Scaling Up From The Middle East: Mona Kattan, Sima Ved, and Kunal Kapoor Explain How At Dtec Forum

This year's second edition of the Dtec Forum, powered by Entrepreneur Middle East, focused on building impactful businesses out of the Middle East
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Against the backdrop of the Uber-Careem acquisition, the startup to scale-up journey has undeniably become the talk of the town in Dubai, and, indeed, the wider Middle East region as well. As such, with the theme, Built To Win: Scaling Up From The Middle East, this year’s second edition of the Dtec Forum, powered by Entrepreneur Middle East, saw a stellar cast of speakers, including Mona Kattan, co-founder and Global President, Huda Beauty, Sima Ved, founder and Vice Chairperson, Apparel Group, and Kunal Kapoor, founder and CEO, The Luxury Closet.

Kicking off the event, which happened in June at the Dubai Technology Entrepreneurship Campus (Dtec) in Dubai Silicon Oasis, was William Chappell, Chief Financial Officer and EVP - Technology and Entrepreneurship, Dubai Silicon Oasis Authority, who, while noting the speakers’ industry acumen, also drew attention to the potential of e-commerce in the region, which currently enjoys a compound annual growth rate of 25%, with its net worth forecasted to peak at US$28.5 billion by 2022.

William Chappell, Chief Financial Officer and EVP - Technology and Entrepreneurship, Dubai Silicon Oasis Authority.
Source: Entrepreneur Middle East

Stealing the limelight at the event was a fireside chat on Building A Global Brand In The Digital Age with Mona Kattan, who, along with Huda Kattan, built the Dubai-born beauty empire, Huda Beauty, which is currently valued at $1 billion. Walking down memory lane, Kattan shared how, in 2010, her sister, Huda, quit her job in finance to train as a professional make-up artist in Los Angeles, and also start her own beauty blog, which eventually garnered attention for sharing genuine tips and not having any paid advertisements. Today, Huda Kattan ranks 36 on Forbes’ America’s Richest Self- Made Women list, which also states her net worth to be $610 million. “We never started with the aim of making money, but we knew we had a mission of building a brand that resonated with people,” Kattan said. “When Huda started, there were no Middle Eastern bloggers, and it was this gap that she was trying to fill.”

Related: Huda Beauty's Huda and Mona Kattan Share Tips For 'Treps At SharjahEF 2018

Today, the Huda Beauty brand is a multiple award-winning venture- the brand boasts of an Instagram fan-following of about 38 million, as well as a Facebook Watch show called Huda Boss. On how, in today’s social media buzz, an influencer’s voice could cut through the noise, Mona Kattan pointed out that being an influencer is a full-time job, and that content is a priority. “Being honest helps in being human, so share your struggles,” she said, stressing the importance of building a connection with the followers, to value their feedback. In 2013, the Kattan sisters launched their beauty line, having realized the false lashes that Huda Kattan had been making and wearing were garnering a lot of interest in their social circle. But Kattan remembers how launching this product faced severe delays, mainly because it was an ordeal convincing the requisite stakeholders in the UAE, who were so allured by Western brands, that a Middle Eastern product could be equally successful. Although Kattan noted it was their dream to be the Estee Lauder of the region, she added, “We were sure that we would not be launching something that everybody else was doing. There was no point in being another me-too brand, when we knew our product was unique.”

A fireside chat on "Building A Global Brand In The Digital Age" with Mona Kattan, co-founder and Global President, Huda Beauty.
Source: Entrepreneur Middle East

Expanding on their startup challenges, Kattan remembered how, at one point, they had been ready to launch a new concealer under the Huda Beauty, only to later realize that the formula was not exactly what they wanted. Despite having spent a fortune on product development, the sisters decided to halt their production, and further apologized to their suppliers and distributors. “Often, when things are going downhill, founders don't reveal it to investors, but surprisingly, having open conversations can be the way out,” Kattan said. “We told our investors that we couldn't go ahead, and that we wanted to cancel the product. We wanted to get the formula right. It was tough, but that's how trust builds up.”

Source: Entrepreneur Middle East

When asked about the burning question of maintaining positive cash flow as a startup, Kattan reflected on how difficult it was for the sisters to weigh on whether they should agree to an acquisition by a big name or venture into a merger, both of which were supposed to help them grow, or whether they remain independent and regain full control. Eventually, the sisters agreed to sell a minority stake to private equity. Kattan regarded it as the best decision they could have made. “They were the best mentors you could ask for,” she said. “Private equity and acquisition bring guidance; however, sometimes entrepreneurs sell too much, then you lose what you created, so it’s better to sell minority stakes early on.’’ Wrapping her thoughts on this subjected, she added, "My advice to those thinking of entrepreneurship is please don’t start a business if it’s not your real passion. It’s just not worth the time and effort. There are so many other ways to make money, so do what truly speaks to your soul.”

Source: Entrepreneur Middle East

Talking about the transition from being self-employed to a 70+ team, Kattan confessed that hiring people who knew more than them, especially in senior positions, was intimidating during the early days of Huda Beauty. Furthermore, she recalled how time-consuming recruiting by oneself could be, and how expensive recruitment agencies could get, suggesting that having a good internal HR was a better option. “First, make sure to choose people who have different strengths to you, and never recruit those who think the way you do, because you will just be duplicating yourself,” Kattan said. “Second, if you treat an employee as a partner, they will behave as a partner. Otherwise, why should the millennial generation, who all can be easily self-employed, choose to work for you? However, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be tough on yourself and your people. Third, don’t hire if it’s an urgency to fill positions- you will end up firing them, and you will be wasting money, and tarnishing your image. Finally, choose the ones who have the right attitude- skills can still be taught.’’

In the ensuing panel discussion, titled Built To Win: Scaling Up From The Middle East, Kattan was joined on stage by Ved and Kapoor, who both agreed that founders often fell prey to tunnel vision, because of their own obsession with their ideas which would prevent them from anticipating and even accepting problems. In Kapoor’s words, as much as it was important to have a founder to pursue an idea relentlessly, it was important that someone else, perhaps a co-founder, to be there for a mid-way correction. Ved agreed, saying that her husband played this role, while Kattan considered her sister as a good kind of rebel. Another talking point related to the impostor syndrome, with both women talking about a moment when they had reached burnout, and thus needed to cultivate hobbies and remain social with friends and family. Ved commented, “In all honesty, when you hear entrepreneurs having a work-life balance, what they mean is that they work 93% of the time, but find that 7% to still catch up on things.’’

The event featured a panel discussion with Mona Kattan, co-founder and Global President, Huda Beauty, Sima Ved, founder and Vice Chairperson, Apparel Group, and Kunal Kapoor, founder and CEO, The Luxury Closet. 
Source: Entrepreneur Middle East

Talking about relationship building, both internally and externally, Ved, who looks over 15,000 employees spread across 2,000 stores in about 14 countries, pointed out how crucial it was for her not just to create a healthy work culture for employees, but also to forge strong relationships with other partners. Ved noted how, when Aldo came on board as a brand under the Apparel Group, the company was so inspired by their Canadian office culture that they quickly embraced Aldo's practices in their office in Dubai. Similarly, she said, a Ramadan-inspired campaign designed by Apparel for the MENA region was adopted by their Canadian counterpart. “Good partnerships are important,” Ved said. “And you shouldn't just complement each other, but also supplement each other.” The Luxury Closet’s Kapoor added, “People ask us if we are a family working together. And I am, like, no way- we are a professional sports team. As a family, we used to only chit-chat, and not get any work done.” Resonating similar thoughts, Ved said, “We look for people who are as hungry as we are, and who will be rewarded for their work ethicbut we let them know that we are not Disneyland.” Busting other entrepreneurship-related myths, Kapoor painted an interesting analogy of the Burj Khalifa to demystify the two popular mindsets- “go with the flow” vs. “think big.” Kapoor said that if one were to build the tallest tower in the world, like that of the Burj Khalifa, one couldn't build the first five floors, and, years later, decide to build the next five, and so on. Building an empire required mapping a big vision, but for startups, Kapoor said, a step-by-step evolution worked better. In conclusion, he opined that luxury brands interested in growing more needed to shift away from building a minimum viable product to a “most loveable product” instead. When the conversation turned to recounting their worst nightmares as entrepreneurs, Ved remembered a situation wherein, owing to Apparel’s ownership of many stores in each of the malls in Dubai, this required them to open every single store on time, and as scheduled. At one point, she explained, they had to open a store in just 17 days. “The middle name of our company would be pressure,” Ved said. "Since we have 20 to 30 stores in each mall, we are their anchor partner, the malls trust us, so when our store isn't able to open on time, there must be a really important reason for that.”

On his part, Kapoor stressed the importance of failing fast, describing how his team decided to opt for influencer marketing over paid ads. However, when the obvious path of reaching out to megainfluencers had failed, The Luxury Closet team decided to try targeting micro and macroinfluencers, but that also led to no avail. In the end, Kapoor said, he thought of approaching different kinds of influencers, but not even that worked out, and that’s when he resorted to digital marketing- and that paid the dividends he was looking for. The lesson from this whole exercise: “Entrepreneurship is no one-size-fits-all formula,” Kapoor declared.

L-R: Mona Kattan, co-founder and Global President, Huda Beauty, Sima Ved, founder and Vice Chairperson, Apparel Group, and Kunal Kapoor, founder and CEO, The Luxury Closet
Source: Entrepreneur Middle East

The final few minutes of this instalment of the Dtec Forum were marked with a few important announcements- Kattan announced that the Kattan family would be opening an angel fund for newcomers in the beauty industry, while Ved said that she had decided to take the matter of the fashion industry’s pollution problem in her own hands by launching a CSR policy that forbids the use of plastics by any of their brands. In conclusion, the panelists shared how their “why” for starting a business had changed from when they started off. “We did it because we were truly passionate about beauty,” Kattan said. “When we started, we didn’t even take any salary. All we wanted to do was to create what we love, but when our office expanded to 11,000 sq.m., and we had been hearing from investors, we realized that it was quite serious, and that we were impacting people’s careers. It was so much bigger than ourselves.’’ In contrast, Ved said, “I wish I could say that we had this beautiful vision, but initially, it was only about survival, to make enough money for our family. And now, with 25 years of our growth behind us, we consider ourselves to be in a position of having a global impact. With our 15,000 employees, we can perpetuate the message of the world that we want to see, and that’s our why now.’’ Kunal added, “For us, it was not the why but, the size of that why that has changed. We wanted to make a mark globally. And voila, we did it!’’

Related: 2019's First Dtec Forum Powered By Entrepreneur Middle East Focuses On Using PR To Grow Your Business

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