By Shobhna Decloitre
RABAT, Morocco—In the tech start-up world, Demo Day can be the catalyst that helps founders reach new investors and users while showcasing innovations to a room full of tech enthusiasts. But what happens in a COVID-19 world where large gatherings are cancelled indefinitely?
I followed a few of these tech entrepreneurs and accelerators on their virtual journey to find out.
On a cool evening in late September 2019, as the sun set on the shores of Tunisia’s Lake Tunis, I watched as some 300 people gathered inside a large marquee to hear young entrepreneurs talk about their businesses.
There was an atmosphere of celebration. For eight up-and-coming start-ups mentored by Tunisia’s leading seed investor, Flat6Labs Tunis, this was their big moment. Founders would be pitching their products and services to a cadre of prominent technology investors – people with the financing to supercharge their ideas.
Fast forward to May of this year, and I was attending another Flat6Labs Demo Day, only this time from behind a computer screen in my home in Rabat. The COVID-19 health crisis had first delayed the event, initially scheduled for March, before forcing it to go online.
Demo days are important because this is when start-ups pitch to potential investors and grow beyond seed stage. Financing is hard to come by for start-ups, especially in the early years, and it can make the difference between success and failure. Tunisia, like the rest of the Maghreb region, is full of entrepreneurs who could build innovative companies, create much-needed jobs, and solve some of the region’s most pressing problems—with the right support.
Tunisia, with 39 percent of its population under the age of 24, and a well-educated and increasingly urban population, is among the most innovative countries in Africa and the Arab world. It ranks 52nd globally in the 2020 Bloomberg Innovation Index.
For start-up accelerator Flat6Labs, cancelling demo day wasn’t an option.
“Going virtual offers the opportunity to enlarge our pool of mentors, coaches, and investors beyond the borders of Tunisia, something that was more of a challenge previously,” said Yehia Houry, Flat6Labs Tunis Managing Director.
The Flat6Labs team engaged a local video production company, which recorded pitches in entrepreneurs’ homes and then spliced together the virtual event, which aired on YouTube.
I watched the action from the comfort of my home—as transitions between entrepreneurs and the Flat6Labs team intermixed with interesting data points, quotes, and graphs about the start-up investment opportunity. The production was energized by the passion of founders like Hidayet Ayadi of SgharToon, an online platform that helps detect dyslexia in children and provides learning material in the form of games. I was pleasantly surprised that Ayadi’s pitch was just as compelling delivered virtually as it was when I saw her in person at a project meeting in January.
“I had pitched to groups of people before, but never to a camera lens, and that was quite an experience for me,” Ayadi told me later. “In a pandemic situation, going virtual was the best option.”
Ayadi’s tips for navigating a virtual demo day: “Imagine that you are speaking to a live public and not only to the camera lens on your laptop. When you pretend that you are speaking to real people, you appear more natural.” The level of preparation also exceeded that for a live event, Ayadi said.
And it paid off.
Following the first virtual demo day, SgharToon was selected to be part of Techween Cohort 7, funded by the Oman Technology Fund, which included a $50,000 investment and a 32-week training program starting in October. This funding will help SgharToon launch a new platform on January 1 to connect with users, and expand to new markets, such as those in the Gulf countries. SgharToon’s win was followed by yet another selection in early December by BigBooster, an international acceleration program which has a large pool of venture capital investors.
“When the pandemic struck, it was really bad for the tourism and other service sectors,” Ayadi said. “However, at the same time, it also emphasized the importance of health, medical, and education platforms. For SgharToon, it made conversations with investors easier.”
The two new investments mean “we can expand our operations and be present in markets beyond Tunisia,” she said.
A model that will last
The virtual demo day also attracted more engagements than in-person events. A typical in-person event features 300 attendees. The virtual demo day had 45,000 views.
“We had more on-point interest from partners, corporations, and investors from abroad wanting to meet our startups. This means more opportunities were created,” said Flat6Labs’ Houry.
As Georges Joseph Ghorra, IFC’s Resident Representative in Tunisia told me, “Tunisian entrepreneurs have a key role to play in the country's economic recovery. It’s important to support entrepreneurs to develop and grow in order to build a resilient, inclusive, and sustainable economy in Tunisia.”
A June World Bank Group business pulse survey with 2500 businesses in Tunisia found that 12 percent of firms were increasing their online presence to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic. Demo days and pitch events are part of the trend.
At this year’s virtual Investor Day, eight international investors and Tunisian venture capital funds held 23 meetings with eight start-ups. There was interest from six investors, and two materialized into investments.
One of those investees was Onboard, a start-up specializing in transforming customer manuals using 3D technology. It pitched during the first digital demo day, and raised $175,000. The funding will be used to support Onboard’s solution development as well as its expansion within the French and European markets.
Flat6Labs’ Houry said the success of the online demo day has changed the group’s strategy. “Now, whichever way we decide to go post-COVID, we will always have a digital element to our demo days and our acceleration program.”
I am a believer. I am looking forward to following the next virtual Demo Day from my home, knowing that it can open a world of possibilities for the entrepreneurs.
Shobhna Decloitre is an IFC communications officer based in Morocco. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Published in December 2020