It was an exciting and informative interview where Bader Kamal, Ambassador, StartUp Bahrain & Board Member, GEN Bahrain, shared his valuable insights into the startup ecosystem, infrastructure, and the government's support.
Bader also talked about the ease of doing business and shared examples of various successful startups and was interviewed by Ali Shabdar, Regional Director MEA, Zoho.
Ali Shabdar: Welcome to another episode of Zoho live. Good morning, good afternoon wherever you are. Today, we have the pleasure of hosting Bader Kamal. He's a good friend, I had the pleasure of knowing him when I first went to Bahrain. He's the ambassador at StartUp Bahrain and he's also a board member of the global entrepreneurship network Bahrain chapter among a lot of other things. So I am not going to spend time on introducing you Bader, I’ll let you do that and let's get to it, thanks!
Bader Kamal: Great! Thank you Ali, it's really nice to be here. Thank you for guys having me I really appreciate it. First of all my name is Bader Kamal, I am the managing partner at Mater In Hand a digital agency based in Bahrain. I am a StartUp Bahrain ambassador as you mentioned, as well as a GEN Bahrain board member. Since 2013, I have been working on building content for start-ups and for startup ecosystems in Bahrain and in the region through both our platforms—StartUp Bahrain as well as Startup Magazine. And we've been having the pleasure of closely working with the government and different corporate entities in Bahrain to help develop the ecosystem. I'm also a graphic designer by background but that's probably another story for another time.
Ali Shabdar: Absolutely! Awesome yes, I remember the first time we met it was in Unbound Bahrain, which was the budding startup community and kind of expo in the region, and I attended it twice and I saw your speaking and the way you kind of try and help the start-ups in the Bahrain ecosystem. Tell us a little bit more about what is Bahrain doing in terms of you know growing the startup community, and becoming a platform for the whole region for start-ups to come and you know flourish there.
Bader Kamal: Sure, so I think Bahrain has a quite a long history and a track record of supporting businesses and SMEs and start-ups recently, and by start-ups we mean innovative tech enabled digital perhaps scalable companies. So through this long history Bahrain has realized the potential of start-ups, which is why we now have StartUp Bahrain—StartUp Bahrain of course is the national platform and ecosystem for innovative and scalable start-ups. It's made of start-ups investors, accelerators, incubators, educational institutions, the Bahrain government, and obviously entities such as Zoho as a strategic partner. And of course if you're interested to learn more about StartUp Bahrain I would suggest visiting the StartUp Bahrain website—if you're thinking about setting up in Bahrain, or moving into Bahrain, if you're thinking of investing in the start-ups in Bahrain or just want to connect with like-minded people and founders and investors, visit the website check the social media channels at Startup Bahrain you'll find everything you need there.
Ali Shabdar: Wonderful, and these programs that StartUp Bahrain offers it was very interesting for me to see how government is supporting, and there's this nice harmony between the economic development board, the StartUp Bahrain, and other entities of government. It was really something unique I did not see it in that scale in other places so and yeah also, let's say another question is that how about start-ups or budding entrepreneurs outside the region? Can someone come and you know set up something from another GCC country or an African country, is that a possibility?
Bader Kamal: Yeah absolutely, It's a possibility! I think I would want to touch on what you mentioned earlier, which is how different government entities through a public and private collaboration come together to really build this in a way that is not very common around the world. One of those initiatives of course just to mention is the GEN Bahrain which I am a part of—it's part of the global entrepreneurship network. The local chapter here has been set up around a year ago or so, and the board itself has different representations from start-ups to government, all in hope and with the aim of shaping the ecosystem here in Bahrain. And finally on GEN Bahrain I think a big part of what we're focused on right now which touches on what you were asking about, is trying to identify who are the start-ups in Bahrain who I like to call are closer to the finish line and finding ways to support them. So on that particular front I think you can easily set up in Bahrain, Bahrain does have a lot of advantages and incentives for start-ups either homegrown, local, or coming from abroad, obviously I realize everything I am saying about Bahrain is biased, but I like to look at other ecosystems as well compare try to make my own judgments accordingly. I know Bahrain is a very small country, it's an island with a small market but we genuinely do manage to punch well above our size and weight.
It's a young ecosystem for sure, I would even venture and there to publicly say that I think the number of deals in Bahrain that happened amongst the start-ups and investors are probably higher than any other country in the MENA region per capita—of course I know that doesn't mean much, I know that's just a number on the page—but to me personally it's just an indication of where Bahrain is heading and the potential Bahrain has. Obviously there’s a lot of reasons why you would want to set up in Bahrain, I would urge everybody to look at the why Bahrain page on the StartUp Bahrain website. It has all the reasons in a much better way than I could describe just to summarize it,
It's extremely friendly for start-ups—local or otherwise.
Setting up is really easy through a very supportive government, you have a lot of subsidies and a lot of programs.
You have access to AWS local data centres right around the corner here in Bahrain. We have three of them, so that can help you scale very quickly with low latency and low costs.
We have crypto asset regulations, an extremely supportive fintech ecosystem—a growing fund of funds and WAHA fund of funds that is going to be extremely vital in growing these scale ups in Bahrain.
But how do I translate this in practice, which I think is is usually a big surprise to a lot of people. Here's what the numbers look like—you can set up in Bahrain and you can get support from the government's programs to have 70 percent, up to 70 percent of the wages of your Bahrain hires covered for three years! You can have 50 of your setup costs and by setup costs I mean laptops, 8marketing equipment covered when you set up here in Bahrain. If you're great and you manage to make use of that subsidy and if you're doing well the government can throw in an additional 20 percent or something like that. I don't remember the latest numbers, but those are definitely some things to consider and I don't think that's available almost anywhere in the region.
The government would support 100 percent of any increments you give your employees, if you decide to bump up a salary the government is going to cover that. They would cover up to a hundred percent of training and professional certifications for those employees, which again is quite rare. We usually have people coming in from abroad especially from silicon valley, and they're like 'you guys live in heaven this is miraculous, we don't have this anywhere in the States'. And the final two things off the top of my head is, really you can cover a 100 percent of your cloud needs! So if you want to be on AWS from day one and that costs you fifty thousand dollars, Government is ready and willing to look into covering a hundred percent of that, and finally and I guess this touches more on your question is which I think is a bit of a complication elsewhere in the region—you can own your startup here in Bahrain 100 percent—it's not partially owned with a local partner, no you can own it as a foreigner or someone that's not Bahrain. I hope that answers your questions.
Ali Shabdar: Well yeah, and actually you answered some of my other questions and it's I have seen some of this first hand, no it's awesome! I have been travelling across the region, I look at a number of countries who are at the forefront of supporting start-ups and helping them grow their businesses, trainings, accelerators, and what I have seen with Bahrain is that—it kind of is like the equilibrium of everything, it is small enough but it's large enough at the same time. You guys got a very strong infrastructure, I know your ICT support program the government support program, Zoho is actually a part of that. So when we offer Zoho apps or services to local businesses and if they are a member of Tamkeen, which is the organization who grants that if I am not mistaken, 'Correct' up to 70 percent of your Zoho costs can also be paid by the government, which is amazing! It shows that the government has this long-term vision, along with the private sector who want to support this community. So I want to follow up on that, this package sounds awesome. So if I am not a Bahrain, if I am not a native Bahrain and I come from abroad I can also enjoy all of these, yeah?
Bader Kamal: Correct, you don't have to be a Bahraini, as long as you are a company or a startup registered in Bahrain or is in the process of registering in the Bahrain, you can definitely make use of everything we both just mentioned for sure.
Ali Shabdar: Wonderful, that is great so to start we just go and StartUp Bahrain website and just read the documents and go forward, probably someone get in touch with the entrepreneurs.
Bader Kamal: Actually yes, a little easier than that I would suggest—go to the StartUp Bahrain website and find the 'Contact Us' page and reach out—that's all you need to do! You wouldn't have to read anything to save your time, we will do that job for you. Just reach out to us, let us know what you have in mind and we'll be more than happy to give you what we call the 'red carpet treatment' if you're interested in moving to Bahrain.
Ali Shabdar: Awesome! And I can vouch for that, the government officials and you guys who work at the helm of StartUp Bahrain. You guys are very responsive, it can actually put my response right to shame, so yeah absolutely awesome fantastic! So let's move on to the next section well, the elephant in the room we know that the world is going through a health and also an economic crisis. I don't want to dabble on the health issues, I guess everybody's more than educated about what is going on, and the fact that all countries in GCC and Africa are not surprisingly, but fortunately doing better than the rest of the world which is good news. But from an economic and business perspective the fact that in this global village we are all connected, we cannot be safe from what is happening in United States and Europe and other places. How do you see the effect of this on Bahrain from both positive and negative sides, and are there any plans to counter the threats or kind of create opportunities around this.
Bader Kamal: Yes, of course there's a lot that is happening around us. I am also going to try to avoid talking about the medical aspect of this. I definitely think everybody's informed enough, over-informed perhaps. So first and foremost, I would want to say just on a practical side we have recently published a page on the StartUp Bahrain website, the COVID page. You will easily find on the top navigation, and that sort of highlights and details all that is happening in behind as it relates to the situation in the context of the startup ecosystem, and what is relevant to start-ups. So definitely visit the page—you'll find everything you need to know about what Bahrain is doing over there. And practice on a day-to-day basis what Bahrain has done in the past short, while honestly is very interesting, very admirable, and very quick honestly speaking. For starters we're in a roughly controlled lockdown, so Bahrain sort of opens up and closes every two weeks or so in a very controlled manner. There's a controlled growth number of cases but nothing thankfully too concerning on this.
For start-ups of course, salaries for Bahrain employees are covered for three months, electricity and water bills are also covered for three months. There are relief funds namely by Tamkeene being activated and handed out to start-ups and businesses who are in need. There's a loan instalment, deferment, and postponement happening across all the banks in Bahrain for personal loans, and there's a ton of perks that have been activated by different community members, and corporate and government entities along with start-ups of course—all to the benefit of the community. Here in Bahrain all of those are detailed on the COVID page, I think more importantly for me personally what everyone has come to realize is something that we've been saying for a very long time, which is there is clearly now a type of business that is able to be built that is more resilient and it resonates with our needs for today—and those types of businesses are what we've been calling start-ups. They're tech enabled, they're innovative, they're digital, and scalable. People have been depending on them heavily around the world during this time of need, they’re now needed more than ever—everything from online payments to e-commerce to contact this delivery, you name it, that's quite interesting for me. I can talk a bit more about the what I feel about how this is unfolding around the world as it relates to start-ups, but feel free if you have another question in mind.
Ali Shabdar: No please please carry on.
Bader Kamal: Sure so one thing that I am personally finding very interesting, that I am trying my best to keep up with is how this crisis is really unfolding around the world. It's obviously at least for me a person my age it's one of the first of this scale and magnitude happening around the world. I have never gone through something like this. Everything beforehand has not touched my day-to-day as much as this did, so that was the first we started. I would say at first I had a very hard time comprehending what is happening. It was a complete shock to the system, clearly things have come to a complete stop. I was having really bad anxiety frankly I still do, but I don't think I can say that it's as bad as it was in the past. I don't think I can say that I am struggling at the moment, I am definitely trying my best to see the light at the end of the tunnel and remaining optimistic about some of the positive things that this unfortunate situation might bring. This is a global tragedy like every other one and I do believe that every one of them has brought about right afterwards—a period of enlightenment,a prosperity, and rebuilding. I do think that there is that opportunity moving forward, obviously I say this with a realization, I say this with tremendous amount of privilege and I realized that this crisis has taken away from a lot of people way more than I can possibly imagine. We’re definitely noticing a lot of broad strokes and trends that I think people should be paying attention to, education start-ups are attracting cheap capital these days and the pandemic has accelerated.
So SARS in the past have sort of paved the way for e-commerce such as Alibaba in ASIA and to go into the consumer space. I definitely think the situation we're in right now will do to education and remote working what SARS did to e-commerce and ASIA back in the day. I do think a bunch of companies will now realize that working from home is going to be fine, and that you don't have to renew your office licenses so that's going to cause a major disruption in the real estate industry of course. Audio content is in a really strange place right now, podcasts have been picking up the past two years, all of a sudden it stopped picking up. I would say in a way and the reason for it is that people have stopped commuting and that's usually the best time to listen to podcasts, maybe they're listening to it while walking more these days, I am not sure.
Media and publishing are in serious trouble frankly speaking, audience and attention as at an all-time high sky through the roof but at the same time advertising is falling to the ground. Nobody has money for advertising anymore so, it's very interesting. To me I realize that history wins again, we are never able to predict the next wave of things. We genuinely thought AI and VR self-driving cars and AR was coming next and quickly, instead we got zoom meetings, cashless payments, doctors using facetime and online workshops, and the largest working from home experiment. Those are all things I thought we figured out seven years ago, I don't know why we're figuring them out today. So we've realized that we're not even close to perfecting the things we have figured out back then, so if we've all been waiting for the technological wave I think we're in it right now. This is it, it's just unfortunate that it brought a pandemic with it.
Ali Shabdar: Well I think it's absolutely correct, I think the market behaviour is driven by sudden changes. If you look at climate change you know as a crisis versus COVID as a crisis, because COVID is felt on daily basis the threat is so imminent. The speed at which our you know primitive brain if I may can process, versus climate change that is taking its time. It's going to kill us in 50 years probably and so we put it in the back of our mind and say, 'Okay, I have bills to pay, I have children to raise, so it doesn't become an issue'. So I think these disruptive forces from time to time are needed to shake everybody and say that 'Hey we need to make some serious changes in the way we work'. As you said in the way we behave, maybe we're not going to shake hands anymore or the technologies that were available 10 years ago are being used today. The executives who were the element of resistance within organizations to change the digital transformation, they wouldn't even text people now they are on Zoom. So yeah, of course these are very interesting times and I want to echo on what you said—that we are grateful, that we have not been impacted by the way a lot of people have it being impacted—either from a health perspective, family, or business-wise. We are just fortunate that we are in you know, technology in the digital world more than everybody else, but it's unto us to be able to serve others in this difficult time with what we know and what we can do.
So it is quite exciting to see that there's a growth in EdTech in FinTech I think. FinTech kind of been sleeping it was an excitement a few years ago, and for the past two years we haven't heard anything. I have a feeling that some good FintTech opportunities will arise and I guess you guys are ready when you FinTech with your Fintech hub over there. So correct these are very interesting times there's no doubt, and an AI being put into really really good applications right now—developing vaccines and what not which is going to be amazing, what will come out of the end of the tunnel if you will. Wonderful we can talk about this for hours probably off tracks, I am not sure if the audience have the interest of listening to us forever I want to touch on one point you mentioned a few days ago, and I really loved it you talked about digital minimalism. Can you elaborate on that, what do you mean by it and how does it you know apply within the current context that we have.
Bader Kamal: Sure, so I think I’ll start with something you mentioned earlier, which is the threat feels imminent and more than imminent I believe it feels intimate—it feels personal, it feels right around the corner and corner and very close, and what that forced us to think through and realize is that—we have to go back to the basics. So yes AI is changing the world. By now we're focused on food delivery apps, we're down to the basics, we’re down to figuring out currency again—cash or contactless or cashless and what not. So it brought us back to the basics and it brought us more to think inwards rather than outwards. The good news though I think is that the internet was sort of built for this it was built to withstand this kind of global destruction, and that this is what everybody is seeing right now these days and it showed us the importance of technology in a way that we haven't realized before.
And my thesis moving forward honestly is what I am advocating for is a more intentional and a more thoughtful use of technology moving forward, I think more than ever throughout history startup founders, investors, and everybody involved in the ecosystem should really think through what they're building, what is it for and how is it going to impact people's lives. It's no longer a game of just let's build the coolest new social network and share pictures and memes, it's a lot more about how these applications will impact our day-to-day especially during a crisis. I mean you know they say that you get to know someone during a time of crisis, well I think there's a tremendous amount that we've learned during this one. We've learned about ourselves first of all more than anything else, I think it's allowed us a bit of time to reflect this crisis has shown us how the government works and how government reacts in time of need. It showed us how people around us come together in time of need, showed us what people need the most and it showed government how technology works finally, but more importantly it showed how technology sorry it showed technology what people want, I think that's quite important.
Touching on what you asked is digital minimalism personally speaking I have always had this itch and urge, an anxiety to want things to slow down, I wanted people to slow down I wanted technology to slow down. I don't necessarily advocate for going back or stepping back I am advocating for slowing down and just being a bit more mindful of what's happening around us. Things are too fast paced, technology's eating up everything going up too fast—I don't think anybody signed up for any of this. The iPhone just showed up in 2007 and we just sort of tripped backwards into all of this and I don't think that's extremely healthy. Personally speaking I have found a tremendous amount of growing peace and mindfulness and the philosophy of minimalism, which I definitely encourage everybody around me and the audience here as well to look into. At this stage of my life I cannot personally imagine a life in the opposite direction it would definitely drive me crazy. I think digital minimalism is just a natural extension of it considering how dependent on technology we are, it touches on and extends into our digital lives and what not.
The reason why I am advocating for this is I am sort of raising the alarm and I am ringing the bells for people to really take a more mindful stance towards all of this. Personally speaking a while back I have reached a point in my life where I was glued to a constant fire hose of information going inside my brain, I have become hostage to my timelines, my feeds, my Instagram, YouTube, Twitter I felt the constant urge to read every article, watch every Ted talk, know everything stay informed about all that is happening around the world; know what all my friends are doing what they're eating, where they're out who they're out with, and so much more. And I genuinely believe people are dishonest to themselves when they can't describe this as exhausting, it's quite exhausting frankly speaking.
We’re not flooded, we're not wired to be flooded for this kind of information and fire hose all the time from the moment we wake up with a phone in our hand to the moment we sleep with the phone in our hand, in the same way that we're not capable of eating too much or having too much bad food, we're just not. We I think it's very interesting how we obsess about how we eat and what we eat and what portions and following a thousand different diets and fads through a multi-billion dollar growing industry year after year, but we never obsess about the information we consume how we consume it through what channels in what portions, why don't we have digital diets I have always wondered about those questions frankly speaking. One of the major negative effects it had on me is that I have become really bored after being exposed to all this information all the time day in and day out, I stopped enjoying conversations with people for a simple reason—I have lost that sense of curiosity and surprise that is very organic in human interaction.
If I read everything and watched everything know all the memes and watched all the funny videos and seen all the documentaries, then I can't listen to somebody and feel a sense of surprise or curiosity or find an interest in what they're saying, because I have seen everything already I don't need to hear more about it. That was kind of a turning point from me. I mean if you look at if you look around you and if you could find someone who's close to you that you can politely ask if you could look at how they use their phone on a day-to-day basis without being creepy, just ask politely and try to notice how they're very similar to you—you know the kind of people who sit in front of slot machines and casinos based on what I have seen in movies, it's an addictive personality jumping from one feed to another jumping from one app to the other hoping to get that last dopamine hit—finding the newest thing the coolest thing to share the funniest thing, hoping for one more like one more retweet. It really exposes you to an unhealthy amount of negativity and pessimism and bad ideas it's draining, so this is why I am advocating for a more thoughtful approach to using technology. I do have a few ideas to share on or at least a proposal more than happy to share but I just want to check if you have any thoughts on this so far.
Ali Shabdar: It is well! I cannot agree with you more and guilty as charge I am one of those people I don't remember when was the first time I created my first email address on yahoo, I was really young and that started there and then because technology started replacing becoming this source of energy and you said it—it is an addiction. I am not usually into you know looking at funny videos and stuff but I have an exhausting regiment and sometimes I catch myself doing it and try to limit myself, regiment of reading news then comparing news from multiple outlets to see you know which one is more reliable although all of them are reliable. I am not going on right I am let's say NBC versus guardian or something and then which is pointless by the way because reading too much news is just adds to your anxiety, and I don't know I still haven't figured out how can I get rid of that addiction. Then comes other content that interests me and I find myself working from home every single opportunity every tiny bit of time I have here and there is filled with drinking water from a you know fire hose, and I know it I can see myself you know kind of out of body experience laughing at myself, but again next day I do it. So it is I have to admit it is like an addiction and coming back to the minimalism from a digital perspective, expanding it even into hardware—how many hardware’s we have at arm's length at any given moment next to us? I have two microphones, and two cameras, and three phones, and two computers, and I am not going to you know land the person on Mars. All of these are kind of triggers to that addiction because I have multiple screens and all-time quotes to me, and I can just watch and watch and learn and make good about me—feel good about myself because I am learning. So how do we let's say if you want to leave this conversation with one sentence, 'how do we get started being a digital minimalist?' You can bookmark and read later.
Bader Kamal: I’ll definitely stop doing that. So this is something I personally stopped doing a long time ago, just like other problems we go through I would definitely suggest acknowledging the problem first. Once you acknowledge it then you immediately sort of unlock a realization that will make you a lot more thoughtful. I think the real intention here is just question how you're using it, like you said earlier climate change is not imminent so we don't care about it right now, that's the problem. And the same way that technology doesn't feel very imminent or it's harmful effects doesn't feel imminent so it may come or not in a couple of years or more.
So first of all I would suggest protect your brain clutter is definitely costly, do ask yourself do I need to know this do I really need to know more about this, will this impact my life on a day-to-day basis—is it just garbage for the lack of a better term politics and trivia that's going to last a few hours of anxiety or a few weeks of conversation with some other person. Do I need to follow all those accounts, do I need to subscribe to all those channels, do I need to have all those feeds, do I need to be in all those crazy WhatsApp groups. I think once you start asking yourself these questions you will quickly realize the answers for, and this doesn't have to be extreme first of all but very minimal changes I think can be really helpful. Maybe dedicate email to your laptop instead of your phone only, perhaps maybe restrict the number of applications on your phone there's obviously books written about this so you can feel free, but I am just trying to summarize a few things. On the hardware front do you need a kindle, an iPad and a laptop, and a browser, and a phone, and a read later app. Do you really need to save 5000 articles and you read later on, probably not. You and we both know you're not going to read them.
Protecting your mental health is very important, really don't expose yourself to things that make you doubt yourself, make you feel like other people are having it better living a better life doing better having more. I think if you just cut that off very quickly, cold turkey as they say you will see immediate changes—positive changes in your mind within a few hours within a few days. Honestly, I have gone through this so many times friends of mine have gone through this and the changes are almost immediate. Finally honestly the information age has new rules so really we have to work with new routes. I believe my thesis honestly moving forward is that there should be as much consent for your attention as there is for your privacy. We blindly accept terms on platforms for what the information we share from with them, but we never accept terms for information they share with us day in and day out. I think that's what I am trying to say, and finally really my conclusive or my concluding proposal is—really try to think about how we always want things in life to be simpler, but we never realize that we can just ask for a simpler life, like we want faster food, easier payments, easier this bigger this better that—but we don't question how a simpler life can look like without the need for all those things that's what I’d like to conclude with.
Ali Shabdar: Wonderful, wonderful thank you so much. These are very very important points and kind of will leave us with some contemplation and hopefully offline we can have more conversations on this, and probably in the future we'll come over again and we'll talk about this in greater detail, and also talk about privacy—this mutual consent between the provider and the audience is something that is lacking and we see a lot of clash between you know different forces, and how providers are using terms and conditions to get what they want. But of course there is nothing there’s no free lunch when we are expecting state of the art technology and services sometimes you got to pay for it. At Zoho we have a very strong stand about privacy and how we care about it, and there's a very very strict line in terms of what we do and what we don't, but anyway privacy is not the topic of the day today, this calls for another session hopefully soon. I am looking at the stream of questions probably we have another minute if some of the audience have any questions to Bader about Bahrain about entrepreneurship, the acoustic ecosystem of start-ups and I would say follow him on Twitter and other channels and ask him about digital minimalism. Maybe, he comes up with a book or some sort of series on that, no podcast please as you said, maybe video will be more interesting enough. Okay anything to conclude while we're waiting for probably a question or two do you like to know.
Bader Kamal: I am good actually, frankly I have been advocating this ever since the beginning of the crisis it's something that I have been practising for a very very long time, but I only now realize the importance of it towards everyone else instead of just myself. So now I am being selfless by wanting to share what has worked for me with everyone else, it's I find it extremely and increasingly important I definitely want more people to look into this for sure. On a closing note from what we started with through this conversation, definitely visit the StartUp Bahrain website check out what we have. Bahrain is definitely an interesting place to be in the region, reach out to us I will personally get in touch if you need any help. My team is available to help at any time and the government is here to support.
Ali Shabdar: Wonderful thank you so much for your time Bader. I believe we don't have any more questions and we'll catch you later. Enjoy the rest of your day.]
Bader Kamal: Sure thank you no problem. Take care take care Ali, all the best.
Ali Shabdar: Thanks guys, thanks for watching.