As Arabnet celebrates its 10 year anniversary this year, Omar Christidis, the young and passionate founder of Arabnet, exposes what makes this event a reference in the arena of tech-themed conferences.
Arabnet is celebrating its 10 year anniversary this year… Things have surely been much more complex than it was 10 years ago… Can you take us through some of the challenges/obstacles faced all through the decade?
One of the main challenges was when we started 10 years ago, we really had to work hard at raising the level of market awareness in regards to the sector. The world of tech and startups was very small, and many people were not familiar with the concepts of startup pitches, venture capital investment, acceleration, etc. We worked a lot with corporates (and government) to explain the importance of investing in tech / innovation, collaborating with startups / innovators, and engaging in events like ArabNet conferences.
Once we established ourselves in Lebanon, we expanded and localized our offerings to other markets in the region, such as KSA, Kuwait, and Dubai. We built local relationships, established brand recognition and trust in each market, whilst understanding and reflecting the cultural specificities and also developing programs and activities relevant to the local environment and ecosystem needs.
As we expanded to multiple markets, and started offering a more extensive list of offerings and services, we have had to restructure internally, and our team grew to over 30 members today. We are constantly inspiring, developing, and retaining stellar talent, building a corporate structure that empowers leaders in the organization to be decision-makers.
Moreover, the region has witnessed an increasing number of tech events, which although most of the events are not of the same scale, the increase in market activity meant we really needed to develop and communicate our differentiation clearly.
Talking about differnciation, what distinguishes Arabnet from other tech-themed conferences? And what kind of audiences and speakers does the event usually attract?
There are many features to ArabNet conferences that are unique among other events. First, our events bring together three main stakeholders: government leaders, corporate decision-makers, and the entrepreneurship & innovation ecosystem (including entrepreneurs, investors and support organizations). Many other events tend to focus on just corporates and digitization, or just startups and innovation.
Second, ArabNet is a regional organization with strong reach into the GCC - and we leverage that reach to attract attendees from different markets and help develop cross-border collaborations.
Third, ArabNet is specialized in tech and innovation - we don’t do events or activities in other domains, and our depth of specialization helps us stay on top of the latest trends and reflect the real market concerns and issues.
How would you define Arabnet's core mission since the start? And has it changed with the changing media and marketing landscape?
It definitely shifted! When we started there was little going on in the ecosystem, so we had a different role to play: we were helping to build an industry from the ground up. Our focus was in developing a platform for startups and investors to connect, engaging new corporates into the digitization sector, and connecting stakeholders across different markets to share insights and do business together. When we started our event in Saudi, it had 500 attendees and 1000 square meters of exhibition space; in 2018 we had 4000 attendees and 4000 sqm! We have helped grow this market and bring people together, bringing first time speakers to the region, and helping global companies enter the market.
Over time the sector changed, and technology went from the IT department to the boardroom. Today CEOs are looking for strategic support in their innovation and digitization strategy, which has become a top priority and potential competitive advantage (or disadvantage) for their companies. They know that the future of all businesses is digital.
As a result, we have launched new services to address these needs: our Insight division, which produces original research and thought-leading publications to fill the gap of data that currently exists regionally; and our Innovation Programs division, where we work closely with corporates to develop and implement their innovation strategy, working with them to deliver programs ranging from Hackathons to full year Corporate Incubation programs.
“Initially when the market was smaller, we had only one stage and covered all the topics in one place. However, with the growth of the industry came a demand for more specialized content - and so we responded by creating full-day tracks focused on different verticals: AD/EDGE for Marketing, Launchpad for startups, Finverse for digital banking. With the growth of the industry, we became more specialized and created these sub-verticals.“
How did the conference evolve to ensure it remains relevant to all the different players in the ecosystem it caters to, while always retaining its core value?
Initially when the market was smaller, we had only one stage and covered all the topics in one place. However, with the growth of the industry came a demand for more specialized content - and so we responded by creating full-day tracks focused on different verticals: AD/EDGE for Marketing, Launchpad for startups, Finverse for digital banking. With the growth of the industry, we became more specialized and created these sub-verticals.
Also, as the market grew and we saw more demand from young people, we decided to open up the platform by offering free tickets to the main stage and exhibition for all. However, we also maintained the needs of our VIP specialized attendees (those interested in Banking / Media & Advertising) by creating a limited-access area where they can network with other decision makers.
At the same time, with the rapid growth of the startup community - we elevated our Startup Demo competition, the first startup pitch competition in MENA, to become a regional Championship - picking the best startups across six cities and putting them against each other in a grand finale. Meanwhile, we started offering startups heavily reduced prices for booths to open up the opportunity for many more companies to connect with investors and get the exposure they need.
There are arguments, however, that Arabnet has become too techie, or too geeky, and has strayed too far from digital innovation in the marcom industry. What's your say?
I disagree. And partly this is because I believe the future of the marcom industry is technology; that the agency of the future will be full of geeks and techies; and that creativity in the future will be augmented (if not driven) by numbers and data. Those who are stuck in the golden age of ‘Mad Men’ creativity -- and don’t appreciate the transformation that tech is bringing to marketing -- they will have a very hard time in the coming 10 years. According to e-marketer by 2023, digital ad spend will represent ⅔ of all ad spend, and trends like dynamic creative and ad personalization means many targeted messages might be stronger than one big brilliant idea.
And we’re seeing this already with the changing role and structure of the agency. Agencies are now providing e-commerce consultancy and implementation services; they are more involved in innovation - and some have launched units to help their clients work with startups. And increasingly players like professional services companies and consultancies are competing directly with agencies.
“I believe the future of the marcom industry is technology; that the agency of the future will be full of geeks and techies; and that creativity in the future will be augmented (if not driven) by numbers and data. Those who are stuck in the golden age of ‘Mad Men’ creativity -- and don’t appreciate the transformation that tech is bringing to marketing -- they will have a very hard time in the coming 10 years.”
What can you tell us about this year's program? Also any novelties this 10th edition will be bringing?
This year, ArabNet Beirut 2019 will be bigger than ever, gathering 4000+ corporate executives, government leaders, entrepreneurs and digerati under one roof. The event will also bring together 250+ experts and speakers from around the globe, covering a range of topics, including Launchpad for startups and investors; Ad/Edge for digital media and advertising, and Finverse for digital banking and fintech.
The event will include high level participation from government, and confirmed speakers include the Deputy Prime Minister, Minister of Interior, Minister of Telecommunication, Minister of Technology and Investment, and Minister of Administrative Reform.
For the first time this year, the event will feature a Startup Showcase, bringing together 100 startups from Lebanon and beyond to exhibit and connect with industry experts and more than 100 investors.
The event will include the Investor lounge, which will provide one-on-one interactions and meetings between the most active investors and entrepreneurs that are disrupting traditional business models. The Founder's journey, which will gather some of the most prominent startups and successful alumni entrepreneurs from the MENA region who will share their inspirational journey and the impact of Arabnet on building their business.
The program will also be decked out with satellite events, happenings, activations, and parties linking together friends, colleagues, stakeholders, business attendees, and students to celebrate a decade of ArabNet events.
For our 10 year anniversary, we are inviting all of our Alumni and all our regional clients to join us, and everyone who supported us on our 10 year journey and will be putting together a big timeline of everything that went on in the ecosystem and with Arabnet. People will be able to also explore Arabnet history for the 10 year anniversary. We are also engaging the Diaspora to bringing technology back home!
Anything you'd like to add?
One of the things that inspires all of us at ArabNet is the impact that we have created - and continue to create. Careem co-founders Dr. Abdulla Elyas met his Co-founder Mudassir and Magnus at Arabnet Dubai in 2013. Feel22 was a finalist in the startup battle 2018 edition, although they did not win the competition, they left the conference with an investment offer from a member of the jury present that day who believed in their business model. In addition to this, ArabNet’s alumni have generated over $15M in revenues and employed over 650 people. We’ve also brought experts to the region for the first time; Before Facebook had an office in MENA, Ghassan Haddad, Head of Internationalization at Facebook, spoke at ArabNet Beirut in 2010; Dave McClure, Founder of 500 Startups, made his first regional appearance at ArabNet Riyadh; the same with Mike Butcher at TechCrunch and many others.
Finally, we would love to Invite people to participate at Arabnet event and don’t miss this opportunity to learn about the most important developments and the most prominent speakers and actors in this sector.