“Palestinian start-ups need to compete on the world stage”: An interview with Sami Abu Heiba, founder of GIL

This interview is bought to you by GrowHome, a platform connecting diasporas to start-ups in their home country. If you are a start-up from the MENA region or a diaspora from any MENA country, feel free to create an account at www.growhome.app

Sami Abu Heiba

Sami Abu Heiba is the founder of GIL , a platform on which users learn Arabic through interactive 360 virtual reality scenarios. After starting the company in 2019, Sami is still working on GIL, growing the business, and seeking to raise his first 350K seed round. If you want to listen to Sami’s live pitch during our GrowHome pitch nights, check it out here.

During this interview, Sami talks about GIL’s story, the advantages and inconvenients of being a Palestinian founder, as well as the need for Palestinian start-ups to compete on the world stage.

Why did you start GIL?

I’m an Arabic teacher by training, and have taught more than 3,000 students over my lifetime. My clients are extremely diverse, and include anyone from business people to tourists. As the number of my students increased, I started to think of a way to enable students to practice their Arabic speaking skills in an immersive way.

The 360, immersive scenarios we created with GIL enable students to practice essential dialogues: asking for a taxi, ordering at a restaurant, asking for directions… Our speech recognition technology then corrects students in real-time. Our goal is to make learning Arabic fun and interactive.

What’s your co-founder situation?

I’m not the technical co-founder, but I’ve learned a lot along the way. Our initial product was developped by Dan, our former lead developer, who was based in Canada. He finished his work with us at the end of 2020. Right now, my two other co-founders are working on developing new content and new scenarios. We’re actually looking for more technical members to join the team.

One of the aspects of GIL we’re working on at the moment is expanding our scenarios to teach students different Arabic accents and dialects, which really differentiates us from other Arabic courses online.

What are the advantages and disadvantages of starting a company in Palestine?

Let’s start with the advantages. Palestine is very community-centered, so as a founder, you have a great support network through your families, friends, etc… Another big advantage is that due to all of the hardships and inequalities we go through as a country and as a society, Palestinian entrepreneurs are resilient by nature. This is evidently a fundamental quality for any entrepreneur to have. Working with Palestinian co-founders is a great advantage due to the sheer resolve they have to solve the problems they’re faced with.

One of the greatest disadvantages we face is the lack of technical talent. This makes it hard for GIL in particular, as our tech component is extremely important to our mission. The other evident disadvantages is the scarcity of funds for entrepreneurs. There is only one VC in Palestine, and very little angel investors. While the Palestinian ecosystem is slowly growing and new initiatives are taking shape, access to capital is probably the greatest pain point we experience today as Palestinian founders. Compound that with the fact that our neighbour, Israel, is flooded with venture capital, it makes it very hard for Palestinian start-ups to compete even within its regional market.

What is the reason for the lack of Palestinian technical talent?

The best Palestinian developers work for US and European companies. You can’t blame them, as companies abroad offer way better salaries and opportunities. It’s also very hard to slow that trend as developers can work from everywhere. This makes the situation tough, as Palestinian start-ups cannot compete with the salaries that these big companies offer our Palestinian talent.

What is the best and the worst decision you’ve made since starting GIL?

My best decision was to create GIL, first of all. Using technology to essentially make my job as an Arabic teacher easier and more efficient while reaching more people was one of the best projects I’ve undertaken in my life. Starting GIL also connected me with the start-up world in Palestine and abroad, which allowed me to meet so many great mentors, partners, advisors… More than anything, starting GIL led me to meet the GrowHome team :)

Another great decision I made was to associate myself with co-founders that are skilled, but most importantly, that are patient and determined to solve all of the challenges we face as a company.

One of the bad decisions I made, well I don’t know if we can call it bad or not, was to work on my start-up full time, without other sources of income. For someone like me with a family, kids and bills to pay, it adds a huge amount of extra-pressure, because it feels like every decision you take for your start-up is a “do or die” decision.

Did you join an incubator/accelerator as soon as you started GIL?

The moment I was thinking of starting GIL coincided with the moment Founders Institute was opening up its Palestine chapter so I decided to apply. I did their “entrepreneurial DNA” test, and it turns out I’m 25% more entrepreneurial than average so I went ahead with the program. The program really laid the foundations for GIL, such as the incorporation of the company, the creation of a business plan, etc…

Founders Institute also really pushes founders to test their hypotheses. This is really important because it allows founders to filter their ideas and make sure to start off the right foot. I recommend Founders Institute to any Palestinian thinking about creating a start-up. I also recommend Y-Combinator’s start-up school, as it connects you to early-stage founders from all over the world.

Do you think that Palestine lacks start-up content geared towards Palestinian start-ups in particular?

I think one of the biggest mistake a Palestinian start-ups can make is to lock itself in a “Palestine-only” mentality. The reality is that you will be competing with the best start-ups worldwide, and you have to learn the same start-up methods and strategies that your globlal competitors use. It’s important to be a proud Palestinian founder, but your eyes should be set on the world market, not your local market.

So in terms of content, I think Palestinian founders should learn what Silicon Valley start-ups learn, with the added difficulty that Palestinian founders have to operate in an underdevelopped start-up ecosystem. In other words, Palestinian founders need to learn from the best, while adapting to their local environment and conditions.

What’s your incorporation status?

GIL is incorporated both in Palestine and in Delaware. It took us a while to do it in Palestine, while it took us an hour to do it in Delaware without leaving our desk. This is something that should really be addressed within the Palestinian ecosystem. We have what’s called a “service agreement” between our American and Palestinian entity, which ensures that our cap table doesn’t get messy and both entities are linked.

Has the Palestinian ecosystem improved since you started GIL in 2019?

To be completely honest, I haven’t seen any huge improvements. There were some promises made to make start-up registration easier but it’s still relatively the same. I really think the government should take action to help start-ups because at the end of the day, Palestinian start-ups bring revenue into the country, and thus income for the government to tax and spend on social programs.

Another thing the government has to understand is that start-ups take time, sometimes up to 3 years, before they start generating revenue. This means that the governmental strategy to help Palestinian start-ups should be a long-term strategy, with lots of financial and legislative support especially at the early-stages of a start-up’s life. The other thing is that in the past two years, the number of start-ups created in Palestine has grown massively. Additionally, all of these start-ups are visible, they’re not working underground or in secret, so we absolutely need to assit them.

One of the greatest, underused Palestinian resource is the diaspora. Whether it be technical talent, investors, or mentors, diaspora members should consider coming back or at least get involved in the Palestinian start-up scene, as it is one of the most efficient ways to help their country.

What’s your fundraising status?

We raised 10K on a SAFE note from Loyal VC, at the start and we’re currently in talks for a possible 350K seed investment but the door is still open. We also got a $15,000 grant from IPSD, a World Bank program. Fundraising is really the biggest pain point for Palestinian start-ups because of the lack of local investors.

I’ve had lots of interests from angels in the UK and the US, but they all require and demand a lead, local investor before investing. This is due to foreign investors’ need to have some local due diligence work done on start-ups they want to invest in.

One of the greatest recent Palestinian start-up success was WeDeliver, which recently raised a $2.4 million funding round, and we hope that paves the way for more investments in our local start-ups. We really think diaspora angel investors can be the key to this conundrum.

Can a foreign investor even invest in a Palestinian start-up?

100%, because as stated before, GIL is also incorporated as a Delaware C-Corporation. We have a “service agreement” between our American and our Palestinian entity, so that means both of them act together (this ensures we don’t have two different cap tables for the same company). So on the technical side, it’s really not an issue. The real problem is the lack of investor interest that isn’t due to the product and GIL as a company, but rather the difficulty of getting formal, due diligence done for a Palestine-based start-up.

If we can create a system where angel investors around the world have a way to run comprehensive due diligence on Palestinian start-ups, I think outside investment will boom as a result.

The other aspect of this is that the most successful start-up ecosystems are built and sustained by former founders. As more and more Palestinian founders become successful, our ecosystem will gain more visibility and more potential angels who understand the market in an intricate manner.

Check out GIL’s website: https://gil.world/

Get in touch with Sami:

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