Meet LiBeiroot, The Car-Hailing App Straddling The Lebanese-Syrian Border
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When Syrian entrepreneur Omar Alsakka left Damascus to settle in Beirut, and study at the American University of Science and Technology (AUST), little did he know of the troubles he and his family would face while crossing the Lebanese-Syrian border to visit each other. “The main problem we had was the drivers,” Alsakka remembers. “They were very unprofessional- they would either overcharge, or show up late, or charge extra for the luggage, and many other things.”
Another huge problem Alsakka noted was the obligatory carpooling of passengers with different “legal situations”- these essentially refer to legal excuses that allow Syrian citizens to travel to Lebanon. “You have to have a valid reason to cross the border,” Alsakka explains. “It can be a permanent residency, or a hotel reservation, or an airline ticket at the airport in Beirut, or a student visa, or many other things.”
Forcing passengers with different legal excuses to carpool together meant that they would have to wait on one another, as each passenger gets interrogated for his or her own excuse. “A passenger with a residency permit would not take as much time with his paperwork as, say, one with an airline ticket from the Beirut airport,” Alsakka explained. “So, if they were placed together, one of them would have to end up waiting for the other.”
The process was, to say the least, a frustrating one. But Alsakka came up with a solution: “to group all passengers with the same excuse together in one car… That way, no passenger would have to wait on others, and the trip would go smoothly.” According to Alsakka, this is the feature that gives the LiBeiroot app -the application he and co-founder Amr Kahhaleh developed- an edge over traditional cab companies. “When using the LiBeiroot app, users must fill out a form stating their legal excuse, before they can proceed with the reservation process,” said Alsakka.
But how did LiBeiroot come into being in the first place? “It all started when I met Amr, my current co-founder, two months after my graduation,” Alsakka says. “I knew he was a software engineer at Apple in San Francisco, and I already had my market studies done concerning the number of cars and taxis.” The pair put their heads together, and when it came to the actual build of LiBeiroot, the duo decided to focus strongly on testing, testing and more testing. “All in all, we must have done around six or seven testings and iterations, and each testing involved around 50 people.”
But while LiBeiroot was focused on solving a genuine problem, the co-founders note that they didn’t see a lot of support from people around them for what they had set out to do. “Everybody was eager to point out that the traditional way of ordering Syrian drivers would win, that people in Syria did not use much technology to download apps, or that the tech infrastructure we had was weak,” Alsakka remembers. Another worry that he and his co-founder had was that the taxi drivers they were training would not comply and deliver in performance. “We don’t own cars at LiBeiroot,” he said. “We’re just the middleman between the clients and the drivers, which means all drivers must have really good training and behavior, especially if they’re not tech savvy.”
But despite these hurdles, the co-founders kept at it and ended up launching LiBeiroot in June this year. The app saw 618 total downloads in the first week, while its website saw 2430 visitors wanting to know more about LiBeiroot. “We were really shocked when people loved the app, and loved the ease with which they can use it, and they loved our social media campaign,” Alsakka says. With regards to their concerns over the drivers, a LiBeiroot feature allayed some of that: the drivers were excited to learn that passengers could order them by name via the app, which translated into an opportunity to market themselves, and hence they did their best to “behave” and receive more orders. “We started out with only five drivers, and now, we have 25 working with us, along with a team of 11 employees to handle orders and application design,” Al Sakka notes.
At the time of writing, Alsakka notes that business is going pretty well at LiBeiroot. “We receive tens of orders every day; which is pretty good, considering we only started with five,” Alsakka said. “It also helps us cover our expenses.” When asked if they’re looking for investment, the answer was a no. “We don’t want to lose too much equity, we’re still a new startup,” Kahhaleh says. As of now, LiBeiroot’s business model relies on 15% commission off the drivers’ fares, and while they refused to release the number of trips they had done so far, the co-founders did reveal that the goal was to reach 25,000 trips by the end of 2017. It’s a pretty high target- but the co-founders of LiBeiroot are confident, so wish them luck!