rare commodity here in the region. It’s not rocket science and easier than you think; any vendor needs to instill certain characteristics such as reliability, being direct and forthcoming, being courteous, and dare I say being punctual. Take advantage of possibly one of the most diverse countries in the world. The US has proven that diversity is strength; this is the law of nature. Embrace and allow different people from different backgrounds to mix in creating new ideas and innovations. Leaving aside the clichéd notions of thinking outside the box and the like, I think the biggest challenge in my mind is dealing with and encouraging change. We need to be more open-minded to different ideas which might be off the wall; we need to be more in touch with new technology. Encourage and challenge your employees to take a different approach – in a nutshell, don’t be stubborn and stuck in your old ways. On the other side, consumers also need to play their part by taking the time to understand their requirements; as organisations become more aware and knowledgeable about what they want, they will be less likely to buy on impulse, and will start to evaluate products on their merits. In today’s competitive market the buyer is king, they are spoiled for choice and options. Yet the Middle East buyer doesn’t seem to be willing to utilise this power and see all the options available to them. Instead the typical Middle East buyer resigns themselves to a single brand or notion and refuses to open his or her mind to alternatives. So the next time you have an opportunity to evaluate regional technology, don’t automatically write it off, but give it a chance and do the due diligence to evaluate the solution. It could be the next big thing. ||**||

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