Lean Startup in 1970's Liberia (and an entrepreneur from Lebanon)

Youssef Nasrallah was a young man who left four young children and a wife in his native Lebanon in search for a better life. It was the late 70’s, and the small country formerly known as “the Switzerland of the Arab World” was engulfed in civil conflict that would span 15 years and claim 120,000 lives.

His destination - Monrovia, the capital of Liberia, would not be the first place most of us would consider to locate. With a GDP per capita of $900 USD, it is today considered amongst the world’s 5 poorest countries. But in those days, Mr. Nasrallah’s options where limited and he simply searched for a place where he would easily get a visa. Plus, his own parents had decided to locate there years before. “At that time, any place in the world seemed better than Lebanon,” says Hadi Narsallah, Youssef’s youngest son.

With not too many options at hand, Youssef decided to set up his own business. But he had no previous entrepreneurial background, had not gone to any meetups of the “Lean Startup” movement nor had considered entering a pitching competition. But he had common sense, ambition and the hunger to speed things up. The essence of entrepreneurship.

He began strolling around the streets of Monrovia, looking for untapped business opportunities. Soon enough, he stumbled upon an idea. As in any part in the world, clothing was a symbol of status, and he thought he could capitalize on that. Hence, he decided he would start selling socks and undergarments to the local population.

But of course, Youssef Nasrallah was not sure which kind would strike the fancy of his potential customers. There were so many brands, colours, styles, pricing… Too many unanswered questions to just spend all his savings and those of his peers on an untested idea. Of course, he knew that just asking his potential consumers about their intent to buy is practically worthless. Talk is cheap, and Youssef could not afford to make expensive mistakes.

He therefore decided to try something out that in today’s parlance we call, “the pop-up store”, a business prototyping technique whereby an entrepreneur finds a space to temporarily display and try out a new product or service. This offers the freedom of interacting with customers in a quick and real way, without having to commit to a fixed structure which requires having to think about a myriad of details that are not related with the core value of the business. Furniture, employee contracts, lights, wall painting, etc., matter when the business is ready to scale, but they are costly distractions when the main goal is validating a convincing business opportunity.

Youssef managed to persuade three shops who would let him display his products in exchange for 20% commission on sales. He borrowed some cash from a friend to buy a first small load of different undergarments and started selling different products at different locations.

While doing so, he quickly realized the way certain brands resonated more than others with the local population. Nasrallah was able to quickly identify the best products and the optimal price for his merchandise. Essentially, this small experiment allowed him to make data-driven decisions that would lead to the opening of his first store three months later. Forty years have passed, and our humble entrepreneur now boasts 6 different stores in the liberian capital, all stemming from that one first experiment. Furthermore his son, Hadi, is holds now an MBA from HEC Paris, is one of NOBA’s collaborators and is co-founder at Hiive, an MBA student financing platform.

We would like to take a moment in this point to pause and reflect upon what makes this story really unique. Literature on business and entrepreneurship is predominantly about Western, rich and educated men. It too often involves brave young Americans who, sipping flat whites and borrowing internet from a café, code their way to the top. From middle-upper to upper class.

This is misleading for two reasons. First of all, we end up overrating the “courage” and “risk” that entrepreneurs take in the West (not to mention that the top 5 most entrepreneurial countries are, in fact, African). Mark Zuckerberg’s rise from a college dorm room to billionaire is formidable. But Youssef Nasrallah’s feat, while not as well known, deserves just as much respect. Even more so taking into account that his business survived another civil war, this time in Liberia, when all his stores were looted and he had to start all over again.

Secondly, there is a misconception that lean development is something for the Silicon Valley types. A tool set of techniques that applies to the digital industry, where agility is something that comes easily and natural. Youssef Nasrallah’s story actually illustrates how this could not be farther removed from the truth.

True entrepreneurs are successful precisely for their ability to think big, while launching small. For having intuition, but trusting data and real facts. And this is true regardless of the industry, but also of where we are born.