Blue sea, blue sky thinking: Is Blue House the ultimate tech startup getaway?

Morocco's Atlantic coast is the setting for a new sanctuary for startups and entrepreneurs to work on short-term projects and meet like-minded individuals.
Written by Damian Radcliffe, Contributor

The Blue House's Aline Mayard: Realized how beneficial it could be for overworked people to take a step back.

Image: The Blue House

There's clearly something special about the Moroccan village of Taghazout. Nestling in a bay on the country's sweeping Atlantic coastline, this popular fishing spot is home to fewer than 6,000 inhabitants. Yet, it's this size, coupled with a laidback reputation and good surfing, which perhaps makes it an ideal haven for startups.

Two years ago, the team behind the storytelling startup Maptia based themselves in the village as they developed and then launched the first beta version of their site. Now others can follow in their footsteps with the opening of The Blue House, a temporary base for entrepreneurs who want to work on a specific short-term problem, or wish to meet like-minded individuals.

The creation of this startup getaway is the brainchild of the journalist Aline Mayard, who drew inspiration from other sunshine friendly co-working and co-loving spaces, such as Hubud in Bali and the Surf Office in the Canary Islands.

As the French editor for the Middle East website Wamda, Mayard is familiar with the region, and frequently combines travel with work.

On a recent set of travels, Mayard decided to see why several startups that she had written about had ended in this small part of the Moroccan coast.

"My first stop was Taghazout," she explains. "I fell in love with the place and realized how beneficial it could be for overworked people to leave their comfort zone and take a step back."

To help entrepreneurs do just that, Mayard has created a series of specific programs lasting between three and 10 days and designed to enable participants "to take a step back, recharge energy and reconnect with their mission".

Catering both for startups and more established businesses, attendees can enjoy packages akin to more traditional offsite meetings, short retreats or 10-day residential experiences, as well as introductions to mindfulness and new ways of working, such as walking meetings, taking scheduled breaks and using standing desks.

Part of the mix are communal meals and barbecues with local guests, who have included "an Australian corporate lawyer turned yogi, a hippy-sleeping-beneath-the-Eiffel-Towel turned Accel-backed entrepreneur, Moroccan entrepreneurs, [and] a former London-based VC turned social entrepreneur".

This approach was piloted last spring. "We had six startups, and one entrepreneur between jobs and one developer," Mayard says. This inaugural cohort featured 12 people with different backgrounds "from the UK, the US, France, Sweden and the Netherlands" all seeking "to tackle their usual workload and to think about the bigger picture".

As manifest in this initial group, the proximity to Europe offered by this seaside location makes it a potentially practical and cost-effective location for European startups to visit. Meanwhile, the benefits for startups appear to speak for themselves. "One has already booked its next stay, and some others want to make it a bi-annual tradition," she says.

Nordic Design Collective's Maria Richardsson says the slow pace in the village and the atmosphere in the house "made us very relaxed, even though we worked quite intensely during our stay. I realised our level of stress is not related to the amount of hours we work".

For those who participated in the pilot phase, Mayard says, "One startup managed to iron out its European expansion strategy, another to prepare for its new fundraising round, and some came to recover after an exhausting launch, or simply to widen their horizons."

After a successful pilot, the team launched a crowdfunding campaign in the summer to support the purchase of equipment, furnishings and sponsorship of local talent. But like many startups this route wasn't necessarily right for them.

"Launching a campaign in late August was a real challenge," Mayard concedes, also commenting how "incorporating the company, finding the house, and hiring" were also very time-consuming. These will be familiar challenges to many potential residents.

"We could have gone to the bank but it didn't feel right," Mayard adds. "This project grew with its community," she says, noting that, "I wanted to continue involving the community in this adventure."

Although the campaign didn't hit its target, other revenue streams such as retreats and offsite sessions meant the venture could continue to move forward.

"We're still short of a few thousand euros," Mayard admits. "But that's what banks are for."

The Blue House launched its first full retreat in mid-October. The house-warming bought together accelerator managers, influencers, and entrepreneurs from London, Beirut, Paris and Casablanca, with another scheduled for February 2016.

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Alongside these more immersive experiences, The Blue House also opens its doors each month for a €600 10-day all-inclusive residency. Taking inspiration from an artists' residence, these events allow participants to continue with their usual work while also creating time to down tools and meet interesting new people.

Mayard's model is driven by a belief that "more startups needed to have an opportunity to work in a different context".

She cites Shaun Moore and Nezare Chafni, the two Dallas-based founders of smart doorbell Chui, as well as previous Blue House visitors from DarpDecade, Birdbrief, Nordic Design Collective, GPMD and PrepMyFuture, as just some of those to have benefited from this approach.

Her enthusiasm is supported by input from an impressive range of advisers including Asmaa Guedira, a French-Moroccan connector for the OuiShare collaborative community, Seedcamp's investor Dave Haynes, TheFamily's co-founder Alice Zagury, Endeavor Morocco's founder Amine Hazzaz, Beta-i's co-founder Ricardo Marvao and former Index VC Sofia Hmich.

For Mayard and her supporters, besides consolidating the current operation, thoughts have already turned to potential opportunities for expansion.

"We want to offer different options to accommodate everyone's taste," Mayard says enthusiastically. "We're thinking of opening a new place every year, always outside the cities, always in places with a very strong identity where people can relax and try a unique sport or activity."

As with The Blue House, "We'll try to pick places that are easily accessible from Europe and North America," she says. "I'm currently looking for a partner to help with the expansion, so if you know anyone, let me know."

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