Serial Entrepreneur Samer Hamadeh Explains Why It's All About The Endgame
The founder of Akiba Dori shares the why, what and how for his quest for agency and independence.
I often like to ask the entrepreneurs that I interview about the endgame they have in mind for themselves, as in, what’s the target they are aiming to personally hit by launching and running the businesses that they do. And for Samer Hamadeh, the founder of Dubai-born F&B concept Akiba Dori, the answer to that question was that he aspires to reach a point in his life where he is able to -wait for it- “do nothing.”
I’ll admit to being taken aback by Hamadeh’s reply at first, but when I pondered on it for a moment or two, his goal made perfect sense to me. Most of the entrepreneurs to whom I’ve asked this query to have told me that their objective is to make a lot of money that they can then use to feed their materialistic desires, but in Hamadeh’s case, he’s clear that wealth, per se, isn’t a driver for him- as he put it: “As long as I’ve got the cash to do what I want to do, I don’t care how much of it I have.” As such, Hamadeh’s motivations as an entrepreneur thus seem to be centered on this vision of his endeavors allowing him to be free to do whatever catches his fancy at any given point in time, which may be, say, an entirely new creative undertaking, or, heck, to simply “do nothing.”
“I don’t think I have a specific driver other than the idea of having complete ownership of my time,” he tells me, over the course of a lunch at Akiba Dori’s flagship location in Dubai Design District. “Some people say that their ultimate goal is to have US$10 million in their bank account, have a house here, have a house there, and that’s it. When it comes to me, it’s like, take that, and make it ‘time’- so, my ultimate goal is to have what I do with my day, what I do at, say, 2pm on a Wednesday, be my decision, and mine alone. As long as that continues to be the case, that’s what keeps me going. And I will do whatever I need to do to keep that lifestyle going.”
Source: Akiba Dori
It’s a simple enough ideology, and it’s one that he says has governed his career for as long as he can remember. Indeed, one of the first jobs he took following his graduation from the American University of Beirut in Lebanon was as a production assistant for the Hollywood movie, Syriana, as it was being filmed in the UAE in 2004. While Hamadeh declares his time working on this George Clooney-starrer as having been “one of the most fun experiences” he’s had in life, he also remembers his father -a corporate exec- admonishing him for taking on this job in the first place. After Syriana, Hamadeh started working at the Dubai offices of creative advertising agency Impact BBDO, where he soon found big accounts like that of Dubai Holding falling under his purview. And while Hamadeh’s father looked at this career move of his in a much more favorable light, that joy proved short-lived- Hamadeh ended up resigning from Impact BBDO before he even finished a year at the company. “The reason I decided to quit was because I heard somebody say something that made me think that someone else owns me at that point,” Hamadeh recalls. “They own my time, they can tell me what to do, they can tell me what not to do… That invoked a sort of fear in me- I didn’t want to feel like that. And so, I quit.”
Hamadeh’s resignation then caught the attention of Impact BBDO founder Alain Khouri, who was the company’s Chairman at the time, and remains someone that he tremendously respects. “Khouri calls me to his office, and he says, and I’m quoting, ‘I bothered to learn your name- you’ve been here only a few months, you’re a junior, where are you going?’ And I replied, ‘I want to do my own thing; I don’t want to do this anymore.’ And he’s like, ‘Why? You are on a good career path here, why would you want to leave?’ To that, I said, ‘Well, are you ever going to make me a Partner here?’” Khouri started laughing at this point, Hamadeh says- after all, he had been working at Impact BBDO for not even a full year then. “And he’s like, ‘Don’t be like one of those Lebanese cowboys.’ But I said to Khouri, ‘I’m not; I’m just asking you a question. People have different ambitions, right? My ambition is to own a company, or be a Partner in a company- that’s where I want to go. So, is that going to happen for me here?’ And Khouri looked at me as if I was being ridiculous.”
For someone who had only just started on his career trajectory, Hamadeh’s aspirations, and the speed with which he wanted to realize them, could have been perplexing for others to understand, and perhaps even misconstrued as arrogance, but it was actually just a rather honest showcase of his entrepreneurial bent of mind. “I wasn’t great as an employee, for sure,” Hamadeh declares. “I’m horrible as an employee- I don’t follow directions, I never took notes, I never did the reports that I was supposed to do, I never did any of that stuff. I didn’t know what the hell I was doing; I was kind of just winging it. But I kept the business going, and the clients liked me; however, from an agency perspective, I just didn’t see myself fit in that corporate structure, and I knew that I wanted out.”
And once Hamadeh came to the realization that he simply wasn’t cut out to be an employee, he started to look for a way to explore his entrepreneurial instincts- this is what resulted in him striking a deal with Dubai-based event management agency Chillout Productions, which would see him open up a corporate events arm for the business in exchange for a 50% stake in this new enterprise. And how’d that go? “Long story short, fast forward a year later, I think I made more money that first year for myself, than I would have done at 10 years at an agency,” Hamadeh reveals. “So, I was like, ‘I’m not ever going back to corporate.’”
Source: Akiba Dori
In his time at Chillout Productions, Hamadeh worked on a number of high-profile events in the UAE and the region (including the now defunct Dubai International Film Festival), and he found himself becoming a master in the art of creating experiences for peoplewhich came in handy in his next undertaking as an entrepreneur. Hamadeh was known among his friends as someone who had a knack for throwing great parties, which, at the end of the day, is all about making sure people have fun experiences in that particular setting. And Hamadeh’s skillsets in this domain is what got him the chance to do it on a day-to-day basis with guests at the One On One club at The Monarch Hotel in Dubai (now called The H Hotel) in 2010.
Hamadeh took over the space, invested in it, and livened it up, and while he got to work with it for only three months, One on One swiftly became known as one of the most happening places in Dubai then. “It was very successful,” Hamadeh recalls. “We used to have queues outside to the point where hotel security would be like, ‘You have to stop, you have to close it!’” One On One ended up becoming the stepping stone for Hamadeh’s next venture, Republique, a nightlife concept that launched in 2011 at The Address Dubai Mall hotel. With its retro music and unpretentious vibes, not only did Republique manage to implant itself in the list of Dubai’s most popular locations then, it was also one of the most profitable venues in town- as Hamadeh reveals: “This was a small, 4000 sq. foot space that was making over a million dollars a month.”
Republique closed in 2013 after the hotel in which it was housed attempted a renegotiation of the rent it paid- Hamadeh wasn’t a fan of the new terms being offered, and so, he decided to shutter the place down. A break from work followed (in Hamadeh’s words: “I did nothing for a year!”), and he made use of the time he had to travel and discover new cities around the world. But when he eventually returned to Dubai, Hamadeh found himself bored and itching to do something new again, and that’s what led him to launch a new club -Stereo Arcade- at the DoubleTree by Hilton hotel in Dubai’s Jumeirah Beach Road neighborhood in 2015.
The independent nightlife concept was a hit from the get-go, with its arcade-cum-bar-cum-club ethos easily finding favor with Dubai’s party crowd- it became one of those places that you absolutely had to go to when you were in the Emirate. But Stereo Arcade’s fortunes started to change in 2018, when the effects of the global economic recession that year began to make its impact felt in Dubai. “I saw everything fall off a cliff after summer 2018,” Hamadeh says. “I mean, you had a club that was making almost a million dollars a month, and then suddenly, it was making half a million. That was a problem, and that had nothing to do with the venue or the concept- it was a market issue.”
Source: Akiba Dori
Stereo Arcade went on to close in 2019, but by then, Hamadeh had already gotten started on his next entrepreneurial endeavor. Having played a founding role in the opening of the Dubai branch of the Beirut-born Couqley French Bistro & Bar in 2014, Hamadeh had been toying with idea of creating a concept that he could eventually franchise for quite a while now, and that essentially was the premise with which he launched his Japanese fusion restaurant Akiba Dori in Dubai in 2018. While Hamadeh admits Dubai had plenty of places presenting Japanese fare at the time, the offering stretched between two extremes- it was either super traditional, high-end restaurants (think Tomo at the Raffles Hotel in Dubai), or the cheaper, fast food-like concepts (think the Yo! Sushi chain eatery).
There was no middle ground, Hamadeh says, and so he created Akiba Dori to fill this void as an affordable, high-quality Japanese restaurant and bar located in Dubai Design District. And Hamadeh made sure Akiba Dori didn’t look like any other Japanese F&B concept out there- there’s none of the zen, earthy vibes one would typically associate with such a restaurant; instead, diners are treated to a kaleidoscopic interior that has references to Tokyo’s neon signs and street culture strewn about everywhere. “I wanted it to look like something that the social media generation wouldn’t get bored in,” Hamadeh says. “I like to call it a Japanese restaurant for people that have never been to Japan.”
Akiba Dori is thus yet another indication of Hamadeh’s penchant for building spaces that will create enjoyable experiences for people- but, this time, he’s built the concept in a way that it would work not just in Dubai, but in pretty much any other location around the world. “I wanted Akiba Dori to be something that I can sell to other cities, and so, I wanted it to be universal,” he explains. “And the way to do that is by creating a menu that everyone would like- and when I say everybody, I mean appeal to as many tastes as possible.” That thus explains Akiba Dori’s menu, which includes everything from sushi, to pizza, to cheesecake, and it’s therefore one that will almost certainly attract diners, regardless of where they may be located.
Of course, the proof of the pudding is in the eating, and that’s what Hamadeh is gunning for as he now gears up for an aggressive expansion phase for Akiba Dori. In the UAE, for instance, there are two new locations of Akiba Dori set to open in Dubai in the near future, alongside one at the Yas Bay development in Abu Dhabi. In the meantime, a Saudi Arabia franchise of Akiba Dori is already in the works in Jeddah, and Hamadeh reveals that plans are underway for locations in Bahrain and Egypt as well. Outside of the MENA region, Hamadeh says that he is exploring locations for Akiba Dori in Europe and the US- he also mentions that conversations are underway for a potential spot in Pakistan as well.
Source: Akiba Dori
Obviously, there’s a lot in the works for Akiba Dori, and Hamadeh seems to have his hands full as he attempts to make the enterprise a global phenomenon. “I know the potential of this brand- there’s nothing stopping Akiba Dori from being another Wagamama,” he says, using the example of the London-born global restaurant chain (also offering Asian food inspired by Japanese cuisine) that was acquired by The Restaurant Group in the UK for GBP559 million in 2018. At this point, Hamadeh also freely admits that he’s hoping for Akiba Dori to have a similar business trajectory like Wagamama. “At the end of the day, I’m building this brand to sell it,” he says. “I’m not building it to run it forever.” In fact, Hamadeh believes that he will be able to take Akiba Dori to where he aspires to see it, revenue-wise, in two years, which will also be when it becomes an especially attractive, healthy business for a potential buyer.
As for what he’d do once he realizes this sale, well, turn back to the beginning of this article, when Hamadeh outlined his vision for a future where he’d be able to “do nothing,” and spend his time in whichever manner he wishes to. “It took me about 12 years to get to a point where I have a brand I can franchise,” he says. “I will never do that again- I will not spend 12 years to get to a point where I can franchise or sell something. Now, I want to take all my knowledge and use it to find out what I can package and sell in, say, 18 months from now, and that’s what I’ll work on.”
As I come to the end of my conversation with Hamadeh, I find myself enthralled by the attitude he exhibits towards his life and work, which I like to describe as being so confident and brave that it runs the danger of being perceived as haughty or flippant. But there’s really nothing negative about Hamadeh’s aura; he has no airs and graces about him, he’s just remarkably sure about how he wants to live his life- in fact, he has a rather clear mantra or philosophy guiding all of his decisions he makes. “I’m a guy who always looks at the worst-case scenario,” he says. “In everything I’ve ever done, whether it’s personal or professional, if I cannot accept the worst-case scenario, then I won’t do it.”
But how does this principle of his work in an entrepreneurial setting? “As an entrepreneur, you have to be logical about what you do, and take emotion completely out of the equation,” he says. “For instance, if you work on something for, say, two years, and then at the end of that period, you’ve got nothing to show for it, would you be okay with that? If yes, then it’s something you should definitely go ahead with. But if you were to not succeed in this endeavor, and you’d think of yourself as a failure as a result, or if you’d never give it a go again, then, don’t do it. It’s not for you.” It’s a clear-cut formula that Hamadeh espouses, and it’s definitely something that has worked out well for him so far- and chances are that it will remain the case for whatever lies ahead for him as well. Here’s hoping!
Aby Sam Thomas is the Editor in Chief of Entrepreneur Middle East. In this role, Aby is responsible for leading the publication on its editorial front, while also working to build the brand and grow its presence across the MENA region through the development and execution of events and other programming, as well as through representation in conferences, media, etc.
Aby has been working in journalism since 2011, prior to which he was an analyst programmer with Accenture, where he worked with J. P. Morgan Chase's investment banking arm at offices in Mumbai, London, and New York. He holds a Master's Degree in Journalism from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in New York.