The upper end of estimates sizes the Lebanese diaspora at around 14 million people, while the population of Lebanon itself sits at just around 6 million. Adnan Ammache, born into the Lebanese diaspora, but raised in Lebanon, saw this as an opportunity. In 2018, he founded Presentail, a gift-giving platform specifically marketed to expats looking to surprise their loved ones back in Lebanon with something special for their birthday, or the holidays. In a country that’s only made the world’s headlines of late due to economic crises, Adnan and Presentail stand out with their growth, with lofty goals, and a drive to create more employment inside their country.
I spoke with Adnan over Zoom a few weeks ago, to learn about his journey from college student in New York City, to founder in Lebanon navigating a revolution, pandemic, inflation, and electrical blackouts. Given what Presentail does, I figured this was the perfect interview to share during the Holidays. Happy reading (and maybe shopping🎅🏼)!
Can you start just by briefly introducing yourself and Presentail?
So my name is Adnan Ammache. I was born in the US when my parents were in college, and I grew up in Lebanon. I had the fortune to go back to the US for school at NYU. While I was at NYU, I fell in love with this person called Nemat. Towards my end of the time at NYU, she went back to Lebanon, so I used to send her flowers using the local service.
For her birthday, I wanted to send a cake, and I realized I couldn’t do that, being in New York. For me, it was so absurd that I couldn’t purchase something as simple as a cake online in Lebanon at the time. That inspired me to build this platform and ecommerce company where Lebanese people living abroad can buy flowers, cake, gifts, etc. to send to their friends and family back home.
During my time at NYU, I also had the chance to move to Paris for a semester abroad program. And that’s when I really realized how big Lebanon’s diaspora is. Your readers who have been to Paris probably know that there’s a Lebanese restaurant on every corner. The global Lebanese diaspora is something like 14 million people, close to four times the population of Lebanon itself. Presentail allows Lebanese people living abroad to send gifts to friends and family in Lebanon. The biggest user persona we serve is young people sending to their parents, or people in long distance relationships.
Talk to me a bit about your professional career. Did you start NYU thinking that you were going to be getting into entrepreneurship?
I joined NYU as a finance major. When I was in high school, I felt some familial and societal pressure to be an engineer. All schools I applied to were engineering schools, and these are all based in the US. NYU was the only one that accepted me, and they accepted me for business, so that was a pretty clear sign to me that I should keep following that path. I realized pretty early on that I was passionate about entrepreneurship.
I got involved with extracurriculars around entrepreneurship. I was director of sponsorship for NYU’s entrepreneurship festival. I’ve worked on a lot of different startups, but most just never saw daylight. The ideas stayed on paper and we’re never executed. During my college years, I did an internship with Venture for America (VFA), which is a fellowship that helps recent college grads go work for startups around the country. VFA focuses on cities where young people don’t want to live, which might sound absurd. Most graduates want to go to places like New York, Boston, DC, or Chicago, so VFA deliberately places fellows in startups in Detroit, Austin, Rhode Island, and other, less-frequented places. That made me think about the role of entrepreneurs to go back and help communities build jobs, and led me to ask myself, how can I create a business that helps my country?
Even before your internship with Venture for America, it sounds like you were interested in entrepreneurship. Was there a moment or experience that inspired that path?
I think it actually started in high school. It was common for junior year students to organize fundraisers to host a prom. These fundraisers could be anything from a bake sale to a dance party, to a football match, or even a movie screening. During these events, I found myself really being a core pillar of organization. I always wanted to make sure that we had the best ticket sales, that we maximize our income, and that no money went to waste. As a high school student, most students don’t have that mindset yet. I just love the thrill of running any organization. The act of starting something from scratch is incredible. I’m in love with that feeling.
It’s contagious! I would love to hear more about the Presentail story after launch. How long have you been working on it? What have been some of your major milestones? Where do things stand now?
Today is actually Presentail’s three year anniversary! I think the first major milestone, which indicated that I had something going on here, was raising $100,000 from venture funds here in Lebanon. This was before Lebanon entered into a bit of a dark phase. Still, since then, we’ve grown substantially, I would even say astronomically for a country like Lebanon. Last Mother’s Day was a huge milestone for us – we were able to do around $45,000 in revenue in one day. That might not sound like a lot of money for businesses in the US, but it’s a big deal for Lebanon.
The last milestone is more of a story, than pure numbers. About a year and a half into our business, I was in Paris, having dinner with a friend. This person comes up to me, and asks, are you not the founder of Presentail? I was just so happy that someone actually recognized me. He told me that he uses the platform all the time. It was another strong indicator that something was working, given that we were creating value for this person thousands of miles away.
What have been some of the difficult moments in Presentails life? How did you address them and overcome them?
I was telling a friend of mine the other day that it feels like I’m in an action movie. Since I started my business till now, only bad things have happened to Lebanon. When you start a business, you hope to have little or no external pressures beyond the competitive nature of the business. In Lebanon, that’s never been the case. Two months after we launched, the Lebanese uprising started. No more orders because people weren’t thinking about sending flowers. For literally six months, there was no business. We were in a beautiful office, but it was at the entrance of an extremely unsafe part of Beirut, where the counter-protestors against the revolution would go into downtown Beirut and attack the protesters. We would be literally sitting there working and we would see clashes below our office, which is super nasty.
Of course, not long after that, COVID came. To be frank, the pandemic has been very good for us, and probably every other ecommerce company out there. People were at home, they were bored, and they were shopping online, so our gift processing volume went through the roof.
On the heels of COVID and the revolution, hyperinflation hit Lebanon, and we lost 90% of the value of our currency. To put that into perspective, when I started the business, one U.S. Dollar was worth 1500 Lebanese Pounds. This morning, the value of one U.S. Dollar is 21,000 Pounds.
Now, in our case, and that’s exceptional, this had a weird positive effect. More and more people are leaving the country because of the situation. They want to go somewhere, where they can get a decent wage, with less stress, etc.. This actually grows our target customer group.
Probably the worst thing though, is when Lebanon actually ran out of electricity. Today, people live on two hours or three hours of state-provided electricity. We’ve managed to handle business operations thanks to generators, etc, but today, as a founder, I don’t want to think about electricity, I don’t want to think about gas, I just want to grow my business.
You have to think about so many things beyond just making the business successful, and it’s just an added weight that people in other countries don’t really have to consider.
How large is your team in Lebanon, and what is it like hiring there?
My team has 30 very talented people, which is actually a substantial amount for a company based in Beirut. We have some of the best and brightest people coming out of AUB, LAU, and USJ. What’s really interesting about my team is everyone who comes and works here are people who are here for the dream and really want to really help Lebanon get to a better place.
As a country, we’ve had a ton of people who were just like, “Okay, I love Lebanon, and I love you guys, but I just can’t live here anymore.” We get that, and we support that, but I must say it’s been super powerful to work with the ones who decided to stay, and the ones who are willing to look past all the hardships.
In terms of hiring, I’m not going to say it’s difficult. Not everyone has the luxury to leave, and yeah, there’s a ton of people who manage to find jobs in places like Dubai, but there’s so many talented people still here. If I had to compare it to the US, I would say it’s probably easier, and more affordable.
I want to do just a bit of a deep dive into the product itself. Would you be able to walk me through a typical user experience, from beginning to end?
When someone arrives on our site, they are first welcomed by our flower and chocolate collection, because those are bestsellers. Depending on the time of the year, the website has a different look and feel. We cater the landing page based on the upcoming holiday. Right before Christmas, we have a huge Christmas collection, right before Mother’s Day, we have a huge Mother’s collection. And this goes on and on.
In terms of the user experience, depending on which country they live in, we show the local currency because the majority of customers live in those countries. If you visit Presentail in Europe, you’ll pay in Euros, etc.
Once you find a product you love and you get to its specific page, you can determine exactly what day and what time it will be delivered. This is super important to the user. Historically in the online gift ordering space, you buy something and just “hope” it arrives on time.. The number one thing our users are looking for is the ability to schedule and to know when exactly it’s going to arrive. If you take the example of your mom’s birthday, you can’t have the gift arrive the day before or the day after – it just doesn’t have the same meaning as arriving exactly on the day.
How does the back-end work? How do you fulfill these orders and ensure the deliveries on time?
We use WooCommerce, which has been very good for us. If a user orders flowers, for example, the order goes straight to our warehouse, where our florists prepare bouquets. If it’s something like cake, or which we don’t prepare in house, our partner gets a notification to prepare that order. This is all automated, which is really wonderful.
After that, we dispatch a driver. Now currently, the way we dispatch drivers is manual, but going into the new year we’re working on getting our fleet real-time notifications when they need to handle a delivery.
Are the drivers also in-house?
It’s a hybrid. We have two people or a couple people who work for us full time. Then we outsource to different providers, depending on the season. The thing about the online gift ordering business is that it’s super seasonal. You may get a couple of orders a day in October and November and then you go to Christmas and you’re handling 50 times the volume. On one day, we can handle as much volume as we handled during a different 6-month time period. Of course, we’re not the only industry that does that. I think another interesting industry if it’s the same thing is like the ski industry, right? They make money over three months, or so. If you’re a company like Spider who just does jackets and ski pants, you’re not on vacation over the summer, you’re always preparing for the next season.
How do you actually reach the customers in the diaspora who purchase from Presentail?
That’s our big question, right? It’s super hard. Let me walk you through our approach. There are two ways to do this. The first way we do it is we actually looked at interest-based marketing. So if you live in Dubai, and you like BarBar, or any of Lebanon’s fast casual restaurants, odds are, you are from Lebanon, right? So we target those folks. The second way is to pay for Google search ads and SEO. If you live in Paris, and you type in “gift delivery Lebanon,” it’s pretty likely that you’re Lebanese. Once we have people on our site though, we want to get them spreading the word themselves, so we try to push referrals. We have them go tell their friends. About a third of our orders come in from referrals. It’s an easy thing to talk about at a party or something – “check out this cool platform for delivering gifts back home.” It has a nice network effect to it.
What are some of your main objectives for the next 12 to 18 months?
We’re really growing product diversity. We realized that the more products we had online, the more we sold, which was not what I thought in the first place. I thought if we had too many options, customers might get confused, might not know what they want to buy.
We want to get to a million dollars in revenue by the end of next year, which is massive growth, but it’s something that we strongly believe we can make. We’ve just finished fundraising for the near future, which is a really nice thing to have off our back. It’s complex and it’s competitive – we pretty much have our latest round closed, so we can focus on expanding. We’re currently piloting Jordan and Egypt. There’s a lot of different places on the planet that we want to go to. But for right now, we want to help as many Lebanese people living abroad, be a part of home and really send gifts back to their friends and family.
When you say opening a new country, I’m guessing that means to start sending gifts in Jordan on behalf of the people in the Jordanian diaspora?
Spot on. We chose Jordan and Egypt because they have really large diaspora populations. Jordan’s diaspora community is quite similar to Lebanon, so it’s easier to identify them. Egypt is a bit more difficult, because you have two totally different communities. You have an older generation of immigrants who may not have anyone in Egypt to send gifts to, but you have the recent immigrant for college, or something like that, who probably still has most of their family back in Egypt. It’s an interesting nut to crack, and we look forward to figuring it out!
Do folks living in Lebanon use your service for benefits like same-day delivery, etc?
It’s crazy, but not a single person from Lebanon has ever used our service, except me. Never, ever, ever. I think part of the reason that’s true is because we’ve branded and positioned ourselves as built for the diaspora. So even if someone in Lebanon lands on our website, it’s not going to resonate with them.
We’re probably missing out on some revenue because of this, but it’s just not our focus. We have more visitors from the UAE and Saudi than we do from Lebanon. Maybe in 2023, or so, we will open it up and reposition ourselves.
How did some of your experiences in the U.S. impact your approach to launching a business? What are the main differences between working in the US and working in Lebanon?
I actually spend most of my time lecturing my team on that. In the U.S. people are super passionate about what they do. Maybe not everyone, but the corporate people I worked with are workhorses. They don’t think about it as a job, it’s a lifestyle. They work overtime and are just always grinding, and they could care less because they are so excited about what they’re working on. In terms of startups, that’s exactly the attitude you should have – hustle, hustle, hustle. Being a founder is not a 9-5 job, it’s 24/7/365. When I dream at night, I think about work.
The U.S. also has an amazing culture around emailing and communication. There’s this belief that if you really want to go meet someone new, you can just reach out. I think it’s likely that if you email a random person, and say “Hey, I’m your industry and I want to meet you,” you have a decent chance at success. Not so much in Lebanon. It’s not to say that people have the interest, there are just more barriers to do so. People love WhatsApp and people love phone calls, but for business, I think email is generally superior. You craft a response, you can attach a document, etc. You can be much more thoughtful.
I felt like getting that Western education in the U.S. gave me an edge because it gave me a different perspective. Right. I was having this conversation with my friends from school in Lebanon, who went to college in the US as well. You undergo a transformation – we’re from a small high school in Beirut, and we show up somewhere like NYU, University of Miami, or USC, and you get exposed to so many smart people and such diversity of thought. It’s really intellectually stimulating, right?
What could a typical work week look like for you?
Every Monday, I sit with the managers to get aligned on what we want to work on this week, and to really make sure the momentum of our delivery is onpoint. After Monday, the rest of the week really depends on the season. Right now we’re in November, and our full focus is operational excellence in December, because December is our marathon, and we have to make sure we’re ready.
I work in an open office, so people like coming in to talk to me on the spot, but we also use Slack, which is super helpful to really keep all the conversations organized. I try to make the office a place where people want to be proactive, and suggest ideas.
I also spend a portion of my time as well on Product. I’m a big believer in the importance of having a beautiful, smooth product. I want an experience that the user doesn’t have to think twice about, and I’m so obsessed with that. I was that user for the longest period of time, I’m really passionate about making that better and better and better and better.
I also meet with the team working on Search Engine Optimization. I wish I realized sooner that SEO is such an amazing marketing channel. You invest in these assets like backlinks, internal links or on-page optimization, and then Google rewards you by being number one or number two.
You mentioned that being a founder is 24/7/365? Job? How do you stay motivated to put that much work in?
Job creation. Nothing is more important to me. I tell everyone, it’s the most satisfying thing. Being able to create a job in a place where there aren’t so many is super powerful, and it keeps me going. Not only that, but when you see so much chaos and panic and agony around you, and you’re successful at creating value, it’s really rewarding. For me, I’m also just so passionate about the customer base in the community, and I love my team. I could never imagine myself not being with them. Keep in mind, this is coming from someone who’s also American. I could move to the US at any moment and decide not to deal with Lebanon’s crisis. I really love what we’re doing, and I believe that’s going to help Lebanon in the current situation. So I keep pushing, and running!.
Are there any personal goals or projects that you have for the near term?
Something that we’re interested in as an organization, and that also interests me as an individual, is the way remittances work. For a country like Lebanon, the majority of the young people live abroad, and send back on average $500 to their parents. Right now, this usually goes through Western Union or MoneyGram, which is a painful experience on both sides. I’m super interested in doing something closer to Venmo or PayPal, where someone in the US can just send money instantly to parents right here. I’m sure there’s underlying fees, right, because of international money transfer and all these things, and I’m sure it’s regulated, so we’re really researching the best way to do that.
When you look at yourself 15 years down the road, where do you hope to be?
15 years down the road, I really want to see the first unicorn in Lebanon. I don’t know if it’s us, I actually hope it is, and pretty confident that we’ll be somewhere really healthy one day. I want to see a large tech company based in Beirut. I like to use the example of Amazon. Amazon probably has a couple hundred thousand jobs in the US. If you put 100,000 jobs in a small country like Lebanon, the entire economy would be transformed. Right now. I am taking it upon myself to try to execute this. That’s something I aspire to do right is to build Lebanon’s first large organization, Lebanon’s first technology company, which can employ thousands, if not tens of thousands of people right here.
Ideally, this would have so many positive impacts. People will get job security and so much of the hardship wouldn’t be there. This company could really take charge of its community, and handle things like electricity, schooling, wages, etc.