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Packaging Happiness: The Happy Box Founder Jumana Al Darwish Reflects On 10 Years Of Being An Entrepreneur "I look back at this journey of growth, and I'm like, 'Wow.' This is a dream, a leap of faith, which has materialized into a potential legacy."

By Aby Sam Thomas

You're reading Entrepreneur Middle East, an international franchise of Entrepreneur Media.

The Happy Box
Jumana Al Darwish, founder, The Happy Box

"Oh my God, it's like a dream!" This is what Jumana Al Darwish animatedly exclaimed when I asked her how she feels about the fact that her UAE-founded enterprise, The Happy Box, completes a decade in business in May this year. Now, this response is quite on-brand for this UAE-based entrepreneur, given that she has an incredibly buoyant personality- in fact, it's my belief that anyone who has ever met Al Darwish can testify to the abundant joyfulness that seemingly radiates out of her. But don't let her cheerful demeanor fool you into thinking that Al Darwish must have had an easy time running The Happy Box over the last 10 years- on the contrary, it has been quite a topsy-turvy ride, as she shares with me over the course of an hour-long chat.

However, Al Darwish does not wish to wallow in the lows of the journey- instead, she wants to celebrate what she calls the privilege of just being able to be an entrepreneur. "I'm so grateful," Al Darwish says. "I'm so grateful for all the learning. I look back at this journey of growth, and I'm like, 'Wow.' This is a dream, a leap of faith, which has materialized into a potential legacy."

Al Darwish's foray into entrepreneurship happened in 2014, which was two years after she had given birth to her daughter, Ayla. She had, until then, been working with government initiatives in both her native Jordan and the UAE- notably, the latter tenure had seen her play a vital role in the development of Dubai Cares, a philanthropic organization that's a part of Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Global Initiatives. Al Darwish says that she has fond memories of her career prior to becoming an entrepreneur, but she also remembers feeling like she wanted to do more than what she was doing then. "I was, like, 32 at the time; I had become a new mom at 30," she says. "And I just felt like, well, what's next for Jumana?"

And it was as Al Darwish pondered on thoughts like these that she stumbled upon an entrepreneurial opportunity. As a working mum in the UAE, Al Darwish had been feeling that she was "missing moments in time" with her daughter. But when attempting to rectify this and secure quality time with her child, she soon came to realize that there was a gap in the market for products or services that facilitated or encouraged family bonding.

It was then that she -along with her US-based sister-in-law, Linda Al Darwish- decided to bring to the UAE the concept of "edutaining" activity boxes for kids, which were quite prevalent in North America at the time. While the basic idea was that these boxes would allow for children and their parents to come together and be engaged in a number of fun-filled activities, Al Darwish essentially "elevated the concept, customized it, made it more personable, and made it more to be of a, let's say, quality that is really reflective of basically what consumers in the UAE look for."

She went on to call her fledgling business The Happy Box- a name that was indicative of the value it brought to its customers. "The target audience was specifically parents that were working that wanted something different for their kids, for them to do something that was educational and fun, but to also create these pockets of happiness," Al Darwish explains. "So, essentially, I found a way to package happiness!"

Jumana Al Darwish, founder, The Happy Box. Source: The Happy Box

The Happy Box had its products priced at about AED260 a pop (which, by the way, remains its cost to this day), with each containing around eight fun activities centered on a particular theme- The Happy Party Animal Box, for instance, aims to celebrate the role animals play in our lives, while The Happy Art Appreciation Box introduces children to the wonders of abstract art. Such offerings hit a chord with parents in the UAE, and The Happy Box soon found its popularity growing, aided by both word-of-mouth and digital media marketing techniques. The self-funded business also expanded beyond the UAE within the same year- Al Darwish made use of a franchise model to pilot The Happy Box in Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia. Kuwait proved to be a very good market for The Happy Box's offerings, and the company continues to have a strong presence there to this day. Oman, however, had a very small demographic for The Happy Box to target, and so, it wound up its operations there after realizing growth in that market would be hard to realize.

Meanwhile, The Happy Box opened up its doors to a promising start in in Qatar, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia; however, they eventually closed owing to reasons ranging from geopolitical tensions, to simply the challenges of scale. "All those offices were basically trials for us in terms of franchising," Al Darwish says. "And it was a great learning experience, don't get me wrong; it was phenomenal. And I really attribute it to the support of all of the franchisees, who I'm still very good friends with, as they were our first followers, or first believers, in the concept, which, I think, is really important. So, they really helped validate the concept, and they really helped us try and see what works best in what territory."

The Happy Box launched with a subscription-based business model; however, Al Darwish soon found that customers simply preferred to have the choice to buy a product from the enterprise every month, as opposed to being beholden to it. ("We have commitment issues!" Al Darwish laughs.) At the same time, The Happy Box also started to work with clients in the luxury and fashion spaces to aid their marketing efforts for their kids-centric products. "We work with some of the biggest brands globally; think Dolce and Gabbana, Givenchy, Harvey Nichols, Al-Futtaim Group," Al Darwish reveals. "We've been very, very lucky with the level of brands that we work with. We're able to cater to their clients through our workshops, and helping them realize their marketing return on investment. So, that was a very smart way of how we innovated our model."

All of these efforts soon bore fruit, with The Happy Box breaking even as a business three years down the line, and that was also when Al Darwish unveiled a partner concept called The Happy Studio, a pop art community space in Dubai's Alserkal Avenue neighborhood that can stage everything from arts and crafts workshops, to themed birthday parties. The space also became home to the production facility for The Happy Box- while the business had its products initially made in the US, Al Darwish found that she could cut a lot in costs were she to produce them locally, and that's exactly what she did.

Besides sourcing locally, Al Darwish also sought out talent in the same manner- and her background in social development and philanthropy informed her efforts in this regard. "I started looking for women who were artisans, but were unfortunately in the service sector, and didn't have really, let's say, the educational skills or the opportunities to grow," she recalls. "And what I did was I hired them, gave them much better offers than what they would normally have, and I trained them. And so, our production facility became run by these amazing women who are migrant workers that were in the service sector, and now, all of a sudden, had extensive training and development that allowed them to be very creative, and do things with their hands. That was what The Happy Box gave them- it gave them an opportunity to use that talent, to shine, and to grow."

Related: For The Love Of Shoes: How Sophia Webster Built Her Eponymous Luxury Accessories Brand

Around this time, Al Darwish had also graduated into being the singular entrepreneur driving The Happy Box, having dissolved -on good terms though- the co-founder model that she had with her sister-in-law when the company launched. The Happy Studio also grew in popularity in the years after it came into being, with new products and services being drawn up for it, and Al Darwish also remembers being on a hiring spree. But all of that had to be paused when the COVID-19 crisis hit in 2020- today, Al Darwish likens it to having been a Black Swan event for her business; yet, in hindsight, she also recognizes the many lessons the period afforded her as an entrepreneur.

"I think the COVID-19 crisis was a period of realization for me," she says. "It made me take a step back, really reassess my business, and figure out how to make it leaner. Because when you're cash-positive, the dividends you make, you end up putting them back into the company, and you're then expanding further, buying more, and doing this and that. But then, when the COVID-19 crisis hit, that was the moment where I was like, wow, I really need to reassess a lot of the work that we do. How can we make it leaner? How can we work on a more outsourced model instead of having full-time personnel all the time? How can we rely more on our networks?"

Asking questions like these is thus what allowed Al Darwish to keep The Happy Box and The Happy Studio running amid a rather tumultuous time for business- she pulled back on the services side of her offerings, and, instead, capitalized on the products they offered. Innovation became the name of the game- Al Darwish now chuckles as she recalls the arts-andcrafts workshops she and her team conducted over Zoom. Keeping things lean also became the order of the day- layoffs had to be done, but as Al Darwish noted in an article for Entrepreneur Middle East at the time, "it is always hard to let team members that you invested in go, but a crisis calls for thick skin, and tough decisions to be made."

Jumana Al Darwish, founder, The Happy Box. Source: The Happy Box

Such measures did help her to get the business through this period though, and today, the entrepreneur is glad to see her business come into its own again. "After the COVID-19 crisis passed, we started rebuilding," Al Darwish says. "It was as if we were starting all over again… But we started to rebuild, and being gradual and effective about it all, being smart with our time and effort, and really pushing hard on our partnerships… And today, three years later, touchwood, we're back to being cash-positive, which is really amazing."

Al Darwish says that today, 60% of her revenue comes from the events and brand partnerships that she stages under the banner of The Happy Studio, with the remaining credited to The Happy Box's products. Now, the argument could be made that Al Darwish should perhaps focus more on the events side of the business; however, she makes it clear that The Happy Box shall always remain an integral element of her entrepreneurial endeavor. "We know what gives us the most income, but we also have to remain true to our story, which stems from The Happy Box," Al Darwish says. "I think that without The Happy Box, we would not be existing- we would perhaps have just been any other type of event company. And that's amazing for companies who want to be just that, but that's not our story."

And just as focused as Al Darwish is about the values that govern her business, the entrepreneur is also emphatic about the importance of always innovating and remaining relevant to the needs and demands of the market at large. "I think there is no one winning formula," Al Darwish says. "I think that you have to consistently develop along the way, and you have to constantly refine your products. So, say, we had bestsellers, let's say seven or eight years ago- we still have them now, but we've refined them to make them even better. You have to do things like that. You have to stay relevant you're in a sea of red ocean of competition, and so, if you don't, you will get wiped out from the market."

For her part though, al darwish is making sure that her business continues to stay in vogue and develops further, with her immediate growth agenda including an expansion in Kuwait (The Happy Studio has yet to make its entry there), and a reintroduction of sorts for both her brands in Saudi Arabia. Al Darwish aims to move slowly on both of these fronts; however, she admits that she's been considering soliciting venture capital to back her ambitions.

Meanwhile, Al Darwish is also pursuing a master's degree in entrepreneurship from the University of Cambridge in the UK, where she has been exploring the gender tech gap in the world at large-, her latest entrepreneurial venture that addresses this topic, is in the works as well.

As such, all signs point to Al Darwish continuing to be wearing an entrepreneurial hat for the foreseeable long term, and while she definitely has goals that she'd like to realize, she is happy to simply just be on this ride all the same. "I think I love the journey of growth," Al Darwish says. "I am not the person that feels like, okay, if I reach this milestone, that's it for me. No, I am really eager to keep learning, and to keep growing. And I love that about life, and I love that about us simply being able to do that- we're so lucky that we are in an ecosystem where we can learn, where we can create, where we can build. And so, no, I don't think I would retire, or take a step back, and say, okay, I'm done, my life's mission is done- no. I think that this is only the beginning, I think that the last 10 years were trial and error and learning, and I think that there's still so much more to be done from my side."

'Trep Talk: Jumana Al Darwish shares four key lessons learnt after having run The Happy Box for a decade

As an entrepreneur, you need to be fueled by passion "If you're passionate about what you're doing, it will be a success- no matter what."

Find (and keep) the right people around you "I know it sounds cliche, and I know so many people say this all the time, but really, your business's success boils down to the talent you have onboard."

Always be attuned to the needs of your customers "You have to learn to be actually relevant to your market, to be able to act fast and smart enough when you have to, and to also have the flexibility and the strength to pivot at times."

Money matters "I can't stress enough how important it is to be cash flow-positive."

Related: Follow The Leader: Salama Mohamed, Founder, Peacefull

Aby Sam Thomas

Entrepreneur Staff

Editor in Chief, Entrepreneur Middle East

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.  

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