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It’s a common thing for entrepreneurs to start up a business to solve a problem that they personally face, and that seems to have been exactly the route Oola Sports co-founder and CEO Haya Al Ghanim took when starting up her venture that offers women “loose-fitting and not revealing, yet contemporary and elegant sportswear.” According to Al Ghanim, her company’s activewear line is for women who are like her- passionate about staying healthy, but want to stay true to their individual values while doing so.
“It all came from my personal need,” she remembers. “I had the desire to enjoy the great outdoors, while staying in line with my values and culture. I love outdoors sports, and I wanted to be comfortable while exercising. Plus, I wanted friends to join me. If they can’t find the right clothes to exercise with me, they don’t even make it for an outdoor run, for example. The more I looked into ways to solve this challenge, the more I realized how big of a market it is. That led my partners, Amina [Ahmadi], Lilian [Barbosa], and I to work together on finding a solution, and we decided to launch Oola to provide more women with access to outdoor sports by providing modesty-inspired, loose-fitting activewear.”
Explaining the name of her company, Al Ghanim says, “In Arabic, oola means the first, the pioneer. We believe every woman is a pioneer in her own life, and our brand reflects this belief. Oola is a revolutionary brand that caters to the active woman who chooses to maintain an active, healthy lifestyle, while choosing to maintain her individual values. Our garments are made for the pioneer in you.”
And for what it’s worth, it certainly does seem like Oola Sports has been a pioneer in whatever it has set out to do so far. In less than a year, Oola has grown to be a brand that has achieved recognition in Qatar and the region, with the first batch of its activewear collection having hit the market in the last quarter of 2016. “We came together for a common goal– gearing up for the launch, accepting the challenge to be agile, and quick to act on a crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo with the teaser, ‘Oola Sportswear: Activewear That’s Got You Covered’ that was started in the beginning of October 2016. This experience reshaped my expectations of the new hires on the Oola team, and in the end, after 30 days on Indiegogo, we raised a total of US$33,790 from 115 backers. This was over and much beyond our expectation of $25,000.” At the same time, Oola decided to make it a priority to cater to the perspectives of a wide spectrum of customers.
Detailing her team’s journey with the feedback process, Al Ghanim says, “Entrepreneurs are often encouraged and constantly reminded, borderline nagged, to seek customers’ feedback. 2016 taught me that despite the constant reminder, when it’s time to make decisions, our default judgment is to go with our own preference.” In 2016, Oola developed a customer-centric product-development cycle by creating customer feedback groups for specific product lines, including swimwear and the abaya.
This intentional focus on customer feedback has propelled the team full-speed ahead with designing some of their most innovative pieces. In terms of manufacturing Oola’s various products, Al Ghanim says that when the company was exploring options in this space, they went to a trade fair in Germany that had suppliers and manufacturers from all over the world. After testing product development with various developers, the team decided to proceed with making its first collection in Taiwan, given the quality of production and the ethical standards of the factory. “We are now in the process of developing the second collection in Qatar,” Al Ghanim says.
Coincidentally, when Oola was being launched, that was when the burkini (the full-body swimwear worn by some Muslim women) ban was being implemented in France and other countries in Europe. When asked about it, Al Ghanim wasn’t approving of it, saying, “It’s a matter of personal preference, since covering up is not a symbol of one religion.” She adds that being modest is something that is commonly practiced among those of Islamic, Orthodox Judaic, Coptic Christian, or other religious faiths.
In addition to being modest or abiding by norms, regardless of religious prescriptions, Al Ghanim, while speaking to women during the fine-tuning process of her business model, says that she “heard from women who had just given birth and they are not comfortable with wearing fitted sportswear, until they lose the pregnancy weight. They were also looking for loose-fitting activewear, and it would be a shame to let clothes prevent them from enjoying an outdoor workout or a swim.” From Oola’s perspective though, Al Ghanim reveals that the company is indeed working on a swimwear line for its customers.
“For swimwear, we’re in the very early phases of gathering consumer feedback, and we’ve created a WhatsApp group chat, so that these women can share their key needs and insights about what they’re looking for in modest swimwear apparel,” she explains. “We’re excited that our group includes a businesswoman (who is very passionate about a specific fabric she’d like to see swimwear made with), a college student (who prefers modest swimwear, but is disheartened by the way current options drag in the water and pull her down), and an aspiring Olympic swimmer (who is training for a career in swimming, but who does not want to take off her head scarf to participate).”
Al Ghanim’s strategy for building up Oola’s swimwear line is characteristic of the company’s product development methodology. “It always begins with the customer,” she says. “And it includes the following steps: gather consumer feedback on key needs; sketch various ideas and ask for feedback on the ideas; build a prototype, based on key sketch feedback; have users test prototype and describe experience; integrate customer experience notes for final product design; and test production samples with larger customer base.” Given that she has such a clear-cut plan for how to go about building products for her enterprise, it seems pretty evident that Al Ghanim has a lot up her sleeve for Oola in 2017.
“The year 2016 was all about setting up. Between establishing our brand awareness, building the community, growing the core team, kicking off sales, fulfilling orders and developing new products, the ultimate focus of 2016 was to get things done. We often did this apart from one another with lots of work-from-home time and on-the-go madness. I envision more team time under one roof in 2017. Though remote work can be an effective way to give teammates more space to focus and deliver, nothing replaces the feeling of togetherness like working side by side with teammates.”
Speaking of additional products from the Oola stable, Al Ghanim mentions: swimwear, triathlon suits, horse riding outfits. But the overriding philosophy is to keep the door open for customers to tell Oola what they want to see next. “We will also continue to be involved in community building efforts to encourage more women to explore the beauty of outdoor activities,” she says. “We’re also on track for releasing collection 2 in the spring of 2017, with your favorite colors and most desired sizes!”
Operating out of the Qatar Business Incubation Center’s (QBIC) premises since October 2016, Al Ghanim says that she is grateful for the added support she has for her enterprise today. “We feel like our Oola family grew and extended to include many more supportive QBIC staff looking after our success, and fellow entrepreneurs sharing their experience with us and even exploring partnership opportunities.” She adds that Qatar Foundation has also taken part in equipping the Oola team with the educational tools and encouragement that they needed to pursue their dreams.
When asked about her wish list in terms of requests to the Government of Qatar, Al Ghanim says, “What I believe would add value to government and businesses is to bridge the gap between businesses and innovative solutions being built in the labs. This type of public-private partnerships, if supported by the right policies, can result in even more competitive businesses and better reach of research outcomes in the market.” We agree with Al Ghanim on that front- and we certainly hope the changes she wants helps out Oola in the long run. Onward and upward!
HAYA AL GHANIM, CO-FOUNDER AND CEO, OOLA SPORTS
How important do you think is it for entrepreneurs to find the right professional partner in carving out success?
“Finding the right partner is as important as finding the right spouse. For an early-stage company, it’s critical to build it on the right foundation of values, common understanding, similar work ethics and equal passion. Having the right partner not only helps in building the strong foundation a company needs, it also makes it much more enjoyable. That also applies to the early hires, not just the founders. I’m grateful for the wonderful cofounders and core team we work with for making the Oola journey enjoyable.”
What would you tell an aspiring businesswoman in the region to be prepared for before she ventures on her own?
“Businessmen and businesswomen alike need to be prepared for the ups and downs of an early-stage business. I make sure we celebrate Oola’s achievements as a team to remind ourselves of how lucky we are to have each other and accomplish so much. This makes it easier to get through difficult days for sure.”
What have been your biggest lessons from your journey with Oola so far?
“The crowdfunding campaign has raised my bar for new hires. Going forward, for 2017 onwards, we will be looking for new team members to join us, only if they can have the same agility, responsiveness and selfless giving of quality work for the overall betterment of the team and Oola. Secondly, our goal for 2017 and onwards is to not only continue to be good listeners to our customers’ needs, but also when it’s time to make decisions, we would refer to their valuable insights. That’s our priority, and a determining factor in making decisions.”
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