Q&A with Muhammed Mekki, Founding Partner of AstroLabs

“Companies that persevere through this will emerge stronger, as this is the best time to invest in the ‘machine’ that makes your business work.”

Q. What did you change about AstroLabs in response to COVID-19? Will these changes remain?

A. Like many others, we had to make quick changes to our core business based on the new reality. Running in-person training programs and coworking communities as our main lines of business made us particularly susceptible.

Our first trial-by-fire moment happened in March. We were asked by the authorities to cease in-person training programs on Friday afternoon ahead of a Sunday start to a 40+ person digital marketing course at AstroLabs. Our whole team scrambled to contact every participant and shift the experience entirely over to an online live format, which had to be technically tested and deployed within 24 hours. Although incredibly challenging, this experience pushed us to launch a new line of business, AstroLabs Online LIVE courses, in record time. This format is now core to both our open enrollment courses as well our managed incubators and accelerators offering.

We just completed our first fully online incubator program with Ma’an, part of the Abu Dhabi government’s Ghadan 21 initiative, where we took 10 social impact focused early stage ventures through an intensive nine week program. It was amazing to see the depth of bonds formed and the positivity of the participating entrepreneurs joining a program that was supposed to be in-person but ended up going virtual. It was a testament to the fact that high quality, high impact programs can be delivered remotely. Big thanks to Sarah and Rishabh on our team who managed this end-to-end.

The constraint and huge initial challenge of shifting online has now become a door to growth into new geographies and an opportunity to engage with people and organizations we never reached before. Those positive changes will stay with us long after this situation passes.

Q. How have tech startups based at AstroLabs dealt with the situation? Any lessons we can learn from them?

A. We have many inspiring stories of startups that pivoted in response to the challenging market environment, launching new products and lines of businesses.

GameIN, one of our members, normally develops gamification solutions but during this period decided to take a proactive approach and pivot to release a completely new product. Simon Hoffman, Business Development Director at GameIn, said, “We wanted to find a solution to help prevent the spread of the virus and create safer workplaces. We introduced the Hola System, which is the first artificial intelligence, fully automated, thermal detection and disinfection system in the region. It measures body temperature, disinfects hands and uses facial recognition technology to check masks are being worn.” 

We feature the Hola System at AstroLabs Dubai for anyone who would like to see it in action — really impressive technology that meets a real market need, developed and deployed rapidly.

Another AstroLabs member, Nomad Homes, was preparing for a launch when the pandemic hit. Co-Founder and CEO Helen Chen shared that they didn’t let the situation slow down their plans, activating efficient remote work, and making it to their June public launch milestone. She commented, “We have continued growing and have now almost doubled the size of our team, including adding two permanently remote team members based in Los Angeles and Belarus.”

One of the important lessons we can all learn from Helen and team is to open up hiring to a global talent pool as permanent remote work is more possible now than ever.

Q. What about self-improvement? Are people still participating in trainings?

A. In short, yes. Many are taking advantage of a slower period to invest in themselves and are participating in training programs for the first time. To support people who have lost their jobs or are in difficult financial situations, we recently announced a new Digital Scholarship program in partnership with Google for Startups.

We committed to distributing 115 scholarships and have already granted 20, with the next batch due to be announced shortly. It’s a great opportunity to take advantage of this time to build new skills. Hear from Sumaya Patel, one of the early grantees, about her experience participating in our digital marketing course on a scholarship. Take advantage and apply for one today!

Q. What is your outlook on this crisis?

A. This region is incredibly resilient and is no stranger to challenging crises, which unfortunately have been hitting us repeatedly over the last period. The economic impact of COVID-19 cannot be understated, but we remain positive about the overall business environment going forward once more activities restart and consumer and business sentiments shift. 

At AstroLabs, we are already seeing renewed interest to be around others – all within appropriate distancing and preventative guidelines – as membership inquiries from people who had been working at home are now increasing. And although training online will definitely remain as a legacy of this period, we definitely plan to restart in-person programs later this summer for those who prefer that method of learning.

Companies that persevere through this will emerge stronger, as this is the best time to invest in the “machine” that makes your business work – make sure that your team is the right one, your products resonate with your customers and that your processes are optimized. A slowdown in core business activity gives you time to take a step back and invest in these critical elements that are sometimes neglected in the rush of day-to-day activity.

Q. What is the biggest opportunity you are seeing as a result of the current situation?

A. eCommerce.

Every brand that was fully reliant on retail shops to sell is now regretting the lack of investment into digital channels and is racing to catch up. Brands with online portals are investing in them to improve the selection, functionality and overall user experience. The surge in online shopping is literally unprecedented.

At AstroLabs we launched our suite of custom eCommerce programs designed with larger organizations in mind. As Louis and I co-founded Namshi.com and our extended team has had deep experience training and working with some of the largest eCommerce brands in the region, we decided to turn this knowledge into an offering to help companies grow their online sales.

We also created the AstroLabs eCommerce Launcher Online LIVE course for entrepreneurs looking to start their own eCommerce ventures. The third batch of participants just wrapped up this weeklong immersive experience and the next one is coming up in August.

Q. What advice would you give to those thinking of setting up a startup during this current environment?

A. Go for it!

Some of the most impressive startups were established in the most challenging economic conditions. Think Slack and Airbnb to name a couple that had their origins in the 2008 crash. Hard times force founders to be lean and focus on real value delivered. Some of the best talent is no longer tied up in corporate jobs as these big companies are forced to let really great people go and typical, stable jobs are not so easy to find. People seize the opportunity to work on that idea that they have always been thinking of but never had the guts to execute. And you can be sure that a business that thrives in difficult times will experience exploding growth in good times.

If this resonates with you, we are eager to support your first steps. As we announced recently, AstroLabs is offering AED 240k in grants to help entrepreneurs who have recently lost their jobs to start ventures of their own within our community. Louis, Roland and I are committing mentorship hours and the whole AstroLabs community of 120+ startups is here to support you on your journey. Take the first step today and reach out to us on [email protected].

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