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Shant Oknayan: Development of Armenia’s tech ecosystem is a marathon, not a sprint

Shant Oknayan, Head of e-Commerce, Retail and Online Services at Facebook in the Middle East, North Africa (MENA) and Pakistan, visited Armenia in October to participate in HIVE Summit 2017, held at Tumo Center for Creative Technologies.

Shant Oknayan has over 15 years’experience in leading business development and digital transformation. Previously, he headed Google’s market development for small and medium businesses and was Head of Strategy in the Middle East and North Africa.  Shant Oknayan also co-founded GlamBox, an ecommercestartup based in Dubai, UAE

Itel.am talked to Shant Oknayan.

-Do you follow tech developments in Armenia and, if yes, what are your latest impressions?

-I have been to Armenia a few times before but this is my first professional visit with the purpose of exploring its tech scene with other Armenians working the tech and VC space around the world. It’s been a phenomenal experience.

We spent some time at Impact Hub meeting with Armenian start-ups who pitched to us. It’s very fascinating to see how advanced the thinking of Armenian startups is, particularly from a development and engineering perspective.

Shant Oknayan

Shant Oknayan
Image by: Teen Media Production

Obviously, there are companies like PicsArt and Teamable that has done incredibly well from a global perspective. The great scalable business has an international presence. I think the next one that comes to mind is Volterman smart wallet; I am very curious to see how that’s going to come to fruition. There are some other interesting businesses as well in travel, edutech or even the established delivery sector; concepts that are proven to be very successful, so localizing in this case is probably an easier activity than starting with something very innovative like AI, Machine Learning, cryptocurrency or blockchain, although those are top of mind of the international VC’s.

-Taking into consideration global trends, what directions would you advise Armenian startups to develop?

-From the conversations we had, we concluded that Armenian startups are particularly strong from a technical perspective, with strong product understanding. I’d like to see these startups diversify their skill sets from a business and growth marketing perspectives.

If you’re going international, you really need to understand the consumers in the markets that you’re going after and, more importantly, the way you are going to approach them.

I think there’s a little bit of work that Armenian startups need to do from a business perspective. They should start positioning themselves and having the 30-second elevator pitch when speaking to VCs, making it very clear to consumers or enteprises why they should be signing up or buying from them or coming back to their services.

Building these diversified skill sets will require time but after all this is a marathon not a spring and it’s going to take a generation for Armenia to be known as a knowledge economy.

I think the right foundations are in place, with things like the fantastic Tumo Center, projects like Impact hub, as well as all those great startups that are taking the risk to do something big. This excited, educated and engaged youth are the foundations of the great human capital Armenia can be known for and export globally.. I just hope to be part of this journey and come back as soon as possible.
Shant Oknayan

Shant Oknayan
Image by: Teen Media Production

-Is it better to have a good team without a ready business model or vice versa?

- I would definitely go for a good team, because a good team will know how to be flexible, how to change direction.

As someone who has founded a business (editor’s note: Shant is a cofounder of GlamBox, a online beauty subscription business based in the UAE and Saudi Arabia), it was less about the idea and more about the execution. The execution is strongly correlated to how strong the team is.

- When you were just starting GlamBox a few years ago, what basic mistakes did you make?

- The number of mistakes we made was ridiculous – from hiring the wrong people to not firing them quickly enough.

You need to be very quick and hire the right people, and if you don’t, you want to make sure you’re letting them go as quickly as possible.

Understanding the market and understanding whether it’s a scalable business was a key component for us. You need a minimal viable product (MVP) as quickly as possible to prove that this concept works. That’s what VCs are going to see as tangible metrics as they decide to give or not to give you money.

A lot of companies make the mistake of saying, “I have a great idea, but I haven’t executed and I need money for that.” No, you don’t. Bootstrap it, put in your own money, go after friends and family, prove with hard metrics that this is something that will work so that when you’re going to raise money you can say, “Here’s a great team that I have, here’s a phenomenal idea that I’ve seen, and I’ve done the market analysis to prove that the hypothesis is strong and I’ve done a proof of concept to prove that the results are strong at least for now.”

Don’t raise money just for the sake of raising money. Have a plan of how you’re going to spend this money and make it very detailed. It’s a very important takeaway when going into the V.C. meetings to say, “I know how I’m going to spend this money.”
Shant Oknayan

Shant Oknayan
Image by: Teen Media Production

When you are speaking with VC’s, select the ones that you’re going to enjoy working with.  It’s a partnership – they’re evaluating you as much as you’re evaluating them. You actually want a strategic relationship. Think in terms of what they can offer you above and beyond the money.

Think how can they open doors for you, help you strike strategic partnerships, put you in touch with good business and marketing programs and opportunities. These are some of the things that I learned in the first 9-12 months as a founder.

- Where do you think technologies are heading? Could you name future tech trends?

- I’m more on the business side of things, but I can give you an elaboration of what Facebook’s long term roadmap is. The things that are top of mind at the moment are artificial intelligence and machine learning, how to make things more scalable and impactful.

There’s a lot of work around connectivity and that’s particularly important for the emerging markets that haven’t figured out how to deploy infrastructure: how can we help them connect to the Internet and connect with the world. Another trend is virtual and augmented reality, and the role these can play in how consumers engage with one another and their communities.

Fintech is also very hot right now; cryptocurrency, block chain – these are things that we’re hearing time and again. I think companies that crack these will be very successful at a global level.

I’m personally passionate about companies that are investing in areas like health tech, agritech, edutech. These are sectors that have always been less sexy in the past, and I think there’s a large opportunity to really disrupt these businesses that have been very traditional so far.  

Narine Daneghyan talked to Shant Oknayan
Photos by Teen Media Production

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