June 12, 2016

LebNet Interview: Entrepreneur Jihad Kawas (Saily Inc.)

About: Jihad Kawas is a young entrepreneur (2015 Thiel Fellow) on a mission to influence the sharing economy. Founder of Saily Inc, he recently raised his seed round funding in the US, after having already secured Wamda, MEVP and Angel funds. Jihad grew up in Lebanon and went to a small private but highly progressive school in Saida.
Jihad is looking to increase staffing with senior talent in Lebanon and San Francisco. Stay on the lookout for job opportunities from Saily Inc. on the LebNet website.

Interview: Michelle Tager of LebNet interviewed Jihad about his background and thoughts on entrepreneurship in Lebanon.

M.T.: Tell me about how you came up with the idea for your startup Saily?

J.K.: When I was 14, I got my first iPhone. I downloaded many apps and was mesmerized by how apps were developed and who was behind them. I typed on Google “how to make a mobile app” and got hooked by tutorials. So I built my first mobile app at 14. At age 15, I created a small agency with five older colleagues and started programing apps for sale. At age 16, this Saily idea started growing in my mind. The name comes from Garage sale-ing, – let’s go Garage Sailing. I wanted to apply the Instagram idea to the sell-and-buy of second-hand products over the internet.

M.T.: Tell me more about Saily’s success.

J.K.: Signing up on Saily is 17x faster than on Ebay. You can list your items better then on Craigslist, and there is an additional unique user experience thanks to the social component, whereby you can chat with other fellows. As of today, we’re getting 300K registered users in the US without any marketing costs, and with a team of 5 people. Our approach is an organic one, “users do the marketing for us”. We’re only concentrating on the US market as it is a huge market for now. Plans are to expand to MENA one day.

M.T.: How did you get funding?

J.K.: Watching Silicon Valley show, I heard that some guy named Peter Gregory was giving away $100k for people to drop out of college. I thought it was fiction until one day I mentioned it at WWDC (Apple’s World Wide Developers Conference) and someone told me it was true; it’s part of the Thiel Foundation Fellowship. I quickly applied. A year later, in 2015, I was the first non-European and non-American to get the funding, out of 3000 applicants, with 19 other young entrepreneurs under 22. At the fellowship, I was impressed by the number of young people who were all “geniuses”/ 3bakira. I was humbled and intimidated to be one among them, but I realized that if I can make it then anyone can. So since then, I have been spreading the word out in Lebanon and MENA to my fellow developers to apply. The experience was more than astounding, and worth every day skipped from school.

M.T.: Tell me about that – you just spoke at a TEDx talk about how the school system is failing kids.

J.K.: It takes a year and half for UK universities to update a college-level course. Evolution of the work field and the market moves much faster. How can we then rely on traditional education to help us improve our professional performance that fits in today’s market when our learning is back-dated. Knowledge is there, we only need to have the passion to light up the spark, and ask for it.

M.T.: What do you like best about the US?

J.K.: I can’t speak about the US, I can only speak about SF and I love it because everyone respects everyone. It’s a highly productive place and it always pushes you forward, and you are surrounded by smart people. Silicon Valley is a place where magic happens. However, when I was featured on National TV or on the Yahoo Financial cover, I received over 300 racial comments about my name. The US as a whole needs a lot to get close to Silicon Valley’s progressive culture on many levels, which is why I believe in Silicon Valley.

M.T.: How does it feel to be a young entrepreneur in Lebanon?

J.K.: It’s a great experience. Every day, the new generation proves to be taking its future into its own hands, and I’m proud to be part of that. Although based in SF, I travel very often to Beirut. Lebanese are entrepreneurs, they have to be: we have so many problems that need to be fixed,, from the day we are born: no water, no electricity etc. We have to be innovative and creative to make it work. I believe in change, because of all of these Lebanese who travel the world due to war and come back with new ideas. Change needs to come from Lebanese, the Lebanese way.

M.T.: What are your thoughts on groups like LebNet?

J.K.: I hope that LebNet will break the stereotype that we Lebanese can succeed as individuals. We can’t. It takes a team. I like your networking events and believe in organic growth. At one of the Tech Mixers, I met with a person from Google and continued the conversation later. It was a very positive experience: this contact was able to help him develop the Android version of my app. I also hope that LebNet can close the generational gap. I would love to participate in an FB group, as I do not believe that LinkedIn groups are popular among my generation.

M.T.: What is the funding system like in Lebanon?

J.K.: There is a lot of funding but not enough of successful startups based in Lebanon, yet. VCs are missing on lots of opportunities due to legal issues. Accelerators in Lebanon are multiplying; that’s good. They are good agents for startups to grow. But we need more accelerators for early stage/students. We need accelerators for all ranges of startups.

M.T.: What advice do you have for young Lebanese entrepreneurs in Lebanon?

J.K.: Jump on a plane and come live in Silicon Valley for a bit, at least once in your life. The cost is $1.5K. The return is an invaluable learning experience and very eye-opening. Lebanese need to go out to succeed and then will go back and do great things at home. This is historically how it has always been.

M.T.: What is the best app?

J.K.: Saily Inc. of course. Snapchat

M.T.: What is the best social media?

J.K.: Facebook

M.T.: What is the best wearable?

J.K.: none. I hate wearables

M.T.: Who is your role model?

J.K.: Steve Jobs (the cheesy answer); My mom (the real answer)

M.T.: If you weren’t an entrepreneur, what would you be?

J.K.: An artist!

M.T.: What is your dream?

J.K.: I see so many flags in San Francisco, my dream is that every Lebanese in SV hangs a Lebanese flag at their window. This way, people will be curious to know more about Lebanon. I wish all Lebanese (and mostly the rich) help to change Lebanon by investing in the youth. I will do that when I become wealthy!