Editor’s note: While working at Buzzcar (Zipcar founder Robin Chase’s project in France) as community manager, Aline Mayard decided to go explore the Middle East. She quit her job, and starting investigating society, innovation and change there on her travel blog: yallabye.eu. She’s sharing what she’s learned about local Web ecosystems on The Next Web. You can follow her on Twitter as @aline_myd or @yallah_bye.
Is it possible to launch a start-up in a country with a shaky Internet, permanent risk of war, and no decent infrastructure? Some Lebanese want to believe that it is.
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Lebanese are well-educated, sometimes trilingual, often very innovative. Still, until recently, Lebanese startups were a rarity. It’s no surprise when you know the political instability of the country, and the lack of infrastructure; the two most obvious problems being the daily 8-hour power cuts, on average, and the unreliable Internet connections. In March 2011, Lebanon was ranked 186th country in terms of Internet speed, behind war-torn countries like Iraq or Afghanistan. At that time, a 1 megabit connection cost about $1,200 per month!
But things are slowly changing: the government has passed a law which has improved the quality and price of Internet connections (still far from being good), and web and mobile entrepreneurship is finally taking shape.
Optimistic graduates vs a risk averse society
Recurrent wars and Mediterranean show-off mentalities have made the Lebanese poorly inclined to risks. Most people there look down upon entrepreneurs. It is socially better to work at large companies as those companies provide a secure and “well”-paid job. For example, some companies offer a clause that guarantees one year of salary if the employees cannot work, say in case of a war.
Finding a job in Lebanon is far from being easy though, and Lebanese are world-renowned for their diaspora and their often brilliant careers abroad. It is said that there are between 8 and 15 million Lebanese living abroad! That’s a lot, especially for a country with only 4 million inhabitants.
The good news is that some creative Lebanese are ready to do whatever it takes to stay in Lebanon and build a future for themselves and their country. The Internet has made that dream possible. Now, with the web and mobile industry, launching a company has become less risky as the investment is no longer physically in Lebanon, but rather on servers all around the world. In case of troubles, entrepreneurs can go abroad and continue their businesses.
Startup weekends and incubators are showing the way
In the past two years, various foundations and organizations have been created to empower Lebanese entrepreneurs: startup weekends, Berytech, Seeqnce, Wamda.com, they all share the same goal: helping Lebanese to take the leap.
Seeqnce is the first accelerator in Lebanon. This accelerator was created by 5 Web-experienced Lebanese, among the first ones to quit their jobs to try the entrepreneurial adventure in Beirut. They wanted to show the Lebanese that they didn’t need to go to Paris or the U.S. to launch their company. Their objective is to create success stories for the Lebanese to feel more confident.
Seeqnce began with several entrepreneurs deciding to share an office and reduce their costs. They naturally began to help each other, and developed good practices. They started what they called “interventions”; each week, they met and explained their problems. At some point, they started to invite other people to get their feedback. People were really enthusiastic, and that’s how Seeqnce was born.
Seeqnce selects 8 companies and helps them build a Web and mobile project. In six months, projects have to turn into viable products and companies. After that, they’re on their own.
Seeqnce, colorfully boasting Lebanese entrepreneurs.
I met Maroun Najm, one of the five founders of Seeqnce, in their colorful offices. Seeqnce has that friendly atmosphere that makes you feel good about the future. But don’t be mistaken: people are here to work. The participants, who are on the late-twenties/early-thirties, are there to create something big, to change Lebanon.
Seeqnce provides 24/24 offices with meeting rooms, Internet connection etc., and support. For Maroun the key to success is sharing. “We know what works and what doesn’t work because we’ve been there. We are here to coach the participants and help them avoid the mistakes we’ve done. We don’t tell them what to do. That’s their job.”
Seeqnce also provides an initial investment. For the current cycle, this investment is worth $76,000 (half in cash, the other in services). Seeqnce gets a 30% stake in the company.
Investors are high-income individuals who don’t mind taking the risk for the sake of Lebanon’s development.
As for the government, they’re too busy struggling to provide electricity 24/24 to make start-ups their priority.
According to Maroun Najm, one of the co-founders, there are some advantages to doing a startup in Beirut. “Young Lebanese live at their parents’ until a certain age so they don’t really need to make money to pay the rent for example, which is good. But again, families often oppose themselves to their kids taking such a risk.
For girls, it’s easier in some ways because there is not as much social pressure. In a way, it’s a revenge: people don’t expect anything from them, so there’s nothing stopping them from starting a company!
Another particularity is that Lebanon is not a market. It’s too small and too poor. So Lebanese startups have to think regional or global from the start. We even have a startup that focuses solely on the United States.”
The project is now a year and a half old. It took the team a year to put everything in place: finding a space, convincing local investors to fund Seeqnce as well as the selected projects, testing the program on various projects, promoting the program and finally selecting the first participants.
The first public cycle started last May. After a big communication campaign aiming at getting people to know about entrepreneurship, the Seeqnce team started three months of selection. They received 450 applications of people with or without projects, 30% of them coming from abroad (Egypt but also Eastern Europe and United States). After a series of personal interviews and mixers, they selected 28 persons, who by then had formed 8 projects. They are now going through their 6 months of coaching. This cycle will end in March and the next selection will begin in April. Get ready!
Image credit: AFP / Getty Images