How a Dutch woman became an entrepreneur in Beirut - with a little help from her friends

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This piece is part of a new series on expat entrepreneurs.

Last week in Beirut, a crowd of native Beirutis and foreigners gathered at newly-launched Mezzanine café – the tasty addition to Alt City's funky coworking space – to discover Living Lebanon, a travel guide and soon-to-be-launched discovery website for Lebanon.

Writing a guide book on Lebanon is a risky move that most guidebooks, including Lonely Planet, refuse to take. This is understandable, as political instabilities have had a tough impact on tourism, making it almost impossible to get a return on investment.

But still, there's a need. The few existing guidebooks for travelers, expats, and locals, are outdated, and feature deceptive maps with incorrect or incomplete trip information, mostly because the writers fail to capture the Lebanese ways of doing things. 

So, who would be crazy enough to spend a year traveling through the country, reviewing hotels, spending weeks mapping the trickiest road intersections, and months getting accurate information on bus routes?

Leaving a comfortable life in Amsterdam 

Saskia Nout, that's who. Nout, originally from Amsterdam, never imagined that she would one day be building a multimedia project in the Middle East. Two years ago, she was a Project Manager in an oncology lab, conducting clinical research, living comfortably in Amsterdam, owning a car, an apartment, and a bicycle. Yet, her ordinary life made her bored and unhappy.

So, she decided to leave the country. After traveling to South Africa, where she took care of lions, to Beirut where she learned Arabic, to Camino de Santiago, where she reflected on her life (read the story on her blog), she made up her mind, quit everything in Holland, and decided to move to Beirut to work on - what else? - a travel guide, the one thing she knew people needed, and that she could create without too much investment.

Nout gathered her savings and calculated that she could survive a year and a half if she cut unnecessary expenses. This was enough to write the book; she would figure out the rest later, she thought.

How one becomes an entrepreneur without realizing it

Nout has never been shy about her book, something that made it easy for her to gather a lot of feedback and to meet people interested in being part of the project.

"Everyone that I spoke to was super enthusiastic. I managed to arrange things for free, and everybody was helping,” she says. First, a friend offered to design the maps, and then a friend of her mother's who works as an editor offered to edit the book for free. Finally, a friend offered to design the cover.

At that point, Nout realized that all that was left was the design of the book, so she taught herself how to use InDesign - again, getting friends to help her with some issues - and finished the book.

Going for a crowdsourced approach was an easy decision to make. As the organization part worked itself out naturally, all that was left was the many advantages: retaining control over her product, and saving a lot of money. And, by then, Nout knew that she had to cut costs and avoid working with publishers and bookstores as much as possible if she wanted to generate profit, in such a small market.  

So, she decided to self-publish her book. She found a printer, paid for a first round of books, and talked to several famous café owners familiar with her project, and convinced them to sell it for a smaller cut than bookstores would take, creating a win-win situation, as they hoped to get new customers from the deal. 

This could have been the end of the story. But someone approached Nout to co-found a website based on Living Lebanon, which will launch in a couple of months. She was also introduced to someone interested in promoting her book, as it would co-promote his project. "That’s what I like about Lebanon: everybody is an entrepreneur, with a restaurant or a project to promote,” she says. 

In November, Studio Beirut, a platform that creates social awareness, and claims social spaces in Lebanon, will co-organize the official launch party of Living Lebanon. They plan on giving an “avant-gout du Liban”: a tasting that recreates the full experience of Lebanon in a 14,000 meters square old refurbished factory, with some of Lebanon's finest food and drink-makers to feature their best dishes, artists to showcase their art, and musicians to transform the night into a typical Beirut party.

Now, the book is on sale for $20 USD at AltCity, and popular Hamra hangouts Café YounesDar Bistro and Books, independent bookstore El Bourj, major bookstore chains Antoineand Saifi Urban Gardens, a well-known trendy hostel/innovative Arabic school/hip rooftop bar/traditional communal restaurant. Nout is currently closing some additional retail deals, and is getting ready to sell the e-book on her yet-to-be-launched website.

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