What are the odds of your midlife crisis turning you into an entrepreneur, and a successful one at that?
Roger Khater was 35 years old when he decided to quit the managerial position, in which he had invested the previous ten years of his life, and start his own company. He left his job as Head of IP platforms at Lebanese telecomms company Alfa in 2009, and launched in 2010 IP Engineering, a consultancy and implementation company. Then, in July 2012 he launched Bubleik, a virtual business office space for entrepreneurs.
“I had reached a top middle management position. What could be next? I kept enough savings to maintain my family for two years and ventured with IP Engineering,” says Khater.
Having seen the virtual office model working in
other countries and markets, Khater was motivated by the growing
trend of freelancers working from home, but in need of a business
address. “A working-from-home mom who can’t always answer the phone
needs an operator to do that for her,” says
Meeting room available for subscribers
How Bubleik made the best of guerrilla marketing
We’ve met Khater for the first time during Mix N’Mentor Beirut of last year, and reconnected a few weeks ago at this year’s event. In a year he’s managed to increase his user base by implementing some of the tips he got during the first event. guerrilla marketing was his secret weapon, here are some tips on how he did it:
Go to the source and filter “We bought all the government’s data on registered companies in Lebanon and called all those who did not provide a landline. We hammered emails every single person we had, then called, and pitched, and explained our services. This is how we got our first customers very quickly. And our first success came from offshore companies, who needed certain logistics and presence.”
Scratch ads, go for partnerships “Instead of doing ads we went for partnerships, they cost less and can be done on a referral basis - if I don’t get customers, I don’t pay. I went to the top virtual aggregator for virtual offices in Europe, e-office. They list companies who provide the service and market for them. I started this six months ago and I’ve been seeing my non-Lebanese users grow.”
Adopt different customer segments “We figured out two customer segments. One who can pay $120 USD who should be generating $30k USD to $70k USD per year; and another group who can pay $50 USD for a landline and minimum engagement, who generate between $20k USD - $40k USD per year.”
SMS tracking “Starting with a non-organised database of 15,000 entries just providing mobile phone numbers without email addresses, I could not to go through them one by one with a team of three. It takes a lot of time with a low success rate. During Beirut’s Mix N’ Mentor 2013, Will Huston advised me to send promo SMS’ and track them through UTM generator. We called whoever clicked the link. Out of 15,000 we reached 200, more than 100 became users. And we regularly do this exercise.”
Re-targeting “During Mix N’ Mentor earlier this month, Wamda’s Roland Daher gave me this marketing tip, which I directly started implementing. We would re-target anyone who visits any of our websites through Google’s Adwords. And according to look alike customers we paid for targeted ads, less expensive and more effective.”
Khater also was keen to build up a community. Firstly he would connect his users together. “If anyone needs help, for example, with accounting or finances we put them directly in contact with other subscribers who work as auditors,” he explains.
Secondly, and over a year Khater organised a series of workshops held at his Badaro premises, where he would host experts offering sessions about a varied range of topics such as sales, accounting, public speaking, leadership, personal branding. “This helped us a lot build a community and gain users by referral,” he says.
In the coming few months Khater is developing this idea into building webinars people can attend online.
One of the many workshops
Dealing with dishonesty
Throughout his short journey, dealing with dishonesty as a cultural social behaviour was one of Khater’s first challenges. “Some customers just won’t pay, so I was running out of cash quickly.” In order to minimize the risks Khater categorised his customers: VIP customers (very small but trust number), then customers leveraged on due to the relationship with partners, and the third type would be anyone new, upon whom he and his team would put less effort.
Overcoming the lack of reliable payment gateways
Like every business that sells virtual services and goods, online payment is a hassle. Reliable payment gateways are too expensive for such a young business. “We went for bank transfers every 2-3 months to minimize expenses,” explains Khater.
As a service, Bubleik provides freelancers, offshore companies, and any startup that only needs physical space occasionally, with all the administrative tasks and logistics needed. From mail addresses, to dedicated landlines for fax and phone with an operator and a voicemail to email, in addition to a meeting room.
Depending on the features chosen, the prices of the services range from $50 USD to $120 USD for both Lebanese and foreign entrepreneurs.
Seems like the little Lebanese bird has been doing quite well since its launch. The company is currently serving around 400 regular users, most of them from Lebanon, and subscribing to the small packages limited to one landline and courier management.
Almost 44 companies are subscribed to bigger packages. 40% of them are Lebanese, 40% are offshore Lebanese, and 15 are from Europe (mostly from the UK and the rest between France, Germany, the Netherlands where Greenpeace is a main user).
Khater had bought the physical space before launching, and when it comes to expenses he has no management salary. “I have been breaking even on provident loss since November 2013, before expanding to the UK.”
Today, two startups later, Khater believes that marketing stays an important element of a startup’s success. “The only viable business function is marketing, from a holistic approach. Please entrepreneurs innovate around marketing, the rest is commodity.”