Starting a startup: five things I’ve learned

Dubai-based social entrepreneneur hopes to empower street-side vendors with her business, Vendedy

Two years ago, Christine Souffrant quit her job at M&T Bank in the US to do a Masters degree in business and social enterprise at Dubai’s Hult International Business School. Today, the Dubai-based young social entrepreneur has $475,000 in seed funding lined up and more in the pipeline, including from investors in Dubai.

Her startup, Vendedy, connects street vendors to a global audience. Launched in July 2014, Vendedy has completed several pilot projects in Haiti and Souffrant hopes to raise $500,000 by May to fully launch her business.

It has been a tough road for the US and Haiti-bred entrepreneur, who worked several jobs at once to provide for her family while studying.

Inspired by her mother’s background, Souffrant hopes to tap into the some 2 billion vendors worldwide that sell their wares on the streets. Globally, it is a $10 trillion economy, according to Souffrant.

Vendedy lets artisans sell their wares – from jewellery to canvas paintings – online using their mobile phones. The vendors take 80 per cent of the sale price, paid via text message once the product is delivered. Vendedy pockets 20 per cent, 5 per cent of which is spent on the business’ costs.

Still, participants of the pilot project made up to ten times their annual salary in a matter of weeks using the platform, says Souffrant, because they can make money faster and get paid in US dollars rather than local currency. The startup is backed by UPS and IBM, which provide the shipping and tech platforms, respectively.

Souffrant has big plans for her social enterprise. Vendedy currently has 100 street vendors signed up to the platform in Haiti, which will scale up to 1,000 in May. She plans to add at least 100 vendors each from 20 other Caribbean countries by the end of the year.

Here, Souffrant tells Philanthropy Age what she has learnt from Dubai’s social enterprise community.

Take advantage of the free events and Dubai’s startup ecosystem. In places such as London or New York, you don’t have the same direct access to leading change-makers. When I first got to Dubai, I met people at startup accelerators and incubators such as Impact Hub and Innovation 360; the people who led those initiatives were very open to dialogue, which let me build up the network I needed to launch my own business. I also went to 30 to 40 events a month – sometimes two or three a day – and every time I went I got talking to the speakers, organisers and entrepreneurs.

Help other entrepreneurs realise their projects and you learn a lot more. The startup ecosystem in Dubai is so new, so people are willing to let you shadow them and help with their projects. I volunteered with three different startup CEOs in Dubai. I went along to pitches and meetings, I took notes, I was with them as they honed their business development strategy. I didn’t know what I needed to learn as an entrepreneur, but I knew I had to be flexible.

Draw on the expertise from the events and from other CEOs and get started. Sometimes you’ll make mistakes, but I had everyone helping me with Vendedy because I had already given so much to other Dubai entrepreneurs. For example, through social enterprise Pi Slice’s network, I got involved with the Silicon Valley social entrepreneurship competition, The Venture. Vendedy has been picked as the US finalist for the competition, with a chance to pitch for a share of the $1m prize.

Others invested time and money. An academic supporter at Hult International Business School, Dubai, gave me $5,000 to do a pilot market study among street vendors in Brazil; and the two co-founders of the Sustainability Platform took a week out of their schedule to fly to Haiti to help me with the launch of the Vendedy pilot.

Starting a social enterprise in Dubai gets you a lot more visibility. Startup locations such as New York, London and Silicon Valley are so saturated and a lot of the social problems they focus on are first-world problems. In comparison, Dubai is a four-hour flight from many areas where it feels like you could really do something to make a difference. One consequence of being a less mature startup market is that it was also a lot easier for me to access VCs (venture capitalists) because it is harder to find startup talent in the UAE.

Testing your model is key. Between September and December this year, we plan to roll out Vendedy across the Caribbean, including Trinidad, Jamaica, Barbados, the Dominican Republic and we’re even in talks with Cuba through our contacts with the Clinton Foundation. We will allocate two weeks per country to onboard around 100 to 1,000 street vendors in each place.

It’s ambitious but it’s possible because we did so much testing in Haiti, which is the hardest market in the region. I had a lot of volunteers and I spent $10,000 on a credit card to do two test projects in Haiti, each costing $2,000-$3,000, including a beta launch and a shipping test in New York. We were crazy enough to say we could digitize street vending and no one believed us. Now I can’t tell you how many people want to support and reach out to us. I want others to be as passionate about being disruptive as I am.

Photo credit: Vendedy