Bassam Jalgha and Hassane Slaibi are co-founders at Band Industries, a music tech startup out of Beirut, Lebanon. The company's flagship is Roadie, an award-winning digital tuner that allows users to tune stringed instruments automatically, and with precision. Negotiating unique challenges due to ongoing political and economic instability in Lebanon, Jalgha and Slaibi were enabled to launch Roadie when their 2013 Kickstarter campaign raised triple its stated goal. The company has experienced steady growth since day dot and fields most of its sales in the US and online. Roadie has become known as a quality tool and Jalgha and Slaibi are now working to expand into the European market. I spoke to them for Zenith magazine, and Impolitikal.
How did you come to start Band Industries?
B: We were playing music together in a band, in university, but we were also engineers. In the band I had a lot of issues because I play a traditional instrument called the oud. It's a 12-string instrument, it's super hard to tune. I was spending most of the time tuning my instrument and it was very hectic and tough. The idea came to my mind, why not create a device that would actually help tuning string instruments, and allow musicians of guitars to change tuning often? I started working on the early prototypes of the device around 2009, and then I joined a competition in Qatar called Stars of Science. It is basically a reality TV show where you develop a product during three months and then pitch it to a jury. I moved to Qatar for three months and I was able to win the competition, first prize.
When I came back I talked to Hassane about joining me, and it was a great match, because he had recently finished his research in audio engineering in Australia. He came back to Lebanon and we decided to join hands. We combined both of our knowledge in audio engineering and computer science, and my knowledge in control engineering and mechanic engineering. We spent about two years developing the prototype and perfecting it. Once we had a minimum viable product that worked according to our specifications, that is when we decided to join an accelerator programme that's based in Shenzhen, the manufacturing heart of China. The accelerator programme is called HAX Accelerator. We got accepted and we moved to China for four months, where we developed the product further, and made connections with factories and suppliers and did a lot of iterations and testing and prototyping. That was in late 2013, and at the end of 2013 we decided to launch on Kickstarter.
H: That was really exciting for us, that we kind of married all our skills and passions - for music, for robotics, from Bassam's side. He liked to build a lot of small machines and robots and I like to process my friends' voices and change them and play around with audio, and this kind of was a perfect match for both of us. We got to a point where we had a pretty nice-looking product, that worked. Still needed some tweaks, but we knew we could build a perfect product, and we can actually perfectly tune any musical instrument that's similar to a guitar. Whether it's electric, acoustic, classical, ukelele, banjo, you name it. We got to a point also where we realised that manufacturing is very, very costly. It was going to cost us about USD 60,000 to manufacture the first batch. We didn't have the money to do it, so crowdfunding was a perfect match for us.
The campaign was really viral. In the month-and-a-half length of the campaign we raised three times the amount that we needed, about USD 180,000. Which was a really great experience as well, knowing that something we'd been working on for three years was something that actually has demand, and people liked our work. And they really needed this product. After Kickstarter ended in 2014, Bassam went back to China and I went back to Lebanon to work with the technical team on finishing the product, on building the whole technology - whether it's mobile apps, or the manufacturing - and after about nine months, in September 2014, we shipped our first manufacturing batch to all our Kickstarter backers, and we started taking orders on our website. Everybody who paid USD 79 on Kickstarter got a tuner, we gave a 20% discount. Now Roadie sells for USD 99, or €99.
What are some of the challenges you came up against setting up as a tech startup in Beirut?
B: The scene has changed a lot in the past five years, when it comes to startups. When I first started I was by myself, before Hassane joined me, and doing your own thing in Lebanon was not really common. I had struggled a lot, when people asked me, What do you do for a living? Everybody would look at me weird, because it's standard here that you get a decent job, you get a decent living, you get married early on, you have kids and all that stuff. But things have changed tremendously, and more and more focus has been given to startups and now there's a lot of support. There's a lot of co-working places, there's a couple of accelerators that were started and a few venture capital funds that also have started. But when it comes to hardware, and developing hardware in Lebanon, this was really, really tough. For many reasons, but mainly because there was no access to prototyping tools a few years ago. It was very hard to have access also to components and all of that. Developing the early prototypes was kind of hectic.
So yeah, the industry is weak, the technical know-how is weak, and it is something that we're trying to challenge and we've been trying to challenge in the past five years. We couldn't find the right technical support, in terms of developing the product, and taking it to the next step. That is why we decided to move operations to China. Once we did that, our development increased exponentially, and we were able to move much faster in the development process. Now what we're trying to do is bring back all this experience that we got in developing our first product, and we're going to use it again to develop the second product. It's going to be much faster for us. But also we're bringing it back home to Lebanon to share it. We have a lot of access to fresh graduates in Lebanon. A lot of the fresh university graduates tend to leave the country. We're trying to get them hooked up in Lebanon, keep them here, get them interested in either developing their own startups, or to join already existing startups like ours and share the experience that we already gained, and other startups already gained, with them, so that the culture and the mindset would develop further.
I believe that is happening. The situation doesn't help much, with all the political issues and problems we have, and also all the everyday living issues that other countries don't face. For example, in Lebanon we have electricity that cuts off often. We have bad internet infrastructure. But all of that is not stopping us from innovating and from developing further, and aiming to improve the status quo. I guess I'm positive in that sense.