There is a tremendous link between what Lebanon needs in terms of information, transparency and planning, and what improved data can help deliver. In this context, Executive followed up on developments at Beirut-based data services provider, Economena Analytics, with company founder Tamim Akiki and deputy chief executive Amani Kandil.
E What has happened with Economena since Executive interviewed you for our entrepreneurship report on tech companies which was published in November 2014?
Tamim Akiki (TA): October 2014 was when we launched our flagship product, the Economena User Station. Starting with the launch, we have seen some good uptake of our services from the market. We signed up several more clients in Lebanon, including banks and universities. In the year 2015, we improved the product a lot and added new features, including a cool feature called Tables. This feature facilitates visualization of data from different sources and allows clients to manipulate data to see different rankings and changes. This is a first in Lebanon and it is completely dynamic.
E Was the development of data and tools your main focus in 2015?
TA: We also launched the Lebanese Economic Outlook survey. We published three editions of the survey where we poll our clients and other economists in the local market about the outlook for the economy to try to separate the good sectors from the bad sectors.
E Did you take steps in relation to overall business development?
TA: We have invested a lot in our outreach and in the optimization of our platform, some of this based on client feedback. We also grew our revenues in 2015 by around 35 percent. In organizational terms we established two new businesses, an offshore enterprise which helps our foreign clients, who represent two thirds of our revenues, and a joint stock company. For the coming year we are looking to sell more subscriptions to the United States, breaking into the academia sector.
E What happened on the team development side? How much did you grow?
Amani Kandil (AK): We did not grow much, in Lebanon that is, but we have focused on developing our team. We added a team in Nepal that helps with data extraction and we now have one team member in Egypt as well.
TA: The reason we invested in the Nepalese and Egyptian teams is also because we are focusing on developing our coverage this year. We are going to add a lot more countries with extensive coverage to help existing clients in Lebanon save costs in their expansions and coverage. Thus the banks that are investing in Egypt as a growth market will now have access to a full Egyptian database at Economena. We also did a lot of stuff internally [to upgrade our team’s capabilities] and Amani is now managing the business altogether.
[pullquote]“Our five-year business plan through 2020 foresees annual revenues of $3 million to $5 million from subscriptions and the Economena User Station”[/pullquote]
E How did that feel, to move into this responsibility?
AK: The nice thing about working here is that it is not a one-person responsibility. It is a shared responsibility. So [being deputy CEO] is just having a fancier title.
E How large is the Economena team now?
TA: We are 12 full-timers here, five in Nepal, one in Egypt and one sales and marketing in the United States.
E Did you do any fundraising in 2015, and specifically did you approach any venture capital funds for Circular 331 money?
TA: We did not but we are currently in negotiations with two different parties to raise money or finance part of our expansion into the Gulf Cooperation Council and the US. This would mean either specific financing for our sales and marketing expansion into the US and the GCC or an investment into the core business, which would possibly be through Circular 331. We expect to obtain funding in 2016.
E Was there a reason why you did not seek to obtain equity finance from local VCs in 2015?
TA: We wanted to wait and see. Circular 331 was issued in August 2013 and has not been in effect for a very long time, so we wanted to see how the relationships between the VCs and the startups develop. Our business is more of a long-term value proposition and we want to be very careful about who we are working with.
E When someone asks you if you are a startup or an entrepreneurial company, how do you describe yourselves?
AK: As an entrepreneurial company, not as a startup.
TA: One of our key advantages is that a lot of our business is based on contracts that are ongoing and will be ongoing for several years into the future. At the same time, our core product, the Economena User Station, is still very early in its life cycle, so it is a startup project by itself.
E How large do you see your growth potential in the next three to five years?
TA: Our five-year business plan through 2020 foresees annual revenues of $3 million to $5 million from subscriptions and the Economena User Station. A large part of that revenue will come from North America and effectively international markets, excluding the Middle East. The Middle East will contribute approximately one third of our revenues.
Can you tell us in closing how much in terms of investment amounts you will be shooting for in your fundraising in 2016?
TA: We are looking for anything between $500,000 and $1 million in 2016.