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ABDALLAH ABSI: I started Zoomaal due to my repetitive failures caused by lack of funding

A young serial and social entrepreneur, Abdallah Absi founded more than six companies, is currently advising several start-ups, and aims at raising new generations of Arab entrepreneurs. He is currently the CEO of Zoomaal, an initiative funded by four major institutional investors and recently featured on CNN, Forbes, Wamda, and IHT. Zoomaal is the leading crowd-funding platform that aims at funding Arab creative projects. Abdallah has won more than 10 awards in entrepreneurship and computer science, and was recently selected as one of Lebanon’s Top 20 entrepreneurs for 2013.
When did you first get acquainted with the Lebanese entrepreneurship scene?
Late 2009 was my first involvement. This is when I first heard the word “Entrepreneurship” from the YallaStartup group founded by Habib Haddad, Elie Khoury and Sami Shalabi.
What is eClub and what are some of its latest projects?
eClub stands for “The Entrepreneurship Club”. Our mission is to support and promote youth entrepreneurship in Lebanon. The club was founded in 2011 at AUB, and it now operates around Lebanon under an NGO. Our latest project is The LEAGUE, an exclusive support network for young established entrepreneurs to lobby with the private and public sectors, and create a platform for the exchange of know-how among established entrepreneurs.
What are the projects (start-ups/ideas) that you implemented before Zoomaal?
I have started several projects prior to Zoomaal. In 2009, I co-founded LebAutos with my high school friends Ahmad Rabih and Ahmad Kammaz, a platform to browse and buy used cars in Lebanon. After LebAutos, I founded YallaSMEme (2009), an SMS service for greetings; CrowdVolt (2010), a platform for inter-company “protests”; Rifflex (2010); Askolar (2011); and finally Zoomaal (2012).
Zoomaal is a leading crowd-funding platform in the Middle East. Tell us why you chose to invest in this idea?
I’ve been always passionate about supporting young entrepreneurs, maybe because I had this problem myself. The major contributor to my repetitive failures was the lack of access to funding for someone who is a student, unexperienced, over-ambitious, and full of ideas. I want to change that.
Perhaps one of the weaknesses of Zoomaal is that it does not support partial funding of campaigns, unlike other platforms. Many Arab campaigns are being hosted on other platforms for this reason. Why did you choose not to allow such an option on Zoomaal?
It is actually a strength not a weakness. Although the partial funding model seems more straight-forward and offers more flexibility to the project owner, the consequences of it are diminishing to the contributors. Imagine that you supported a $50,000-project with $2,000 and the project ends up failing. In partial funding, the project owner will get the $2,000 although they probably can’t do anything with it, because their project needs $50,000. $2,000 is far from being close to the funding goal. With the All-or-Nothing model, we guarantee to the contributor that their funds are not released unless the project is successful. The All-or-Nothing model pushes project owners to share their project more, motivates contributors to fund projects so that the project owner can collect all the funds raised till now.
Are there any crowd-funding laws in Lebanon? Zoomaal is not registered in Lebanon, but in the US, right? Why is that?
Unlike equity crowd-funding (which needs a law to regulate it), reward-based crowd-funding is legal by nature. However, we have faced a lot of problems from banks in Lebanon who refused processing credit cards for Zoomaal because of concerns on money-laundering and anti-terrorism associated with crowd-funding. We found that incorporating the company in the US will make it much easier for us to overcome the educational gap of Lebanese banks with regards to crowd-funding.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges of entrepreneurs in Lebanon and the Middle East?
Access to funding, exit strategies, political stability—they’re all related
What is your relationship like with the Lebanese online community?
I’m always up-to-date to the latest hypes happening on social media. However, due to my commitment to Zoomaal and getting things done, my personal engagement on Twitter and Facebook is semi-active.
What is the proudest moment of your career so far?
Every time a project gets funded on Zoomaal, I feel like it’s my project. It makes me feel happy that Zoomaal is realizing dreams and saving them from fading away.
What advice would you give to fresh graduates who are considering to build their own career rather than apply for jobs?
Stop giving yourself excuses. No, you don’t need 5 years of experience to start a business, you can do it now. And now with platforms like Zoomaal, funding is the least concern you should have. I advise every entrepreneur and wanna-be entrepreneur to read the book “Lean Startup” by Eric Ries.
A version of this article was originally published in Cloud961's May issue. You can download it for free here.