The Daily Beast
Just as 1960s counterculture was responsible
for the '80s high-tech explosion, the
revolutionary wave sweeping the Middle
East will trigger a boom in entrepreneurship
—but this time the change will be measured
in months, not decades.
Like many people, I have been watching the events
unfolding in the Middle East with a jaw hovering
somewhere near the floor. And curiously enough, many
of the thoughts the revolutionary wave has inspired in
me involve 1960s counterculture and the birth of '80s
high tech in the United States.
Let me explain. A couple of decades back, I received a
bit of notoriety for one widely quoted comment,
"Money is the long hair of the '80s." I had intended to
show that at least some of the seeds of
entrepreneurship in the '80s—the flowering of personal
computers, gaming, digital media, and so much more—
had been sown in the counterculture of the '60s. I was
convinced that much of the '60s experience of living
according to social values, creating nontraditional
organizations, the power of networks, grassroots
organizing, and the general antiestablishment flavor of
what I called the "corporate new wave" had been
translated into the startups of the '80s. When the young
reject the establishment, develop confidence in
different ways of doing things, and, most important,
find cultural and communications bridges to link them
together, the stage is set for large scale social change.
What we have seen in the recent Middle East
"awakening" is the power of shared experience,
primarily among the young, and the use of new social
media tools to organize, coordinate, generate content,
and affirm a shared culture of protest. The jungle
drums of the '60s that brought people together came
from rock ‘n' roll. The cultural catalysts of 2011 in the
Middle East are popular songs of protest posted on
Time will tell, but I believe these events have set the
stage for an explosion of entrepreneurial energy in the
Middle East, especially in the Internet and related tech
sectors. I see the emergence of a new socially minded
entrepreneur in this part of the world—one willing to
challenge the status quo, speak out, eschew the
trappings of establishment career paths for something
new, and take risks. Little of this has been possible,
except with difficulty, in most of the Middle East until
now. When repressive forces—direct or subtle—guide
the young in the direction of conformity, compliance
and conservatism, entrepreneurship may be thwarted.
But it doesn't die; it only sleeps.
Now we see a massive outpouring of self-organized
social entrepreneurship and activism, using technology
as the medium of exchange. What will follow almost
inevitably, I believe, is a similar tidal wave of business
entrepreneurship and innovation as those radicalized
by recent events and exposed to the power of new
technologies quickly find ways to adopt them in every
niche of a newly fluid society. The freedom that is on
everyone's mind in that part of the world is the freedom
to be one's own person—and also the freedom to be
entrepreneurial in challenging conventional wisdom
and established ways of doing things.
More than 300 million people live in the region and
speak Arabic as their primary language; this is one of
the last underserved, language-defined markets.
What also will fuel this boom is the size of the
opportunity space. There is so much to be done in the
Middle East, particularly in the social and Internet
media fields. Right now, there are no dominant brands.
The region is still culturally isolated, with a miniscule
number of international books translated into Arabic
each year. However, more than 300 million people live
in the region and speak Arabic as their primary
language; this is one of the last underserved, languagedefined
markets. And to date, the kind of exchange
across national borders in the region that could
generate larger market dynamics has been limited by
the frictional forces of politics and aging infrastructure.
All of this is now poised to change, and dramatically. In
the U.S., it took more than a decade for the lessons to
percolate from the teach-ins to the startups. In the
Middle East, the time frame will likely be measured in
months, not years, owing to the ability of today's
technology to decrease the cost structure of innovation
and speed up its cycle time.
And the region already has the beginnings of an
entrepreneurial culture. Late last year, I spoke at the
Celebration of Entrepreneurship Conference in Dubai.
Hundreds of young entrepreneurs from the Middle East
gathered together to share experiences, attend
workshops, and network. The links, forged from mindset
and purpose, between this community and the one
taking the streets from Cairo to Tunis could not, in my
view, be clearer.