Lebanese entrepreneur Rayan Ismail founded Fly Foot to create seamless travel experiences for football fans looking to watch live games. Fly Foot launched in 2016 out of Beirut, to become the go-to football travel platform for football fans around the world. It has since grown to fly thousands who have watched more than 1000 games in 45 worldwide stadiums.
Fly Foot was recently selected on the list of the Top 100 Tourism Startups and Innovators in the World, by the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO). The selection criteria focused on the milestones reached by the startups in terms of growth, result, technology development, funding raised and new investors, before and after participating in any of the UNWTO competitions. Fly Foot’s selection came 2 years after it was awarded a place in 2019 on the UNWTO list of top 5 global sports tourism startups, in a grand ceremony held in Macau, China.
Today, Fly Foot has 8 team members, in addition to co-founders Firas Arab (COO) and Ali Keserwan (CTO), and focuses on the MENA region as a main market. Nevertheless, the team recently joined STATION F in Paris, to open new opportunities in the French and European markets.
We caught up with Rayan to discuss his startup’s inspirational journey and all its exciting achievements in the last few months, despite all the challenges imposed by the pandemic, from launching an integrated platform, venturing into virtual reality and creating social impact in marginalized communities.
Q: What is your background?
A: I have been a passionate football fan and player since I was a child. After earning a degree in Economics at the American University of Beirut, I moved to London to pursue a Master’s in International Business at City University. Then I joined Aramex to work as a cost consultant, before launching Fly Foot.
Q: What does your solution offer?
A: Fly Foot is the first regional platform that empowers football fans with innovative ways to get closer to the game they love. We launched our football travel platform in 2016, where football fans, and with a few clicks, can book and fly to watch their favorite team live in the stadium. Today, we launched several verticals in the football industry, leveraging new technology such as VR to offer new football solutions to Arab fans.
Q: How did you get inspired to create it?
A: In 2011, as a side activity, I organized an amateur football tournament in Lebanon. The prize for the winners was a trip to a European city to attend a game and watch their favorite team play live. Once we started assembling the travel package for the winners, we realized how difficult it was for someone in the MENA region to organize this type of experience. We decided to solve the problem ourselves by building a platform to offer a hassle-free experience for football fans in MENA, starting with Lebanon.
Q: How do you differentiate yourself from competitors?
A: Our offering is new to the region. In fact, we are the first and only football travel platform in the region. Our top-of-the-line technology allows us to scale at a rapid pace, and the key partnerships we managed to establish throughout the last years are an important barrier to competition. Fly Foot has already flown more than 6000 fans from the region, and with that, we have formed an amazing community of football fans. This community is our pillar in everything we do.
Q: What is your business model and how are you planning to scale?
A: Our revenue model is simple, we charge a service fee on every booking, and our clients, in addition to their trip elements (flight, accommodation, and match ticket), benefit from our on-spot service. Every Fly Foot traveler has unique access to our Fly Foot go app, which does not only serve as their travel companion, where they can purchase tours, visits, and excursions, but it also allows them to stay in contact with our customer service team, that is present in every city we fly to.
We are now focused on scaling into Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the UAE and we are establishing a new B2B sales arm there to help us target the corporate sector in addition to the traditional travel agencies.
Q: What was your initial funding resource? Have you taken on investment?
A: Fly Foot managed to bootstrap up until we have completed our product, established an important customer base, and formed a team of dedicated and passionate value creators. We recently closed our seed round to help us grow and scale in the region, and also to work on the development of our new product verticals. IM Capital, Seeders, B&Y Ventures, and Phoenician Fund I joined us to help us successfully raise our round, and we plan to be back on the road before the end of this year targeting regional and European investment funds.
Q: How has your customer base evolved since you launched?
A: We started as a B2C platform, and our focus was mainly to target the loyal fans who follow their team, color their faces, and scream their lungs out in the stadium. Soon later, the adventurous travelers, who would like to see and live new experiences and tick them off their bucket list, formed an important portion of our customer base. Two years ago, we launched our B2B and our B2BC sales arms, and this opened new perspectives on our product, and today this segment plays an important role in our business.
Q: What have your biggest challenges been?
A: The main challenge we faced is the limitation imposed by the Lebanese ecosystem, let alone the bad infrastructure, the limited access to capital, and recently all the restrictions imposed by the local banking sector. Our move to Paris was crucial for us to grow. In fact, during the last 18 months, we managed to liberate our platform from locally imposed risks, and we have integrated Fly Foot with global suppliers and partners.
Q: Do you have plans to expand into other markets or onto different platforms?
A: The COVID-19 crisis hit us hard, yet it allowed us to think differently. Today, Fly Foot introduced VR to football games. Fans can now live an immersive live football experience through virtual reality. We developed the first VR enabled football streaming platform, where fans all around the world can watch football as if they were seated live in the stadium. The solution will enable for the first time, to purchase virtual match tickets. They will enjoy a free viewing angle. They will hear the sounds, the vibes and the ambience of the stadium streamed live into their ears through our spatial audio technology. This solution will also benefit football clubs, completion and even broadcasters who will unlock new revenue streams potentials and get closer to the fans.
Fly Foot is also working on a product that is very dear to us: we launched a mobile app for the amateur football players that allows them to hire a goalkeeper to complement their games. They can hire a goalkeeper from a pool of players coming from underserved communities such as the refugees. This product turned out to be instrumental for all the youth who used to spend their time watching players from the host communities from outside a fence, and now they are enjoying playing football with them through our solution.
Q: What needs to change in your sector?
A: The travel industry, especially travel for leisure, is facing a very big challenge and at the same time a very big opportunity. Today everyone has to re-imagine the way people will travel post-COVID. We will have to adapt to newly imposed measures to facilitate travel. I believe that technology is going to play an important role in shaping the future of travel, I am very happy that Fly Foot has already started implementing on its platform all the necessary to be ready once travel is back to normal. It is also very important to note that traveling for leisure is going to be one of the most booming industries post the crisis. Most business reports and investment reports are suggesting that people are now willing to spend more on leisure travel and entertainment to compensate for all of what they had missed already, and the new behavior is now mostly centered around living better and living happily
Q: What would you advise the younger version of yourself when you were starting your company, or an entrepreneur looking at your company and saying, “I’d like to build something like that?”
A: I have learned so many things along the way however the message that I want to convey to my younger self or to an aspiring entrepreneur looking to start now is that there is no such thing as a perfect business or a perfect opportunity or perfect timing. If I can go back in time, I think that I would give much more importance to raising capital at a very early stage. This capital will not only help you develop your product faster, scale into bigger markets faster, and then correct and iterate along the way, but it will also help you establish strategic partnerships with your funders that will undoubtedly unlock several opportunities and will allow you to revisit your value proposition every single day.