In the mid 90s, tech startups were new and sexy. Bill Clinton was in the White House, and Monica too. Marrouche restaurant was still serving. All while American entrepreneurship was changing the world, generating trillions of dollars of value, pleasing clients and investors. The bubble that formed out of the frenzy burst in 2000. It was the end of the web sector’s first economic cycle and the beginning of another.
Six iPhone generations later, and Lebanon is yet to carbon copy Silicon Valley. In 2010, the year after Obama’s famous Cairo speech, Global Entrepreneurship Week and Endeavor came to Lebanon to share with us the American tips and hints for a successful ecosystem, but did we learn anything? Do we know how many jobs we want to create? How much wealth we want to generate? Could we even measure either, given the sad state of the government’s statistics?
Of all the money that poured into entrepreneurship funds and initiatives, what do we have to show for it? Nothing, really, with all due respect. How many of our startups have earned millions, or employed more than a few dozen people? How many startups were able to exit via a functioning Beirut Stock Exchange?
This — after the millions that flowed over the past four years through venture capital firms, central bank subsidies and the investments of friends, family and fools — is to me proof that we’ve squandered the investment. While I fully respect young Lebanese with bold ideas and a bright vision for the future, too many ‘entrepreneurs’ are copycats looking to strike it rich so they can leave this hellhole and never look back. We need a real return on this investment that will create revenues substantial enough to create jobs and provide for the next generation. And there simply aren’t enough tech entrepreneurs with real success stories to warrant the money we’re throwing at them. Out of the roughly $400 million made available by the central bank’s Circular 331 to support startups, a paltry $200,000 has been spent. The state needs to step back from emigration hungry techies and look at the broader definition of entrepreneurship.
The central bank is once again promising another $1 billion stimulus package that will keep housing loan interest rates down, provide investment capital for Lebanese innovators and, hopefully, increase consumer spending. This is a welcome step but support must target entrepreneurs focused on developing ideas that capitalize on existing craftsmanship and creativity.
It’s too late to become Silicon Valley, but it’s never too late to fund startups the right way.