Offer startups world-class design services at affordable prices. Bring more foreign currency into Lebanon. Stop the country's brain drain. Just a few of the lofty ambitions for the founders of Beatbox Design.
The fundraising initiatives have become few and far between. The hashtags are drying up. The news cycle has moved on. But for the people of Lebanon, the devastation caused by August 4th’s portside explosion and the economic crisis that seeped into every corner of Lebanese society before it are still front and centre. For some, there is nothing else, just a long road of recovery.
US dollars are in dire shortage, many have lost their businesses and the financial crisis has only been further exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Lebanon is, in no uncertain terms, a country in emergency.
While there was an initial outpour of international support in the wake of the explosion, the challenge for many Lebanese is now clear: how do they pick themselves up from the seeming unrelenting waves, one disaster after the other? How does Lebanon, with what resources it can muster up and utilise, drag itself back to its rightful position as one of the most vibrant, culturally rich and most desirable countries in the Middle East?
The answer is, in short, entrepreneurship and innovation. At least it is in the case of Yara Lteif, Cynthia Sarkis and Noor Shamas - three Lebanese creatives behind Beatbox Design.
Launched earlier this year in less time than many founders take to put together their pitch deck, Beatbox is a startup that specifically targets other startups and SMEs, offering them world-class design and creative services at the kind of prices that any budding, bootstrapping entrepreneur will welcome with open arms.
It seems simple on the surface and, ultimately, it is. But there are layers to this story, bits and pieces that you won’t find on an ‘about us’ page or in a press release, nuances and details that paint a much bigger picture of the three founders, their hasty but intriguing venture and of the current state of Lebanon.
Left to right: Yara Lteif, Cynthia Sarkis and Noor Shamas
“We started our journey at the Hult Prize Lebanon, where Cynthia and I were designers," Yara, an art director by trade, explains. “It’s a global movement, all about youth, students and helping them grow their startups and taking them further. So there was already a base, a background in working with startups,” she adds, pointing to the suitably-named packages that Beatbox offers, among them the ‘Bootstrap’, ‘Angel’ and ‘Series X’ packages.
It’s there that Yara and Cynthia - also an art director - would go on to meet video producer and serial entrepreneur, Noor Shamas. It was there that they also met Karim Samra, co-founder of ChangeLabs, who was COO of the Hult Foundation at the time. The trio all separately met Karim at a time when he was rediscovering the Middle East at a deeper level, having spent most of his life outside of the region. So taken was he by the moxy, spirit and creativity of the three would-be founders - and what it told him about local talent - that they would go on to form an important part of Changelabs, an accelerator that understands the power of storytelling.
While Karim is the first to hold his hands up, relieve himself of any credit and put Yara, Cynthia and Noor on a fitting pedestal, he would play a key part in turning what was a vague, nebulous concept, triggered by the deepening crisis in Lebanon, into a solid startup, one with purpose driving it.
I don’t think that the talent in San Francisco or Shanghai is fundamentally better than the talent in MENA. So what’s missing? Why aren't we seeing more activity in these places? How can we leverage that incredible talent?
Entrepreneurship doesn’t need to be complicated. It simply doesn’t. While the trending narrative in MENA’s entrepreneurial ecosystem revolves around digital transformation and high-tech, there’s still very much a wealth of talent, both in Lebanon and MENA-wide, that isn’t being utilised. While Yara, Cynthia and Noor are currently handling Beatbox’s growing clientbase, plans are afoot to recruit more creatives.
“Since the revolution, our currency has been fluctuating,” Cynthia exclaims. “So we thought we could help by bringing more foreign currency into the country, using Lebanese minds." Very much speaking of Beatbox as a work-in-progress, Noor goes one step further with her assertion of Beatbox’s ultimate goal. “The end result of Beatbox is ideally to have this huge network of creative minds, connected to anywhere, whether it's local, regional and international. We started with us designing everything ourselves, but slowly we can pass it on to other designers.”
That’s the real lifeblood of Beatbox. Yara, Cynthia and Noor are established in their respective creative fields and could very easily service Beatbox clients on their own, successfully and prolifically. That’s not the point here, though. You see, three years of experience working with startups has rubbed off on the trio and they seem to have developed an entrepreneurial nose.
“We saw a lot lacking, even in pitch decks,” Yara says of their experience working with startups, which has subsequently given them the self-confidence to cater to them. “The situation in Lebanon means many can't pay for high quality design.”
“Startups are all about solving problems,” Cynthia adds. “This is what we do as designers when we translate their vision into a reality.”
It’s one of only a handful of problems Beatbox is looking to solve. Yes, the lack of high-end, polished and impactful design and branding is a common failing of many startups. For the three founders, however, there are much higher stakes at play, not least the brain drain that continues to strip Lebanon and the Middle East of their most talented people.
“We want to create jobs so we don’t see designers leaving Lebanon because they aren’t able to find jobs,” Noor says, with Yara adding, “We saw a big opportunity because designers can work remotely, they can work from anywhere. And especially now, companies are letting go with their creatives, so we’re left with jobless designers in Lebanon.”
As a service, we succeed when we translate a startup’s vision for their brand or their product. But as a company, we succeed when we create employment and real economic impact.
It all fits together quite neatly. If Beatbox succeeds in the basic mechanics of its services and internal growth, that means more creatives hired. More creatives hired means more foreign currency coming into the country. More foreign currency coming into the country means less bright minds leaving it. Less bright minds leaving it means a prosperous Lebanon. That’s the plan. No one involved is under any illusions about the monumental task at hand. The fact that Beatbox was conceived and launched in a matter of months, however, tells you everything you need to know about the urgency of what Yara, Cynthia and Noor are trying to achieve.
It’s this urgency that pushed Karim Samra into wholly backing Beatbox, though according to him, he didn’t have to be pushed all that hard, owing to his belief in the trio and the beauty of its simplicity. When asked whether Beatbox would have come to be in a healthy, prosperous Lebanon, however, he answers very honestly.
“For us at ChangeLabs, probably not,” he admits. “But we felt the pressure of needing to do something and do it quickly. It was a very quick off-the-cuff thing. We barely had a concept or a business plan, but we just launched. It was the right time for them and the right time for us.”
He goes onto explain that, moving forwards, startups that ChangeLabs incubates will hopefully become Beatbox clients, stressing the importance and relevance of what he calls ‘old tech’ to the entrepreneurial ecosystem - services such as design and branding, which has ‘old technology’ at its core.
“We’re all focused on high-tech and AI, and this and that - but the reality is we have a lot of ‘old tech’ in the Middle East and we’re very good at it. Maybe we shouldn’t launch an AI startup, because maybe we don't have the staff and human resources to do that yet. Maybe we should be launching ‘old tech’ startups. It’s not as sexy as AI or blockchain,” he adds. “But we know it and it's still essential. You don’t need to launch the most groundbreaking thing anyone has ever heard of to call yourself a real startup or entrepreneur. You can launch something very simple that people need.”
While this all speaks for Karim’s seasoned, entrepreneurial instincts, the poignancy of what Beatbox is trying to do isn’t lost on him and his backing of Yara, Cynthia and Noor is partly owed to a more personal viewpoint on the state of Lebanon.
“Having lived abroad for most of my life, I came back to Lebanon and saw it crash around me, while at the same time meeting some of the most talented and creative people I’ve met in my life,” he says with a steely grit. “I was fascinated by the incredible resilience of the people and reflecting on the fact that many Arab countries have been through so much over the years and have had to rebuild themselves so many times over.”Beatbox has already worked on a number of different projects.
With ChangeLabs handling operations and sales for Beatbox, it leaves Yara, Cynthia and Noor to focus on the clients, which sit at around 15, each with varying needs that are divided across the three founders based on their individual areas of expertise. This arrangement speaks of the ChangeLabs and Beatbox’s working relationship and Karim’s belief in it. For the founders, the race to realise Beatbox’s lofty ambitions started long ago. They don’t seem daunted, though. They’re confident that they can make an impact, a difference. Ultimately, the key to them achieving their goals rests on the success of Beatbox as a service and on that front, it’s simple.
"We want to become a big hub for creative talent,” Noor says simply but defiantly. “As a service, we succeed when we translate a startup’s vision for their brand or their product. But as a company, we succeed when we create employment and real economic impact.”
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