Despite the obstacles that entrepreneurs in Iran face, the Iranian startup community is optimistic, adaptable and is borrowing ideas from western models.

The startup community in Iran is “drawing a lot of inspiration from  what’s happening in the West.”

Interview on the sidelines of the ‘L’Atelier numérique’ (L’Atelier Digital) broadcast on the BFM Business channel with Roxanne Varza, an Iranian-American startup specialist at Microsoft. Varza gives us her impressions of the startup world she encountered during her recent trip to Iran.

L’Atelier: What struck you most about the Iranian ecosystem as regards innovation and support for startups?

Roxanne Varza: Well, the barriers in Iran are more obvious than elsewhere, but I was really very impressed by the optimism of the entrepreneurs there. There’s no investment coming in from abroad, and the market is quite restricted when it comes to certain types of products, but people still manage for example to develop apps for the iPhone, for Android and all the platforms that we see elsewhere. They have difficulty obtaining finance, but they do find solutions. And they also manage to arrange startup events imported from overseas, such as Startup Week-end and FailCon.

Is there a lot of interest in Startup Weekend, Failcon and other such events for startups?

Well, actually the first FailCon conference is scheduled to take place in May, but Startup Weekends have been running in Iran since last year. The event has spread throughout the country. It takes place in Shiraz in the south, Isfahan in the centre, and in the capital, Tehran. I went to one such event in Birjand, in the east of the country, a city which I knew nothing about before being contacted by the event organisers. Around 300 people attend these events.

How do entrepreneurs get their initiatives up and running, drive their projects forward? Are there any incubators or accelerators?

The idea of incubators and accelerators is quite a recent one. I went to see an accelerator which only had two startups and was being run in someone’s house! This kind of support programme for startups is very new. Many young people who wish to set up a business are as yet unaware that this concept exists. However the startup community is creating many similar initiatives and I think this is a trend that will grow rapidly in the coming years. Startups are drawing a lot of inspiration from what’s happening abroad, especially in the West.

Is there any particular sector that stands out?

In this closed market, we’re increasingly seeing the ‘me too’ syndrome. When I was there I met the Iranian version of online medical care scheduling service ZocDoc or its French equivalent KelDoc – it’s called Shafajoo. But I hope we’ll also see a lot of initiatives aimed at the local market because there are many facets which are specific to Iran and its culture. I’m thinking for example of e-commerce. Products bought online in Iran are different from what you can buy in the West. Payment methods are also very different. Many people still prefer to pay in cash. The way people are using credit cards is now changing a lot. As a result, even if mobile payment systems don’t appear overnight in Iran, there could still be a number of innovations in payment methods.

Are women well represented among startup entrepreneurs?

That’s an interesting aspect. The majority of entrepreneurs I met and who contacted me were men, but the Shafajoo team is a women-only group of engineers. Actually I’ve heard that in Iran 60% of all qualified engineers are women. However, there are fewer women than men working in the new technologies as traditionally in Iran women don’t go out to work.

Do Iranian entrepreneurs tend to set up their own company when they finish their studies, or do they wait until they have some work experience?

These days some people want to go abroad, while others prefer to stay in the country. They want flexibility, so an increasing number of young people are interested in starting up their own business as soon as they leave college as they think this will give them the choice of whether to stay or leave the country.

How might we describe a typical Iranian startup entrepreneur?

Well, they’re perhaps a bit less informal than in other countries. I have seen a number of them wearing jeans and trainers, but on the other hand they address each other formally, using ‘Mr’ and ‘Mrs/Miss’. But this has to do with Iranian culture, where even friends address each other in a formal way. Something that in fact made me laugh is that, given that it’s obligatory to wear the veil over there, you can’t distribute T-shirts with startup logos just like that to anyone. So some of the entrepreneurs I met over there came with piles of veils on which they had printed their various logos!