Serial Entrepreneur Brahms Chouity talks to Startup Scene’s editor Leena ElDeeb about how his businesses have switched and turned with the rise of the internet age, while defeating cancer.
Along the old bullet-scarred Beiruti alleys, walks the serial entrepreneur Brahms Chouity as he tells us his story of ventures and exits in the region’s early startup ecosystem. After the Second World War, Lebanese migration shifted to the oil-producing Arabian Gulf as opposed to Europe and the United States. According to published historian Boutros Labaki, migration from Lebanon to the oil-producing countries reached 110,000 when the demand for manpower in different sectors of their economies gave the decisive boost to Lebanese emigration.
Kuwait was the main destination in 1975 for Lebanese emigrants, followed by Libya and Saudi Arabia. However, there was a switch of powers whereby Saudi Arabia became the largest employer of Lebanese emigrants with 97,300 in 1980; one of whom was serial entrepreneur Chouity’s father. Growing up in the kingdom located Chouity on the map of businessmen and investors; but not as one of them.
Growing up in an upper-class household in Saudi, studying hospitality wasn’t something that Chouity’s parents were very fond of. However, they supported him all along his academic journey at École hôtelière de Lausanne, in Switzerland. But by the time he graduated, he grew bored of this sector. His motivation was not to let his parents down; he had to end up being anything but a failure. “I graduated, came back home, and took six months off to understand what I wanted to do,” he tells Startup Scene. At that time - late 1990s early 2000s - there was an influx of Gulf money getting pumped into Lebanon; “Those were the golden days,” Chouity remembers.
The Beirut Broker
“I started thinking, how can I benefit from the money that is getting pumped in Lebanon, but at the same time how can I capitalise on my certificate – which was supposedly one of the best in the world.” He had the hospitality background but lacked their financials. So, he took the Certificate of Management Accounting to fill in this gap. He decided he was going to offer these excited Gulf investors hospitality-related investments in Lebanon. Spending 20 years there, Chouity had the connections. “So, these investors would come to Lebanon, my dad would call me up and tell me so-and-so is coming, and that I should take care of them and show them around. And that was how I started, I started as a broker,” Chouity says.
He would receive potential investors from the airport, take them out for lunch, show them around Beirut, tell them this could be turned into a club, this could be turned into a restaurant and so on. “I would start small; broker apartments, then I would broker buildings, then lands, then selling them hospitality projects and within like two three years, I became the golden boy of investments in the hotel field in Lebanon.”
Being a broker grew to the point that Chouity was financially stable enough to launch an office in downtown and that was when he located himself on the Lebanese brokerage map. But slowly, his time was completely taken up by that. Clients called him 3 or 4 AM to reserve them tables in Paris, or get them out of trouble in Ibiza. “So, I employed someone to just take care of the clients’ lifestyle needs,” he says. “That’s when I got into the concierge business; which picked up and became a business on its own.”
Venturing in the emerging creative business
In the early 2000s, nephew of Duchess of Cornwall Camilla Parker Bowles, Ben Elliot, English businessman, and philanthropist, came to Lebanon and asked around for someone to handle his Middle East operations. “So, they pointed towards me; Quintessentially was known as the biggest lifestyle magazine at that time; its clients were celebrities like Madonna and Bill Clinton, and it was the first time the magazine opens in the Middle East.” For the next 10 years Chouity was running Quintessentially Middle East, given his experience and exposure to the who’s-who of that sector. “This immensely grew my portfolio and thus my investment opportunities.”
Everything Chouity did always catered for the Arab world, never internationally. “Is it my comfort zone? 100 percent.” Chouity’s first company was called “Hamzet Wassel;” an allegory of himself being the link between the East and West. “I look a bit foreign, I speak three languages but I had the Arab culture and know-how and I know what the taste and preferences are. And it paid off; it was much easier pleasing these guys than foreign clients.”
Within these 10 years, as the manager of Quintessentially Middle East’s operations, Chouity opened over 20 different companies; “These included architecture, design, private jet companies, a motor sports racing team in partnership with a Saudi gentleman, a financial company based in Switzerland.” Then one day Chouity was watching the Social Network movie, and thet’s when it hit him – time has changed. He was fascinated by Mark Zuckerbeg; thinking: who is this kid?
“Back then we didn’t have social media, so building a company wasn’t as simple as nowadays. I envy the youth now,” he says. The movie inspired Chouity to build a social network for Arab gamers; his first online business, At7addak.com. It became the biggest gaming website in the Arab world with 3 million users. “But I didn’t really have a monetising strategy,” he says. “You know, those days, we didn’t have a clue about online monetisation. So as soon as I monetised it I sold it to a competing gaming company.”
And that was how it was; Chouity would never hold on to a company. “I build it, get it to a profitability and flip it to do something else,” he explains that he was more interested in the creation of business than the management of a business. “I never considered myself as a good manager. Because I was too nice, I loved my employees, I took care of them, and they took advantage of me. So, I didn’t know how to be a good manager, I splurge a lot, I love spending.”
Gambling through the digital age
After At7addak.com, Chouity built 10 other web companies, first of which was BidZeed in 2013; the first gaming slash gambling website in the Arab world. “That grew exponentially. I built it in three months and sold it in six months.”
At that time, neither did the Middle East nor did the world-wide web consider regulating online gambling; so BidZeed was technically a-legal since it was built as penny auctions. “Penny auctions is a very thin grey area between gambling and gaming;” says Chouity. Facebook allowed them to post ads, Paypal allowed them to collect money, because they were still within an area that no one litigated.
“We were absolutely minting it, the most amazing legal way of making money,” he says. “We didn’t know how all this money was coming our way.” But that didn’t last for long. One day, Paypal wrote to the company to tell them they’re freezing their account, because what they’re doing has been noticed to be illegal, in spite of all the paperwork that proved otherwise. “It took us six months of litigation to get our $120,000 back,” he says. Then, Facebook followed. They sent saying that they were banning the ad system for BidZeed. That was the deal breaker, they had to secure an exit.
So BidZeed got cunningly sold to a regional competitor; who wasn’t fully aware of the shortcomings that Chouity went through. “You see in the Social Network movie, it says you don’t get the five billion friends without making a few enemies,” Chouity says. “At the end of the day, 90 percent of our business is super clean, abovethe table, but 10 percent of the time you are doing things that your mind might not like personally –at the end of the day you have shareholders, partners, employees, you owe it to them to try to get the best exit possible.”
With the rise of social media and the power of the internet, Chouity saw a slump in the advertising industry. “Advertising agencies weren’t doing so well, Facebook killed us,” says the entrepreneur. “Now companies didn’t need agencies, companies could promote their brands without needing an intermediary. So, ad sales dropped.” For example, the company he runs together with his wife Tina Najjar, Shayyaka, biggest fashion concierge business in the Arab world for the past 10 years; it was not doing well. “The cash was disappearing because all these companies went directly to Facebook to promote and they don’t need us as middlemen anymore,” says Chouity. Given the situation, the entrepreneur got rid of all the online companies, and started contemplating his next goal. “Here was the pivot; I was diagnosed with cancer.”
What was Chouity doing? He was burning himself, with the 60-70 flights he takes every year; those were all questions rotating around Chouity’s shocked head on his way back home from the doctor’s appointment. “I was shocked to know about my diagnosis with thyroid cancer, I had to operate quickly so it wouldn’t spread... it’s a very dangerous area,” he says. “It was demotivating, depressing; I thought I was unstoppable, it was a completely humbling experience. It was a wakeup call message: you’re going too fast, trim down. But not even that – I had to end it. Get out of everything.”
And so, Chouity sold his entire empire and became a stay-at-home dad. “I spent a year in the house changing nappies, making food, and raising the kids. Those were the best days of my life,” he contemplates. He figured this was what he wants, this is what he is happy with. He got on all the magazine covers, he got press, and he got awards and now was time for a new chapter: being a good dad, being a good husband, and giving talks. He started teaching in schools, universities, where he gave two TedEx talks. But stability and Chouity are complete strangers; he grew bored. “I was enjoying what I was doing, but I was the kind of guy who liked to create.”
Chouity loves food with all his senses; spending a year at home with nothing to do except for cook and spend time with the kids revived his emotions towards cuisines. “I was a foody since the age of seven. I loved taking pictures of food. I loved watching food shows, and creating content about food,” he recalls. “So, I picked that up, and started creating content on social media.” People started liking it, sharing his content, and tagging each other. Fans even suggested that he takes a leap and turn it into a business.
“A year after, DaddyFoody became a business and in fact one of the biggest food blogs in the Arab region,” he says. “Now I’m operating it like I’m running a business.” DaddyFoody is similar to an advertising agency, except that it’s personal. “So, food companies approach and ask me to create content for them.” Being a blogger gave Chouity the liberty to create honest content. “My style is witty, a little bit naughty at times. Coming into it as an independent entrepreneur, I never had limitations. That was very refreshing for brands, because that was what they needed for a change.”
Now that Chouity has scaled in Lebanon as a food blogger, his next move would be expanding in his second home, the Gulf region. “I’ll see where it takes me,” he says. “I want to be known as a household name, where people know me as a food storyteller.”
Images courtesy of #MO4Productions.
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