Zeina Abdalla likes to see people smile. In fact, getting people to let their hair down and have fun is what her business is all about. “I’ve always had the entrepreneurial spirit in me – even when I was a kid,’’ says the 29-year-old CEO of Fishfayce, a Dubai-based digital photo booth company with branches in Qatar and Kuwait. Not bad for someone who came up with the idea for her business two years ago almost by accident. She wanted a way to make her wedding day memorable for her guests as well as her and her husband Ali Hashemi.
“I had heard of photo booths and fun photography in the West, where guests enjoy taking their own pictures with outlandish props,” she says. “The images not only leave pleasant memories, but also makes everyone laugh at the event, as they can be displayed on screens instantly.’’ Unable to find anything like that here, she decided to launch her own. The photo booth was such a success that a friend promptly commissioned Zeina to set one up for her wedding in Spain later that year. Orders soon started coming in from friends as far afield as Greece and Lebanon, and Zeina sensed an opportunity.
With some help from her husband, an expert in computers and cameras, she set up the interestingly named Fishfayce in 2010 and has not looked back. “I chose the name to bring a smile to people’s faces,” says Zeina. The Fishfayce digital photo booth is essentially a capsule that houses a computer and a professional camera with a shutter button that can be operated remotely. People can photograph themselves or others with oversized sunglasses, funky hats, crazy wigs and other funny props.
Photographs can be stored digitally, projected on to any large surface and printed as mementos. “The artistic boundaries are limited only by your imagination,’’ she says. A winner of the 2011 Olay Arabia Power Seven award for spreading the message that women can achieve any goal they desire, she has grown her business to have 20 staff and offices in Qatar and Kuwait. Currently considering launching a franchise of Fishfayce, she tells Friday what makes her smile.
I’ve always had an entrepreneurial streak. When I was at school, I used to buy brightly coloured threads at a craft shop, braid them in different patterns and sell them to my class mates to earn some extra pocket money. In Montreal while I was pursuing my undergraduate studies in human relations, I started a clothing company called Aniez, wholesaling trendy clothes. I came to the UAE in 2007 to take up a job at a PR company and later helped my sister Zahra set up an online business.
Fishfayce owes its origin to my wedding in 2010 where we first set up a booth. About 1,500 pictures were taken and they raised quite a few laughs. We didn’t have that many props but people got really creative, making funny faces using cupcakes, among other things, as props. It provided truly memorable moments. The idea was such a hit that I knew the concept would work as a business. This is the age of social media, where photographs are being uploaded and exchanged on social networking sites the instant someone attends an event or has a memorable time; so why not make it happen at the event itself?
Recognising the enormous potential of the idea, I launched Fishfayce. I had no business plan at the time and the name was based on the idea of fun and craziness. I added a ‘y’ to make it different from the word ‘face’ and easy to find through search engines. Ali was convinced about my entrepreneurial skills and encouraged me. Initially it was a bit of a challenge as I did not know much about computers and photography, but my husband helped me a lot. Once I got going, I enjoyed the challenge and added 20 people to my team.
We’ve worked with several big names including Hermès, Nissan and Burberry, as well as at events for famous people such Mischa Barton and designer and author Whitney Port. The company received a good response, which prompted me to expand our portfolio and introduce new concepts including animation photography and video. I love my work and make it a point to accompany my team to almost every event.
I don’t mind getting my hands dirty if needs be. I feel hard work and genuine relationships are what really work in business. I believe in empowering my team to perform by themselves. For instance, last year when I went on vacation I allowed my staff to make all decisions and they handled it very well. I think empowerment of employees is key to making them proactive and being successful.
I am an amalgamation of many cultures. Born in San Francisco to an Iranian mother and Sudanese father, I was raised in Khartoum, Sudan and also in Saudi Arabia as a child before moving to Canada. My mother Yeganeh Mesbah, a legal consultant, migrated from Iran to the US where my older sister Zahra and I were born. My father Mohammad Abdalla was a banker, so when he got a transfer to Saudi Arabia we moved there. By the time I was four we had moved to our father’s family home in Khartoum. I have happy memories of my childhood. Life seemed so pure, innocent and simple.
We lived in a two-storey building with an extended family of cousins. Happiness requires very little from the outside; it’s a state of mind. We did not have too many fancy toys. There was only one television station and we would wait for the whole week to watch Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles on it. We mostly read books and played outdoors a lot.
In 1993 we moved to Canada. We lived in Toronto for a year and then Vancouver. Our lives there were a stark contrast from Khartoum, where we had led very protected and sheltered lives. Although I spoke English, I dressed differently and had a different accent compared to other kids at school. We never did what other kids did – like going to watch movies, sleepovers and partying. Both Zahra and I faced a lot of bullying because we were so different, but I never told my parents as I didn’t want to worry them.
Living there for 11 years completely transformed me. I became much tougher and more confident. I joined the school soccer and basketball teams and challenged myself to do all the things I thought I couldn’t. I worked hard at trying to better myself and not allowing other people to get me down. I realised that the people who try to do that have no self-confidence or self-esteem.
When I moved to Montreal for my undergraduate studies, I made a lot of friends from the Middle East as I could relate to them – they spoke my native Arabic and had the same beliefs and cultural values as me. That is why even before I graduated I knew I wanted to be here in Dubai, because it has such a beautiful balance of East and West. I visited Dubai in 2000 before I graduated and came here finally in 2007 where I met Ali.
I dream of having kids and getting a great work-life balance. I love my work and would like to see it grow, but I am also trying to step back a little. I don’t want to get lost in daily routines and forget what real life is like. I love travelling and have already travelled to 45 countries around the world. Ali and I love going on short impromptu trips without plans. We love to meet the local people and have an authentic experience. I would love to continue exploring new places and experiencing new cultures as I feel that is the essence of life.