Lessons Learned Building Startups In Morocco

This article is about a series of mistakes, lessons learned, and gold mines missed. I hope it will save you from burned cash, broken hearts, or wasted time.

Maybe this can make you a millionaire if you are ready for the sacrifice.

Startups Kung Fu

Starting up is extremely painful but can be super rewarding. You should not expect only to lose money, but even more.


Date: August 2011 to June 2012
Service: Computer Security Auditing (aka Ethical Hacking)
Why did I start: A friend told me I was good at it
Problem: Approximately 99% of Moroccan Electronic Realm is Insecure


Lessons Learned

  • If you don’t have money to pay a “Fiduciaire” (fiduciary duty) for managing your paperwork, just don’t start a company.
  • Don’t be shy when negotiating, be sharp. If you don’t know how to negotiate, or you are not willing to be sharp, just don’t start a company.
  • Cash is king. Don’t hunt for big names from big companies, chase cash. That's what pays you and the bills, big or small.
  • Fast cash vs Fat cash: quick cash in small quantities is far better than slow cash in big cheques.
  • Don’t spend delusional time in spreadsheet projections, you would rather invest in stocks if you are that good at projections.

Gold Mine Missed

I stopped the business because my friends who worked with me (yes we were all students) graduated and went to work with big corporates in Germany, France and USA.

So I said “there are no hacking talents who are sharp, and there are no serious clients who can pay on time”.

Whenever there is a threat that can kill your business, embrace that threat itself, become that treat, that's your GOLD MINE.

If an app or a simple feature can kill your business. Be the first one to kill your own business and pivot. When you analyse the weakness of your business. Analyse the Business Model, not only the value proposition.

Business Model Canvas

In my case, the customers were not ready for auditing services but would rather train their employees on computer security. On the other side, of the canvas, I couldn’t find people to hire to be able to grow.

In that deadlock, I quit and made the (losers) excuse that “This will not work in Morocco but only in 10 years”.

What I should have done is nurture the talent base in Morocco by focusing on computer security teaching instead of auditing. At the same time, I would be making cash, improving on pedagogy, and growing on an international market.

While I should have pivoted and started teaching computer security and growing the talent base in Morocco, it would have been a gold mine. Approximately 90% of corporates in Morocco would rather offer training for their staff than pay for an audit from a “startup”.


Date: July 2013 to October 2013
Service: Invoicing system "that works for you"
Why did I join: Who would want to miss out on being part of a team of super sayan rockstars jamming code 230 meters above the ground?
Problem: Invoicing was still stuck in the 90s while we are in the 21st century.

2012 Greendizer Hackathon

Lessons Learned

  • I was not a founder, and I was just employee number 5, but I learned that everybody should be involved in every single critical step of the startup.
  • Sell early, sell early, cash is king, if you can’t sell just pivot.
  • If you are good at coding, start an open-source project. If you want to start a startup, try selling first because every decision becomes biased after the first line of code.
  • Fail early, fail often, fail fast, or you will have a fatal fall later.
  • Have a clear curriculum for new talent that joins your team. If you can’t make it you will lose time and money.
  • Great execution needs dedication and laser focus. Salary and food should be the last worries for your employees, they should worry about the product and the success of the group.

Gold Mine Missed

The biggest issue in Morocco is people are not ready to pay for a service, and they often delay payments by three to six months (yes it was the same problem with my first startup).

Most of the clients had a problem with “Les Impayés et Les recouvrement”, i.e. recovery of payments from customers :-P.

The software was great at managing these procedures.

But the software was also so advanced and sophisticated that it can be a payment gateway. The thing we missed is, what really the Moroccan economy needs is “a small business escrow” (ce n’est pas escrot en francais, mais completement l’inverse).

An escrow is a third party that manages payments between two people and deals with conflicts.

Most people can have cash, but have delays in payments and insurances and need to trust parties before delivering or asking for delivery.

These cycles delay the whole Moroccan economy and if you target this as a startup focus. You would embrace a possible billion dollar market in Morocco.


Date: January 2013 to June 2013
Service: An app that finds people arround you to help you.
Why did I start: Is it not awesome to help people all arround the world.?
Problem: We need a Web 3.0 that manages real human interactions.

JabekLah Promo Video from Jabeklah on Vimeo.

Lessons Learned

  • Shit happens.
  • Ship early, ship shells, ship whatever thing that can validate your ideas. Your ideas are worthless without numbers.
  • If you don’t know how to code mobile, learn to and ship what you can do with a tutorial.
  • Everybody has your same idea, they don’t have balls to make it. just like you. Marketing strategy, product management, blablabla. + It's not any useful for a startup. you need to Nail 3 things and only 3 when u begin: “How much does this problem matter for your customers?” the answer is measured by DOLLARS not by facebook likes. “Do they love your solution and turn crazy when they use it” the only feedback that matters is the people who vote with their money. “How can you scale this to as many people as possible” Answer these with whatever terms you like, just make sure these are your only focus at the beginning. These things should be measured with numbers, not with illusory projections.
  • Work on the project as if it's a late midnight deadline, not as if you want to a have an A grad. Work to pass, but ship the damn app.
  • Don’t go for mobile just because it's cool.
  • Work with people around you, I mean other entrepreneurs, to avoid as many mistakes as possible, else you are doomed.
  • Don’t hire interns don’t hire employees at the beginning until you know what they really need to do. Too many people on the team early on is not good. Seven people driving a bicycle will not make it move fast, since there are only two pedals.
  • If your team does not perform well, it's your fault. You are the single point of failure of everything.
  • Don’t underestimate time management and good sleep. Instead of working 3 days you can do the same in 1 day. Time is your currency when you have no money.
  • If you are going to do something new for you, look for people who did it before, I mean technically (yes sales are technical as well) to avoid their mistakes. YOU ARE NOT SMART.
  • Don’t go to god-damn events unless you have progress to show.
  • Don’t win any competition unless you need that money (investor or price) or the customers from it. Everything beside these last two everything is distraction, distraction.
  • Please ask people who did it by emailing them. Email huge founders in Silicon Valley, just look for their twitter email them ask them about books that helped them be what they are. Yes books are good, you should read some important ones before jumping in. 9 hours of reading will save you 9 months of cash burn and heartburn.
  • Strategies look beautiful on paper, and ugly in reality. Like a photoshopped model.

Structuring a Bottom-up Market

The bottom-up market of electricians, plumbers and other “freelance” low tech jobs is huge in Morocco. People who need those skilled technicians suffer from these issues:

  • Accessibility
  • Availability
  • Trust

Usually, people end up using word of mouth to get the good deals and best-skilled people. While this all could be automated in a crowdsourced platform, farmed organically, and grown virally.

How to Start: You can jump start by hand. Knocking at doors asking great people who know great people. Selling the service as “SOS Technician” where only wealthier people and companies who look for great plumbers, you can send them those technicians on the spot. Charging a premium of course.

You can start only with a spreadsheet of plumber numbers. A rented van. and a “Hotline”. Building trust metrics and a trust graph along the way.

Building trust metrics and a trust graph along the way.

Then Appify it once people love it, once you master the pain that really matters for them. Like fixing a Macbook charger or plumbing in the middle of the night.

If you can structure the bottom-up economy in Morocco well, that’s one billion dirham of capitalization in possibly seven years. If you can handle transactions and ensure delivery organically, you will monopolize the market.

Cover Image: Casablanca, Morocco |
Martin Alvarez Espinar