Market Research for Fun & Profit

Note: this is a copy-paste of an email I sent to entrepreneurs-in-residence I’m mentoring these days. Please excuse the less-than-perfect formatting. If you have more sources/methods, please share in the comments.

One of the biggest challenges entrepreneurs face (especially in the Kingdom) is the lack of market intelligence to support their planning. I am sending you this email to share with you a list of resources and techniques for market research. I’ve been growing this list for quite some time and I hope you’ll find it as useful as I have in the past. You should skim through them quickly and drilldown on the ones that are relevant to you. Regardless of the sources you choose, try to keep an open mind and always seek out-of-the-box methods to support your decisions.

Saudi Government Entities

  1. Central Department of Statistics & Information (CDSI)
    General statistics such as imports, exports, inflation, population, growth rates, etc.
  2. Information & Communication Technology Commission
    Reports and studies on ICT sector
  3. Saudi Industrial Development Fund (SIDF)
    Industrial statistics and future outlooks
  4. Ministry of Commerce and Industry
    Reports and statistics on factories and volumes
  5. Saudi Industrial Property Authority (MODON)
    Reports including cost of doing business in Saudi
  6. Saudi Arabia Monetary Agency (SAMA)
    Periodical reports with economic indicators
  7. Ministry of Health (MOH)
    Health indicators and statistics
  8. Port Authority
    Monthly and annual reports on imports and exports for each port
  9. Customs Authority
    Annual reports on imports and exports

Techniques for Software Startups

  1. Google Trend: effective/creative use of this toll will allow you to gauge interest in a certain topic, find correlations, and predict behavior. I find the data to be much more meaningful when filtered by country/region.
  2. the go-to place to estimate website traffic and most popular urls. It can be most effective in determining the most popular websites in similar countries in order to find unexploited trends.
  3. App Annie: best place to look up traffic on mobile apps from different platforms.
  4. Facebook Ads: good to measure niche markets.
  5. good to look up performance and fund raising of similar ventures in different markets

Brainstorming in an Untapped Market

Those who know me enough, know that my day job these days is to launch a first of a series of best-in-class business incubators, which will be within the campus of KFUPM.

This morning I met with a number of students who were eager to join our incubator and make big things happen, have the capability and drive, but lack the idea or direction. I find that to be exceptionally interesting given the untapped market that Saudi Arabia represents.

We live in a country that has the second highest smartphone penetration rate globally and the strongest purchasing power in the region. Add to this the weak infrastructure, unique cultural challenges, and sickeningly traditional business models. What you get is a goldmine for creative IT entrepreneurs.

Here are few hints I hope to inspire you:

  1. Payment Systems: the Kingdom have exceptionally difficult to manoeuvre regulations with regards to payment solutions. We all know of the effect which PayPal had on home businesses. The opportunity here is to build a similar infrastructure with the support of decision makers and banks, and that which is less dependent on credit cards, but a combination of debit accounts and smartphones.
  2. White Labeled Solutions: small businesses always seek to present themselves in the most professional way and in a most cost effective manner. There might be a demand to develop a white-labeled solution for events, posters, catalogues, brochures, etc.
  3. Accounting Solutions: small businesses in the Kingdom rely on one of two brands of software (cashier) systems. They suck big time. These systems are super expensive (the software alone is SAR 6K and with the hardware goes up to SAR 30K). They created a monopoly in the region because they are among the few which have Arabic interfaces. The recent regulations to Arabize receipts boosted this sector by insane magnitudes. These systems offer no intelligence reporting and almost none of them leverage the power of the cloud.
  4. Big Data: this is an area that none AFAIK have capitalised on in the region. There is an enormous amount of unstructured data which can be mined for intelligence or as an inventory. Checkout the databases of GulfCloud, Zawya, and Kooora. These are traditional examples of businesses which anchored themselves as an authoritative source for data. The challenge here is to do something similar but in a less traditional way: think of the social interactions, car traffic, seasonal events, etc.
  5. Augmented Reality: there’s a big opportunity here to be leveraged for real estate, regional tourism, education, life style, etc. Think of Google Glasses; how will this impact our daily lives?
  6. Niche Markets: what are the pains and gaps faced in niched communities, such as university students? They have users with similar interests and in close perimeters. They present opportunities for craigslist-like markets, fiverr, and other peer-to-peer models.

The next person to tell me of his plan to create a real estate website will be stabbed with a spoon. Same goes for car-selling websites.

Having the drive and passion is %90 of the equation, however, choosing the right problem at the right time is also a make-it-or-break-it factor. Think outside the box and study the models out there.

If you have other ideas you’d like to share with the aspiring entrepreneurs, leave a note in the comment.

Naming For Ownership

In software architecture, one of the best advice you will be told is to name things properly. A golden rule towards maintainable systems.

The craftsmen out there will plead you to fight the urge to name your class a “manager” or “utility”. These names tend to mask objectives within black boxes. The code becomes less readable and the exact functionality will require unnecessary digging. Instead, use actions for functions with sanely consistent prefixes (such as get/set/read/write etc.) and nouns for classes to reflect objects and models.

Same goes for divisions within companies: whenever you have a “Support Group” you will find people stepping on each others toes, unclear accountability, and an escalating need for meetings to define roles and responsibilities.

A good name for a sub-organization should be a reflection of its KPIs. If a group is expected to train customers, that group would be called “Curriculum & Training Group”. If it was to acquire customers it should be called “Customer Engagement Group”, and so on.

Unclear accountability can be dreadful to companies. Always curate names around metrics and consider lack of ownership as a sign of unclear purpose.

Programming For The Masses

Programming has for so long been a craft for the few. In the late 1950s, scientists used to program using front panels where operators poke a board of lamps and toggle buttons. We now refer to that method of programming as a 1st Generation Programming Language.

The crave for more practical means gave birth to 2nd Generation Programming Languages (assembly) which allowed us for the first time to type on a keyboard rather than turn a knob. Around the same time, punch cards played a big role in storing data and NASA are known for operating their first lunar landing missions with a heaping stacks of these cards.

As years progress we started to tackle more complicated problems, and for that we invented the 3rd generation of the craft, riding on elaborate philosophies of object oriented design, encapsulation, and code separation.

But what’s next? As a new Android user, I find my self overwhelmed by the power of the OS and apps. Most impressive of these apps is Tasker.

Tasker allows you to extend the capabilities of your Android phone or tablet by “programming” tasks which will be executed by user-defined events. It allows non-programmers to create scripts by choosing commands and triggers from a pre-defined set, all by tapping a screen; no editor, just icons. This, in my opinion, is the first meaningful step towards a Forth-Generation Programming Language.

How’s that real-time syntax checker going for you?

A Micro History of Venture Capital

In 1946 American Research & Development Corporation (AR&D) was formed by Georges Doriot with the intention of investing in other companies. One of its famous investments was a $70,000 funding for Digital Equipment Corporation in 1957. Eleven years later, DEC went public with a valuation of $355 MM, or a return of over 500 times.

Doriot, who was a French immigrant and a Harvard professor, is much regarded as the father of venture capitalism and the first to teach entrepreneurship. In 1937 he taught a strangely named Manufacturing class which had nothing to do with manufacturing. Instead, he preached the principles of entrepreneurship, though he have always avoided that word. In his classes he would tell you how to dress, how to read a newspaper in less than a minute, and even what kind of a women to marry! Many would say that he taught a philosophy of life.

Despite all the investments that were happening at the time, many say that Arthur Rock was the first to coin the term Venture Capital. One of his first investments was when Gordon Moore and Robert Noyce approached him with the idea of creating a semiconductor company which we now know as Intel. At that point Arthur Rock was the business guru of the group so he wrote the business plan – a one page, double spaced business plan with few misspellings. They were seeking $2.5 MM for 50% equity. Rock was so well-networked in the business world that he secured the funding in two days. Two years later they went public, coincidentally the same day that Playboy went public.

Couple of years later and venture capital firms started to takeover Sand Hill Road (pictured above). Firms like Kleiner Perkins and Sequoia were some of the first purposefully structured efforts in that region. In 1977 Steve Jobs was working for Atari when he and Wozniak created Apple One. They offered Nolan Bushnell (founder of Atari) one third equity for $50,000 but he refused. Don Valentine (founder of Sequoia) was the first venture capitalist to meet the couple. He was very uncomfortable with the unkempt looks of the two, so he passes on their offer, only to join them in later funding rounds.

Fast forward to 1997 and 2000 and you get the dot-com bubble. At this stage the Silicon Valley is saturated with all kinds of venture capitalists and entrepreneurs. It was reported that during the dot-com madness many venture capital firms were automatically placing a pre-money valuation of $5 MM on startups so as to avoid the tedious ordeal of due diligence and valuation. They called this the “standard offer”.

Today, we are swamped with venture capitalists, angel investors, and screaming entrepreneurs. The term sheet have evolved into uncontrollable complexity and competition have never been more fierce.

In the future, my bet is on crowd funding platforms gaining even more popularity with an exponential maturity and spread of prototyping machines and collective innovation platforms. Can’t wait!