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Henna: a modern twist to cultural inheritance

Real businesses start small. A 1+1=10 business plan is unreal, says Fathiya Ahmad of Heritage for Henna

Image Credit: REUTERS
Nisrine, a henna artist, decorates a customer's feet with a henna design, a popular tradition in the Gulf, as Muslims prepare to celebrate Eid al-Fitr in Dubai.
Gulf News

Fathiya Ahmad started Heritage for Henna (HH) in a small khaimeh (tent) in the lobby of Jumeirah Beach Hotel, Dubai, in 2002. Heritage for Henna has 28 locations across the Emirates and has done dip-stick testing of the concept in overseas markets for franchise expansion.

Why Henna as a business?

Henna as a cosmetic has existed in the region - from Rome to Arabia to India - as a part of our culture. A bridal Henna night is a tradition. Slowly the application of Henna was restricted to homes and beauty / specialized salons, and to people who knew about it. I sensed that this was limiting. I wanted to take Henna to people who do not normally experience it, and giving them an opportunity to see, apply, and experience it.

Why Henna and nothing else?

I felt that every other business needed money and education.

What was your friends’ reaction for HH?

Everyone told me that it will not work.

What inspired you to start a business?

As I look back my troubles motivated me. I had to take the responsibility of my three kids. This was a moment when I felt very alone. And I didn’t have any resources and or any unique skills. Survival and responsibility required me to earn money quickly.

Before my personal turning point I wanted to start a salon. But had not given it much thought. The intention began to take shape when I had to take responsibility for the family. Suddenly opening a salon required lots of money and was a risky choice; there were hundreds of salons. This is when I narrowed down the idea to Henna.

For 2 months I was roaming around, literally walking around, searching for ways to do this business. The idea never left me; it was always in my thoughts. In my mind I was imagining how the operation would look.

Next?

Even as an Emirati, Dubai, a city with dynamism, gives an opportunity to dream big. I used to visit Dubai every 6 months. Each time I saw new roads and buildings. Dubai Development and Investment Authority had just been launched. I called up the office of Mohammad Al Gergawi. They wanted details of what I wanted to do. I never expected a call back. But they called back and said that they were soon going to launch an SME initiative. I should await its launch in the paper.

I saw a photo of [His Highness] Shaikh Mohammad [Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai] in the newspaper launching Mohammad Bin Rashid Establishment (MBRE) of Young Business Leaders. I approached MBRE and told them I wanted to do Henna as a business. The customer service person looked at me. He didn’t want to say no, I think because I had my children with me. It was too small they said. I think they didn’t want to hurt me. They finally asked me to make a business plan.

I didn’t want to give up. I had spent 2 months in reaching the establishment. I spent another 3 months trying to convince them. I borrowed some money to make a business plan. It was very hard for me to make a plan. At that time I believed that I needed a business plan to make my dream into a reality. I then realized that I cannot wait for someone to do something for me. If someone else does it then it is not real. Whatever people told me about my idea was not close to what I had in my mind. Not even 1%. Everyone’s intention was good. They told me that the business would work if I started in a particular way. They told me what a good business plan should contain.

After this experience I looked within to guide myself. The real business I started alone.

When I approached MBRE with the plan, they again said no. They were looking for a business plan where 1+1=10. They wanted me to show 10. When outside people evaluate your business they want it to be 10. They will not accept a small business even if it has potential. Real businesses start small. In a 1+1=10 plan nothing is real.

First breakthrough?

I finally started the business as a trial. I wanted to put up a traditional tent for Henna in the lobby of a hotel. A manager of Jumeirah Beach Hotel liked the idea. He was willing to try it till we could come up with a different idea. I borrowed the money for the tent. I had no employees. I was living in Sharjah. I used to change 3 buses to reach the Jumeirah Hotel.

When did you know it would become a business?

In the first hour of startup. Even when I was doing the setup, I had a lurking fear, ‘This is traditional Henna. Will customers come?’

Once the tent opened I found that I had surplus cash every day in the evening. Other than the income, I engaged with customers. I sensed what they were feeling and what they wanted. There were occasions when customers would queue awaiting their turn. I recollect that first day it was 300, second day 700, third day 1000 and fourth day 2000. When I saw business improving on a daily basis I guessed that I could make my dream into a reality.

The first tent in Jumeirah Beach Hotel was 10 years ago during Ramadan. At the end of Ramadan I had some money left over after taking care of the initial investment for the tent. The money was just sufficient for my household expenses. I believed that Henna could be a business. I wanted to grow and I had nothing. I still needed money for my family. I was still uncertain. But honestly I had no other options. I couldn’t take up a job. I had dropped out of college after 2 years. My dream and what we were seeing happen in Dubai was still driving me.

Did you come back to MBRE?

I came back later. I had no option but to knock on doors to allow me to put a Henna tent. I got nearly 5 new locations – 1 mall and 4 hotels. It is then that I contacted Abdul Baset CEO MBRE. I showed him what I had done and the opportunity for more locations. And then he put the entire organization behind me.

How did you convince him?

I showed him numbers. The numbers were real. I didn’t have to convince him.

I think he knew that if he rejected the business, then the startup would collapse. He supported me even when as a policy they were looking for new innovative ideas. It took them a while to appreciate that it could be an old idea done in a different way.

How are you different as a person that you started a business?

I have had big shocks in my life. And I have responsibilities. Nothing else. I said to myself at each stage of my work, ‘No, I will never give up, or sit down.’ There is God and He will help me.’ I have always prayed to him, ‘You know everything. Help me.’ And until today He has supported me, at every moment.

How are you different from your friends?

I am more serious. People sometimes are not. And I work harder. Even today I am working very hard. I don’t take it easy.

I have learnt to manage a business. I have learnt the art of working with different nationalities. This experience is very important and valuable. Even if you put me in a new environment, and ask me to create a business, I think I can do it. I am focused. I had nothing when I started. Therefore I think I can do it again. An employee has everything that an entrepreneur has – money, house, clothes, etc. But an entrepreneur starts with nothing and creates everything.

How did you learn to price?

When I started I was charging Dh50-100. Pricing was influenced by our locations. Hotels helped us price. In a hotel customers on holiday were ok with Dh300-400. We have customers who spend Dh3,000.

How long did it take you to learn ‘business’?

I learnt how to manage money when MBRE gave me funds. I had Dh250,000 and I did not yet know how to build the business. I just had the idea and the desire. I was not smart. I started aggressively acquiring locations. I learnt how to negotiate rents, getting staff, training them, doing contracts, etc. In the past ten years I have opened and closed locations. If a location doesn’t work, we close it immediately.

Other developments you have done?

We cater to a foreign customer and have tried to internationalize Henna designs. 6-7 times in a month customers bring designs and ask our artists to reproduce them. We now have an in-house designer. We have added 2-3 additional colours to Henna practice.

When did you start taking a salary from the business?

The business is profitable. I just draw the money for my expenses, the reason I started the business. Everything is put for growth.

How many employees?

Nearly 65. Training staff is a challenge. Everyone knows application of Henna. Customer service and retail standards need improvement. I have been desirous of starting a Henna training school.

Other challenges?

Managing multiple locations and franchising. I manage the locations myself and my experience with franchising has not been good. Henna is a cash business. In the service business like Henna, if they don’t give a bill we can lose the money. What if a franchisee doesn’t show sales? And most of the value is in the location and staff. If I don’t control both, how will we make money?

Franchising in Kuwait failed. We started. The shop made money. The partner then decided to operate the business without us; they changed the name and continued the business. I lost my staff and with them the business knowledge.

 

Fact Box

Name: Fathiya Ahmad Othman

Education: 2 years of college.

Company: Heritage for Henna (http://heritageforhenna.com/ )

Year established: 2003

Startup investment/Current revenue: Dh60,000/Dh6 million

Tips for entrepreneurs

You are alone when you start the business. Be prepared to be lonely.

Be realistic. Businesses start small. Plans show 1+1=10. Don’t start believing that 1+1=10 will happen because it is a plan. It takes time.

Focus, focus, focus.

Be brave. Don’t give up.

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