The world’s most popular internet applications, including Yahoo, Google, Facebook and YouTube, share several interesting characteristics. Nearly all were developed by students enrolled in American universities and nearly all were aided by an American venture capital injection to successfully enter the market. Lebanese-born Elie Khoury and Jad Jounan have followed more or less the same path, yet with one major difference: they developed their Woopra program in Lebanon. Against all odds, some may argue, as the Land of the Cedars can hardly be described as an IT incubator.
Both Khoury and Jounan graduated from the Lebanese American University in Byblos in 2007 with a degree in Computer Science and Computer Engineering, respectively. They spent many hours in class, but they spent many more nights working late on Woopra, a live tracking and analytics service that aims to send market leader Google Analytics into oblivion.
“When we felt the application was ready to be launched,” Khoury said, “we made the strategic decision to seek a partner who could help us with financing, marketing and the general business structure.” That partner became John Pozadzides, mainly because of his experience as director and vice president of the multinationals SAVVIS and Cable & Wireless.
It was said in Lebanon that the entrepreneurs had sold their brainchild for $5 million, yet Khoury rapidly dismissed that as a rumor. “We will not be selling Woopra at this early stage,” he said. “We are still the owners. I cannot enter into too many details at this moment, as the program has only just been launched. All I can say is that we have a very decent amount of funds, compared to other start-up projects like Facebook or YouTube.”
First splash on the web
Woopra was first presented at the 2008 Dallas WordCamp event in March. The program immediately received rave reviews and, according to Khoury, tens of thousands of bloggers and webmasters have since signed up. Now there are numerous tracking and analytics programs that, with a delay of several hours, offer data such as the number of visits to a website and the average time spent on it.
Woopra however, offers far more detail, allowing the user to see the exact path a visitor follows after entering a site. What’s more, the program does so in real time, offers a direct chat option and, perhaps most importantly, is extremely user-friendly.
Khoury built his first website in 2003 at a time when a program called Hit Counters was quite common. “I then started learning about other tracking and analytics services and discovered success measuring methods other than just ‘number of hits per day’,” Khoury explained. “By 2005, I realized that everything on the web was moving toward socializing and social networking. Everything, except my analytics services. Google Analytics still only offers numbers and statistics. That wasn’t enough for me. I wanted to know more about who is viewing what on my ‘virtual property’. Who’s stumbling on it? How did they know about it? Was it possible to get in contact with them and perhaps even guide them?”
Having the idea is one thing. Realizing the idea is something else. Developing Woopra was a painstaking process that required passion, patience, and long hours of work, while friends went out enjoying themselves.
Programming for the high- speed millionaire
The common, if somewhat cliché, image of the self-made millionaire has long been that of the newspaper boy becoming a media mogul. As we have entered the digital era, however, that has increasingly been replaced by the young whiz kid who, working from a student dorm or garage, launched the next big thing in computer or Internet technology.
No doubt the best known IT entrepreneur is Bill Gates, who set up Microsoft in 1975 as a 20-year-old. He did so with his then 22-year-old friend Paul Allen. Today both rank among the world’s richest men. Many more aspiring entrepreneurs followed in their footsteps, nearly all of them students.
Stanford University students Jerry Yang and David Filo in 1994 founded the Internet search engine Yahoo. Within a year of its launch the site had received a million visits and the founders became aware of its commercial potential. In 1995 Sequoia Capital injected two rounds of venture capital, while Yahoo in 1996 launched a public offering of shares bringing in over $33 million. In 2008, the site attracted some 1.5 billion visitors, prompting Microsoft to offer $44.6 billion to buy the company, yet the bid was kindly turned down.
Today in their thirties, Larry Page and Sergey Brin were Stanford University students when they developed the search engine Google in the mid-1990s. Having secured an initial $1 million from family, friends and some investors, they launched Google from a garage in September 1998. The first public offering of shares in 2004 brought in nearly $1.7 billion, which gave the firm a market capitalization of over $23 billion.
Facebook was developed by Harvard University student Mark Zuckerberg. While it was originally meant as an online “who’s who” at Harvard, Zuckerberg soon realized that the site’s potential reached far beyond campus life. Some $40 million worth of cash injections by venture capital firms in 2004 allowed the site to grow into the worldwide phenomenon it is today. Microsoft in 2007 bought a tiny stake in the company for $246 million. Following the acquisition of MySpace by Rupert Murdoch’s NewsCorp, the air was heavy with rumors that Facebook would be sold in 2008 for no less than $8 billion. The deal has yet to materialize.
The online-auction site eBay was founded in California in 1995 by the then 28-year-old French computer programmer Pierre Omidvar. The site received its first $5 million capital injection from Benchmark Capital in 1997 and one year later the first public offering of eBay shares took place. In March 2008, Forbes Magazine considered Omidvar to be the 120th-richest person in the world. Last but not least, as an example of how fast things can go: YouTube was established by three young students in 2005 and bought by Google a year later for $1.6 billion.
“We opened an office in Byblos in 2007,” said Khoury. “That’s basically where I lived for a year. For months we worked non-stop, often more than 15 hours per day. Sometimes, we would finish work at 5am and join our friends for breakfast when they came back from a night out in Batroun. It didn’t really bother us, but I must admit our social life was totally screwed up.”
While Lebanon takes pride in that fact that two of its sons have developed a program that managed to make heads turn in America’s high-tech-heaven, many Lebanese feel it is a shame that the program could not have been further developed and commercialized in Lebanon. The questions arise: Could the university have done more? Or could Lebanon have done more?
“I don’t think it is the task of a university to offer support for a project like Woopra,” said Khoury. “The main role of the LAU was teaching us the basics, discipline and methodology. A couple of teachers really supported us, especially my supervisor Dr. Munjid Musallem. What Lebanese universities lack is the ability to make entrepreneurs. They always prepare you to work in a company. Our universities are generally producing employees, instead of creating long term inspirational projects.”
Khoury admitted that Lebanon does not have a great IT climate, but he said Lebanon is perhaps the best country on earth to develop web-based software. “We have the worst internet connection in the Middle East, which is terrible, yet this helped us to tackle the worst case scenarios and debug our code easier,” he said. “This is not a compliment. It is a shame really, that at times we had to use a dial-up modem because all the alternatives were down for days. We had major problems rolling updates. It used to take 4 to 6 hours to roll an update, while in the US it takes less than five minutes. The government has promised the ADSL lines for 3 years, yet we are still not able to set up an ADSL account in Byblos.”
Lebanon’s internet lag
The complaints about Lebanon’s digital capacities are well known and have been around for quite some time. Although the country in 1996 was among the first Arab countries to introduce the internet, a decade later it ranked among the least developed internet nations in the world. In fact, according to a 2006 EU-funded research report, in terms of international bandwidth per capita Lebanon ranked just above countries such as Ivory Coast, Syria and Iraq, while it had lost the race with countries such as Egypt and Jordan.
Due to the country’s limited and outdated infrastructure, as well as the high cost of telecom supplies and the lack of a proper regulatory environment, Lebanon was not an attractive destination for potential investors, concluded the EU consultancy team. Apart from the introduction of a handful of ADSL lines — mainly in Beirut, and much later than initially announced — not much has changed since.
Dr. Munjid Musallem, a PhD graduate from Texas University who has taught a number of IT courses at LAU Byblos since 1994, shed further light on the activities of Khoury and Jounan. He recalled Khoury first coming into his office in 2004, when he decided to shift from computer engineering to computer science.
“Throughout his first semester, Elie told me about his ideas that would later shape up to become Woopra,” said Musallem. “Woopra was Elie’s brainchild and his primary obsession. No one could have stopped him from pursuing his Woopra. Side discussions about Woopra were regular and, naturally, it was the subject of Elie’s final graduation capstone project.”
According to Musallem, Jad Jounan joined Khoury at a latter stage, but he proved to be instrumental. While Khoury was the designer with all the innovative concepts and direction, Jounan had a deep understanding of software system architectural design. “Jad clearly stood out when he presented the tradeoffs of client-server versus multi-tier and peer-to-peer design, which is very important in the software architectures to which Woopra subscribes,” Musallem said. “In short, I consider myself the lucky teacher of two software gurus.”
Regarding the role of the university in developing Woopra, Musallem believes that the LAU played its role in terms of technical preparation. Turning a concept into a product however, is not the task of a university, but requires an entrepreneurial effort. “The same happened with Google, Yahoo, Mosaic (the predecessor of Netscape) and many other products,” he said.
He agreed that it is a pity Woopra will not be entirely developed in Lebanon. “But realistically, some critical technologies do not take off until US-based organizations give it their blessing and join in,” he continued. “There is much more technical expertise, vision, and entrepreneurial support in the USA than in any other place. The Database industry (Oracle, SQL-Server, DB2) is almost entirely located in the US, even though many innovative database ideas have been emerging in Europe for a very long time.”
It seems however, that Khoury and Jounan have not forgotten their roots and Woopra may not entirely depart from Lebanese soil. In fact, the high-tech duo aims to start part of the development operation in Byblos, which would provide much-needed jobs and offer an opportunity for other young students to gain practical experience.
“Our business plan has not been finalized,” Khoury said. “We have a couple of drafts that we are trying to merge but we cannot reveal any further details for marketing and business reasons. At this stage, Jad and I will continue development to keep Woopra ahead of the competition, while moving back and forth between Lebanon and the US.”
Even if Woopra is not developed in Lebanon, at least by developing the program Khoury and Jounan have shown that despite some 18 months of political bickering, riots, internal warfare and a lousy IT infrastructure, Lebanon is still somehow able to produce creative minds with the will to succeed.
In that sense, Woopra is not just a welcome story of success, but also one of hope.