Louise Doumet seemed to have it all; she had just finished her degree and a coveted job offer from financial services firm J.P. Morgan. But she chose to turn down the job and pursue a wild idea that popped up during a holiday in New York after friends kept complimenting her on her clothes, all by Lebanese designers. Why not make these available, online, so that people everywhere could buy them?
Thus the idea for Lebelik (literally meaning: “it suits you well”) was born, although it would take another 9 months for the website to launch online. The company launched on 21st of March 2011. Her business partner is her twin brother Michel, though he is only on board part-time while she runs daily operations, which is more than a full time job. The company mostly targets high-end, high-income 20-45 year old women in the region. “We target international women, people who appreciate quality and men in the same age bracket who want to shop for their lovers or girlfriends or wives,” Doumet says.
The site is one of only two in Lebanon which who retail Lebanese designers online, making it easy to buy local gems worldwide. Its competitor, Fashion Republik, has a larger customer base, with over 20,000 customers, and sells designers from across the Arab world. Lebelik has a bit more high end feel; the company mostly targets high-end, high-income 20-45 year old women in the region, offering a broader swath of designers that are local to Lebanon. ”We target international women, people who appreciate quality and men in the same age bracket who want to shop for their lovers or girlfriends or wives.” Indeed, it is the last category which gets the site most of its revenue. We sell a lot to men who buy gifts, as men buy less often but they more expensive [things]. They are 35% of our customers, but we get more than 50% of revenues from men,” says Doumet.
As for the challenges of running an e-commerce fashion business in Lebanon, Doumet points to how small the market is. Another problem is people seeing things on Lebelik and then going to the shop. “This happens a lot because women have time, it’s not like a lot of women work, so they will see what they like and go try it at the boutique.”
Another challenge is convincing people to use their credit cards online, and having them be comfortable with using their card on a Lebanese website. “They'll use their credit cards on Net-a-Porter” says Doumet, adding that having trusted partners like Bank Audi helps.
Yet to chat with Doumet is to see perseverance at work. She’s young and it’s clear she’s had to grow while building the business, but she’s conquered her fears to tackle the work at hand and build her business from the ground up. “It's not easy to start to start something from scratch. You want to successful. Here there's no "I quit;" you have to close down the shop. It's hard but it's amazing; you meet people you never thought you would meet. I can now program on HTML. I never thought I would do that,” she confesses.
Doumet lights up when discussing the designers themselves. “We are lucky enough to work with great people; all the designers are professional and sweet” she says, Internationally renowned designer Johnny Farah was one of the first designers to come on board. “For me, he is like an angel designer,” says Doumet. “The day we went to start Lebelik he said “I see you’re young, I see you want to work, I see you’re Lebanese, I want to help, where do you want me to sign?” she says. Now she has added a roster of Lebanese designers and she is about to add a Jordanian designer to her suppliers.
“The fun thing about Lebelik is that you see every day, people know about it a bit more” says Doumet. The marketing has been mostly word of mouth, the majority of her customers are friends of friends. Indeed, this helps the brand out, especially when men call for gifts for their girlfriends as Doumet often personally know the receiving party and can thus advise. But every month more people start buying who aren’t connected. This summer, the company will have displays in Sky Bar, a trendy Beirut night club, to help advertise. Currently, Doumet does about 3-4 sales a day.
As for her aspirations, Louise says she would love to collaborate with internationally well-known designers like Reem Accra or Elie Saab and have them produce exclusive items for the site. She also would like to work with similar websites in other countries.
Despite all the obstacles, Doumet is happy she didn’t take that J.P. Morgan job and would recommend starting up your own business as a career path. “It’s exciting because of what you learn, people you meet, because of the feeling you get: I’ve done something. Whether it works or doesn’t work, it’s great. It’s you, you’ve gone from stage 0 to stage B, maybe you don’t get to stage Z, but I think the idea of having accomplished something is already a little part of success that you will enjoy.”