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Software & Web Development

A Young Syrian on Building a Start-up Amid Civil Strife

“The revolution meant we had to pretty much stop in April, 2011,” says Adnan Al-Khatib, in a matter-of-fact, plain-spoken way when we talk about his startup, Rootal.  As excuses go, it’s pretty good, but then when you’re building a new tech company in Syria you have to expect some unusual challenges.

Al-Khatib, 23 years old, is British Syrian, having been brought up in the UK before leaving for Damascus at the age of 13. There, in December 2010, he had the idea for a company that would take some of the heavy lifting out of building location-based software such as games or social networks that can make use of the user’s geographical position.

“Right now that’s difficult to do and you have a huge number of platforms you need to serve, [many] data sources and so on, but what we noticed was that a lot of things are very repeatable,” he recalls.

He envisaged Rootal as doing for location-sensitive tooling what Layar does for augmented reality and, who knows, in Silicon Valley, Israel or some other tech hub, even the germ of such an idea, together with an early prototype, might have been enough to have raised significant seed capital. But the protests of 2011 meant that a difficult environment in which to build a fledgling business became intolerable. In summer 2012, Al-Khatib moved to Dubai.

He had a commercial prototype but was looking for investors. By force, Rootal had become an international project as he recruited Syrian developers who were now expatriates in Lebanon, Egypt, Saudi Arabia ... wherever diaspora had taken them.

“We did it all by Skype basically. We said, why not do a start-up like this using developers all over the place? It worked pretty well. Software development is a pretty networked industry and even though not being present in one place can have its issues, it can be done.”

However, fiscal reality intervened.

“We had to downsize due to funding issues,” he says. “We were bootstrapping and sadly a lot of the money got used up.”

There had always been challenges in being based in Syria.

“Even before [2011] things were difficult because of sanctions. You couldn’t get a credit card that would work everywhere. A lot of the dropdown menus didn’t have Syria… it was North Korea, Cuba, Iran, Sudan and Syria [that were blacklisted]. There were things that might make the average non-techie’s life difficult but VPNs and proxies made these sanctions pretty useless. Google Code [APIs and developer tools related to the search giant] was blocked; open source code was tough to get hold of. That was a bit painful. A group tried to do a Startup Weekend [where entrepreneurs and interested parties meet but] that sort of thing has always been a bit difficult.”

Syria may not be the first country you think of when you think of technology but it does have a rich history of mathematics, science, the arts and philosophy. More recently, Steve Jobs’ biological father was born in Syria, of course, and Al-Khatib says that there is a strong techie scene in the country.

“I still think Syria has opportunities,” he says. “The ecosystem only started to appear in 2011 or 2012. If things had stayed stable in Syria, even with the lack of laws, governance and incubators you would have seen a pretty good ecosystem evolve. There have been merchants for 6,000 years in Damascus so we have a lot of talent. It might be more individualistic rather than team talent as you might get in Jordan, but there’s talent.”

There are lots of Syria-born CEOs and marketers too, of course, he adds, pointing me in the direction of “the Alibaba of the Middle East”, SearchinMENA, now Dubai-headquartered but with roots in Syria.

 “It’s not a new phenomenon but having to leave Syria was quite distressing,” he says. “There’s a large Syrian expat community and I’m very committed to employing Syrians.”

Al-Khatib says that like any Syrian he would love to return and build a business in his homeland.

“That would be something great; it’s pretty much every expat’s dream if you go to people’s Facebook pages. I’d absolutely love for Syria to get better and get a stable system where you can start a technology company that has the backing to thrive.”

For now, however, Syrians will usually look elsewhere to grow their companies. Al-Khatib refers to Oasis500, a start-up accelerator in Jordan that funds many Syrian ventures and he also spoke recently in the UK at an event with the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, that was intended to attract Islamic Middle East companies to the English capital.

But he remains cautiously optimistic that in the future Syria could become a tech hub.

“Right now that’s difficult to do but Syria hasn’t lost its startup community entirely. There’s talent, it’s cheap, so why not.”

 

Martin Veitch is Editorial Director at IDG Connect

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Martin Veitch

Martin Veitch is Contributing Editor for IDG Connect

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