Samer Karam has been a war photojournalist, a banker, an entrepreneur, and a PhD student. But these days, the Gen-X techie is focused on enabling the success of others. His online accelerator Alice, based in London, welcomes startups from anywhere in the world to apply for mentoring and funding.
Karam, who also founded and recently closed Beirut’s first accelerator, Seeqnce, is known as one of Lebanon’s most prominent tech mentors. He sat down earlier this summer at Bliss Café on bustling Hamra Street to discuss—between incessant phone and email check-ins—how Alice will succeed where Seeqnce did not.
After spending time in the U.S., Canada, and the United Kingdom, Karam is convinced that a traditional physical brick and mortar accelerator program can’t work in the Arab world or other developing markets such as Southeast Asia. Fledgling startups there need so much more time, training, and mentorship that there is little return-on-investment for such an accelerator, he says.
“The market here is not as fast moving as in the United States. For the kind of growth that you would need [to be successful], it would take a year or two or more in the Arab world,” says Karam. The solution, he says, is to “find a way to identify the non-human-intensive components” of a startup accelerator, “develop them into a product, and put that product online.”
With such a bleak outlook on the potential of Middle East startups, why bother? Because, he says, the need bowled him over. “I cleaned up this little office I had in [Beirut suburb] Sin El Fil, and invited a few people who had startups or were starting to work on startups,” says Karam. “I started doing entrepreneurship-related activities, workshops to try to get people more engaged with their community.” When more than 250 entrepreneurs showed up to an open house in November 2010, he realized he was onto something and established a coworking space.
Though the project raised a few hundred thousand dollars and attracted startups from all over the Arab world, Karam says there wasn’t enough volume. “We weren’t able to get to a place where the building was continuously occupied,” he says. So the serial entrepreneur spent another year studying accelerator programs in the United States and Europe and picked four partners to help accelerate eight startups, which he chose based on who was hungriest.
“The idea isn’t worth anything. It is always more about if the individuals have this hunger for innovation,” he says. Ultimately, the accelerator he called Seeqnce gave birth to three of the most successful startups in Lebanon: et3arraf, Lebanon’s first online dating website; eTobb, a medical website that provides doctors’ answers to users’ questions; and Presella, a ticketing app and website now based in Dubai that has sold more than $600,000 in tickets in 18 months.
Walid Singer, Chief Operating Officer at Presella, credits the efforts of Karam and the five Seeqnce directors who raised funds for his company’s success, rather than the accelerator. “As entrepreneurs, we could learn anywhere.”
Now Singer and his team are using the online platform Alice to solicit additional funding.
Singer shares Karam’s misgivings about the potential of Beirut startups. Instability in the region keeps most investors at bay. “You can start a business in Beirut, but it won’t become profitable,” says Singer.
Adds Karam, “The best thing you should aim for is acquisition.” But Karam points to one advantage of being a tech innovator in Lebanon, as opposed to another sort of business: “Should the shit hit the fan, you just close your laptop, get on a plane, and start the same thing over 24 hours later in Cyprus or Turkey.” Same goes for an online accelerator.