Eye On The Future: Ashghali Co-Founders Marc Ibrahim And Joseph Hajjar

Marc Ibrahim and Joseph Hajjar are dreaming big as the co-founders of Ashghali, an online marketplace connecting prospective clients with local professionals in Lebanon.
Eye On The Future: Ashghali Co-Founders Marc Ibrahim And Joseph Hajjar
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Managing Editor, Entrepreneur Middle East
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Marc Ibrahim and Joseph Hajjar, co-founders of Ashghali, an online marketplace connecting prospective clients with local professionals, could be any other two 22-year-olds trying to develop their business; however, what’s interesting to note about them is that they are building their venture in Lebanon, a country that has gone through lots of crises already, and is currently in the middle of a major economic and political upheaval. “We live in a country where we wake up every day to some sort of news that affects our daily lives, and people tend to have a pessimistic view about the future, and do not believe that they can take action to improve it,” Ibrahim says. “Therefore, entrepreneurs are often discouraged by their surroundings to start a new business. The typical mindset is to find a well-paying job, and to get out of the country as soon as possible. However, entrepreneurs should make use of this crisis to find good opportunities by solving problems. As an entrepreneur, you have to believe that the future will be better, and that you should be the one to build it.”

Ibrahim and Hajjar, graduates in computer and communication engineering, and computer science, respectively, from the American University of Beirut (AUB), started working on Ashghali during their final year in college. However, the newly launched business is not their first entrepreneurial endeavorwhen they were 18, the duo developed and exited a mobile fantasy game application for the Lebanese Basketball League. The idea for Ashghali was born out of a desire to help the increasing number of unemployed Lebanese people looking for work. “Their biggest problem is finding clients,” Ibrahim says. “Nowadays, instead of focusing on what they are really good at, professionals need to develop their marketing skills in order to get clients. We realized that such a platform could help the economic situation in the country by helping professionals to find clients, and by helping people find the right professionals who are qualified, cost-efficient, and available just in time to help them.”

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According to Ibrahim, although the Lebanese economy relies heavily on the services sector, the sector still has not been disrupted by technology. “In fact, people still ask their friends, family, and neighbors when they are searching for a service provider,” he says. Ashghali has thus been envisioned as a trusted online marketplace listing the pricing, ratings, reviews, and availability of local professionals, in addition to other criteria that are essential to the hiring process. Ashghali is already available on iOS, Android, and the web, while the team is currently working on its WhatsApp integration. “Building trust is our top priority, since people are going to either invite these professionals to their homes, or are going to let them take care of a task that matters to them,” Ibrahim says. “On the other hand, we want to offer our professionals a great platform that allows them to market themselves and get more clients. We plan to support a broader type of services, so that if you need help with anything, Ashghali will be your go-to platform.”

As with any other marketplace, there are two dimensions to it: frequency of job, and size of job. Ashghali falls in the low frequency, high value category- after all, there is no guarantee that a customer will use the platform twice, since people tend to bypass this type of platform once they have established a contact with a service provider. Ibrahim explains that their business model takes this problem into consideration, and embraces it. “Our business model is not the typical commission-based model, but a fee per introduction model that embraces the bypassing problem,” he says. “As a local professional, the user will have to pay a small fee, depending on the task valuation for every introduction to a potential client. This will ensure that we generate revenues for every connection made between the professional and the client, regardless of whether the client hires and/or pays through the app or not. This will also make sure that the client receives offers from the right professionals for the task. The platform is free of charge for the clients who are seeking service providers.”

When it comes to customer acquisition, the co-founders realized that Ashghali is demand-constrained, unlike 80% of the marketplaces worldwide, Ibrahim says. Professionals have been easy to get onboard due to the high unemployment rate in the country, but generating demand has proved to be much more difficult. Another hurdle is the cultural tendency of local people to seek qualified service providers by only word-of-mouth. “We are using many strategies in order to increase the number of tasks being posted on the platform, such as direct sales, referral system, search engine optimization, social media advertisements, and many more,” Hajjar says. “My advice to other entrepreneurs is to implement analytics early on in order to find the most effective channel that brings you the biggest number of clients for the lowest possible cost.”

Related: Ogero Chairman Imad Kreidieh On Revamping Lebanon's Telecom Landscape

However, getting funding for the startup in Lebanon has been a much bigger challenge at the moment, Ibrahim says. “With the current financial crisis, it is becoming more and more difficult to find investors who are willing to invest in a startup that has started in Lebanon. Investors are fleeing out of the country, and high net worth individuals prefer to earn high interest rates on their deposits, instead of investing in startups,” he explains. “Unofficial capital controls on deposits are also hurting our operations. There are limits being imposed on cash withdrawals and on international card transactions. There isn’t any investor who accepts to send money to Lebanon due to these restrictions. Also, if you’re lucky enough to find someone who wants to invest, you should make sure that this investor has the right mentality. In the region, it is very common to stumble upon investors who are old school and might cause you problems later on.”

Thankfully for Ashghali, the team won a US$5,000 prize at an accelerator program organized by the American University of Beirut (AUB), which also led them to getting their first investor on board, as well as a space in the new AUB Innovation Park at Beirut Digital District. As for the road ahead, Ibrahim and Hajjar are confident that entrepreneurship is the right choice for them. “My advice to entrepreneurs in Lebanon would be not to listen to your parents and friends’ discouragements when you’re starting a business,” Ibrahim says. “Our culture encourages us to be short-term oriented, and not to take risks. If you have a vision, then you should work hard every day in order to achieve it, regardless of the naysayers. The road to success is supposed to be difficult. Otherwise, everyone would do it. After all, ‘the higher the risk, the higher the reward.’”

'TREP TALK: Ashghali Co-Founder Marc Ibrahim's Tips For Entrepreneurs In Lebanon
1. Start small, think big
“The Lebanese market is a small but good enough market to test your business idea. If you’re a Lebanese, and you’re thinking about starting your business, it’s a good idea to launch in Lebanon, and refine your product based on the feedback of your customers. But always keep in mind that you should work on something that has the potential to expand to bigger neighboring markets. Always think about scaling up.”

2. Leverage homegrown talent
“Lebanon is an exporter of talent. There are many great Lebanese minds who left the country and achieved tremendous success. They left, because they didn’t find any opportunity to put their talent into use here. The educational system in the country produces highly qualified graduates who are looking to work on challenging problems. With the high unemployment rate in the country, it’s easy to find talented people who can form an effective team of A-players.”

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