“Sex and $550.”
That was the subject line of an email then 18-year-old Wissam Sabbagh sent to thousands of potential clients. “Now that I’ve caught your attention, why not expand your business and build a website for $550?”
It was this boldness that drove Sabbagh to launch his first company at 18-years-old in Lebanon, Dotcom, marketing himself the best he knew - spending weeks manually typing in company email addresses he’d found in Lebanon’s yellow pages. After tens of nights and days, he had compiled over 35,000 email addresses.
His first paid client after that email was a group of nuns, responding to his email after only a couple of hours of sending it. The women were hoping to market an accommodation they were running.
“I later decided I needed to be more professional and I changed the subject line,” he said.
While Sabbagh started his first company at 18, he got his first job at 15.
Driven by his love for technology and computer software, he taught himself how to build websites using now discontinued Microsoft Frontpage, a software that allowed users to code and build their own basic websites.
“Since he was a little kid, everyone around him felt this boy was going to be something,” said Krikor Ohannessian, a friend and business partner of Sabbagh’s who has known him since childhood.
Eventually after teaching himself coding languages including HTML and CSS, his father asked him to build a website and software to manage his company’s operations. And he did it, for free. His friends then started to ask him for websites. And he did them, for free.
“At that age, you feel like you can be anything you want, you have these big dreams, we have a huge competitive advantage - the sky's the limit. It gives some sort of hope, that you can be anything you want to be,” Sabbagh said.
Five years later, Sabbagh realized that a servicing model like Dotcom, where he built websites and software, was not sustainable and branched out into social media. In less than a year, Sabbagh and his team built a new organizational performance index, or OPI, that would take into account over 200 parameters, such as the number of mentions of Twitter and retweets, and generate a single performance indicator by which a client could compare themselves to their competitor in a one to one ratio. This company, DotOPI, marked Sabbagh’s first exit - nearly four years ago. He did not want to disclose details of the deal.
Today, Dotcom still exists providing digital solutions, software development and other services to over 500 companies. It also acts as an incubator for Sabbagh and his team’s own ideas for new startups, such as soon-to-be-launched Agora, a loyalty platform that provides retailers with an end-to-end CRM solution - a method of measuring a company’s engagement with its customers. Dotcom is also developing a fashion ecommerce startup, Grab the Look, for Arab women.
Since Dotcom, Sabbagh has launched several other companies, most notably is his latest, Mangomolo, a platform for broadcasters to stream live and video on demand (VOD) content.
In MENA, broadcasters and advertisers alike are seeing increasing value in steering towards over-the-top video (OTTV), or video streaming online through the web, smartphones and tablets, especially with content catered to the region.
While traditional television is still a winner with Arab eyeballs, consumer demands for video anytime, anywhere and on any device, cannot be ignored. It’s also on an evitable climb.
Launched in 2014, Mangomolo is becoming popular with Middle East broadcasters who are switching their old systems for what, they say, is a more fluid system.
“It only took us a few months to migrate from the old system to the new system. Working with Mangomolo wasn’t one of those bumpy experiences. It was a steady one,” said Heba AlSamt, digital media director at Dubai Media Incorporated (DMI), the Dubai government’s official media arm.
Launched by Dubai Channel Network, the TV and radio sector in DMI, AlSamt uses Mangomolo to power the region’s largest digital video library, Awaan.
Sabbagh promises Mangomolo can “allow any broadcaster with a simple click to launch a VOD platform everywhere”.
“We put ourselves in the broadcasters’ shoes and the publishers’ shoes and thought how could we make this process easier for them, how could we make it more automated for them, how can I help reduce a 20 person job to manage a VOD workflow, to a one to two person man job?” Sabbagh asked.
Still independently funded, he hopes Mangomolo would be the first major technology IPO from this region.
Walking the walk
One element that distinguishes Sabbagh is his ability to walk the walk, say his friends. Unlike other young entrepreneurs, Sabbagh sees his ideas through from vision to product.
“Wissam is a visionary. He thinks of an idea and starts developing it, bouncing the idea off a few people that he trusts. The idea grows some arms and legs and he would launch straight away to test it. Being an entrepreneur and a young one, he has a vision and wants to make it a reality,” said Dr. Elie Daher, Sabbagh’s business mentor.
But like most entrepreneurs, the path isn’t lined with roses.
In many instances Sabbagh has to balance his cash and resources, with his ambitions.
There is always a drive to enter the market quickly before competitors that needs to be balanced with wanting to set a healthy pace for development and deliver on promises to customers, Daher said.
Sabbagh manages the balance well, he added. Daher’s 16-year-old son Ryan, who has been interning with Sabbagh since the age of 13, concurs.
Paying it forward
Perhaps what’s most refreshing about Sabbagh is his genuine gratitude for his own path and his desire to pay it forward.
In addition to developing successful startups, part of Sabbagh’s vision is empowering young teenagers - who perhaps remind him of himself, typing out 35,000 email addresses into an excel sheet, armed with a teenager’s sense of invincibility and fearlessness.
“The earlier you start, the less responsibilities and risks you need to take to follow your passion or start your own business. I started working when I was 15 or 16 and I owe much of my success to starting young,” Sabbagh said. So every year he hires two interns under the age of 18 to help with his startups.
One of those interns is Ryan Daher. The first summer he researched companies and websites, writing 20-30 page reports about their social media interactions and website’s vulnerabilities. The second summer, he helped in creating Mangomolo’s presentations and tutorials, seeking out CEOs to introduce them to their product.
He now works on Agora, trying to expand the reach of the business to attract more clients.
Grateful for the opportunity to learn the ins and outs of starting a business, Ryan is most impressed with how Sabbagh delegates work, getting people to do different tasks to accomplish one goal.
“I definitely want to be an entrepreneur when I grow up, that’s my goal. In the technology scene, because I have the more experience in it. I’ve been interested in technology my whole life even though I don’t want to pursue it in technical terms,” Ryan said. He’ll be 17 in two months, one year away from when Sabbagh started his first company.