A number of young people in the region have been trying to start their own businesses using the available online platforms, including Facebook Image Credit: Supplied

Dubai: Two years ago Maya Zankoul decided to set up a blog, her own personal online space to post illustrations about everyday life in Lebanon.

She didn't imagine that two years later she would be preparing for the launch of the second volume of her very own illustrations, Amalgam.

Zankoul, who lives in Beirut and has a day job and freelance work on the side, said ultimately she would like to make a living through her blog, but she didn't see it happening any time soon.

"For example, it's hard to get an ad on your blog because they [people] are not internet oriented, but in the future I would love to ideally just live off my blog," Zankoul said.

But Zankoul is not the only one who wishes she could make money doing what she loves to do, with a personal blog and social media.

A number of young people in the region have been trying to start their own businesses using the available online platforms, including Facebook.

Today, Zankoul's blog Maya's Amalgam gets around 800 to 1,000 hits a day.

"It gives you a sense of responsibility. Now you think twice before posting something," she said.

Zankoul said her illustrations criticised Lebanese society and sometimes politics, with a good sense of humour.

Her first book came out just six months after her blog was launched.

"It's an interesting story actually," she said.

"My friends printed out the posts and turned them into a book for my birthday. I felt that if they had gone this far then I really should finish the book."

That was when Zankoul faced her first challenge, as she couldn't find a publisher who believed her book could sell.

"Eventually, I self-published it and it was among the top five books at Virgin Megastore [in Beirut]," she said.

Zankoul sold 1,000 copies of Amalgam.

This week Zankoul will launch her second book — with a lot more confidence. With 2,000 copies fresh off the printing press, Zankoul said she hoped to reach a broader audience this time.

"This time I want to try to have the book available for everyone. It will in the Gulf for sure," she said. "I'm trying to have it available on Amazon, but that's been a challenge."

Samer Karam, an entrepreneur and new media consultant also in Beirut, has been trying to build a business using online platforms.

Last year, Karam launched his "Cooki3man" business which he said was the first cookie-order service on Twitter in the Arab world.

It was basically to see if he could start a business without investing a lot of money and by using social media, he said.

Karam said the costs of launching the business were minimal.

Getting started

"I wanted to see if I could launch a business online via a social media platform," he said. "It was very successful."

Karam said he was selling more than 1,000 cookies a week and making a net profit of between half a dollar to a dollar for every cookie he sold.

"I was actually making very good money out of it, but I got out of it because I didn't have time for it and it was like an experiment," he said.

Karam said the Cooki3man was proof of how social media activity could grow a business.

In Lebanon not everyone has been successful using social media to the advantage of their business, Karam said.

"It's a new field and it's very experimental," he said. "Besides, you don't see an immediate return on your investment."

So most companies decided not to get into it, he said. However, the benefit was that through social media these companies had a chance to reach channels they didn't normally have access to.

"It's not a direct measurement," he said.

Karam is also an active blogger. He runs Blogging Beirut, a citizens' photojournalism website.

He said he set up the blog when he was in the US in 2004.

"I was in the States and I felt the need to connect back with my home country to try and re-engage with the local community, and this was before the social media revolution," Karam said.

Today, Blogging Beirut is among the most visited blogs in Lebanon. In the summer of 2006, during the Lebanon war, the website notched up to 420,000 hits a day and it was featured on mainstream media outlets, Karam said.

Online advertising

While he didn't making a living out of blogging, Karam said that it could be done.

But in this region, it was still difficult unless the blog attracted advertising or business-paid content.

"Let's say Coca Cola wants to feature a post about Coca Cola, so they'd pay me to put that post online," he said.

Karam's blog carries space where Google runs its own advertisements.

"It generates just enough [money] — approximately $200 a month just to keep the blog running," he said.

Communications specialist and Spot On Public Relations group account director Alexander McNabb said: "The business benefits of a blog are usually reputational and of significant value if you have a blog that is focused on your core area of competency".

However, it all boiled down to what the blogger wants — blogging for hard cash or blogging to attract audiences, he said.

McNabb agreed that bloggers could make money by allocating space for Google advertising.

The more hits a blog received the more money Google paid the blogger for the ad space.

Having a banner ad on your blog could bring in more money for the blogger, who needed a larger readership to attract banner advertising in the first place.

Bloggers could also make money from selling ancillary products and services.

For example, Australia's MumBrella, described as a professional marketing blog, uses its readership and reputation to drive a number of events.

McNabb said MumBrella made money from the events, but the blog was what makes those events worth attending.

It was also what brought the audience to those events, he said.


Zankoul said although it seemed easy to have a blog, it could be challenging in Lebanon.

"In Lebanon you have to work double and triple because you have to work around the slow connection and around the absence of Amazon," she said.

"I have to follow everything to the very last detail," she said. "But I learn a lot in the process."

Rana Ashour, who lives in Dubai, said she started her own online business by setting up a Facebook page. Her business is in creative designs and gift ideas.

"Ever since I was a kid, I used to arrange interesting gifts for my friends," Ashour told Gulf News.

"I always wanted to do that." Ashour said that although she'd been making a fair amount of money from her online business, a Facebook page was not enough.

"It helps a little bit, but whenever you put a product out, it's the same audience," she said.

Ashour said she saw potential in her business idea, but didn't know how to take it forward. "I don't have a plan, but I definitely want to expand it. I was thinking of taking a course on how to expand your business," she said.

Similarly, Dubai resident Jihad Mnasria, creator of Mnasria Jewlz, has started a hand-made jewellery and accessories business she publicises on Facebook.

Mnasria said she had sold her jewellery at markets in Dubai but taking the next business step had been very tough.

"I can't do it on my own. I need outside help," she said. At 25, Mnsaria said although her jewellery business didn't make enough money for her to turn it into a career, she had faith in its potential in the long run.

"In the meantime, word of mouth is the number key," she said.

Featured blogs

The URLs for the featured websites in this article:

Maya's Amalgam: www.mayazankoul.com
Blogging Beirut: www.bloggingbeirut.com
MumBrella: http://mumbrella.com.au
Cooki3man: www.cooki3man.com