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If you choose to go by what naysayers have to say about brick-and-mortar retail, one would come to believe that e-commerce has managed to completely edge out the in-store retail experience. However, dig deeper and you'll find that physical stores still enjoy the support of both data and technology to remain in contention. While a study by global consulting firm AT Kearney shows that Americans still do roughly 90% of their shopping in physical stores, supporting brick-and-mortar retail in its endeavor to compete with its more digital-savvy competitors is a new breed of startups disrupting the in-store shopping experience. These young companies do so by developing technologies ranging from robotics, augmented and virtual reality, beacon systems, and others.
While these may sound like business ideas taking shape in more developed entrepreneurial markets, Lebanon-based startup Vision in Motion is helping brick-and-mortar companies derive as much value from data as their e-commerce counterparts- right here in the Middle East. "Instead of having security cameras [in-store] sitting there and doing nothing, [we] use them to collect data on your customers, and change the layout and style of your store and nature of your services to really fit their needs, and provide them with a tailored experience that will maybe push them to buy and spend more than they would have originally," explains Samy El Khoury, co-founder, Vision in Motion.
Starting work on his startup in April 2016, the entrepreneur launched an initial product in September, and says with the current version, they are generating revenue, but are not profitable yet. "I decided to start Vision in Motion because I was amazed by what image processing and computer vision technology could help us do," says El Khoury, the 18-year old, who is also an electrical and computer engineer student at American University of Beirut, and a passionate inventor.
In essence, Vision in Motion's tech platform allows retail stores to monitor customers within premises (which can be showrooms, malls or any physical space) using image processing and computer vision technology. Its USP, as per El Khoury, is the fact that the software can connect to the surveillance cameras (without need for separate hardware infrastructure) to track people's behavioral patterns within the stores as they check out the products, and analyze them. "We can know how many people enter the place, where they spend time, how they interact in a certain area- do they shop and dwell, or do they just pass by," explains El Khoury. "What they are looking at or touching, how long they stayed in the store, and how long they stayed in a certain area; you can compare the performance of products, area, and even stores," he adds.
Built off a subscription-based model, the startup's technology generates heat maps that help track customer movements and trace their paths, and enables FOV (Field-of-View) tracking for best product placement decisions, besides providing in-store analytics. "The information we provide via our dashboard is dynamic," says El Khoury. "Dynamic, meaning that heat maps and charts are superimposed on actual pictures of the store, and not on a plan or a drawing. This allows us to have a very high accuracy compared to other similar solutions while offering much lower prices." The first question that pops into my mind, once I manage to understand the solution, is about the associated privacy concerns of using it, and how different markets react to the proposition. El Khoury, however, lays my fears to rest firmly: "First, the customers are already being recorded by the security cameras. Next, the information we store doesn't contain any facial information at all, just movement."
As for retail markets where the solution can make a difference, El Khoury believes that people ("especially in the MENA region") still like to go outdoors, and shop, and the oft-cited feeling of trying on clothes or checking out any product still matters to shoppers, and that is not going away anytime soon. "What we do for the brick-and-mortar store is provide them with Google analytics-like software, so that they can compete with the information that online [e-commerce] websites gather about you," he says. When asked if a product such as that of Vision in Motion has acceptance in the global and local ecosystem, he admits that while markets for big data ventures globally are huge, in the Middle East, the pool is still relatively small.
In such a novice market, a key support system that has helped El Khoury and his team navigate the growth of their startup is Speed@BDD, a Beirut-based startup accelerator that welcomes startups at the idea and early-stage, and helps them turn into high-growth businesses. A collaboration between organizations such as Bader, Berytech, IM Capital, Middle East Venture Partners, and Lebanon for Entrepreneurs, Speed@BDD housed Vision in Motion in its second batch (April 2016), and El Khoury describes the experience as "a very enriching" one since "the mentors were amazing, and people were really helpful" in building the company from the ground up.
As a student entrepreneur juggling priorities, Speed@ BDD also gave El Khoury an opportunity to attend and learn from the Blackbox Connect program in Silicon Valley, a flagship two-week residential program powered by Blackbox VC. Working with LebNet, a network of Lebanese-American tech professionals in the US that organized the acceleration program, helped chalk out "Silicon Valley's culture," for El Khoury, and also helped him access expertise needed to grow both regionally and globally. The startup also came out on top at ArabNet Beirut 2017 Startup Battle, where ten startups took to the stage and pitched their business in front of a high profile jury. "The Startup Battle experience was very enriching. It allow[ed] us to get to know new startups in Lebanon, and even from other countries like Egypt," says El Khoury.
As tech startup categories in the field of retail such as big data analytics, IoT, shopping sensors/trackers get crowded, El Khoury believes that building a sizable customer base in their business essentially means that they have to get the "lower level people [staff] understand why their boss wants and needs a product like ours." That is the key difficulty he faces in approaching large retailers and getting them on board as he approaches their marketing teams or the operational team. Nevertheless, Vision in Motion's software is currently installed in over 40 locations across Lebanon (he does not disclose the client names), and the startup is on its way to realizing its goal "to be profitable by the end of the year, and expand to the UAE and KSA in the next two years."
As for his personal journey, the young entrepreneur does not let it known that he's someone balancing university life with running a startup. "I usually take my classes on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday... and then go to work afterwards, and have Tuesdays and Thursdays dedicated for the startup," he says, as he explains his meticulous plan to manage time. He adds that "his incredible team members" (Amer Mouawad, Mira El Khazen, and others) complement each other, and help a great deal in covering the gaps.
The entrepreneur is also clear about the company's focus at this point in their growth: "to get customers and keep them using the product [since] if we don't have enough cash to cover our expenses, we won't be able to survive." Further, with no intention to ride the funding momentum in the ecosystem, he adds that the startup isn't actively seeking investment at the moment. Even though the jury is out on the importance of youthful ideas vs. the value of experience in growing startups, El Khoury's clarity of thought as an entrepreneur is by itself worthy of admiration, and can serve to remind other aspiring entrepreneurs to stick to the basics when chasing business success.