Therese Kayrouz: Changing The Future Of Public Transportation In Lebanon
Improving our public transportation is very important to me because by helping people move from one place to another, we are giving them access to better education, healthcare, and work opportunities. ”
Growing up, Therese Kayrouz – founder of YallaBus, was not planning on becoming an entrepreneur. She had other plans. This is the story of how she and her team, Yara Nassar, Ghassan Zughaib and Georges Geha, were able to map the entire bus business in Beirut, turn it into an app that assists users in finding and taking a bus, and win 4 startup competitions in the process.
“As a kid, I only wanted to become one thing: President of Lebanon. My friends at school used to laugh saying that ‘Therese wants to fix Lebanon all by herself.’ During my first year of university, I thought that I could change things by being politically active and so I took part in the student elections at AUB [American University of Beirut]. I was extremely disappointed by the outcome and realized that if I were to do anything for my country and for myself, it would be outside of politics.”
Born Out Of A True Need
Therese’s first year at university also brought her a big challenge in commuting. The very active and car-less student had to rely on friends and family for her daily commute. “I used to wait for my father to finish work or my friends who might be going in the same direction to drop me home. The worst part was that I had no control over my own time. I was always waiting for other people. The only time I borrowed my dad’s car to drive myself to university, I got stuck in a senseless traffic jam. I was furious to the point where I could only think of transportation solutions.”
Up to that point, Therese had never taken the bus. Lebanon has an extensive and cheap bus network operating on its roads, but it is almost impossible to figure out their routes and timetables. “I used to see the bus passing in front of AUB. My father hated the idea of the bus because of the bad image they had of being inconvenient and not very safe. He even offered me taxi money. But I decided to try taking the bus anyway, at least once. Although it started as an act of rebellion for me, I was also convinced that it would be practical and convenient. A cheap 1,000 L.B.P. ride home!”
“Everytime I got into a bus, I sat next to the driver. I asked a simple ‘how are you’ to the driver who works a shift from 6:00am to 10:00pm, with all the stress on the road, and no single person addressing him with a conversation. Every time I asked this question, this big bubble would burst and the driver would start telling me about his day and his work: who owns the bus line, where the line is, why they drive slowly, why they stop randomly, etc… Once, I got on a bus and I told the driver that we have an idea of creating an app that would simplify bus taking for people, and he loved it.”
Stumbling Into Startup Life
Therese heard about a startup competition and decided to apply. She had no clue what a startup was or how it worked but she had a spur of the moment idea of joining anyway with her app idea. “I launched a survey before I applied to the competition about how students use buses. People who heard about my idea were so excited to join me and I took them on. I ended up applying to the competition with a team of eight. We held one meeting to work on the idea and on our pitch and we won! I wasn’t expecting to win. There were 10 finalists: they had developed products, they had launched a startup, they had a proven sales record, they even had a team of developers. My team and I were like a student summer school, all 8 of us with one simple idea and a PowerPoint presentation, but we won 10,000 USD in grant money.”
“I met the YallaBus team in early 2017 after they had won the ‘Reimagine Lebanon’ competition organized by CME offshore. When they showed up at our offices, they were 8 university students, all had a role in the team and were very passionate about their idea,” recalls Joanna Abi Abdallah, head of Business Support and Development at Berytech. “During that meeting, we presented Berytech and the kind of support available and encouraged them to apply to the competition ‘Femme Francophone Entrepreneure’ organized by Berytech and AUF.”
“Therese and her team applied and competed along 80 other projects. They were selected for the first and second round, received more than 50+ hours of training, were dedicated and the team managed to attend every training despite their university program and were actively participating in all sessions. They showed dedication and hard work, they were able to take into account and act upon the feedback provided to them and they ended up winning the FFE competition and joining many other programs later that year.”
Abi Abdallah continues on how their story sums up three great lessons. “First, it’s never too early to start – the team was dedicated both to their studies and the startup. Second, they are really solving a problem they are passionate about – and this is why they could put in the commitment and perseverance needed to solve a pain all Lebanese have on a daily basis. Finally, they showed how resourceful they could be and were able to surround themselves with the best people who could bring value to their project.”
Understanding The Bus Business
There approximately 500 bus owners in Lebanon operating a total estimation of 4,000 buses, 40 of which only belong to the Lebanese government. Public bus drivers struggle because of low salaries and a lack of resources. Public buses pass every hour, while private buses pass every 5 minutes making them more convenient for passengers, and furthering the gap between the passengers and public transportation.
Therese managed to get a bus driver excited enough about the app, that he decided to introduce her to his boss. She convinced him to let her install a GPS system in 3 of his buses to track their routes and study their data. She was able to eventually connect his entire line, “The GPS was a good way to study the movement of the buses. Through talking to drivers I understood that it is only one bus owner who operates each line, managing 20 drivers on average. He is constantly on the phone with them to coordinate their routes. For the moment, the GPS is more of a value for the bus owner to track his buses than for us.”
YallaBus provides its users with an accurate and complete map for all operating buses in Beirut. The app will allow users to track buses in real time and give them directions on which bus to take, where and when to wait for it.
Learning Through Failure
The road has not been smooth for this passionate entrepreneur who has spent the last two years diligently working with her team to bring YallaBus to reality. What started as a project that she wanted to do for herself, grew into more than a company… into something that she is now doing for the whole country. Therese and her team were not prepared for this.
“We went through a series of failures mostly because we didn’t have the required entrepreneurial thinking and we had not yet learned the lean method to launch a startup.
We took the first $10k we won and gave them all to a company to develop our app. The company took eight months and failed to develop the features we required. They did not know how to do it and we didn’t have the knowledge of being a lean startup. We initially conceived an extremely developed app with a lot of features – that nobody will use – and the main feature, which is our core product, was the feature that they were not able to create. Today we still want the same features but we’re not launching them all at the same time.
The second failure was team-wise. We started as a big team – 8 people is a lot to manage. Today we are 4 co-founders and we are working hard to maintain a healthy work-flow and track the progress of the whole team. We are all students juggling between university and YallaBus. We started using tools, implementing a working method of meeting on both a weekly and monthly basis, setting goals and milestones and meeting them. We discovered that the best way to reach our goals was to give each person an entire task to do and not fragment it, to be responsible to deliver from A to Z.
We have spent 2 years working together and it is not easy. Sometimes I think that it would have been beneficial if we had some work experience before starting out because it has been really difficult doing this with no experience. It would have been nicer and more efficient not to learn from our own mistakes: time, money resources… but, each time we failed was a step forward – the next time we did it better.”
Launching The Paper Version
In the last 2 years, YallabBus has participated in 4 competitions: Reimagine Lebanon, Femme Francophone Entrepreneure with Berytech, Souk LB and the Total Startupper Challenge, winning a total of 60,000 USD and getting incubated at Berytech. In the meantime, Therese has become a reference for bus routes in Lebanon, contacted by strangers every day for bus-taking advice.
“We hired developer and we’re doing the app in-house now. We already have a beta version that we are testing before the final release in October 2019.
While waiting for the app, some people talk to me on Whatsapp to ask me questions about buses and routes and I answer them from memory. I’ve taken all the bus routes. For the ones I don’t know, I wake up the next day and get in that bus and do the whole route with the driver. Sometimes they look at me weird thinking ‘why isn’t she getting off the bus?’. Sometimes I tell them about the app, sometimes I don’t. Sometimes they are so amused they don’t even cash the 1,000 L.B.P.
One day, a guy called Jad asked me on Whatsapp which bus he could take to work. I pointed out a couple of buses that he could use. A week later he informs me that he’s been using the bus now instead of Uber, and two weeks later, he texts saying he had saved 90 USD. Just because this guy didn’t know that there was a bus that passed right by his home and straight to his work. Imagine if he had known that before. Imagine if this info was available for everyone.
This is why we decided to create a printed map; and gathering the data for the map was a good exercise for the app too. I already knew all the bus routes in my head but I didn’t know exactly where each bus stopped. So we started riding all the buses to make a clear map both in English and in Arabic. We got Almaza as a sponsor and printed out the maps and distributed them and posted them online.”
Embracing Life As An Entrepreneur
Full-time student and full-time entrepreneur, Therese feels that academia is disconnected from the job market and that entrepreneurship is the future for young Lebanese struggling in a faltering economy.
“Last year, when all my friends were looking for internships and jobs, I didn’t even have a CV. I decided to challenge myself into applying for an internship, as an exercise to understand my market value. I applied to 70 different companies in Europe. I got refusals from all of them, mostly because I hold the Lebanese passport. This is when I realized that I prefer being an entrepreneur. I would rather be taking my own risks than wait for people to decide whether they wanted to hire me or not. If YallaBus doesn’t work out, I’ll move on to a different startup. I want to be where I can make an impact.”
Therese gives Zahle as an example of a Lebanese city that has no bus route coming into the capital, although it is only one hour away. “People who live in Zahle have no simple transportation method to commute into Beirut. What kind of opportunities do you think new grads have in such a small city?” YallaBus is a startup working to change that.
“I don’t want to be president anymore; I’d rather be an entrepreneur. Improving our public transportation is very important to me because by helping people move from one place to another, we are giving them access to better education, healthcare, and work opportunities. We are impacting their lives and the economy. We are stopping migration, reducing traffic in the cities and improving people’s lifestyle.”