Lebanon has long suffered with some of the slowest Internet speeds in the world, but a new crop of online entrepreneurs believes their country is primed for a tech start-up boom.
In the upscale Hamra district of Beirut, start-up “accelerator” Seeqnce has a second-floor office with a vibe and style that recall 1990s Silicon Valley.
The office is open-plan, a main workspace ringed by meeting rooms that are named for and painted in bright colors.
Ideas are scribbled in erasable marker directly onto glass table-tops or white boards, and there’s a well-stocked shelf of alcohol that bolsters one employee’s claim that Seeqnce “throws the best parties.”
Sitting at computers in the main room are some of the participants in the company’s first-ever accelerator program, a six-month effort to guide a group of eight budding Internet entrepreneurs from ideas to investment.
“People are really getting into building Internet start-ups,” said Seeqnce co-founder Fadi Bizri, who helps mentor those taking part in the program.
“They enter, they work with us in a boot-camp military fashion, and then they graduate and pitch to investors,” he said.
He and his partners set up the program last year, planning to solicit 300 individual applications and whittle them down to about 30.
Some of their would-be investors were skeptical, but they ended up with 430 applicants, and held mixers and events until they put together eight teams they felt had potential.
Among the applicants was 24-year-old Marwan Hamouche, who pitched BaytBaytak (Arabic for My House is Your House), a real estate website that connects homeowners to would-be buyers and renters.
Some of his friends and family were less than thrilled at his decision to quit his job in film production and advertising and join the program.
Lebanon has a reputation for entrepreneurship, but usually within a few traditional sectors, like hospitality and banking.
“I got a bit criticized by friends who said ‘Marwan, you had a rather good position... why did you leave?’” he said.
“I decided to take a path that is more risky and that can be more rewarding.”
In exchange for a 30-percent stake, divided between itself and its investors, Seeqnce offered the eight start-ups about $38,000 in cash and six months of office space and full-time mentoring.
The cohort is diverse.
At Etobb.com (Emedicine), users can consult a range of doctors with medical questions and view their answers to other queries.
Kactus is a phone app that allows overwhelmed users to organize tasks into to-do lists, and Rikbit.com helps people arrange group activities and outings.
Bizri says the sites and apps are part of a tech start-up wave.
“The feeling is that it’s happening, that now is the time.”
With a growing number of firms available to shape start-ups, innovative loan options and improving Internet speeds, Lebanon’s would-be tech entrepreneurs benefit from an increasingly favorable environment.
Berytech is a well-established “incubator” offering workspace and seed capital to start-ups, and is also part of an ambitious new public-private plan to establish a tech hub called the Beirut Digital District.
Internet speeds are climbing steadily, with average connection speeds of 1.3 megabits per second, up from just under 0.4 in 2007, according to tracker Akamai.
“It was embarrassing, now it's bad but it's not embarrassing,” Bizri says. “It's no longer an excuse to say ‘I can't do a start-up.’”
And despite the novelty of online businesses in Lebanon, there are several ways for tech start-ups to finance their expansions.
Khater Abi Habib heads Kafalat, a loan guarantee facility that could soon be helping some of Seeqnce’s charges get next-stage funding.
“When we first started as Kafalat, we thought that the (tech start-up) field was one of the sectors that were underfinanced, it was very difficult to get start-up money,” Abi Habib said.
“Start-ups are more risky and the business is less understood by conventional bankers.”
Kafalat aims to encourage banks to extend loans to young firms, including tech start-ups, by guaranteeing their outlays, up to 90 percent.
A joint project of Lebanon’s National Institute for the Guarantee of Deposits and about 40 member banks, it makes money by charging a premium on its guarantees.
“It’s a collective investment that allows the banks to spread the risk,” Abi Habib says.
Its beneficiaries include Cinemoz, a video-on-demand website that got its start in Seeqnce’s offices and eventually grew big enough to hire a staff of 14 people and move into its own premises.
“We received a $200,000 innovation loan from Kafalat,” Cinemoz CEO Karim Safieddine told AFP.
“It allowed us to do wonders... Kafalat is literally the only true seed funding alternative in Lebanon.”
Safieddine says the firm made $600,000 in advertising revenue in its first year and is now seeking additional funding to expand.
“There is definitely a spreading wave. The worldwide start-up trend, with rock star entrepreneurs and success stories, is trickling down in our region,” he said.