Startup from Scratch I: On Culture

Startups create jobs, new products and disruption. Agreed. We all love startups and we know that many in Iraq work hard to make ideas ‘happen’, with stories of Iraqi entrepreneurs inspiring us everyday. At the same time, around the world and particularly in Iraq, the process is far from easy.

startup from scratch

Our Startup from Scratch articles are a new series written for entrepreneurs looking to start a venture or for those already in the process of building one. We will be summarising resources and providing food for thought in the hope of being a part of your startup learning journey. We’re far from knowing all the answers but we know that this series will provoke thinking on important aspects of your business and help avoid obstacles. A work in progress, we’re always curious to know your thoughts and experiences too, what you find helpful or what you may simply disagree with. 


Before we get to the nitty-gritty of starting a venture, this month we’re addressing the elephant in the room: culture. The fact is that a crucial macro factor influencing the building of your startup is your environment, particularly a country’s startup culture. Entrepreneurs are part of popular culture. Culture affects entrepreneurs and entrepreneurial activities. In particular, how national culture perceives entrepreneurs and portrays startups. On the one hand, cultures that only highlight heroic moments and successes of entrepreneurs hinder expectations of aspiring entrepreneurs. Individuals building a business find it difficult to normalise failure or persistence having hardly been exposed to entrepreneurial struggles. On the contrary, conservative attitudes towards entrepreneurship mean that those with innovative ideas are continuously discouraged from founding ventures. 

Why does this matter? The goal isn’t to pocket national cultures into whether they have a “startup culture” or not. Rather, it is important for entrepreneurs, incubators, investors and techies to recognise the role they play in shaping attitudes towards building the right culture. Such a culture encourages not just innovative ideas, but working on those ideas to build scalable businesses that provide solutions and create value. Startup cultures or entrepreneurial countries doesn’t just mean Silicon Valley or being a rich nation. Whilst most consider the US to be the “venture-capital capital” of the world, new businesses in the US actually don’t make a huge portion of jobs. 

Startup Culture is About What Makes The Headlines

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The past few years has seen Iraq move from an almost non-existent startup ecosystem to huge growth in the entrepreneurship scene, with an increasing number of startups, co-working spaces and makerspaces. Despite this, most headlines in Iraqi and international news cover little of the events in this area. Media coverage not only changes the narrative of Iraq, but more importantly promotes a culture that documents the journeys of growing startups and businesses, attracting investors and providing Iraqi creatives and founders with information and updates on the startup scene. 

One part of the issue is the lack of tech news in mainstream media headlines, and the other part is an increasing demand for copywriters in Iraq who can support the growth of local businesses by covering tech and entrepreneurship news. 

Startup Culture is in Everyday Conversation

This one is often under-estimated, but actually plays a bigger role than we think in shaping attitudes towards drawing favourable images of entrepreneurs and encouraging innovation. Whilst the number of incubators or pitch competitions are good indicators of general attitudes to founding ventures, sometimes it’s the day-to-day comments you hear that make or break. 

“You’re smart, earn many degrees”

Cultures that foster “pro-startup” attitudes react to you being smart by encouraging you to voice your creativity, your ideas and turn them into businesses. Cultures that tell you to study for as long as you can because you’re smart are likely to then tell you to find a stable job in the government sector. 

“You want to be the next Elon Musk? Who do you think you are?”

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Underdeveloped entrepreneurial ecosystems mean that voicing such ambitions is likely to bring sniggers and mockery. A pro-startup culture will tell you to stop talking and start working on launching your venture.

“Your startup failed? See, I told you so!”

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Normalising failure is a huge milestone in building a startup culture. Without getting rid of the fear of struggles and rocky paths, people cannot be encouraged to start their ventures. Whilst an anti-startup culture is likely to name and shame failures, cultures that promote innovation will want to learn from your rich experiences, help you see other opportunities, and look for the earliest chance to launch your next venture.

“Your startup succeeded? That’s probably just luck”

A culture that encourages entrepreneurial ventures will want to hear your story, celebrate your successes and encourage you to launch the next venture. This is opposed to attitudes that portray startup successes as lucky accidents, only reinforcing an “anti-startup” attitude that stays away from all things startup.

Startup Culture is Built Through Education

Education can play a huge role in shaping beliefs about entrepreneurship. The good news is that initiatives such as Startup University, Takween Accelerator, and AUIB’s College of Business bring workshops and training on entrepreneurship to universities in Iraq, meaning that an increasing number of young people recognise the role of entrepreneurs in society and the potential they can bring to expanding the economy. Beyond university, a growing number of entrepreneurship programs and incubators means that more aspiring entrepreneurs are likely to look beyond the fear of failure. 

Jaafer Muhammed, Startup University
Jaafar Muhammad of Startup University

Startup Culture is About Founding Ventures When You See Problems, Rather Than Out of Desperation

Rather than trying out entrepreneurship as a last resort because all job applications failed, a culture that fosters innovation encourages young people to start ventures out of choice to solve everyday problems they or others encounter through tech and innovation.

Mentoring during a hackathon in Iraq

Stories of ventures that offer solutions to finding a handyman and shopping for books online, to inclusive tech startups that cater for the visually impaired, illustrate that Iraq has just that – individuals that launch ventures because of a passion for solving problems.

Through choosing to start a venture, you are changing culture as we speak. 

Special thanks and shoutout to Dr. Nettra Pan, entrepreneurship researcher and educator, for her help in providing input and ideas for this series!

Khamael Al Safi

Khamael is passionate about understanding the work of startups and the stories of entrepreneurs, particularly those in Iraq. She is also passionate about helping young people build employability skills for the job market and has taught subjects in entrepreneurship, organisational behaviour and psychology to undergrad and postgrad students in London and Dubai. Having worked in consulting for both the private and public sector in the Middle East, she has been involved in training and advisory on corporate governance and accountability, as well as building open, trustworthy data ecosystems.

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