The Souqalmal team got to chat with Sonia Weymuller, Founding Partner of VentureSouq, the largest early stage equity funding platform in the region, Mentor at the e7 Daughters of the Emirates project, and former strategy and M&A advisor.
In this exclusive interview, Sonia shares her experience as an investor and mentor. She talks about what investors look for and what startup entrepreneurs should focus on, as well as the importance of mentorship programs for emerging businesses.
From your experience, what are the main areas that entrepreneurs should focus on at the initial stage of their startups?
Firstly, the product: is there a real need in the market for what I want to offer. Would people pay for the service, how big is this need in terms of market size and value and is there anyone else addressing it and if so, how.
Secondly, assuming your startup really does fill a gap in an effective way, focus on the team you want to put together. This takes self-awareness: what strengths and weaknesses do I have as a founder and who would be best suited to complement my own skillset by bringing theirs to the table. For example, you may be great at strategy and business but lack the technical know-how. Or you have great operational skills but need a visionary to take the helm. Fill in the gaps. Ultimately, when you are ready to fundraise, your team and their ability to execute is as important, if not more, than the actual idea and this is what investors will look for especially in early stage ventures when they are evaluating potential rather than current performance.
Last but not least, be aware from the beginning of who your target investors will be keeping in mind that the pockets of funding here are not the same as they may be in other markets. If you don’t think the investors currently present in this region would participate then you need to use that as input when thinking of your business model and crafting your pitch.
What would be a deal-maker or breaker during a startup pitch?
We have seen a few deal breakers: part-time founders, lack of competitive landscape knowledge, absence of a clear, go-to commercial strategy and team misalignment – all red flags. For early stage opportunities where one is, in essence, evaluating the potential of a venture, a strong, knowledgeable and dedicated team is essential. They have done their homework, understand the market dynamics and competition and are clear on where their product fits within it and, more importantly, how it stands out. They have a long-term vision of their product being scalable and monetizable but also have the humility to put egos aside, be receptive to feedback and keep an open mind in the event they eventually need to pivot and change course.
What’s the one thing you would like to see happen in the UAE startup scene?
I’d like to see more financially sustainable, impact-focused ventures emerging in the region. I recently saw some inspiring commercially and impact-driven ventures at the UAE Drones For Good competition this year like Biocarbon Engineering focused on harnessing the efficiency of drones for reforestation purposes globally. The impact space has evolved; I am increasingly seeing, and I am equally excited about, ventures that aim to tackle important environmental and societal issues in an impactful way while not losing sight of their financial goals. This allows them the bandwidth to not have to rely on constant institutional or governmental fundraising. However, the regional impact investing space needs to evolve in lockstep with this as well. Therefore, I would also like to simultaneously see more impact investing focused events that serve to create and educate a regional community of investors interested in commercially viable, social and environmentally-driven investment opportunities.
You have been a mentor for e7: Daughters of the Emirates that encourages and enables young Emirati women to pursue team projects. Can you provide one challenge your mentees encountered and the advice you provided.
I have been a mentor for e7: Daughters of the Emirates for the past two years. This is a year-long program that brings together young women ages 18-25 to design, develop and implement community-driven team projects around specific themes: Culture & Heritage, Education & Career, Environment & Health, Female Leadership amongst others.
Interestingly, the one common area that has needed the most input has been around team dynamics and communication. These are soft skills that one doesn’t learn in a theoretical classroom environment but through experience working on a team project. Communication is key and choice of messaging even more so. Never underestimate the power of words and the effect they may have on those around you. Be able to demonstrate empathy, integrity and purpose with your team members. Put your ego aside and be receptive to constructive criticism: this will allow you to become a better version of yourself.
How important is the role of a mentor for a startup or an emerging business? What are the main characteristics one should seek in a mentor?
Having mentors, whether it be at an early stage in your life or in the lifecycle of your business, or a later one, is extremely valuable. I wouldn’t be where I am today if it weren’t for the mentors, past and present, in my life. I do believe for an early stage business you want to get as much feedback as you can from trusted sources. You are looking for professionals who are familiar with your specific industry vertical and who can add intangible value to your business via deep expertise, constructive feedback and business development opportunities. These are industry mentors. As the founder of a company you may also want to seek a leadership mentor, a person whose leadership skills and business acumen you respect and can learn from and apply to your own personal and professional development. One single mentor may not be enough and you may prefer to have several, each with their own area of strength. Starting a venture is an exciting journey: you will evolve as a person and the types of mentors you will be seeking will evolve in tandem as you grow both professionally and personally.
Describe your journey so far and your future aspirations.
My path has been an unexpected one and took on an exciting turn when we launched VentureSouq in 2013. If you’d asked me 10+ years ago when I was starting my corporate career if I could ever see myself as an entrepreneur I probably would have looked at you blankly: it wouldn’t have even crossed my mind.
That said, it all makes sense now in retrospect; the skillsets I developed and enjoyed the most then are what led me to what I am doing today. The lessons I learned: keep an open mind, challenge yourself and trust yourself. My aspirations for VentureSouq are for it to become a multi-pillared endeavor that will continue to support the regional ecosystem in meaningful ways. This is only the beginning of an exciting journey.
Sonia Weymuller is a Founding Partner of VentureSouq, the largest early stage equity funding platform in the region. Previously, she headed Advertising Sales for Turner Broadcasting’s portfolio of children’s platforms across MENA and Africa. Prior to Turner, Sonia worked with Viacom’s Emerging Markets’ Strategy Group and Microsoft’s Strategy and M&A team in London. Sonia holds a B.A. from Yale University and a MSc from the London School of Economics. She is a Charter Member for TiE’s Dubai chapter, serves as the UAE Director for the Yale Alumni Schools Committee, is an active Committee member and mentor at e7 Daughters of the Emirates and an advisor to Air Shepherd, a non-profit that harnesses the power of technology to preempt poaching activities in Africa.