BEIRUT: Arabnet is celebrating its ten-year anniversary with a splash. Their Arabnet Beirut 2019 conference will be a landmark among tech conferences in the region where more than 3,000 experts, seniors, researchers, governmental figures, entrepreneurs and tech enthusiasts will get together to discuss and share knowledge about innovation in the region. There will also be special features such as the Startup Showcase, which will accommodate more than 100 startups, and the Startup Championship, which is a culmination of all the Startup Battles of Arabnet events.
In its decade of existence, the ArabNet conference has paralleled the explosion of IT and startup entrepreneurs in the region, evolving from its original foundation in Beirut to encompass much of the MENA region, including Dubai, Riyadh, Cairo, and Kuwait.
Annahar sat down with Arabnet CEO Omar Christidis for a chat about the upcoming event and Arabnet’s ten-year-long journey in the tech industry.
How did Arabnet start? Where did you get the inspiration from?
It all started somehow when the financial crisis hit in 2008. I was working at an investment management business in New York at the time, and I lost my job as so many other people did. I spent six months trying to find another job, and I used all of my savings in a futile search. Finally, I packed my bags in March 2009 and I came back to Beirut where. I started looking for a job in the tech industry in MENA. I somehow knew that tech was going to be the next big thing. I made it to the final round of a job interview for Google which, at the time, had less than 10 employees in all of the MENA region. To make a long story short, I didn’t get the job but the real problem was that I had a hard time even locating the companies and job opportunities. So, I thought to myself: “Maybe there’s a conference I can go to meet people in the tech sector so that I can find a job?” So I looked for conferences and there were none. That’s how the idea came to me.
What did you do next?
My first instinct was to pitch the idea of a “tech event” to my mother, who is my current business partner and has decades of experience in events management. I was able to convince her of my conviction that tech was the next big thing and she said: “Let’s do it.” She gave me six months to get my act together and invite anybody who was anybody to the conference. I wrote a one-pager describing the concept and I went on the road to gather people for the event. I literally knew nobody. I went to the first person I knew and asked him to give me two to three names of people he thought I should know, and I did that with every single person I met on the road. This is how I started building contacts, information, and knowledge about the ecosystem. Then in January 2010, two months before the conference, I got into a taxi and I went to Damascus. I met Abdulsalam Haykal (current founder of Haykal group) and he introduced me to everyone he knew, including Fadi Ghandour, (who had not founded Wamda yet). Fadi ended up being my first sponsor, and I am very grateful for that. I also did tweetups (which at the time, referred to meetings between people who follow each other on twitter) and I went to Amman, Dubai, and Saudi for more contacts. At the time, there were no telecom sponsors, no media agency sponsors. I ended up having Google, N2V, twofour54 and a number of Saudi and UAE companies as my sponsors.
What was the initial feedback of the entrepreneurs to your concept?
It was a huge success and it was definitely a landmark event. I believe that the first edition of Arabnet Beirut was the event where the digital industry in the MENA region understood that it was an industry. True, it was fragmented with various efforts here and there but we managed to create a hub for those fragmented parts for just three days.
Tell me how you expanded to other countries.
We did Arabnet Beirut 2011 in the first quarter of 2011, and then we did Arabnet Cairo 2011 in October. During that time frame, the world was changing because of the Arab Spring, and we felt that there was so much dynamism in Cairo that made us want to be part of writing the future. Not only that, but Cairo has the largest community of technical talent and developers, so it made sense that we would go there. But what we didn’t know is that political instability makes doing work very difficult. And that’s why a year later in 2012 we decided to go to Saudi, and our true expansion to the GCC began from there. We then established Arabnet Dubai in 2013 and Arabnet Kuwait in 2016.
What role did Arabnet play in Beirut and MENA ecosystem?
We did so many things. We were the first platform to have a pitch competition that gave entrepreneurs two minutes to pitch their idea to potential investors and business partners. In fact, entrepreneurs who have pitched at Arabnet events since we started have created over 1,000 jobs and have collectively raised over $150 million and these startups are (now) valued at almost half a billion dollars. Of course, we don’t take credit for all their hard work, but we like to call them Arabnet alumni.
We also helped connect fragmented markets to each other and build more awareness among corporates and governments about the importance of digitization. And we helped certain companies break into the Middle East for the first time.
What’s new in Arabnet Beirut 2019?
First, we’re having the Startup Showcase where we’re offering subsidized booths to more than a 100 startups. We also have more than 100 investors flying in from all over the region to meet with those startups.
We’re also going to be doing the first Startup Championship here at Lebanon where we gather the winners of the Startup Pitch competition of every country and fly them to Beirut. We’re going to be flying 18 startups this year from six countries. Also, we have a special initiative this year called Founders’ Journey where advanced startups will be talking about their success stories and the challenges that they faced.
We also have huge government engagement this year where we will be running a special session in collaboration with the office of Prime Minister Saad Hariri called “Innovation Nation.” In this session, we will be talking about digitizing Lebanon and the future of the digital economy with a number of governmental individuals.
What is one achievement of Arabnet that you are proud of?
Definitely, for me, it’s the first edition of Arabnet Riyadh, which we organized in 2012. We had succeeded in entering into the region’s largest market which, at the time, had significant barriers to entry. Also, there was the fact that Saudi culture is massively different from the Lebanese culture, and we had to be careful with that. Today Saudi is a much more open market but back then it was very difficult for us to get a visa for a speaker to come in. And it was the first time we did an event fully in Arabic. I remember I had to wear a thobe and a shemagh while delivering my speech in Arabic. The proudest thing for me concerning this event is that we weren’t seen as outsiders; we were seen as part of the local ecosystem because we had helped create it.
Where do you see Arabnet in five years?
I’d love to see Arabnet in more countries in the region, all the way from Morocco to Oman. That way we would really be able to have that regional presence for everybody.
On a more [personal level], every entrepreneur eventually dreams of leaving a legacy behind him, and my dream is that this business (Arabnet) will one day come to sustain itself fully independently without me being involved in it. I’m not saying I want to leave or that I don’t enjoy what I do, but if you look at entrepreneurs in the global scheme of things, they all go on to build other ventures that have true impact on the world, and their power lies in the fact that they have created something that will last.
This year’s event will take place June 12-13 at the Seaside Arena, for more info: arabnet.me
An-Nahar is not responsible for the comments that users post below. We kindly ask you to keep this space a clean and respectful forum for discussion.