Guest post: Bazinga! – Palestine’s tech entrepreneur factory emerges

This is guest post by Mohamed El Dahshan, an economist and writer who also advises governments and IGOs on entrepreneurship in developing countries, with a focus on post-conflict nations. He has been been published in the New Yorker, the New York Times, the Guardian, Foreign Policy, Al-Masry Al-Youm, the Huffington Post, Daily News Hurriyet, among others. Mohamed has maintained his blog and Twitter account as anonymous until the end of the January 25th 2011 revolution in Egypt, in which he took part from day one. Most recently he was a speaker at the inaugural TEDxRamallah conference.

They say Palestinians are more passionate about the Spanish football league than Spaniards.

Not here, though.

“The Barcelona-Real game? No, we’re not really the football watching type.” Mohammad and Mourad laugh. “We did read the results on Twitter though”.

Welcome to Bazinga!, the first Palestinian tech hub, offering a workspace and support to technology and internet entrepreneurs.

The brainchild of five friends, Bazinga! has in a few months established itself as a central address for internet and mobile applications startups, and its founding fathers (and mother) unavoidable figures of the Palestinian tech scene.

Fans of the “Big Bang Theory” sitcom will immediately recognize the famous catchphrase that gave the company its name, but it’s not clear to everyone. “People ask a lot about the name”, tells me acting CEO Mohammad Khatib. “Today at the bank the teller asked me to explain the company’s name – and there was a full queue behind me!”

Bazinga’s location is a spacey floor of a 4-story building on a quaint street in Ramallah, Palestine’s economic and political nervous centre.
The space is dotted with chairs and tables, a couple of dozens of colourful bean bags, with walls hand-painted with large keywords on the wall – “innovation, “mobile”, “ideas”, “solutions”… – as well as logos of social media companies, and a “Physical Facebook Wall” where visitors stick their handwritten posts and comments. The washrooms are marked with male and female Android robots. It’s a friendly adult geek playground.
The rainy afternoon did not allow us to sit on the balcony – on sunnier days, bean bags and extension cords are dragged outside, I’m told.

“And if you want to order something from the café”, says Mohammad as he points to the Android robot with the chef hat by the cafeteria in the corner of the room, “you order it online, and you get an email when your order is ready – we’re trying to keep the noise level to a minimum here”.
The café wasn’t manned though – finances not allowing hiring a barista. In fact, the venture’s revenue streams are rather meager – membership fees, occasional renting of the space, the cafeteria and a small ‘boutique’, as well as the occasional corporate service still fall short of the needs and expansion needs in terms of space, furnishing – heating and cooling are ever more so necessary in Ramallah’s notoriously badly insulated houses – and “more gadgets”.

I sit with Mohammad and his co-founder Mourad for a long chat.

Mohammad wears a Google t-shirt, an Android baseball cap – and taps away on his MacBook Pro decorated with a “My other computer is a data center” sticker. I tease him on the brand inconsistency. He smiles.
Mourad Taleeb, a silent and talented web and graphic designer, is in a Bazinga! sweatshirt and his computer is decorated with his own signature comic character, Moodi.

The overall ambiance of the place is unmistakably collegiate. Whether by design or a side-effect of the team’s youthfulness I cannot tell – but it seems to be working.

For Riham Issam it is working indeed. A computer science engineering senior I met at Bazinga! – “graduating in two weeks… theoretically”, she says – she comes to Bazinga because “I don’t get much done at home. But here, being around people working.. It’s contagious”.

Bazinga! aspires to be more than a common physical workspace. “We do our best to provide the tools developers need – Android phones, X-Box Kinect, Chrome tablets – as well as, when possible, hold regular events and discussions, mentorship opportunities.
“Our network is still small though”, says Mourad, “but that will come as the number of members grows. We also held a startup competition recently”.

In fact, Riham developed her project, EasySakan, during the ‘Intaleq!’ startup competition organized by Bazinga a few months, which was attended by 60 young developers – a resounding success for a new and unknown venture. She plans to launch by the end of the month.

I spent an undeniably relaxed half-day at Bazinga! – it’s difficult to remain completely serious when you’re trying to swim up from a turquoise bean bag – but the managers try to maintain a clear work environment. I somehow managed to get some work done myself.

It’s about then that Rasha Rasem walks into the office as she recounts her argument with a professor of hers – essentially, she was right, he wasn’t. She drops her backpack and drops on pink beanbag, as she plugs her laptop.
The youngest of the five co-founders and the only woman on the team, she is a college senior at the prestigious university of Birzeit.
I pause for a second and observe the dynamic within the team. I am wildly amused by the childlike, brotherly bickering between them. How they handle the specifics of work distribution I do not know.

The Bazinga crew – Bazingawis, in their insider lingo – are already looking forward to the next step: more services to their members, from dedicated workstations to seed funding. Mohammad Khatib wants to fill a market need.
“Everyone says it’s not about the money, but it is part of the work. There’s an availability of VC money, including a new VC fund dedicated for technology startups, Equiom, managed by Saed Nashef

But seed money is harder to come by.

And we’re also hoping to build a network of support and mentorship. But that will grow, inevitably, as the number of members grows”.