Ask any business owner or founder of a startup or SME about the challenges they have faced operating in Lebanon these past few years, and similar responses will emerge. Whilst the repercussions of the ongoing crisis are still being felt, many companies have found innovative ways to navigate to stay afloat, and in some cases, even achieve growth.
BDD’s team sat down with Emile Harb (EH), Founder and CEO of Shelvz, a retail management execution software company, to discuss unique strategies, adopted mindsets and how they overcame the challenges.
BDD: Let’s start with how the numerous crises have impacted Shelvz
EH: I believe the economic crisis had a big toll on pretty much everyone, especially SMEs. We were basically distracted for almost two years and were in survival mode, specifically with the significant devaluation.
Another major issue we faced, was the demotivation of the team and the desire for everyone to leave Lebanon despite the fact that we were able to settle salaries in US Dollars. We had to react very quickly and so we opened a branch in Cyprus, in Q1 2020, to accommodate the needs of team members who wanted to leave the country rather than losing them.
BDD: What were the main challenges you faced or continue to face?
EH: The survival of Shelvz was key, especially after all the effort that we put in over the last 10 years in the tech scene in Lebanon. The prospect of letting it slip away was heartbreaking, especially because the problems were stemming from the macro environment.
Secondly, having to deal with all the bureaucracy and administrative work instead of focusing on growing Shelvz, brought with it a lot of frustration as well.
Other challenges we faced including the lack of access to foreign funds, due to the banking crisis, along with the travel bans on Lebanese, with many of our big clients situated outside the country.
BDD: It all sounds very challenging. What mindset did you have to adopt to navigate the crisis?
EH: Honestly, I just let it be.
It took me a while to accept the idea that things can go sour and we can lose our business due to force majeure circumstances, and there was nothing we could do about it. Some businesses that I was part of almost went bust, so the reality was very harsh. Once I accepted the idea, things got easier and for some reason they worked out in our favor.
I guess persistence was key to our survival.
BDD: Have you had any successes despite the crisis?
EH: We sure did. Here are a few notable achievements:
- First and foremost, ensuring the team is motivated and financially comfortable was a major success for us.
- Managing to become cash flow positive over the last 18 months was a major relief
- Doubling our revenues while achieving solid unit economics
- Expanding to new markets and reinforcing our presence in KSA
- Acquiring major multinationals with regional scopes
- Expanding the team locally and remotely
BDD: Do you have a message for other Lebanese companies that are enduring similar circumstances?
EH: Persistence mainly, nothing beats that. Eventually, it will get you somewhere. Also, having the right team is key, as they can reduce the stress levels on the founder. I have a great team that is like family to me and this was a game changer. I surely wouldn’t be here if I did not have their support.
BDD: Looking back, is there a key moment or insight that sticks out?
EH: Yes, there are two.
The importance of building sustainable businesses rather than relying on funding to sustain losses, was a key learning. Unfortunately, the macro environment before was irrational when it came to startup funding and expectations. I guess they are back to reality now and that’s great for everyone.
Also, the team is by far the most important asset you have and you really know that during a crisis. Building the right culture where collaboration, teamwork, respect and humility are valued can significantly make or break any business.
To learn more about Shelvz, visit: https://www.shelvz.com/