Geek Express is a concept store that recently opened its doors in Beirut, Lebanon. In addition to carrying DIY electronics parts (and many of them from SparkFun), Geek Express also serves as a makerspace, holding workshops, classes, lectures, and more. It also houses a full-service coffee shop. By combining the convenience of a retail outlet, the creativity and community of a makerspace, and the social aspect of a coffee shop, Geek Express has created an oasis for geeks in the heart of Beirut
We recently sat down with Tarek Dajani, one of the founders of Geek Express to talk about his new venture, what inspired him to open it, and how he got where he is today. Check it out!
1. Can you tell us a little bit about Geek Express and what you guys do there?
Geek Express aims to inspire people to interact and socialize in a DIY environment. It is a makerspace for children and grown-ups alike to play and experiment with the latest products, tech gadgets and advanced technologies.
People usually connect, cooperate and exchange ideas primarily through online platforms. On the other hand, when it comes to exploration through physical fabrication, only select students at research-based institutes such as MIT get access to high-end equipment such as 3D printers, laser cutters, electronics milling machines and electronics assembly. This leaves a large portion of a very active community underserved and highlights, for us, a space for value creation.
The space is home for enthusiasts, practitioners and professionals to come experiment and create with all the uprising electronics. MakerBot 3D printers, SparkFun Electronics, littleBits, Arduinos and many others are available to encourage people to make and build their own designs, objects and circuits through easy to use kits.
The space hosts workshops, talks and demos for all ages, given by experts. The themes range from arts and crafts, to assembling electronic games, to hack-a-thons and robotics.
The space is divided into four sections: the gallery, the fabrications space, the workshop rooms and the coffee shop. The gallery showcases advanced technologies, books and gadgets. The workshop rooms host the many workshops and can also function as meeting rooms when needed.
In 2 months, we'll also be launching a full e-commerce platform targeting Lebanon and the Middle East with overnight delivery and a full inventory of DIY components and tech gadgets.
The space also has a growing collection of vintage tech items and collectables. To date, we have not decided if we are going to sell them or just display them.
2. What is your background in electronics and where did you get your start?
I studied Architecture at the American University of Beirut, worked for one year as an architect, then went to start a software and digital agency called Cleartag. I then went to Boston and got my M.Eng from MIT. I took many courses at the Media Lab and from that moment on, I fell in love with the world at the intersection of design, creativity, tinkering and technology. I consider myself to be an intermediate, self-taught electronics tinkerer. However, I have managed to surround myself with a great team of engineers and experts.
I decided to launch Geek Express after I realized, several years down the line, that I had already put all the ‘store’ pieces together without actually opening a store. The right space, time and inspiration converged several months ago to get things rolling.
3. What are your goals for the future of Geek Express?
We started operations in Beirut and anticipate logical growth into most cities with a high density of academic institutions and/or artistic activity, both in the Middle East and worldwide. The objective is to create a for-profit franchise concept, combining makerspace/think tank/coffee shop activities.
We also plan on using our retail outlet(s) and online outlet interchangeably to establish a solid service proposition in the Middle East.
Of course our ambition could extend to locations such as New York, San Francisco, London, Amsterdam and Paris, as these are excellent franchise rollout candidates.
4. How did you find out about SparkFun?
I first found out about SparkFun while taking course at MIT’s media lab. The initial codename of my store was openkits. I then opted for Geek Express as I felt it was more expressive :)
On a personal front, I also came across SparkFun through my connection with Ayah Bdeir, littleBits’ founder.
5. For lack of better phrasing, why did you open Geek Express? Why do you think it's important and what inspired you to do it when you did?
I opened Geek Express because I was primarily driven by a desire to have a space that fuses all the things that I am passionate about. My intuition told me that my passions are shared by many, and it would be great if, in a city like Beirut - where creativity overcomes obstruction, and innovation and perseverance are common traits - we had a space for serendipitous encounters and concretization of ideas.
When I decided to launch the concept, many friends and advisors asked me to take my time and plan it more thoroughly. My response was: This is the right moment, not because the market is ripe, not because the economy is flourishing, and most importantly, not because the demand was established, but simply because the moment felt right, the momentum was there, and the excitement was at its peak.
6. Feel free to tell me anything else you think might be interesting about you, your interest in electronics, or Geek Express.
As I was looking into past emails and documents, I came across an idea that I had submitted to the MIT business plan competition with a friend of mine at the media lab 3 years ago. It was for a geek lounge to be setup in Cambridge. The idea never came to fruition, however, 3 years down the line I am venturing on a very similar path, just thousands of miles away. I never planned to re-initiate the idea, and truth be told, had totally forgotten about that one-page executive summary hashed up in rush at the media lab lounge just a few minutes before the deadline.
7.Why do you think teaching electronics is important, and what type of response have you seen from this?
In Lebanon, we were always confronted with the obstacle of being far away from the action. Studying electrical engineering or attempting to innovate in the hardware field had implied prerequisites of either immigrating to the US or other parts of the world. We are simply too far away from where physical innovation happens.
However, with a world that is more and more connected and intertwined, we have within our reach an infinite list of possibilities. Therefore, teaching electronics leads to creative empowerment, and opens up numerous opportunities.
At this stage, people are interested but somewhat intimidated. Of course this is normal, as they feel that they are venturing into a "very technical" realm. Our real challenge is to demystify the subject as we go, and try as much as possible to combine fun, knowledge and social interaction.
Thanks for taking the time to talk with us Tarek, and best of luck with your new venture! Cheers!