Choosing to move back to Lebanon to launch your startup is a challenge and a risk, to say the least. But we’re meeting more and more Lebanese entrepreneurs who believe in the potential of Lebanon. Plus, if you’re able to start a business in Lebanon, with all of its obstacles, you can probably start a business anywhere.
A few months ago, we met Rida and his team as they were in their idea stage of their startup. They’re ambitious and inspiring, so we wanted to share Rida’s story with you.
Did you have to come back or did you choose to come back? Why?
It was a bit of both – but the main driver was me wanting to come back. I arrived to NYC in August 2008 to start grad school in financial engineering – On September 15th Lehman Brothers collapsed and my entire plan to work on Wall Street changed drastically. By the time I graduated in 2010, the economy was in shambles, and I was already questioning the very decision of staying in the US. I’ve always been involved in activism in Lebanon since before I left, and at that time, I had a slight feeling that things were about to happen in the Middle East and I need to be there for that. I returned in December 2010 – In January 2011, the Arab Spring started, and I realized that it was the best decision I ever made. Some might say “but it all went to shit” – It did indeed. Change is cruel and gruesome, and I think that 20 years from now we will look back at 2010-2020 as the years where the Arab World changed.
How do you make the most of living in Lebanon?
I try to connect with friends and family as much as possible – because I never know when I might move again. As for making the most of the country itself, I make it a point to do retreats every now and then, and explore the beauty of nature. I also find myself working out of cafes and coworking spaces every weekend, and meeting new people. But most importantly, outside of work, what gives me purpose is my big involvement in politics and activism in the country. I’ve been part of the campaign management teams of municipal and parliamentary campaigns. An experience that put me at the forefront of local, national and regional politics.
What is one of the biggest challenges of living in Lebanon after living abroad?
I am more aware than ever of the small size of Lebanon – It’s more of a reality that’s always been there, but it just hit me personally. Lebanon is a very small country and a tiny market. If one wishes to grow financially, opportunities are limited. If you’re an employee, there is always that point when you have to relocate outside the country to keep growing. And as a business owner, Lebanon is never your only market. Now the challenge is that while we can consider the Arab World as a single from a consumer point of view (300-400M people who share a LOT in common), the economic and political realities beg to differ. Visas, different regulatory environments, and other restrictions stand in your way as a business owner. So to sum it up in one sentence, I would say that Lebanon doesn’t offer me the geographical “depth” that I can have if I were to stay in the US or live in Europe.
How do you deal with these challenges?
I am still trying to figure a way around this main challenge. I manage to create connections outside Lebanon as much as possible. In parallel, I try to support political platforms that aim to simplify economic exchange between Arab countries – because that’s the country’s only salvation. Unfortunately, we are landlocked today (Syria on the one end, and Occupied Palestine on the other), but politicians in the country need to be very aware that the country cannot survive without facilitating trade and economic exchange with neighboring Arab countries.
What would your advice be for other returnees?
Set your expectations right. Lebanon is beautiful, but there will be a point where it will undoubtedly stand in the way of your own personal growth and self-development. I encourage anyone to come back, but at the same time encourage them to understand what they’re giving up on the one end and what they’re gaining on the other end. I made that choice very consciously. I gave up an easy way to financial/career self-realization, but at the same time I gained a tremendous amount in awareness, and agency. Agency is very important here. No matter what the word out there is, you have agency in Lebanon. It’s a place undergoing change, and is part of a bigger regional context of change. You will be closer to the dirt, but closer to the glory as well ☺
How have you implemented what you learned abroad into your life here?
Living abroad for a long time and on my own gave me a lot of independence. When I maintain this level of independence I am most efficient, productive and creative. Since I was in the US, I’ve had this practice of periodic “self-assessment” in which I ask myself the question: Am I too tied down in my life today? Do I have room to manoeuver and be flexible? This informs a lot of my life decisions. Of course there are things that “tie us down” that we choose, and that are beautiful (family, marriage, kids.). These are not the things I ask about. There are other unnecessary things that tie us down that we can control. A very simple example for me is owning a car if you live and work in Beirut. If you don’t have a family to care for, this is a terrible investment.
Aside from that, I always remind myself to keep my perspective. I’ve gained this as a result of living abroad and interacting with so many different people and cultures. When you’re in Lebanon it is sometimes easy to fall into bad habits that make you lose sight of the big picture. I always remind myself that Lebanon is not the center of the world and never will be. In fact, no place is the center of the world. It allows me to stay sane, humane, and centered.
What are some of the sacrifices you have to make living in Lebanon?
I sacrificed order and predictability in life, and clear/simple financial growth. But I learned to re-create all through alternative means.
What’s one of your favorite things about living in Lebanon again?
Honestly, the weather. And the fact that I am always 1 hour away from a different climate/weather. I can always escape the city very easily to rejuvenate.
Why did you choose to launch your startup in Lebanon?
Well it was mostly for practical reasons. I got funding here in Lebanon and I live here. My startup is in Fintech, which is a very tough area in Lebanon. So if I am able to validate it here, it will be easy to scale outside the country.
What are some of the challenges? What are some of the rewards of launching in Lebanon?
Market and regulation. Lebanon is a small market. My cofounders and I were very aware of this reality. We know that we will never realize the returns we want by staying in Lebanon. In fact any B2C business needs scale. And therefore, one needs to have enough funds to test and validate in Lebanon and then scale. Because revenue will not be enough to cover costs if it stays in Lebanon. Regulation, on the other hand, stands in the way of easy scaling.
What’s your advice for other entrepreneurs launching in Lebanon?
Remember that Lebanon is the size of Connecticut. If you want to address a “local” challenge only, do all the research and make sure that it could sustain itself financially. In fact, I am in my second startup. In the first startup it was obvious that our solution, while amazing, is not scalable. So we had to make the hard decision of dropping it. If we had enough money to launch it ourselves we would have probably done so, but we needed venture capital money. And VC’s will not invest in a business that is local only, because it is not enough to provide them with the returns they need. (Some VC’s are making the mistake of investing in local businesses. So be very aware of that as well.)
TOG Team ft. Rida