Fadi Bishara, Founder Blackbox speaks to IDG about Pakistani Startups, Silicon Valley & Beyond!

Genesis of Blackbox

Fadi Bishara, born and raised in Syria, came to the US to study engineering and moved to California in 1992, at a time when the local economy was not doing very well. In 1995, Fadi plunged into the internet business and met people who were building landscapes and learned more about the internet. It was at this time that he started working as a recruiter, getting to understand and help companies build their technical teams. Chromatic Research, a small startup with only 20 people, was one of the first companies he worked with. Only a year later, Fadi started off his own firm helping many companies in Silicon Valley build their technical teams… today, he runs one of Palo Alto’s most popular accelerators – Blackbox.  

In 2010, there was a lot of conversation about accelerators and these started becoming really popular. You could see there was an entrepreneurial movement going on globally with starting a company becoming much easier and cheaper. But somehow, the general thought about these accelerators at the time was that the model they are working on was somehow not complete.

First of all it was not very scalable and there were concerns about what happens to companies if they don’t get funded after three months? How are you going to structure something bigger and kind of long term?

“I started Blackbox as I got connected with more international founders here in the Silicon Valley and thought maybe what I could do is help connect these international founders here with my network and people who would come in can raise funds, learn from experts and mentors. This game of technology, innovation, entrepreneurship and startups is being played since more than 50 years and the people I set out to assist or work with are just talented and incredible people, all they need is just learn how to navigate their way and understand the cultural things, how it’s all relationship-based. So that was the genesis of starting Blackbox.”

Initially, Fadi started off by hosting entrepreneurs in his house; mostly those from Arabic countries, working on projects and eventually moved into a bigger house, rented out by a Chinese investor. This place became the residency for hosting entrepreneurs and a platform for community-based events focusing on international startups that were coming to Silicon Valley. From there, they walked with the program of Blackbox Connect which was a program designed to select a specific number of startups.

Initially, six to eight companies were being selected at a time to come and spend two weeks, live together and the Blackbox team would bring a lot of experts, successful entrepreneurs and investors to them and build relations and have them realize those are people just like them and there are the innovative and creative aspects that entrepreneurs have globally. That’s where Blackbox started to grow and the program was very successful.

Blackbox Connect is a two-week program, it’s this immersive experience of understanding the culture and language of Silicon Valley and how things work here and helping entrepreneurs from outside to build and expand their vision and understand where they need to be if they want to launch their product in the US or if they want funds raised from here.

After two weeks typically, the companies are in the stage where they are ready to enter the US market. They work with them on a customized case-by-case model where they are committed to work for a year or more.

The Blackbox Connect program applications, received from around the world but mostly Europe and Latin America, helped them gain access to a lot of people outside the US and exposed Blackbox to their network and the brilliant work that was going on in the entrepreneurial space.

Google Takes Heed to Blackbox Connect Program

Soon after, Google approached Blackbox, offering to help with their partners from around the world, through initiatives like Google for Entrepreneurs that strongly supports innovation and entrepreneurship and wanted to gift their global partners an opportunity to send their companies to the Blackbox Connect Program.

So this partnership helps those who come from countries where there’s a high cost of living and other things are too expensive for entrepreneurs, to fly and pay for the program, provide for food and accommodation and everything else. “That was a really pivotal point; exposing us to more entrepreneurs that we probably wouldn’t have met otherwise. For the first time, we were seeing companies from Pakistan, Egypt and regions I haven’t travelled to and haven’t seen entrepreneurs coming from.”

 

Pakistani Startups: A New Experience Altogether

Since the idea behind the Google & Blackbox partnership was for them to nominate four to five companies or startups that would come to the Connect program, they did so through their partners based in Pakistan. After initial identification, Blackbox would interview these startups on video and get them to complete an application, following which, one company from each partner country would be selected to participate in the Blackbox Connect program. The partner’s portfolio included Pakistan, Egypt, France, Germany, Poland and South Africa.

The first company that came to Blackbox Connect from Pakistan was Eyedeus Lab for their app called Groopic.

Expanding on the program and allowing startups to set a base in the US, Fadi explains the inspiration from the Israeli model of startups. “During the acceleration program this year, we have had these startups set up a corporate in the US and operate as a US entity so it’s basically recognized. The reason we are developing this model is because moving the entire company to Silicon Valley is not necessarily practical and not always to the advantage of entrepreneurs because it’s very competitive and expensive out here.”

This helps them establish a solid presence in here, where the founder would spend a few months in Silicon Valley, build the necessary relationships with investors, distribution partners, raise money and go back and forth, maybe fly two three times a year and continue to nurture the team and actually take that experience back to their country. This allows them to learn the best practices of how startups are scaled and how they kind of grow from here and implement all this learning in their home country also.

So Groopic/Eyedeus Lab was the first example of a Pakistani company that Blackbox has done this with, and ‘they have demonstrated it very well for us’, says a very pleased mentor, Fadi Bishara. “It seems like this model has worked well so far.

Since Groopic in summer of 2013, Blackbox has done six more rounds of this program and to date completed 10 cycles, where several Pakistani companies have benefitted from the experience. Out of the 10 cycles, nearly five were fully sponsored by Google.

Plan9 Takes the Lead for Nominating Pakistani Startups

But what happened after Groopic’s success was that, Plan9, a tech incubator in Lahore where they were incubated at, really liked the results they saw, the changes and values this company had and invited me to visit Lahore. They are now officially in an agreement where Plan9 wants to send companies in every cycle of the program, where even if Google is not sponsoring they would be willing to sponsor the companies.

“When I visited Lahore, in just one week, I met really impressive and talented startups and I was more impressed to realize how, with the limitation of the infrastructure in terms of electricity being cut off and internet filtration and how they do not have access to a lot of things, yet they were very talented and creative in building some breakthrough technologies.”

 Blackbox: An Accelerator to the Accelerators

“The companies that come to us are at a stage where they have graduated from acceleration programs from their home countries so we act almost like an accelerator to the accelerators themselves and I work with these companies directly then.”

The pattern they look at is how the founders behave and act the kind of special traits and characteristics they possess plus how they treat their employees.

“I strongly believe companies and startups are built by entrepreneurs who have an emotional connection to what they are doing. They do it from a place that is, almost like selection level of a domain expertise or the focus in the industry or market that they know they could add value to.

 

Partnerships/ Global Outreach

Partnering with different countries and their local programs helped BlackBox gain access to those regions and get exposure.

“Through our partnerships, we have been introduced to many different ecosystems, and in the last three years I have traveled to more than 40 countries have seen many different models, incubators, accelerators in places like Latin America, South-East Asia, Europe and it is fascinating and always good to share the knowledge and try to bring out new ideas that we have learned from other regions.”

Silicon Valley – The Gravitational Point for Entrepreneurship

Starting from the Silicon Valley, the gravitational point of the entrepreneurship game they would like to have this network initiated around the world based on a trusted relationship and quality entrepreneurship.

Eventually they are looking at taking the program to a different region and do a pilot in Latin America or Europe.

BlackBox wants to take companies from different parts of the world. Like you’re from Pakistan or from Europe, enroll in the Blackbox program and there is a network of experienced entrepreneurs, you’re connected to the people who would help navigate and provide access to understand how your product is best for Europe or Latin America etc.