When you live far from home, little things that remind you of it become very precious. The coffee, the beer, the nuts, the zaatar, and all the simple things that give you that great feeling of nostalgia.
Marielle Khayat experienced that feeling the first time, when her mother sent her a boxful of goodies from home all the way to China, while she was there on a study trip.
Fast forward a few years, Marielle and her co-founders, Pascale Comaty and Joseph Sayegh, all expatriates, launch Koullouna, a box made to bring a little piece of home to Lebanese expatriates around the world, while it also allows them to contribute to the local ecosystem.
September 2018, Koullouna Box wins the Femme Francophone Entrepreneurs (FFE) Competition, exposing the startup to the local media and bringing it into the Berytech community.
The idea: a box from home
The concept is fairly simple. Monthly subscribers to Koullouna around the world receive a box with local handpicked Lebanese items in a different theme every month. They also receive information on a local initiative that has a positive impact on the country and to which a part of the box’s subscription has been donated, a way to contribute to the country’s development.
The winners, who have come back to participate in the 2018 edition of the competition, were part of the final FFE selection in 2017 but had not made it to the finals. During that year, a lot happened in the life of the newly born startup and its persistent founders. And this time around, they won!
Validate, validate and then validate
Marielle first tested the idea of the box on her local community of Lebanese expats in Paris. She created a ‘Labneh’ themed box and sent it to 15 of her friends and waited for their feedback. She then organized a roundtable to understand what a Lebanese expat would want in a curated box from home. After receiving tons of positive replies, she took it a step further and organized a competition on Facebook gifting 30 ‘coffee’ themed boxes to winners worldwide. The positive feedback came pouring in. It was time to launch.
The data-driven team of founders was not satisfied. “It is obvious that people will love something they get for free, but are they willing to pay for it?” states Pascale on the team’s initial reaction to the flood of positive feedback.
In the meantime, the team joined the FFE competition 2017, completed the mandatory training sessions but did not make it through to the final round. “Our business idea was at a very early stage, but the learning experience was invaluable, we had already set our eyes on the prize for the following year.”
Validation came in the form of 550 boxes sold across 25 countries when the team set up an Indigogo campaign that crowdsourced 28,000 euros for them in 4 days, instead of the initial 10,000 euros objective. “50% committed to 1 month, while the rest were a split between 3 and 6-month subscriptions,” confirms Pascale.
Overcoming the challenges
Once the campaign was closed, the team started working on the box. With the huge number of boxes to be shipped, the team faced major logistic challenges.
First, they started by sourcing the products in Beirut. Product sponsorships provided by the larger corporations allowed them to pay smaller producers. They would still need to prove a big market reach to eventually get better deals from other suppliers. Then they hired a shipping company to send the products from Beirut to Paris and another to assemble the boxes and send them out for distribution.
The first box themed ‘Kankane’ the Lebanese term for cozying up at home, shipped in May 2017. The 400-box shipment was the first and biggest of all Koullouna monthly shipments to date. The team received mixed feedback, with some subscribers loving it and others expecting it to be more Lebanese. Pascale explains, “Kankane was a rather modern box. We thought subscribers would be discovering a new product but in fact, people wanted traditional, more typical things that remind them of home. We only gained 20 to 30% of the initial buyers who re-subscribed after the first box and we now know from the feedback that the first had the lowest scoring. The next month we went back to boxing really typical products. We sent out a very Lebanese breakfast-themed box that was super successful, and after that, we sent out the ‘Jam3a’ [get together] box with everyone’s favorite hangout products.”
Once the number of subscriptions leveled out after the initial boom of the crowdfunding campaign, the team decided to move their assembly line back to Beirut after what proved to be a difficult operation of exporting products from local suppliers to Europe. They set up a working space and they have been hands-on assembling boxes since August.
With that decision, the team countered another set of challenges including the huge cost of shipping individual boxes from Lebanon and the need to timeshare their presence in Beirut to run the operation. “All 3 of us are 100% on Koullouna since the beginning of 2017 but we all have different commitments in Europe. We are currently discussing having one of us in Beirut on a regular basis.”
“Building the boxes is also becoming more challenging,” explains Pascale. “We sent out our 8th themed box this Christmas. At this stage, we are trying to figure out from all the boxes we sent so far, which ones worked and which ones didn’t. There are so many discoveries that we can do of so many different combinations that are not very typical, but at the same time, we’ve learned that our subscribers want things that are familiar.
A mission to give back
For the founders, the most important part of the box is the social aspect. With every box, subscribers discover a Lebanese initiative with a positive impact on the country. Indeed, 10% of Koullouna’s monthly proceeds go to a different social enterprise. “It is not just our subscribers that are receiving something, but they are also giving back to their country, helping it grow even if they are far. Even though the money is symbolic now, the initiatives love it because we are able to raise awareness about their work.”
Initiatives from previous boxes included Donner Sang Compter, The Lebanese Food Bank, Live Love Lebanon, Ouzville, Lebanon Mountain Trail Association, Kunhadi, and FabricAid amongst many others.
Winning the first prize
“Winning 10,000 euros is great but that’s not what we came back for,” details Pascale on the team’s decision to come back for a second chance at the Femme Francophone Entrepreneure Competition. “It was more about being part of Berytech, being part of the startup community, meeting other entrepreneurs and also having the media coverage which was huge for us. Competition money is interesting, but it does not make a huge difference for a startup, while exposure does.”
Besides the cash prize, the team wins s a 6-month incubation prize from Berytech, where they receive coaching and mentorship support to grow their startup.
The future: Lebanese Online Marketplace
While the team’s initial business model of creating themed boxes will remain, their greater vision is to create an online marketplace for Lebanese products.“We want Koullouna to become the place where Lebanese expats buy their favorite Lebanese products, discover new ones and get them wherever they want in the world.”
Discover more about Koullouna and their special Lebanese boxes on their website: www.koullounabox.com