William Bao Bean, of SOSV and Orbit Startups, on running a business in the GCC region

In a conversation with YourStory Gulf Edition, William Bao Bean, General Partner at SOSV and Managing Director of Orbit Startups, talks about Orbit Startups and the plans the fund has for the GCC region.

William Bao Bean, of SOSV and Orbit Startups, on running a business in the GCC region

Thursday January 05, 2023,

7 min Read

William Bao Bean, General Partner at SOSV and the Managing Director of Orbit Startups, is no stranger to the startup ecosystem. He was earlier with SingTel Innov8 Ventures, where he was the Managing Director supporting China investments. Here, he led investments in firms such as Yodo1, GMobi, DemystData, Lekan, and Massive Impact. 

Prior to this, William was a partner at SoftBank China and India Holdings, the venture capital firm backed by SoftBank and Cisco, where he was leading investments in China and South East Asia. 

Currently he is also on the board of companies like Robin8, Neonan, iTalki, Silk Road Telecom, Yodo1, DYAD, kineticOne, and others like AAMA Shanghai, US China Strong Foundation, Angelvest, Angelcrunch, and others. 

After spending over 11 years as an equity research analyst, Williams was most recently with Deutsche Bank, where he was responsible for Internet and Telecom Equipment in Asia and China technology, media, and telecom. He has also covered Digital Media at Banc of America Securities in San Francisco and PC/Enterprise Hardware at Bear Stearns in New York. William was an active angel investor with 39 investments between 2004 and 2014.

Last year, SOVS’ programme Orbit Startups focused on the MENA and GCC region. In a conversation with YourStory Gulf Edition, William talks about Orbit Startups and the plans the fund has for the region. 

Edited excerpts from the interview: 

YourStory Gulf Edition (YS Gulf): Tell us about Orbit Startups and what it does. 

William Bao Bean (WBB): We are focused on bringing the best global tech from across the world for emerging and frontier markets. We are looking at markets where the first and only experience of the internet for people would be on their mobile phones. These are markets where there is a revolution being driven by technology. There are three things we look for–inexpensive mobile data, inexpensive working smartphones, and payment that actually works. It could even be cash on delivery.

When you get these three, they have the ability to change the lives of the middle class and low-income groups. We are looking at where technology can change the mass market, not just the top 10%. 

We are looking at lessons learnt from China and South Korea, and we are bringing them to the rest of the world.

China is the biggest mobile-only market, and in the last 20 years, technology has transformed the economy and people’s lives. Technology has leap-frogged and accelerated development in these markets, and has taken these lessons to the rest of the world. 

We invest on Orbit through our fund, SOVS. We started with Southeast Asia where we saw these trends, and then, in South Asia, we have over 50 investments in India. We are also now seeing these trends in MENA. 

YS Gulf: How do you view the MENA market? 

WBB: We recently concluded a demo day in Dubai, where we saw startups from different parts of the world–India, Pakistan, Africa, Southeast Asia, and GCC. Dubai is one place where investors are interested in investing in startups around these regions. 

Dubai has a clutch of investors who look strongly at MENA and South Asian markets. We had a great experience showcasing some of the best technology-driven startups across these markets. 

The GCC is also a great bridge between Africa and South Asia, and can compare and contrast, making for great cross-border investors. 

We also see that apart from purely fundraising in the ME region, they also help transform the Middle Eastern markets themselves. There are companies (enterprise B2B) here that serve large enterprise clients, and we spend time investing in these companies. We see that even governments become more efficient in these regions. 

Another large opportunity we see here is the consumer internet. The GCC region has many markets that are similar yet different. There is a big consumer base, especially in regions like Saudi Arabia. These markets often share the same opportunities and challenges. There is a huge scope in digitising fragmented businesses like car repair, etc.

Orbit is really about partnerships between tech startups, corporates, and small businesses to connect to consumers. We are doing B2B2C in India, Egypt, LatAm, and Southeast Asia, and are now looking at digitising traditional business across GCC. 

We see companies that solve a problem in one market, have the opportunity to cross borders and solve the same problem across multiple markets across GCC. 


YS Gulf: Tell us a little more about the startups in the GCC region, and the similarities and differences they have from other markets?  

WBB: One of the main differences about the GCC region is that there are fewer people, but the spending power is much higher. We are looking at other markets where we are active, but we see many people don’t have that much money. 

The similarities? Adoption of technology hasn’t followed the money and the level of digitisation is still quite low. In South Asia, you may have a cheap car repair app and in Dubai you have a BMW in a car repair app, and all are using the same technology. We are looking at how we can take technology and make these markets more efficient, and deliver better value to consumers and corporate partners like Michelin, etc, and the market. 

YS Gulf: What are the pros and cons of starting up in the GCC region?

WBB: One of the challenges is that it is an expensive market. We have a term called Ramen Profitability, which means, as a founder, you are not making or losing money, but are living on the basics. Availing Ramen Profitability in the GCC is very difficult as the markets are extremely expensive. 

But this is where government support and foundation come in, where they help bring the price down, so that founders have the ability to feed themselves even if they are building something that is yet to make money.

We have spent a lot of time with government-backed funds and working spaces, and in getting to know people. It is very important to be cost-conscious to tap into this market as you don’t want to run out of money before you even launch.

YS Gulf: How are you working with startups in the region? 

WBB: We do not tell the companies we work with what needs to be done, because we are not from the market. What works in China and the US may not work in the region.

We help companies we work with make decisions using data. We encourage experiments that help gather relevant data, which tells the next steps to take. 

Based on our expertise, we also help companies design experiments based on what may or may not work across different geographies. We have an educated guess of what might work, and the data helps companies know what may actually work. 

I see the challenges that startups are solving for are global. For example, transportation across the world–people worry about how to get to work. The basic challenges still exist–food, shelter, clothing, and transportation. Other than shelter, we are in most of these basics. 

The low-income and middle-income groups here are generally not from the region and are immigrants from other markets. We are looking at MENA from our position in the South Asia, North Africa, and Southeast Asia. The population is similar, they live in another country, but have the same problems. 

We are looking at anything that is analog (that is run on pen and paper, and phone call or maybe email) to the digital world. One of our first investment that is analog is in Lorryz, which is solving the trucking problem. There is a tech opportunity everywhere. The price points are different, but the challenges are the same. 

YS Gulf: What advice would you give to entrepreneurs?

WBB: It is very important to understand that every market is different even within countries. Dubai is not Abu Dhabi and vice versa. Just because something works in one way in one place doesn’t mean it will work in the same way in another place. That is why this advice is repeated: question your assumptions. It is important to keep on experimenting, especially in new markets. Don’t let your biases and assumptions bog you down. 

Edited by Megha Reddy