365 Days Later, Do First Impressions Still Count?

On December 23rd, 2013, I started blogging with nothing in mind, one year later this blog is still about nothing.


Build Me a Shop: ShopBuilder.Me

The internet is a wonderful place that allows you to promote your products and services to people in the blink of an eye and achieve overnight success...well...no, not really!

If you are thinking about starting your online commerce venture any time soon, you need to be aware of many hurdles to that overnight success and the pool-side margaritas that come with it.

Deciding to build from scratch or to use a pre-existing framework (OSCommerce, Magento, Prestashop...), creating the right graphics and layout to match your identity, deciding on a payment gateway (local ones like Audi or Netcommerce or international ones like 2CO vs services like Paypal & Skrill), working with a shipping partner for tangible product sales, are just a handful of the many details that the eCommerce devil usually chooses to dwell in.

I was approached, not long ago, by the people from ShopBuilder.me who were pitching their new concept of a turnkey solution that allows anybody to be up and running with their own online shop. Their key feature: a preset platform that connects them to payment gateways and shipping partners.

I was willing to take them up on their request and, in turn, they agreed to let me run loose with my own demo access, asking me to mention the bad before the good, something rarely found in local businesses.

Here are my summarized findings:

The Good

  • The registration and account activation process is smooth and flawless.
  • The theme selection makes it super easy to personalize your shop if you are a non-techie
  • The Audi Payment gateway module is just a matter of filling some info to connect. No tricky SDK and no endless lines of code.
  • The Shipping module is also easily configured to connect to Aramex (and other suppliers soon?). Who doesn't hate filling all those zone info etc...
  • The SEO fields are available to help you in that area.
  • The excellent after-sales service: The company makes sure to follow-up with a phone call with each person undergoing a trial period to ensure everything is going nicely with them
  • It's super fast to configure just look at what I did in under an hour with pre-existing graphics I had from my blog and facebook page:  http://chemali.shopbuilder.me/

The Bad 
or rather what can be improved to make the site stand-out even more (you'll pardon my penchant for movie references)
  • The shop set-up process does not have a clear flow for someone engaging in building their shop for the first time. One needs to be familiar with the glossary of the various sections to really be able to systematically complete all fields and sections needed to end up with a shop. While this was not a particular challenge for me, I suspect the site's target audience is a bit wider than 15 year digital veterans with computer science backgrounds.
  • The navigation in the back-office is tricky. Clicking on Home will take you to the preview of your shop not to the administration home page. The administration homepage can only be accessed from the breadcrumbs menu on top. The left menu does not offer a link back to that initial page.
  • Social media integration needs to be more in-depth. It is important for some who want to make it easier for their customers on various channels to log-in using those credentials.
  • No customization of CSS (at least) for the available templates. Adding this possibility will catapult the site further.

The Ugly
or what makes the experience less pleasant without taking away from the functionality and concept.
  • In all honesty, I was initially put off by the user interface. In a time and age where Microsoft spearheaded flat design, and Google is overhauling the majority of its interfaces with the slick Material Design guidelines www.shopbuilder.me failed to deliver in design what it offered in features. With a dominating light grey background adjacent to white areas the entire design just felt like a cloudy autumn day.
  • Other design related issues include the lack of definition is obvious in the bottom grid whose top separator is overlapped by the omnipresent 14-day trial promo box on the right hand side...

  • The current template selections is not very rich and require a good deal of additional tweaks.
  • Some notifications in the back-office overlap with page design and turn in into a gooey mess

Final Thoughts

Shop Builder is a valiant effort to bring eCommerce to the masses in the most transparent way. By eliminating the tricky parts of setting up your own shop they promise the wannabe merchant a fast lane road into the market.

I am not sure how much large businesses would want to resort to using the site in its current form for selling their products, as I imagine them more concerned about having their own branding. Perhaps this is an idea for the founders to offer premium customization for large client.

However, if you are a small business, and are not ready to invest half of your capital into building an eCommerce site and doing all the leg work that comes with that, then you have just stumbled into the right solution for you.

Shop Builder might just need a bit of tweaking and dressing up but it's on the right track towards becoming a killer product for your eCommerce needs.


One Does Not Simply "Connect" from Sodetel

After having seen their promos and heard some good words about them, I wanted to check out the website for "Connect" one of the new ISPs in Lebanon.
As I sat there waiting for their www.connect.net.lb site to load, my initial thoughts were mostly skepticism about how good they are if their website was taking that long to load.

When the browser eventually gave up and gave me an error I quickly resorted to smartphone and tried to open the site. You guessed it folks, the site loaded like a charm and it it was responsive, something that other well established ISPs seem oblivious to.

Laptop via Sodetel

Smartphone via Alfa

Wanting to rule out any issue on my own wifi, I did the usual restart on my router and laptop but things were the same. It was when I asked friends from different ISP connections to try out the link that the truth became obvious.

Connect's website was exclusively inaccessible from Sodetel's DSL connection. The reason behind this issue is still unknown.

 I will not jump to any conclusion here but one cannot but wonder why from all the sites out there Sodetel's connection just won't let open that new competitor.

Update - Time: 14:25
After a Sodetel representative reached out an hour ago asking about the details of the issue and assuring it was opening normally from his end, it seems that the site is now accessible.

Update Time: 14:35
ok stop the press people, I spoke too soon and the site is again unreachable. This could be an indicator of someone working to fix the issue or some other deep rooted issues with their DNS, routing or Cache Engine.


Lebanese Comedy Act 3as3usTakes On Sensodyne Arabia Saves Youtube

Not long ago, I went on a rant on Twitter about the annoying Sensodyne Arabia Youtube videos which had been hammering us for a while. A month later, others joined in expressing their frustration and this led to my previous blog post Thoughts On Sensodyne Arabia's YouTube Ad

Today, YouTube was saved by Lebanese comedy act 3as3us . The two man comedy act of Anthony Hamawi and Shant Kabakian vented out everybody's frustration in a parody clip, where the actors took on the two effigies of the annoying Sensodyne (parodied as "SenseYourSpine") spokespersons with extreme prejudice.

Thank you to Michelle Hamaoui who pointed out the video to me and

Long live 3as3us for coming to the rescue of all of the region's YouTube users!


Thoughts On Sensodyne Arabia's YouTube Ad

If you happen to live in the Middle East region namely the Levant and the Gulf and enjoy  YouTube as much as the next person, then you probably have already been subjected to Sensodyne's True White video ads which have taken by storm this channels to a point where it has become a nuisance.

First, the ads:

Aside from the fact that the ads are omnipresent on any video you might be attempting to watch there are several issues that might be open to discussion about the type of ad that's been chosen and its targeting.
  1. Type of Ad
    The ads are following a technique which used to be adopted in the 60s for promoting, you guessed it, cigarettes. Doctors were spokespersons for brands such as R.J. Reynolds the manufacturers of the Camel cigarettes.

    You might say, fine, toothpaste is not cigarettes. The point I am trying to make is that this technique is ancient and antiquated and perhaps still valid on traditional media. But on the internet where people watch viral videos and clever ads by brands that utilize technologies like augmented reality this sort of 2 dimes a dozen advertizing does not fly and it actually insults the intelligence of even the most average internet user  
  2. The Frequency of the Ad
    While we can understand the eagerness of any brand to push their latest innovation, this is becoming very similar to what radio stations usually do when they are trying to push a hit onto the airwaves by hammering it all day long. Of course it's gonna get into the subconscious of a large number of people but it's also going to irritate and infuriate others to the point of hating the song or in this case the brand (I present exhibits A, B & C)

  3. The Choice of the Spokesperson
    Sensodyne Arabia chose to have both ads above to cover the native Arabic-speaking audience, alongside the large number of English speaking expats living in Dubai.
    1. The gentleman in the first ad  described as a practicing dentists without a name (isn't there some legal requirement for real names?) represents the majority of the foreign workforce in Dubai, but the problem with him as a spokesperson is that he sounds like a heavy smoker. A dentists that sounds like he smokes 5 packs a day is not someone I wish to take advice from, not to mention that he looks bored and just wants to finish filming the commercial.
    2. The female counterpart is for starters inexplicably overzealous. Furthermore as a native Arabic speaker (and by arabic, I mean both classical form and Lebanese dialect) she fails to deliver the message to me a potential client for the new product and a regular fan of the brand. Her performance leaves me too busy getting stuck on the way she uses certain words and more on the pronunciation. Perhaps other countries that do not have the same dialect as this lady were considered irrelevant by Sensodyne Arabia and we should just "suck it up princess" and appreciate the product.
  4. Ignoring Comments on Social Media
    It was almost a month between my initial rant on twitter and the one that took place today by others and triggered this post. In that span of time, Sensodyne Arabia who is supposedly on social media to be social (pardon my french) didn't even bother replying or inquiring about what would cause, not one but two (and more) previous advocates of the brand, to rant out and promise to never buy their product again. I think this takes me back to how relevant the brand considers us. 
So there you go Sensodyne a bigger rant, perhaps it can attract your attention on what we honestly felt was an ill conceived advertising campaign. And if it doesn't well...who cares? Certainly not you!


Exclusive Q&A with IDM-Cyberia CCO Bassam Jaber

IDM-Cyberia Biggest Private Lebanese ISP
The best thing about attending events like BDL Accelerate 2014 is that you get to bump into many of the tech leaders in the country. Although they are usually surrounded by the organizer who are trying to get them to meet other decisions makers during the event, I managed to get a quick and exclusive Q&A with Bassam Jaber CEO of Cyberia and CCO of the joint IDM-Cyberia operation (for the tiny percentile among you who didn't know this: yes, the two ISPs are now a single entity)

Here is the transcript of our short discussion:

Q: How long has it been since IDM-Cyberia have merged and when should we expect to see a new brand emerge from this deal?

A: It's been 2 years since we merged our operations, however we do not forsee in the near future the emergence of a new brand name to replace the two brands. The major reason is a regulatory one, as we are currently operating two different licenses and replacing those with a new license or acquiring a third license is a lengthy and difficult process.

Q: On digital and acceleration for startups, have you provided support, or would you be interested in supporting start-ups that might benefit from your position as Lebanon's largest ISP?

A: Definitely, if we see a good start-up that would benefit from our support we'd go for it.

Q: What can you disclose on future projects that IDM-Cyberia might be launching soon?

A: We are currently looking into IPTV and have considered launching such a project but it all depends on the regulatory hurdles we are facing. A lot of projects are still blocked with the regulator (The Ministry of Telecom) in the same manner we are struggling with bandwidth and speed.
Today our main mission and goal remain to work on speeding up the internet on a national level and providing the user with the necessary bandwidth and access.

Q: Final question: why aren't you as brand on social media?

A: We are currently focusing on improving our core services. We want to be able to help customers when they reach out to us on social media if we do join these channels. Currently many problems are out of our hands, and we need to fix the problems on the government entities side, otherwise we will be disappointing our fans and followers. 

As you see, even Lebanon's largest ISP seem to have their hands tied with so much red tape that they are very careful when exploring new ideas such as IPTV or even when considering joining the rest of us on social media. Will we see an end to this technical nightmare anytime soon?
Would someone fill my glass, it just seems so empty all the time.

BDL Accelerate 2014 Day Two

After a successful first day, BDL accelerate unraveled yesterday it's second line up of speakers, with a fiery morning where two panels Lebanon’s Ecosystem and Lebanon’s Investors stole the show. An all star line up was composed of names such as previous ministers Nicolas Sehanoui (telecom) and Marwan Kheireddine (state), who both happen to be successful businessmen not unlike co-panelist Maroun Chammas a serial entrepreneur with activities ranging from Oil and gas to telecom and or tech-activist Hala Fadel who started and chairs the MIT Enterprise Forum of the pan-Arab region along side other names.

Mike Butcher made sure that the usual Lebanese diplomacy in public speaking did not have its way as he hammered the panelists with direct questions, all the way to ousting the name of the person who most were hinting at when discussing hurdles that prevent Lebanon from having decent internet access. For obvious reasons I shall refrain from naming anyone as well, and play along the Harry Potter theme of "the one that shall not be named".

Other panels and speakers of the day provided interesting glimpses and insights into their respective experiences such as being an expat entrepreneur or their assessment of the benefits of being an entrepreneur in the USA.

The event culminated in the announcement of the winner of the Start-up Competition out of the eight finalists chosen on day one.

With So7ati and Presella walking away as runners up, the winner after 15 minutes of jury deliberations was Ki an interactive password manager with proximity features.

One cannot but applaud the huge effort that has gone into organizing this event which, I must remind everyone, offered free access to the large numbers of participants that were eager to learn more about the BDL initiative and looked to learn from the experiences of participating speakers.


BDL Accelerate 2014 Day One

People standing in line outside the building
After the huge build-up until today's event, we were all psyched to see if this event will live up to our expectation and the associated hype. With a set of successful speakers in the entrepreneurial ecosystem, from Lebanon and abroad announced, there was a huge turnout, to the point where we started the day by queuing for over half an hour to make it to the registration booth.

This led many people including myself to take it to twitter to express frustration or to let others know they were in for a wait.
One tweet I found particularly amusing was by @farrahberrou

One has to mention however the excellent catering services, where people waiting in line, even outside the building, were being served beverages and snacks by very courteous dedicated staff.

Fast forward past this little hiccup, the set-up inside was what you would expect from an event of this magnitude, with the various start-ups spread across the floor showcasing their ideas and products.

In another corner the Lebanese banks that support the Banque Du Liban circular 331 had set-up shop and welcomed the public near the Workshop Area, where various sessions were taking place throughout the day, simultaneously with the big event.

A SelfiesBox picture with Friend & Fellow Blogger
Chadi AbouNohra from Tech Ticker
One has to mention the SelfiesBox stand which was undeniably the most visited for obvious reasons, up until the icecream stand started serving free treats.

The main event itself saw the opening ceremony hosting 4 key speakers including Mr Riad Salameh the Governor of the Central Bank of Lebanon, Mr Francois Bassil the Chairman of the Association of Banks in Lebanon, Mr Mohamed Choucair the Chairman of the Federation of the Chambers of Commerce, Industry and Agriculture in Lebanon and last but not least the socially active and always flamboyant Mr Tom Fletcher, the Ambassador of the United Kingdom in Lebanon who delivered a very up-beat speech (when is he not so?) about his faith in Lebanon's future prospects (you're on for that 2020 bet Mr Ambassador).

The rest of the day's agenda saw various successful and upcoming entrepreneurs share their thoughts, their struggles and also their drive towards what makes an entrepreneur succeed. The panels were quite eclectic and something every wannabe entrepreneur should attend.

The first day wrapped up with a selection of 8 finalist from the original 28 startups that competed for the “Lightning Round – Startup Competition. The ones that made it through are:

Cardio Diagnostic, Saily, Yellow, Ki, Presella, GoEjaza, Feedeed, Tari2ak

Not entirely what I would have chosen but the "people" have spoken and this was their selection.

For those of you who missed this first day, you can still make up for this by hurrying up tomorrow to catch the final day of what has been so far an event that should become a recurrence in our local business scene.

PS: I hope there will be a power outlet at the press table for tomorrow and a stable accessible wifi connection


BDL Accelerate 2014

I am not an entrepreneur, I don't like being called one and I am very allergic to the unjustified hype that has been pumped up about this topic in recent years.
I am however a 16-year veteran in digital, a business owner, and a professional that has been involved in various ventures that brought to light many services for the corporate and start-up ecosystems, and I know a good opportunity when I see one. The BDL Accelerate 2014 is it!

With Banque Du Liban putting its weight behind this year's Accelerate International Startup Conference on November 20th & 21st, you are set to connect with an array of expert stakeholders who will be attending this exclusive invite-only event.
The right mix of local and international participants from the various corners of the professional world includes 50+ names and spans into several industries, allowing each participant to find the right beacon that will lead them to their desired outcome.

A window towards a $500,000 USD investment opportunity will be the cherry on the cake through the participation in the Seedstars World International Startup Competition.

Perhaps, my assumptions that not everyone can be an entrepreneur are flawed, like several of my colleagues point out, but what better way to know if you have what it takes to be the next big start-up than by applying for an invitation to attend Lebanon’s 1st International Startup Conference?

Looking forward to meeting you all there during the conference days!

BDL Accelerate official Website


User Data Compromised on Alfa Portal

It has been several months, if not well over a year since I logged into my account on www.alfa.com.lb, the official site of Alfa (managed by Orascum) one of the two local mobile providers.

I was curious today to check some parts of the portal, and as I logged in and was redirected to my own account info, I discovered, to my amazement, that although my password had remained unchanged, and my mobile number was still associated with my username "patrick", the entire profile was wrong and showed someone else's info.

I have to give you a brief background on why this is important for me. Back in my early career in the year 2000 (read it like Conan O'Brien would) I was the lead developer with Cellis -France Telecom when the portal was created under the name Plugged.
I also was the lead on the portal re-branding into what was the basis of its current form heading the Web Development in the company until the time I left in 2011 when I started my own venture Sharp Lemon.

My username had been coveted several times in the past, maybe for its simplicity, but I only used to get "password reset" requests, until those requests stopped and I figured that, most likely, no one is sending Web-to-SMS anymore, and perhaps Alfa have implemented a stringent login process since then.

My discovery below surprised and worried me for one major reason:
I know, from first hand experience with the Bureau of Electronic Crime, that SMS sent from the Alfa portal make the account holder liable for the info sent from it, in cases of breach of law (harassment, threats or any illegal activity). So, imagine the implication if someone had access to your Alfa account. It also meant they could see vital information regarding your phone calls and other activities.

I personally believe the portal suffers or has suffered from a serious vulnerability, that has allowed someone to modify profile information, without accessing passwords, which were according to my knowledge hashed in the database.
The other, more benign, alternative is that during some internal data migration, Alfa have really messed up some data sets and people's profile info ended up associated other persons' accounts.

I have since updated my info, although I cannot seem to find a link to where I can update my password. It's either dug in so deep or someone has considered that changing a password is a feature not really necessary for a site of this caliber.

Either way, this is an alarming incident for me and I invite you if you have used or are still using the alfa's portal to check your account and let me know in the comments if you have faced similar incidents.

Too bad Alfa, just when I was starting to think you had gotten your act together again finally!


Photo Showcase on Hayda Loubnan by LBCi

A few month back I was approached by the producers of a segment entitled Hayda Loubnan on LBCi. The segment showcases photos mostly by amateurs taken all over the country, highlighting unique angles or takes on every day Lebanon and its nature.

I am as amateur as it gets, and I have recently become more and more dependent on mobile photography, simply because the hardware on smartphones had improved by giant leaps, and, quite frankly, because carrying around a DSLR Camera is plain cumbersome. I take my photos mostly on mountain hikes and I just prefer to enjoy nature rather than worry about an expensive camera around my neck for 7 or 8 hours.

My surprise in receiving that call was quickly dissipated when I found out that had discovered my photos on www.EyeEm.com a photo sharing Instagram competitor which I strongly prefer.
Several months into this and many photos later, I received a confirmation that my segment would air on October 24th 2014 and so it did.

I would like to thank the producers and LBCi for the opportunity of getting effortlessly featured on TV simply by doing two things I really enjoy: Hiking & Photography
A special thanks to the @LBCI_FansSs twitter account for sharing the YouTube version of the segment.

The photos and hikes would not have been possible if it weren't for the wonderful people at Born2Hike


Inbox By Gmail, A Contender To The Throne

When the new Inbox application by Gmail was announced a few days ago, I got so trigger-happy in sending the email requesting an invitation that I requested the invite twice from my personal Gmail and from my Business Google Apps account (more on that last one later).
But I had been through this experience before (Ingress, Google Gallery...), and it can be really lengthy, so I did what any self-respecting technology-dependant person would do: I shamelessly intruded on one of the nicest guys I know, who also happens to work at Google, and pleaded my case.
I make it sound way more dramatic that it actually was, since the Inbox invite landed quite quickly in my inbox (see what I did there?) with a "You're welcome" and a big smile.

It's been almost 24 hours since I installed Inbox and I am surprisingly quite won-over compared to my usual resistance and cynicism as to why an app would want to re-invent an existing app that does pretty much everything one needs. I had been nothing but constantly gladly surprised by the Gmail app and Inbox was giving me the jitters.

Bottom line, it works!
It just works gracefully and smoothly sorting out flawlessly existing emails in your inbox into various labels such as Travel, Purchases, Finance, Social, Updates, Forums, Promos while allowing you to create your own bundled label under your inbox. Your existing filters and old labels are still shown as unbundled labels.
Material design oozes from every element of the app and its web counterpart (yes you get a web interface at inbox.google.com once you get your invite). The compose button is a much welcome deja-vu from Google+. The web version maintains Hangouts integration while inconspicuously tucking it in under an icon in the header Google bar.

My main concern using the app was how it reflects on my existing inbox. Would sweeping an email or a folder delete it, hide it, archive it? I quickly found those answers using the Getting Started documentation.
Notifications are now center-stage in the Inbox app and I wanted to see how it all fits in with Google Now, so I set a reminder using voice command and surely enough when I switched to Inbox it was showing prominently on top.
One interesting feature that seems present although I did not have the chance to test is the location based notification when the app detects a geographically-linked action in your inbox.

When Trying to Access
your Google Apps Email
What Inbox still lacks are mostly all the bells and whistles we've grown accustomed to in Gmail:
  • No integration with Google Drive for attachments,
  • No custom notification sound, although bundled labels do have some advanced notification settings
  • No settings for auto image downloading
  • No auto responder or signature
  • No settings for turning on  and off the Reply All option.
  • No availability for Google Apps 

The lack of features might be unsettling at first but given the fact we are still at the early release stages of Inbox, I am pretty sure that plenty more enhancement are still on the drawing board. Along with all the feedback that will be pouring in, Inbox seems all set to be a serious contender for the throne of email apps.


Facebook takes a Page Out of a Lebanese Developer's Book

image source: http://newsroom.fb.com/news/2014/10/introducing-safety-check/

This morning Facebook's founder Mark Zuckerberg posted an update announcing "Safety Check", a new service that would allow people in times of natural disasters to inform their friends that they are safe or whether they need help.

This is a big move by Facebook in terms of serving the public and a much welcome initiative.
In Lebanon, we have been spared the natural disaster scenarios for some time. Aside from the occasional highway flooding, and road blocked by snow, we have had a smooth ride for the past few decades in that area. Instead we prefer man-made disasters, and for those of you who have not heard of the on-and-off streaks of bomb attacks on various suburbs in the past  few...er...decades, that's something that we've adapted to over and over and again.

In recent years with the surge of yet another wave of bombs a young lady by the name of Sandra Hassan coded and published an Android app that with a click of a button would allow anyone to publish a quick message saying "I am Alive" on Facebook and Twitter. I recently had the opportunity of  highlighting the importance of such an app while speaking at an EU sponsored workshop in Cyprus for Civil Protection.

I am not sure we'll ever know if Facebook got inspired by this app, given the good number of Lebanese talents on board, or whether this is something that has been in the pipeline for some time but the similarity was worth highlighting.

So there you go,  my contribution to stroking the proverbial Lebanese ego and one more opportunity at gloating the usual "we did it first" and "do you see what Lebanese can do?".
Now you can bask in the sunshine of your self-satisfaction and wait for next earthquake to test out the new service or just read about it here: http://newsroom.fb.com/news/2014/10/introducing-safety-check/


Social Media To The Rescue For Civil Protection

Civil Protection or as we know it in Lebanon, Civil Defense, is a household name that often bring a sigh of relief for people involved in various incident or disasters; and we have had our share of those in Lebanon.

When recently approached by the organizers of the EUROMED PPRD SOUTH II PROGRAM to deliver a workshop on the effective use of social media for risk awareness and recovery I was thrilled by the opportunity to do something meaningful away from the usual freebie giveaways and brand mongering that seem to dominate the social media scene.

Set on day 2 of a two-day workshop in Cyprus, aimed at delivering added value and hands-on knowledge to select countries of the Mediterranean basin, my contribution was intended to bring the fine members of the individual civil protection societies up to speed with the latest trends and best practices for effectively managing their chosen social media channels.

Through a breakdown of the pros and cons of each channel, and its effectiveness in delivering proactive awareness messages versus its usefulness in immediate response to crisis, a real brainstorming session took place that helped shed valuable light on present practices and recalibrate the individual efforts of some countries.

The invaluable work done by "Donner Sang Compter" was featured as an example of how to do things right both on and off of social media, and the cynical yet effective application IAmAlive along with its tongue-in-cheek version for VIPs helped wrap up the session and define the influence of social media in our lives in times of crisis.

I was glad to see that the attendees took interest in the information received and voiced many of their concerns and interests in the Q&A session. [End of shameless self-promotion]

It is very exciting when age-old entities, that are often very traditional in their modus operandi, opening up to new work methodologies and striving to utilize the full potential of new tools such as social media channels. The Lebanese Civil Defense delegation assured me they were very interested in pushing their existing presence even further and fully embrace technological advances. I hope they won't have to go through too much red tape to do this.

I want to strongly thank Véronique Ruggirello and the organizers from the PPRD team and Civipol for their warm welcome and followup on every aspect of my trip and presentation and mostly for the insightful and fun time we spent in between working sessions.

You can find my presentation on Slideshare 


Snatch'd To A Movie Club

I rarely write about social events and events. I think there are plenty of well accomplished bloggers out there who can cover these events and give them a more decent exposure.
I am making an exception this time, because the event is something I care about. Fellow blogger, tweep, and good friend, Anis Tabet from "let's tlk abt movies" invited me today to the launch of his new Movie Club in a double event that introduced us to a new app concept entitled Snatch'd.

The Snatch'd promised to be a hub of offerings and discounts but extends beyond that to offer you ideas and suggestions on things to do beyond that Mall you haunt or the usual venues where you have become part of the furniture. The presentation was interesting and included a nicely executed video which I unfortunately cannot find online *cough*Mounir*cough*

Although I am big movie buff, I found myself, over the past years, drifting away from such events, mostly because of the over-philosophical type of hipster-ish audience that can be found there hanging by their checkered all-season scarves (think Empire Sofil), and the choice of movies frequently selected in an attempt to sound filmographically grandiloquent.
However, I have high hopes for this particular movie club, mostly because I know Anis' temperament and penchant for smart and interesting movies along with his usual no-bullshit attitude.

If you have not already jumped off this page to go follow Anis on Twitter then you can see below a couple of snapshots from the event.


You Are Not A Strategist

Up until recently, I had been using "Digital Strategist" on my Linkedin headline. No more!

No, I did not lose faith in my capacity of devising a strategy for operating a business in the digital realm after 15 years in the field, nor have I done a major career shift away from this. I have just grown weary from the constant abuse of the word Strategy and its derivatives.
The amount of occurrences where these words were used to describe people who operate a certain basic, less-than-tactical function online has exponentially skyrocketed over the past three years.
Try repeating this: "Digital Strategist, Social Media Strategist, Online Sales Strategist, Digital Marketing Strategist, Senior Digital Marketing and Online Social Media Strategist...."

This has become frustratingly boring to the point where I thought to write a code snippet which would generate a title with the words: Online, Digital and Strategy in it and publish it online for companies to use when hiring someone.

What most of you out there are calling strategy barely falls under the terminology for tactics if we really want to give it any importance (a great deal I would call merely secretarial work...ehm...sorry, executive assistant work).

  • Posting Status Updates with pictures of fluffy cats on a tech site is not strategy
  • Putting a roller coaster picture on an ISP page is not strategy
  • Asking users to like if they agree and comment if they don't is not strategy
  • Buying Facebook/Google/Twitter/LinkedIn  Ads is not strategy
  • ...
Strategy usually involves a solid analysis of the market forces in play be it online of offline, the use of existing data to determine trends and behaviors and then calculating the risks associated with charting a path that leads to a market position that you would like to acquire. 
I seriously doubt all of the social media gurus, namely all the fresh grads who have taken a course in their overly expensive college about social media, have even come close to grasping that. 
It is largely the fault of HR people and line managers who just replicate techno-babble without any real understanding without forgetting all the wannabe media that usually aggregates and repeats the same stories you see on The Verge, Mashable and other similar sites.

At one instance a global agency that had hired us to "devise a social media strategy" for one of their clients was confused because when we delivered them the 30 page strategy study they could not find the list of tweets they expected us to prepare for them daily for the next 90 days!

The best to summ up the point I am trying to make is if we revert back to the military root of the word Strategy.  You do not need to know about "Art of War" (Sun Tzu not Wesley Snipes) to understand that your fresh recruit cannot and should not be entrusted with deciding how you move your army on the battlefield, even if he or she (along with their posse of hip friends) decided to self-attribute the title: Major General.

The Miniature Book Version of Art of War


Internet Humblebrag: When You’re On A Last Name Basis… On Twitter

The name is: Chemali... @Chemali ...in its majesty's service, and by its majesty I mean Twitter.

For those of you who have no clue what twitter is and how nauseating  it is to be back in high-school with a lot of cool kids and wanna be divas, that must have sounded like a total gibberish. But for the few well versed in the art of 140 character essays, I am sure you are probably already nodding in approval or shaking your head in dismay (some cultural differences in body language  may apply)

I still surprise myself sometimes thinking about the huge responsibility that I have taken upon my shoulders when I committed to using @chemali as my twitter handle back in April 2009.
What cosmic power gives me the right to assume ownership the name that so many carry through generations? Will I be up to the responsibility? What do other Chemali family members feel when they try to get the same handle as they make their baby steps onto twitter and discover that I have already nabbed that one. How much negative karma do they send my way?

Sure, I might be tucked away safely behind a name that no one ever will coerce me into giving away, like what would have happened to accounts such as @FBI or @CIA since they are US based government entities, but in today's regressing world into tribalism, what assurance do I have that the Chemalis won't spawn an organism powerful enough to threaten my existence in order to acquire an official voice?

My only solace is in the possibility of an alternate spelling to my last name. Statistics have shown that 62.3% of people whose last names are "شمالي" (which means litterally Northener in Arabic) are taught at school that their name should be spelled with a Y at the end in the latin form, thus: Chemaly.
Further statistics have revealed that 84% of population will accept both written forms this including banks and some official institutions in the Middle East, so please anyone out there...go pick on the owner of the other account i.e Chemaly.

Finally, I would like to send some non-tungstene light to @Fida Chaaban without whom this piece would have not been possible. Thank you for providing me the motive and the inspiration for this introspection I badly needed, through your article published today:  Internet Street Cred: When You’re On A First Name Basis… On Twitter


5 Ways Lebanon Is Just Like Mad Men

5 Ways Lebanon Is Just Like Mad Men

Eight months! That's how long I will have to wait until the second part of Mad Men's final season (7) is back. Over the past several weeks I have gone through all six and half season like a hot knife through butter. I was completely hooked but that's not surprising considering my love for movies and TV and my fondness for advertising. Think what you may, but shows like Culture Pub and events like The Night of the Adeaters (La Nuit des Publivores) are just soul food as far as I am concerned. Therefore, it was only natural for the adventures of Don Draper & co to captivate my attention for so long.
The series is visually wonderful with its accurate depiction of America's 60s, to the point where many scenes brought back memories of my early childhood at my parents old place, where various memorabilia of that decade was still available while I was growing up.
However, as things progressed, I started picking up references that resemble today's Lebanon. Habits, practices and social norms that have survived in modern Lebanon almost half a century later.

I don't know how much these points I am about to raise qualify as spoilers, but if you are the type who doesn't want to know anything about a movie or series before watching, now would be a good time to hop over to some other page on the blog.

So, here are the 5 ways today's Lebanon replicates Mad Men :

  1. Women in the Workforce: 
    Women are under represented in the workforce, and those who choose career over family are frowned upon and considered either bossy or weird for not wanting a more "traditional" role in society. At the same time sexual favors in the workplace are shown as a staple of the era and something young ladies were educated to expect.
  2. Marriage and Family: 
    Closely related to the first post but also slightly extending to men, a norm for success and accomplishment is if the person has managed to get "hitched" and if they have hatched something.
    Those who are not within those norms are considered marginals and even failures.

  3. Racism:
    Racism in America in the 60s does not more discussion, neither does racism in Lebanon with various NGOs fighting the good fight against discrimination towards foreign workers and other minorities.

  4. Smoking:
    This ugly habit is very apparent in the series and at the focus of most of the action. Pregnant women smoking, business men smoking, teenagers taking up smoking, while the government is trying to raise awareness on cancer and other diseases related to this practice. On the other hand Ad agencies and Tobacco companies plotting to bend the law and keep their business running. Do I need to say more on this in light of the thrashing that the anti-tobacco law in Lebanon has been subject to?
  5. Environment:
    America in the 60s is neck-deep in consumerism and everyone wants more. Bulk buying and bulk littering is also a habit like when Don took his family out on a picnic in a beautiful spot only to throw the garbage around as they hop in the car to leave.

There are probably up to 10 other points that I can draw similarities from, but on a much more subtle level, such as the Hippy movement, the use of recreational drugs or the alcohol abuse, but I think those remain at a much more latent level than the 5 points I chose to highlight.

As for the ads, while the industry has done long strides since the ad concepts we might see in the series, some of those concepts are still way ahead of what local ad agencies are producing in terms of originality and authenticity of material.

One must still wonder, if a TV series about advertising can come up with original concepts and ideas for a fictional ad campaigns, why can't real local ad agencies come up with really distinctive ones?


The Pitfalls of Social Media Powered CSR

Over the past year or so, there has been an increase in Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) initiatives driven or empowered by social media. Regardless what opinions you or I might have on the motives behind companies doing CSR, the fact remains that these contributions do eventually help people.

The last two major campaigns in Lebanon that I have seen sweeping across social media and twitter more specifically have involved highly commendable contributions to The Children Cancer Center of Lebanon.

Having met the fine people behind this endeavor, I cannot stress enough how much this center is a pillar of the fight against cancer, and should be strongly supported. I encourage everyone to participate in these campaigns so that the center can profit to the max.

Having said that, I must turn to the corporations who organize these giveaways. I might be a stickler here (when am I not?), but there is something deeply wrong with a contribution being conditioned by a company in exchange for users tweeting, liking or sharing their tweets or their posts. Are you or are you not supporting the cause? Why does it have to be conditional to social actions?
if I may portray this differently, if users don't tweet or interact, does that mean you will not be contributing as much to the charity in question?
I have been faced with clients who insisted on using such tactics in Lebanon and abroad, and have always recommended against that, sometimes successfully, sometimes not. My honest opinion is that the "good deed" should not be subject to social media blackmail.

One way of doing this properly is by setting the rules ahead and making the user's interaction decisive in choosing the destination of the donation NOT the amount!
A good example of this, is what INDEVCO Group (Sanita) did, back in 2012, through a Facebook campaign for their Paper Tissue brand Dreams entitled "Deyman Bifikrna" (Always in Mind).

In this case, Sanita decided ahead of time on the sum to be spent in terms of donation, and chose to allow their brand fans to express their opinion by choosing one of  8 different NGOs as candidates to receive the amount.
While they did leverage their CSR giveaway to generate social traffic, they did not condition neither the action, nor the amount to be contributed with users generating viral reach for the brand. This might be a rare time where I am not the cynic I usually am, but I like to think that the good deed itself would be enough to drive people to talk about it, without having to twist their arm and give them a candy afterwards.

That could be one way to do things; the other? well...I don't know...But I am sure with social media gurus out there, someone's bound to strike gold!


Faithfully Unfaithful TV Series

As I was zapping across various TV channels this morning, I came upon a clip by Elyssa on MTV Lebanon.
While the song was unsurprisingly bland, the clip was actually interesting to watch, yet as usual a few scenes into it, I had another House M.D Epiphany moment.

The clip which you can see below showed well acclaimed actor Youssef el Khal  carrying some paintings and struggling in a strong wind only to finally bump into expressionless ex-Miss Lebanese beauty-turned-actress Nadine Njeim (the now skinnier one: I can never tell them apart by their middle initials).

The action goes on with him helping her up to his place to fix her wounded leg as you can see on minute 0:51s onward. This OST (Original Sound Track) video clip is based on scenes from the series "لو" (translates to "what if") and although I have not seen any episode from the series this smells like another rip off from a major foreign production.

In this case, the movie plot that this series was taken from is the 2002 Hollywood remake of Claude Chabrol's iconic La Femme Infidèle, entitled "Unfaithful", starring Richard Gere, Diane Lane and Olivier Martinez. Instead of going on and on about it, I will just let you watch the movie trailer below.

Now there is nothing wrong with reprising a classic like Chabrol's but wouldn't it be a stronger selling line if the series was promoted as a remake of that classic movie?
I, for one, would have been at least interested in watching a bit to see how or if they pulled it off. But perhaps for local audiences such references are meaningless and pointless and do not add any value to the artwork nor to their desire to watch it. Put pretty faces on the screen, some will act some will not and the audience will applaud!


ValetParkingstan Previously Known as Lebanon

A few days ago, a tweet by a colleague of the digital realm, Jacques Bakaev (@jbakaev) got us going with a few repliques which I ended with the graphic above. The original tweets were in Arabic and read as follows in this translated annotated screenshot.

The topic of Valet Parking services hogging the streets and bullying people is not new and has been tackled over and over again. Either through individual incidents either through serious reporting and accusations of political backing but my point here is much simpler and does not involve any conspiracy theories.

The Valet Parking business in Lebanon strives because the Lebanese want it. There is a sense of self-importance that immediately surges in the heart and mind of the average Homo Libanis when a guy walks up to his car door and hands him a ticket that holds the not-so-certain promise that he will be taking care of his vehicle. I mean, seriously, how many of us will ever get to walk a red-carpet event. The closest that many will get to being center stage is at their eventually pompous wedding ceremony but imagine if you could feel that important day in day out.

We need not forget the condescending tone, squinted eyes and dropped edges of ones mouth as they reply to the question "where did you park?" by a very nonchalant "I gave it to the parking guy, let him manage with it" (عطيطا لتبع الباركينغ ينقبر ينضرب فيا)

Another added perk to using the valet parking is the privilege of being able to snub other people who do not like to employ the service. Accusing them of being cheap ( شحاد نوطي) or stupid (مجدوب ما بيعرف يرتاح) or sometimes reversing the situation on them and accusing them of being condescending because they refuse to adhere to the social norm: "so his car is more important than ours?"

Finally, you have the ones that rationalize why they subscribe to the valet parking culture by blaming the state for not offering public transportation, for not having proper parking areas or for not offering decent sidewalks.

While I might agree on the fact that the country is lagging behind in infrastructure, I cannot subscribe to the notion that people are no longer able to take a Taxi or an Uber to a destination where parking is difficult. I have been doing this for years and I know many people who would rather choose a different venue for their outing if the only option is for them to hand their vehicle to a guy who will hand you a paper saying that the management of the valet parking service is not responsible for the car or any of its contents.

Long live ValetParkingstan 

My First Day With Uber Beirut


Zaher Hallab on YouTube

When I set off to write this post, it was meant to be called "My First Ride with Uber Beirut". However, I chose to rename it for the purpose of fairness and giving credit where credit was due, since I managed to squeeze in two rides on the same afternoon/evening with two very different experiences.

Some of you who follow me on Twitter might have noticed that I immediately reached out to Uber Beirut upon news of their launch. I am a big fan of the hailing app concept and have had the chance to try several apps in several countries starting with Romania.

Uber however is not just any app, and regardless of any controversy that you might have heard, these guys have an excellent business model that is spreading like wildfire and I can totally understand why:
What's not to like about the promise of ordering a timely, elegant transport with a courteous driver and a friction-less payment method from the comfort of your smartphone?

My First Ride in Beirut...Uber-Lebanese

I set out heading from Badaro to LAU Beirut on Saturday (2014-07-12), and placed my order at 18:53. Surely enough, I was notified that the driver would be arriving within 4 minutes. So far so good, but 4 minutes later with no car in sight, I followed up with a short text to the driver indicating exactly where I would wait for him, to avoid any confusion.
From there on, things went downhill. It took the driver 32 minutes to reach me. I was seriously panicking that I would not be able to make it on time to LAU.
I called the driver to inquire how close he was as the car seemed lost in a maze of streets in Achrafieh. He assured me he was close to the museum but what I was seeing in front of me suggested something else. I then finally spotted him coming towards me but stopping to ask for direction, so I called him again. He saw me also and hung up as he pulled up.

Click to Enlarge
As you see from the info above, I was off to a bad start, and had less than 30 minutes to get to my destination. Doors were to close at 19:45 at LAU. As I got into the car I was surprised again that the driver was not familiar with the area and did not know how to make up for lost time to make it there, so I co-piloted and navigated him through my usual road.
I must, however, in all due conscience, say that he seemed really apologetic and stressed that he had been so late and he was really helpful and courteous through the ride, adjusting the cooling and proposing me a drink of water since he saw I had been sweltering in the heat for 30 minutes. He also did his best to get me to my destination on time. I eventually made it on time  and got off just 15 meters away from the lower gate although he proposed to drive me exactly there. I did not want us to get caught in the Koraytem road maze.

I was left perplex on what to make of this experience. On one hand, I had waited in the heat for half an hour and lost my chance for a decent seating at the event, on the other, the vehicle and the driver were up to my expectation in terms of quality and behavior.
I still do not want to categorically draw any conclusions and perhaps traffic was hard on the way to Badaro from Abdel Wahab Street although on a Saturday afternoon in summer, Beirut is usually traffic free.

Uber Redeemed by Abbas

After the ceremony in LAU had finished, we decided to grab a bite at the nearby Deek Duke restaurant (Google Map). I wanted to try again taking Uber. My girlfriend had ordered a ride a few hours before me that day and was extremely satisfied. So I opened the app, GPS blasting, and placed an order. A car was assigned to us a few minutes away. I then monitor the driver skillfully avoiding congested roads to make it on time and arriving at the marker that was supposed to represent our location.
However, as we look around, there was no car anywhere near.
I immediately call the driver, and we quickly realize the app had placed us in Bliss not in Hamra. I bare a lot of the responsibility this time as I did not really zoom in and look at the pin.
However, he reassured me he had understood where we actually were, and sure enough, a few minutes later a sparkling new BMW Series 5 pulls up.
A neatly dressed driver disembarks, introduces himself as Abbas, opening the door for us.
Once in the car, he apologizes once more (although he was not to blame for a faulty GPS location in the app) and asks if the air conditioning setting was to our liking and we were comfortably seated. The rest of our drive home was smooth as can be and upon our arrival we got the same royal treatment as when we boarded the vehicle.

Final Thoughts

Sure, some of you will say I am being tough on the first driver and the company, and that a normal Taxi will have lied and weaseled its way out of this, and even not shown up at all.
But you know what? This is NOT a random taxi company managed by some fat-bellied, sweat-dripping, flip-flop wearing driver. I based my expectations on the reputation of what is the fastest growing company in this field. Just consider this: Uber had recently been seeking $12 Billion valuation in its latest funding round

In the entire commotion I had not noticed that I had received a mail follow up. Uber had reacted to the rating of the first drive that I had input on the app even before I got to write this blog post and reacted by giving me a 5$ coupon on the spot. I think this is just one facet of how professional these people are. I also think the driver which I had the unfortunate experience with, has the potential of being an excellent driver as he gets more used to the roads and the process as a whole.
Uber did warn us this was a sort of a "beta" release. Therefore, I will cut them some slack in that area but above all I will thank them for one of the best rides home I have had in a very long time.

Regular Lebanese taxi providers are still in a slumber, but they better wake up really fast and get up to speed with the century. They are about to be heavily outclassed and I honestly do not think they can do anything about it, especially those among them with new fleets and cocky attitudes.