Learn and adapt: Lebanon's Sociatag shows us how it's done
If you’re active in the Lebanese startup ecosystem, then you’ve probably already met the young entrepreneur behind Sociatag, the social integration platform hailing from Beirut. In less than two years, Wassim Hakim and his booth have quickly become staple figures at startup events.
With a background as a web developer at digital advertising agencies ClearTag (which has smartly been acquiring startups and is part of digital media umbrella group DNY, and also owns Innovo) and Eastline Marketing, launching a product to bridge the online and offline worlds seemed like the logical next step. Hakim thought up the idea during graduate school, but needed some time to find the right edge, as it is, granted, not the first idea of its kind.
But the idea didn’t stop evolving when he eventually launched. What started as a way to allow event attendees to interact with any online platform by simply swiping magnetic cards over physical boxes quickly evolved into a full-fledged social integration platform, enabling people to transpose their offline activity during events into memorable moments on their social media profile.
Here’s the story of the startup that has quickly become an events darling, and whose technology is now at the basis of the Beirut Digital District community.
Taking the leap
The idea is relatively simple. Attendees are given magnetic tags at registration to be used throughout the event (they can choose to sign in using their online profiles, or remain anonymous). The tags allow them to interact with Hakim’s physical smart boxes that read the tags and quickly perform social actions initiated by users tapping on the box, such as sending a tweet or an email, checking in on Foursquare, or logging a Facebook like. By default, boxes support three different social actions that are defined via a control panel by the event organizer (the number can be scaled based on demand). All it takes to get the system up and running is little training for the event staff and the desired number of boxes, which can be rented or bought by the client.
Once he crystallized the concept in his head, Hakim ordered machines from the US and assembled the prototype, building the plexiglass boxes and casings using models and instructions online. With the help of two friends, he worked on the branding and even managed to enlist a friend as a cofounder, until he got a job offer he couldn’t refuse. Left without a cofounder, Hakim still seems to have, interestingly enough, one of those ‘right place at the right time’ stories.
His first client was none other than the ArabNet conference, he says. “I approached [Wamda CEO] Habib Haddad who introduced me to Omar Christidis, [who I] then I convinced to implement Sociatag at his next conference.” It was at this first Arabnet conference in 2012 that – serendipity strikes – Tarek Dajani (ClearTag) passed by their booth and showed interest in the product.
ClearTag’s interest was a wake up call for the young cofounder. “I didn’t really know what ‘entrepreneur’ really meant [...] until after a year. But when I was there, investors came out to me and I didn’t have a business plan, so I started doing the exercise,” he says.
Eventually, Hakim negotiated a deal that was fair to both him and investors and allowed him to spend a full year on development. Later, he also landed a few more regional heavyweights as clients. These clients have provided him with enough runway for the near future, but so far he’s found them on an ad hoc basis, which might not prove a sustainable way of attracting investment.
Latest developments have included automating the card-box relationship, as well as a mobile app, launched last June.
We asked Hakim the key strategies that got him where he is today.
1) Find your edge
In order to craft his competitive edge, Hakim devised a more complete, and more scalable, cloud-based loyalty program built on top of the existing Sociatag functionalities, based on physical interactions and a photo booth. The new program supports different features, such as credit systems or point accumulation, and can also integrate with features that are already running. BDD (and their rapidly growing community of tenants) has already incorporated the feature, replacing their security cards with Sociatag’s loyalty program system; BDD members use Sociatag’s cards to access the venue, the parking lot, the gym, and to purchase food from the DigiCafe. Call it a pivot, because this new sector of their offerings has become the startup’s current major focus. Seeing the success of the loyalty program option, Hakim envisions the startup’s next round to focus on sales and distribution. He also brings up the possibility of moving to Dubai because “the market there is more mature and more budget is allocated to marketing.”
2) Build a network around you
Early on, Hakim knew to surround himself with a stellar pick of mentors, including digital entertainment agency Vinelab’s Abed Agha, MIT Enterprise Forum’s Hala Fadel, Seeqnce cofounder Samer Karam, as well as Hakim’s former bosses Tarek Dajani and Marc Dfouni. His network is also the source of his first round of funding (the startup’s technology is now an integral part of ClearTag).
Perhaps the name “Sociatag” is a clear indication of the startup’s propensity to help build communities, whether offline or online. One of the aspects I found most interesting about Hakim’s story is the almost natural tendency he has to go towards startups – his peers – whether for mentorship or partnerships. Recently, Sociatag and Lebanese events startup Lebtivity announced a strategic partnership. When I separately asked Lebtivity cofounder Randa Farah and Hakim how the partnership came to be, they almost gave me an identical answer to the effect of: “It’s just about startups helping startups.” Their partnership means that we’ll get to see the Sociatag photobooth at many of the events powered by Lebtivity.
A great network can also help you weather the challenges. Innovo, Sociatag’s sister company, has helped them solve their main challenges with the boxes, which are imported from China and the US but assembled locally.
3) Listen and act fast: exlusive chat about the SelfiesBox
The photo booth has been one of the startup’s most popular props. Comprising a standalone screen that allows users to swipe their cards and take a snapshot that can be uploaded on the spot or emailed, it’s been selling well, according to Hakim, for the past two months.
In one event, the photobooth integration facilitated a 65% increase in the number of Facebook fans in less than three weeks (attendees took around 1,000 pictures and had their friends vote on them).
And this is exactly why the young entrepreneur decided to act fast by spinning this part of the startup’s offering into a standalone product called the SelfiesBox, he tells in an exclusive pre-launch chat with Wamda two days ago. With this, Hakim seems to have unlocked another potential revenue stream for his startup, one which could also potentially make events organizers very happy. It is set to launch at the beginning of September.
The selfies box will work both online and offline, allowing events organizer to configure branding and overlays and even add the option of instant printing (another feature with which the startup has enlisted Innovo’s help). The booth can also generate QR codes on the spot for the attendees to save the pictures, offering brands yet another chance at product placement.
His last pieces of advice for the next young entrepreneur launching into products? Start early, find a cofounder to push you, reach out to friends, and if your interest is in hardware, go for it, as there aren’t many hardware startups crowding the regional ecosystem yet.