As many of you may already know if you follow me on Twitter and Instagram, I toured several major tech and web companies with Lebanese telecom minister Nicolas Sehanoui and two of his advisors, Karim Kobeissy and Ralph Aoun. The reason I went there was because I won a competition after writing a blog post about “reinventing the world” from Lebanon which was selected by a panel of 4 judges of Lebanese origin in top exec positions at silicon valley.
Here’s what happened at each stop
Cisco and the Internet of Everything
Cisco is the biggest company the average consumer has never heard about (myself included). However, they’re behind a lot if not most of the networks that connect the world. From VoIP solutions, to integrated systems between usually incompatible components, Cisco wants everything to be connected.
Several Cisco execs including George Akiki, who’s originally Lebanese and very involved in Cisco’s 15-million dollar investments in Beirut gave us a run-down of what they’re up to and where they’re headed. It would take a lot of words and sentences to try and explain what connecting every single device and appliance to the internet would be like. From cars to fridges and even lightbulbs, imagine if everything is connected and smartly coordinates to make life easier. Like red lights turning green if there’s no cross-traffic, or them changing to let an ambulance of fire truck through faster, and while en-route, patient files and history would be pulled up by the paramedics, who in turn update the doctor waiting for them at the ER. Pure heaven, yet unbelievably complex.
Here’s a cool video that illustrates how that would work.
The guys at Cisco also showcased their disaster-response vehicle, which in 15 minutes, can have a disconnected region connected to the world via satellite, 3G, and radio. Doctor trips will also become more and more connected, since most visits to the doctor do not necessitate the patient’s presence, but can happen remotely, with connected devices to measure biometric data like blood pressure and heart rate. This would be awesome for remote areas without access to enough healthcare professionals for example. It would also save you the trips to the waiting room for a 15-minute check-up.
Cisco also explained how since 2006, it planned to invest 15 million dollars in Lebanon, and has already trained and sent back over 100 interns from Lebanon. Oh, and by the way, 2 million dollars of those 15 are still uncommitted, so, if you have the brilliant ideas, especially something within the Beirut Digital District, Cisco might be the investor you’re looking for.
This was a dream come true for me. Visiting the legendary Google Campus was surreal, to say the least. Najeeb and Eessam, Googlers of Arab origin, took us on a tour of many of the fabled buildings and then we sat down for a meeting with 3 other originally Lebanese Googlers.
The topics discussed were across-the-board, but the main focus and something I think we can innovate in (and Google agrees) is content on YouTube. With better Internet connection, streaming on YouTube has been steadily growing in Lebanon. The problem though, is intellectual property and rights respect, which is still lax in Lebanon. One really interesting project suggested by the guys at Google was digitizing and uploading Tele Liban’s vast archives of copyrighted material.
I loved this idea because, let’s face it, TL is struggling today. It wasn’t always that bad though, and in its golden days, animated and drama series aired on it were the hottest thing out there. Converting them to a digital format and immortalizing them online would be an amazing project that would help preserve Lebanon’s cultural and artistic heritage, but also give an example of how to successfully shift to YouTube and make shows like Mamnoo3 (which the Googlers are big fans of btw!) hits that’ll captivate the entire nation, Arab World and maybe even the rest of the world.
We also urged Google to come set up shop in Beirut and discussed how we could make the Google News Lebanon edition even more comprehensive and relevant.
LebNet Dinner At the French Club
At the end of a long and fruitful first day, we headed to The French Club in San Francisco. There, some 45 successful Lebanese businessmen and women held a dinner for the occasion of the delegation’s visit and attendees which included success stories such George Harik, one of the founders of Gmail and Elie Khoury, founder and CEO of Woopra, got to ask the minister questions and give their feedback on what they think should happen in Lebanon and how they would like to be part of its future.
This dinner was a fantastic experience to network with everyone there. You’d be surprised how well-connected and extremely successful so many originally Lebanese folks are, and how they appear at times more concerned about Lebanon than us locals! It was a pleasure meeting so many amazing people, and I am especially grateful to have met and become friends with folks like Jessica Semaan, Elie Khoury, Nathalie Issa, George Harik, George Akiki and many, many more folks I hope to stay in touch with and keep you up to date with what they’re up to.
Facebook is just starting
The next morning, we made our way to 1-Hacker Way in Menlo Park to visit Facebook’s campus. I was honestly blown away by how awesome a work space it was. Everything felt real and authentic, as if designed, named and created by the employees themselves, with names of Star Wars-alcohol-inspired areas like “Brewbacca” and “Vader Bombs” and conference rooms named after viral video clips like “Charlie bit me”.
The shared working spaces were nice and gives you the feel of a shared view on where the company is headed, instead of corporate-looking cubicles and offices that split instead of unite employees. One major thing I did notice in our trans-continental conference meeting though, is that Facebook thinks its just starting to do what it intends. You’d find that quite surprising from a social network that has changed the entire world and boasts over 1 billion active users around the globe.
They’re looking to expand slowly and surely, and the MENA region is one of their most exciting sites. They plan on opening up new field offices, and we made the case of why Lebanon could be a perfect spot for them to open in, to which they were really receptive and decided to follow-up on with whoever is in charge in Lebanon.
Another major impression I got from Facebook’s reps, is how important mobile is. A London-based public policy expert explained that in the past, Facebook was a website with a mobile app as an addition, but that today, the focus is on the mobile world and that he feels that shift is already happening, with mobile traffic skyrocketing while web traffic is staying steady. So, if you’re a developer, I’d definitely get into the mobile world and away from the desktop one.
After Facebook, we went further into Palo Alto for a business lunch with the President of Skype, Tony Bates, who gave us some very cool numbers and explained where he sees Skype going after its acquisition by Microsoft.
One interesting topic the Mr Bates and I engaged in was how social media was shifting how we interact in our societies, and the fact that Skype adds video and voice to our online interactions, adds the much-needed and craved for facial expressions and body language that we have evolved which are reduced to emoticons and 140 characters these days. He also explained how every day, one billion minutes are spent on Skype and how Skype is already the world’s largest telephony operator.
We also explained how important Skype was to so many Lebanese folks that have friends and family across the world and how we could optimize that by for example, giving free Skype credit to users of Lebanese operators, who in turn will generate revenue from the data being used. So, for example, you might get X amount of free minutes from Skype (to call a phone, not another Skype account that is) every month or with each refill.
I adore Airbnb. I travel a lot and I do so on a tight budget. Hotels are usually out of the question for me and crashing at friend’s places isn’t always an option. Airbnb is arguably the largest player on the emerging “shared economy”, where folks rent out their personal property or belongings to others for much cheaper, while generating some revenue on the side for them. So, for example, I have an extra room in Beirut. I rent it out for 20$ a night, a far-cry from the 400-something-dollar rooms in some Beirut hotels. I make some money on the side, a tourist gets to stay for a bargain and most importantly for me, the tourist gets to befriend a local, which I have done in several cities across the world.
How awesome would it be to save so much money, stay with amazing hosts that can give you an experience of the area you’re visiting no guidebook or app ever could. In Lebanon, there are 109 properties listed, which I was thrilled about! The shared economy concept is fairly new, but already exponentially growing to a multi-billion dollar industry. The awesome gals at Airbnb, Molly and Jessica (who’s Lebanese) walked us through the extremely elaborate process that has so many people around the world finding all sorts of accommodation in tens of thousands of cities with a few taps on an app or clicks on a website.
Ways of promoting more Lebanese folks to list their properties on Airbnb were discussed and the rest of the delegation who wasn’t as familiar as I was with the awesome platform, were quite intrigued. Airbnb was arguably the most enlightening visit since so much of its inner workings and models were obscure and new. I will be reviewing Airbnb in-depth soon after interviewing Jessica so that those of you who still haven’t, make sure you use it next time you’re abroad!