TELL US A BIT ABOUT YOURSELF
My expertise pretty much started in the advertising industry where I was working as a strategist — which is a fancy way of saying I get paid for my opinion. I would do a lot of quantitative and qualitative research and get to understand a marketplace, city or country with the people in it, their behaviours, their do’s and don’ts, cultures, subcultures, traditions, routines, etc. I’d take all that information and develop a strategic opinion based on it. That then gets taken in by the creative team and they develop advertising based on what I shared. It’s like a glorified anthropologist in a way, which is cool.
Before that, when I was in university, I worked in the radio as an RJ. I was a co-host and learnt to work the radio systems. I didn’t DJ, but most of the people there were DJs. At the time, I was in the US, living in the Bay Area in Oakland. I discovered podcasting out there. There was no red tape, rules, regulations and hierarchy in the radio business in the US. I could just create my own show and express myself truly. And I love that idea! So I packed my bag, moved back to Dubai and decided to launch the podcast, which was the Dukkan Show. And that eventually elevated itself to becoming a full business.
DUKKAN MEDIA — HOW DID IT ALL START?
It started with the podcast, the Dukkan Show. ‘Dukkan’ means a small shop, a corner store or grocery. The reason why I liked the name was because I believe that the dukkan is the cornerstone of a community. Anywhere in the world, the shopkeeper will know everybody in the neighbourhood. It’s the place where people come and hang out. A hair salon is where girls get together and talk. A barber shop gives the same experience. In that sense, the grocery store is the essence of community, development and growth. In every community, you’ve got one. So for those of us who are an ethnic minority, that’s the place we felt like home. This thought was the birth of the show.
It developed while I was working at the agency and pitching for a mega project. I was the lead strategist then. Throughout the project, people didn’t buy into my idea, but I stood my ground. The reason why people were hesitant was that my entire strategy was built off a 3-minute conversation I had with a guest on the podcast. They were hesitant because it defied all the research that was already available online done by other people.
My inspiration was a Saudi Arabian YouTuber, Fahad Albutairi, known as the Seinfeld of Saudi Arabia. The beautiful thing about his comedy was that it’s very society dependent. He picks up these little nuances based on what he sees on the street. I thought that was just beautiful and built my entire strategy on this 3-minute conversation. Luckily, we ended up locking a $5 million business. That achievement meant that what I have is worth a lot more than what I’m getting paid for there. So I decided to quit. When I made that decision, my business partner Reem had a video production company. She decided that she wanted to invest and become a partner, which I thought was the perfect match.
We started the business in 2017 and been doing it ever since. I still do the consultancy on one side. On the other, we develop original content, our own intellectual property. We also run a show called Raghud Qahwa which is an Arabic show, with a completely different theme. The host of the show, Maya, is a television anchor, an editor-in-chief and a producer who’s been in the game for 25+ years. In the show, she has one-on-one conversations over coffee (as the name of the show translates to ‘coffee pot and in Arabic tradition, coffee is in everything). On the show, they have these conversations with spectacular Arab women who have changed the landscape of the Arab world like the first ever female Supreme Court judge in Jordan, amongst others.
The other show that we’ve created is called “Switch Flix” which is a film review show. It’s hosted by a very talented producer and director duo who screen a movie every week, deconstruct it and then, have a debate on it. But the trick is they switch between pros and cons so fast that it becomes a hilarious conversation.
Another show that we’re currently working on is a podcast for MENAbytes, by partnering with Zubair Naeem Paracha. We have a video series called “HighPlus” which deconstructs trends and why they’re so popular in sneaker and hip hop culture. We present it in a fun and entertaining way. We’ve got a bunch of other shows that we’re unlocking. And the thing about our shows is that they are designed to be ground-breaking revolutionary pieces. The other side of our business is not public-facing as it’s mostly consulting.
WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE TO SOMEONE WHO WANTS TO LEAVE THEIR 9-5 TO FOLLOW THEIR PASSION?
For those who are looking to leave their jobs and start their business, first and foremost, it’s not for everyone. That’s always the first thing I tell people because a business owner’s levels of stress, anxiety and feelings of being defeated and questioning themselves are so much, it’s very difficult to deal with. I struggle with it. I have moments when I can’t face it at times. But I feel there are times when you feel like you’re on top of the world also when being an entrepreneur.
In a 9-5, when you leave the office, you are done, physically and mentally. You can have fun with family, watch a show, go out... I don’t switch off because I’m still consumed by work thoughts all the time. The only times I actually disconnect are when I do Bikram Yoga or go running. For a business owner, the chances are that for the rest of the day, work- related thoughts are always in your head. So learn to be comfortable with the discomfort of it.
Another thing is to celebrate all your wins, no matter how small or trivial they may feel. Keep in mind that you are one of the very few who are actually doing this. I’m lucky that I don’t have a family at this point. I’m self-reliant. Thankfully, my parents don’t need my support. So financially, I was in a much more comfortable place to take the step. Those who have responsibilities of other people relying on them and still do it, then kudos! I’m glad I don’t have those responsibilities as it would have made things more difficult. Some people do it with that weight and they do it amazing. For some people, that’s their inspiration.
Also, find a mental outlet for you, whether it’s running, bodybuilding, painting, baking — anything. Find a space where you can let that anxiety out. It should have nothing to do with your work so that you are completely disconnected from it. Find a hobby that doesn’t make money, where you can just be comfortable.
WHAT’S BEEN YOUR BEST ACHIEVEMENT AND YOUR LOWEST LOW?
My best win is the internal win of realising that I could do this. If you’ve always worked for somebody, always an employee, you don’t know that you can find other means of income. Once that’s taken away from you, you have to suddenly figure out ways to make money. Now, I learnt a way to sell and make money.
For the business, the biggest win was last year for locking the contract with Nike where we launched a Nike store in Dubai Mall. That was a massive project and they are a great team. A low point would be last year, around this time, I was just so focused on the business. And my lifestyle took a hit — my diet, emotions, mental state. I had a surge in cholesterol and blood pressure.
Being a post-kidney transplant, my health was in a really bad state. But thankfully, Reem and Akkaoui motivated me to train. And they started dragging me off every morning to train, exercise, go for a run, do yoga, attend spin class, hit the gym and do weights. This became a trajectory which I somehow found myself sticking to. Now I love it. It’s been a year now and I still do it. I’m very proud of that. From last year to this point, I’m down 15 kilos, I’ve reduced my blood pressure. I don’t have cholesterol problems anymore. Everything regulated and back to normal.
I had another low point which was dealing with anxiety. I, unfortunately, had such aggressive anxiety that it became borderline paralysis. I couldn’t move, think or work. There were family and business pressures that all hit at the same time. I felt incredibly defeated. Coming out of anxiety doesn’t necessarily have a clear path — you have to push through it.
HOW ARE YOU DEALING WITH YOUR ANXIETY?
For me, it was figuring out the cause. How did I get here? Why do I have such high anxiety like I’ve never had before? I’m still on that journey of figuring out what it is. Every day, I’m in the journey of discovering something new, unlocking and dealing with what I’ve found... And I started journaling.
HAVE YOU EVER MADE A LIST OF ALL THE THINGS THAT ARE BOTHERING YOU?
I just started writing. In the journal, I record thoughts about gratitude. Every day, I have to find 10 things that I’m grateful for. Every morning, I have to ask myself, “What am I grateful for today?” — and just keep listing everything that comes to my head. Then, I go through it multiple times during the day. I don’t think I’m going to stop having anxiety. I’ve realised that it’s something I’ve got to learn to live with while managing the level of stress that comes from it.
WHAT ARE YOUR GOALS FOR THE DUKKAN SHOW? WHERE DO YOU SEE YOURSELF IN 10 YEARS?
I’ve got multiple roadmaps. Essentially, they’re the same, each for different things. For the business specifically, I’m trying to build the most unconventional creative solution business of our time. Where it is going to go and what it’s going to manifest itself into are things unheard of. I’m confident in our capabilities. I would like to sell a part of the business and get venture capitalists involved. I have products specifically designed to be sold.
And also, I’m a Sudanese, living in the Middle East and there are lots of global socio-political impacts that slow me down. My fight is to win against them, but also to create something that nobody could doubt or question.
As a Sudanese, I have Sudanese citizenship. Not American or European like most people in this industry. So I need to apply for visas every time I travel. My biggest concern is healthcare and being temporary in a place. My intention with this business is that it becomes so successful, I wouldn’t have to worry about these issues anymore. I can afford to buy what I need. The business will get to a certain place, whether financially or with reputation. And then, the success will speak for me.
WHAT MOTIVATES YOU?
For me, there was always this notion of owning narrative and telling our stories before it’s told to us. That was what helped me kick start the show. Moving into the business, my motivation was heavily on fighting stereotypes and building businesses that are — I’m not going to call them ‘diverse’ because that is the norm. In its essence and nature, it is like that — diverse, and that is the minimum expectation. It’s a business for talented individuals. It doesn’t matter who you are, or where you come from. All you need is to have something the world deserves to see.
There’s a podcast called ‘The Dropout’ which focuses on the journey of a woman known as Elizabeth Holmes. She built a tech company designed around a medical solution which needed just a prick of blood at the fingertips instead of the exorbitant amount of blood asked by labs. She had these boxes at Walgreens where people can come and get their tests done.
In reality, her company and product didn’t exist. She ran it for 12 years and after 9 years, questions started popping up. But she had gotten so much publicity with magazines and television interviews, even landing an interview by Bill Clinton on his show. She got that far.
Because she was so successful, people compared her to Steve Jobs. People said she’s going to be the next biggest thing who’s changing not just the US, but the world. She was godsent and became a billionaire. Her company was valued at billions worth of dollars. People wanted to believe the dream she had shown them, but they didn’t realise that they were being duped.
I want to fight stereotypes and grow real businesses. I can’t fight fire with fire. All I can do is prove people wrong every step of the way. The idea of being underestimated is always attractive. You hear a lot of Sudanese jokes about our people about being lazy. And every time someone jokes about it, I refuse to laugh and ask them to point out a lazy Sudanese they know. Because I, for a fact, know that I will outwork anybody out there. I don’t take these jokes very lightly because they are offensive when people think they’re not. In a way, this is how we change stereotypes. We outgrow, outbuild and move faster than anybody else to get to good places.
WHO INSPIRES YOU?
I have a lot of mentors who I’m thankful for — people who have done amazing work in their spaces whom I go to for advice and guidance. But true inspiration for me goes beyond just business. People inspire me for different things.
My mom is just and fair. She passed through a religious journey after our grandfather died. And she’s very religious and conservative. But she’s also non-judgemental. People gravitate towards her, whether they are as religious or plain liberal. She makes it easy for people to talk to her by being welcoming, loving and open. I find that to be powerful — the idea of allowing yourself to be non-judgmental, for allowing people to be who they are with their faults or whatever issues they have. Understanding that we’re not the same and that’s okay. Being understanding of people’s differences is so powerful.
My dad is a by-the-book kind of guy (which I’m not!) who clearly believes that ‘if it’s the law, then it’s the law.’ I love how fair he is and how he puts everybody else’s needs in front of his, whether it’s his family’s or of his extended relatives. He’ll drop everything to go support people. He supports people on their job just because they have a family and kids and other dependencies, and not because they are good for the job assigned. To me, that would feel like it will make the business bleed. But being able to see the good in them, that there’s something else. I deeply respect that and wish that I can get to that point where I look at someone and be so accepting.
IF YOU WERE OFFERED A LARGE SUM OF MONEY TO TAKE ON A 9-5, WOULD YOU CONSIDER IT?
Even if any salary Would be that big (and my business cannot afford to pay me that at this moment), I won’t take that job, for two reasons. One is I know the business is not going to be here for long. The whole point of business is growth. If your business is not growing, it’s flatlining, which means it’s dead. The focus of businesses is always growth. Growth indicates that I can make that much money.
Business is also freedom — of schedule, of having the power of saying no, and choosing who to work with. In my previous company, some of my clients were tobacco and alcohol businesses that morally I don’t like to promote. If it were my business, I can decide that don’t have to work with them. So that sense of freedom and power of decision making — there’s no 9-5 that can give you that.