Considering the rather unique setting – I was attending what was billed as the largest gathering of Iranians outside of that country in decades – I thought it rather odd they served Tex-Mex food: chilli con carne, extra jalapeños. But perhaps a subtle point was being made. For despite the extraordinary nature of the event, the ultimate goal of iBridges, a three-day business powwow held last week in Berlin, was to make it slightly less extraordinary. Normal, even.
While some tech events shoot for low-hanging acronym-filled fruit, the organisers of iBridges – first held in California last year – hunt for big game: amid Iran’s massive political and economic challenges, what’s the future of business in the country? And how do we get from A to B?
And so I set off to Berlin’s CityCube exhibition centre, notebook in hand, name tag and lanyard in place, ready to navigate a sea of Iranian start-ups. The event brought together hundreds of entrepreneurs, a sizable chunk of the Persian business diaspora and curious investors from dozens of countries, all chomping at the bit for a way in. And rightly so: it’s a country with an exceptionally educated and young population, a sky-high smartphone penetration rate and a promising, if nascent, tech ecosystem with myriad opportunities.
The government’s blocking of Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and other sites has forced entrepreneurs to invent local versions: Digikala.com is the oft-cited Iranian answer to Amazon, and it’s the most-used one in the Middle East. For every video streaming or food-delivery service, for every crowd-funding or daily deals site, there’s an Iranian start-up doing it its way, locally.
And yet, business environments considered promising aren’t often saddled by such a weight of international sanctions. And that’s the oddness of the whole event, the quiet shadow hanging over every conversation and handshake. Sanctions over the country’s nuclear programme have cut off Iran’s banking system from the outside world. Credit cards are problematic. So are many services such as Google AdWords, the oxygen for ad-driven businesses worldwide. And of course, until sanctions are eased following any nuclear deal, it remains illegal for Americans to invest directly in the country.
But despite the sanctions and other challenges, most Iranian start-ups seem to be getting by just fine. As director of the MIT Media Lab, Joi Ito, said in a video aired at the event: “Living in a frugal society doesn’t mean you’re disadvantaged, it means you’re advantaged in thinking from the perspective of efficiency.”
Keep an eye on Monocle 24 in the coming weeks – and in particular, to our business programme The Entrepreneurs. We’ll feature interviews and a special round-table chat on the future of the start-up scene in this dynamic country. Do tune in.
Daniel Giacopelli is producer and presenter of Monocle 24’s weekly business programme, The Entrepreneurs.