On May 12th 2017, I was invited to moderate a panel underlying the journey from Startups to SMEs in Lebanon and the challenges and opportunities that come from being in such a country. Although it was not my first time as a moderator it was my first time discussing with senior executives who built companies that have been part of the Lebanese Economy for more than a decade and have managed to do quite well.
My panel was composed of very successful people who all started small and managed to turn into SMEs with a Semi-Global reach. Among these panelists were Fouad Ghoraeib Founder/CEO of Invigo a large mobile services company, Michel Chammas CEO of Bsynchro the leading Insuretech company in MENA, Lucien Kazzi CEO of Tecknologix a leading automation company, Tony Feghali CEO of Potech a cyber security company, Ali Zein CEO from Idea to Life a development company with a CTO as a service product and finally Rabih Nassar CEO of Element^N and Scriptr.io.
The Panel was extremely intense and entertaining and I balanced questions to see the point of view of people from different industries and seniority and discuss how being based in Lebanon would be a blessing or a curse, the issue turned to be more complex and open-ended.
Some panelists highlighted the positive impact that being in Lebanon had on them:
- Access to top technical talent due to our very good university funding
- The ability to sell in a large region including MENA and Africa due to being trilingual
- Resilience of the Lebanese people and strong will and the ability to keep driving forward despite harsh times
- The presence of new initiatives such as the Circular 331 and organizations and Funds such as Berytech and Berytech Fund 2 that provide both support and financial aid
Some companies such as Invigo and Bsynchro have managed to compete consistently with foreign companies on international contract and have assured that the quality of services provided was lauded by the customers. Mr Ghoraeib of Invigo mentioned that his company was present in most of the bids in regional and Africa telco. Rabih Nassar of Scriptr.io has mentioned that his product a unified platform for IOT security had great traction in the US and recognition although selling was harder.
However the panelists had also their share of concerns mentioned some issues that when solved (soon) will make Lebanese SMEs more competitive internationally
- Solving the infrastructure and Internet issue in Lebanon. Electricity is not always present and generators are costly this has forced Mr Kazzi to move his business from pure industrial equipment to smart automation. Fiber optics Internet is coming but the internet now is a hindrance and actually provides reverse effect on companies.
- Other wishes were more Government Involvement specially by affiliating ICT SMEs to one ministry which has not been the case and getting help from the Ministry of Foreign affairs into getting contacts and making introductions for international expansion
- Clustering complementary SMEs to create a strong hub that can go to conferences such as CES, SXSW en force and promote Lebanon as a tech hub. This has been successful with La French Tech and besides just being a grouping of French startups it has become a very strong brand name. Also Mr Chammas and Mr Ghoraeib proposed partnering with major players on a worldwide and regional level to benefit from their networks even acquiring some small companies to open new horizons.
- Finally being more risk taking in Lebanon , investment are made in mature companies so far. Ali Zein mentioned the need for more seed funding despite more failure to encourage entrepreneurs to go the route instead of corporate employment.
I concluded the panel by asking an open question about what makes or break a Entrepreneur and the answers were pretty consistent and motivating:
” Waking up every day with the desire of building something” – Tony Feghaly
“Saying there is no plan B and never considering failure” – Lucien Kazzi
“Be ready to make sacrifices the life of an Entrepreneur is hard and requires a lot of sacrifice, those who want to make it need to embrace the risk, uncertainty and hardships involved”
In the end Lebanese Tech companies are competitive, highly adaptable and very well recognized. The only thing needed is to go in strong knock on doors specially in international markets, take risks on markets as per the panelists there is no reward without risk.
Souhail Khoury, Berytech Fund II Investment Team