Thursday, 22 June, 2017

The Iran I Saw


When I wrote a book about startups and innovation in the Arab world last year, Startup Rising: The Entrepreneurial Revolution Remaking the Middle East, it was one of the only hopeful recent books on the region and, as such, has been hard for some to accept. Hard until we stop to consider one of the key differences around the world today versus even five years ago: The rise of mobile.

Such universal access to technology is an utterly new and poorly understood phenomenon in Washington. I cannot tell you what the political or economic situation in Iran or Syria or Egypt will look like in a year, but I can say with certainty that within this decade over two-thirds of the people living in those countries will have a smart mobile device. In the Gulf, they have already surpassed this figure.  Remember that this doesn’t mean they will merely have slicker phones: Each smartphone has computer capabilities equivalent to what all of NASA had in 1969 when it put a man on the moon. Two-thirds of people in the Middle East—and, in fact, two-thirds of the people around the globe—will have that same supercomputing power in their hands.

It’s already happening in Iran. Mobile usage already stands at more than 120 percent there since many people have more than one phone or SIM card. Iranians are now using 40 million smartphones from brands including HTC and Samsung.  In fact, it is almost impossible to drive a mile on one of the large and heavily trafficked Tehran ring-roads, or to walk a few yards in their sleek new airport, and not see ads for new mobile phones and faster data.

In this nation of 80 million, we were told that there are also over six million Apple iPhones—which, like Facebook, have been banned for years by both global sanctions and the Iranian government. Yet millions of Iranians—not just a few tech-savvy entrepreneurs like the ones I describe here—access sites like Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat as well as online courses (“MOOCs”) from the many global universities, daily. Everyone, of all ages, accesses this unfiltered internet through Virtual Personal Networks (VPNs). In this way, and in the music they love and video they watch, Iran’s wired teens have more in common with their compatriots around the world than with the stark revolutionaries of 40 years ago.

To put Iran’s level of connectivity in perspective, nearly 65 percent of Iranian homes have broadband access—roughly equivalent to the United States, where the latest Pew survey data shows that 70 percent of Americans too have broadband connections at home. What hit me most compared to my visit to Iran last year, however, is that there was very limited access to 3G data on mobile phones. Back then there were at most one million subscribers. This year we were told that there are now over 20 million.

All of this means Iranians have unprecedented access to the world around them. It means they have much of the same knowledge at their fingertips that we do, practically for free. It means that an entirely new demographic is sharing ideas and digitally collaborating with each other. They see nearly everything about the United States and the world, and see economic opportunity and empowerment in part of the world more broadly once dismissed as “third.” They have less fear of centralized authority, of anyone telling them to “wait a generation” to solve problems they see others like them solving right now. They are, thus, aggregating new truths. Not western truths, but their truths, and in their own context.

Nazanin Daneshvar is part of the new story. She’s an entrepreneur building Takhfifan, a Groupon-like retail offers site in Iran. Not three years ago, in her mid-twenties, she and her co-founder and sister might have been surprised that their dream would today become 60 people crammed into a larger fourth-floor office. Except that little surprises her. She is accustomed to do what it takes to build.

She knew how fast Groupon had grown in the U.S., and how much Iranians liked a good deal. Most merchants at the time barely knew what the internet was, let alone internet marketing, so she visited small shops and restaurants, often those owned by friends, and asked one simple question: how much would they pay for a new customer? She built the technology and began delivering beyond their expectations and to their surprise.

With this success all she had to do was convince some of the largest shopping malls in Tehran—there are many ultra-modern, global brand-selling malls across the country—to strike similar deals. She would show up to meet with the general managers with great respect and a proven track record, her head covered in the government-required hijab. Invariably, however, general managers asked to see her manager—which, in their eyes, had to be a man.

Frustrated she walked out and went to her father (an energy plant manager who knew nothing about internet business) and told him to come with her to every single meeting for a year. Her father would literally open each meeting with a brief greeting:   “I am the manager of this new company, but let me turn it over to my colleague to explain more.” And then he’d sit down quietly and not say another word, despite signing every contract and initially being registered as the proprietor of the business.

As before with her smaller clients, performance was so good within 18 months, and Daneshvar received so much press attention, that on my last visit she smiled and told me that her father had now “retired.” Today, Takhfifan has over two million users in seven Iranian cities and has locked up 10,000 merchants.

Mohsen Malayeri also isn’t of the traditional narrative, either. This university engineering grad has hosted dozens of “Startup Weekends” in Iran recently, bringing together hundreds of young people with local investors to pitch and form their innovations at vibrant gatherings on university campuses. Malayeri co-founded Avatech, one of the largest business “accelerators” that offer resources, mentorship, and money to fledgling entrepreneurs—much like Y Combinator or 500 Startups in Silicon Valley, 1776 here in Washington, D.C., or TechStars around the United States.

Avatech is one among nearly 100 accelerators and incubators in Iran—31 of which are backed by government to help address infrastructure challenges in agriculture, education, and healthcare. One minister told us that Iran spent $4 billion in tech infrastructure last year alone and plans $25 billion more in the next three. They believe that eHealth will revolutionize care for its citizens by the end of the decade. They expect debit cards to be replaced by mobile payments in the same timeframe as well—an ambition faster than we are seeing happening here in the States.

Politico Magazine

Christopher Schroeder is a tech entrepreneur, investor and executive in Washington, D.C., and the author of Startup Rising: The Entrepreneurial Revolution Remaking the Middle East. Follow him on Twitter at @cmschroed.

fair to share...Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterPin on PinterestShare on Google+Share on LinkedInPrint this pageEmail this to someone

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *