Small businesses in Bahrain

15 inspiring entrepreneurs in Bahrain share their big ideas

Small businesses in Bahrain

Bahrain, more than other countries in the region, offers incredible support to budding entrepreneurs. In a country that spans just 760 square kilometres, the amount of unique small businesses that spring up here is astounding. We have everything from gyms to vegan meal delivery services and even art therapy studios. And all of these ideas are driven by passionate individuals who, often, have been able to follow their dreams thanks to initiatives by the likes of Tamkeen and the Bahrain Development Bank. But they would be nothing without us to support them, which is why we’re advocating you – Bahrain’s residents and visitors – to “go local”. And it’s why we’ve gone out to meet some of Bahrain’s most creative and inspiring entrepreneurs. Who knows, maybe you’ll be on these list...

Color Maze, Mahmood Alshargawi
Our cover star this month is the well-known graffiti artist Mahmood Alshargawi (AKA HuviL), who has been busy beautifying the walls of Bahrain over the past few years for various big businesses and brands (including Time Out – see left the finished artwork that’s on our cover). Now, he’s taking his love of street art one step further by establishing the island’s first-ever professional graffiti art supplies store this month, thanks to the Bahrain Development Bank and their amazing new arts and crafts business incubator centre in Manama’s Andalus Park.

“Color Maze aims to be a hub for artists to gather, and share experiences,” he tells us. “It’s a place to meet and, together, we’ll hopefully change Bahrain’s into something beautiful.”

Alongside spray paint exclusively by Montana Colors (MTN), which Mahmood says is the finest in the world, he’ll sell other equipment such as markers and masks, as well as graffiti-related books and magazines, too. He also has future plans to introduce workshops, movie nights and plenty more.

“It’s been very hard to make it happen,” he explains, saying the most challenging part was getting the company registration for something so new and unique. “When someone opens an arts and crafts shop, they’re expecting pens, markers, notebooks… When I went and said ‘spray cans’, I found it’s not under art and design. I had to show the product and prove it’s art-related.

“I’ve been working on this and planning for 18 months, but now the shop is under construction and it’s going well!”
Follow @huvil on Instagram for more information on the opening of Color Maze.

Bossy Kitchen, Mohammed Al Khalifa and Aysha Al Araifi
Husband and wife duo Mohammed Al Khalifa and Aysha Al Araifi started healthy food venture Bossy Kitchen at a stall in Market 338 (now The Nest), before launching a café in Riffa due to popular demand. The food they produce has since been talk of the town, from the chicken sliders to the quirky dips and the vegan Blondie – it's all been delicious, all of the time.

This year, however, the pair have made the decision to close down the outlet. But that does not mean it’s the end. “This is just another chapter in our business journey,” Al Khalifa explains. “We want to refocus our business to being ‘tailor-made’ to each customer through catering and emphasise a truly memorable food experience through our new project with Chef’s Table.”

The idea is to host private dinners that need to be booked in advance for couples or groups. You then get the VIP treatment with a unique table set-up and a six-course meal created entirely from scratch and exclusively for you by Al Araifi, who describes it as “culinary theatre”. All that sets you back just BD25 per person and the food that Bossy Kitchen produces is truly delicious.

All in all, it’s been a tough process for the team, setting up something new for the island, but it’s also one they’ve enjoyed and learned from. “Setting up a small or large business is never an easy task,” says Al Khalifa. “You just need to keep at it, work hard, keep your goals in line and your business will grow organically in different directions.”

We can’t wait to see what they’ve got up their chef’s sleeve next...
Follow @bossykitchen on Instagram to keep up-to-date with the team’s progress.

Namaste, Weam Zabar
It wasn’t much longer than five years ago when Weam Zabar gave up a high-powered management career to start Bahrain’s first yoga school, Namaste.

“It was tricky to find the right company registration as ‘yoga’ wasn’t recognised as a standalone activity at the time,” Zabar recounts. “It was also challenging to find the right location – I was looking for some place spacious yet accessible.” But she overcame these challenges and set up a beautiful studio on Budaiya Highway, which is now arguably the most popular yoga hotspot on the island.

“I had my heart set on starting,” she explains. “I gave myself no excuses. I just wanted to start teaching immediately. It was a one-woman show. I was answering phones, making appointments, teaching classes, cleaning up and doing everything I needed to do to keep the place running.” Her patience paid off and now Namaste also offers aerial yoga classes, kids’ and pre-natal courses, equipment, workshops, retreats and is the only place in Bahrain that offers teacher training, too. Five years ago, yoga was relatively unheard of on the island and now, following in Zabar’s footsteps, studios have begun springing up all over.

What is it about yoga that she loves, though? “I always feel better after the class and I owe it to how open, beautiful and willing my students are,” she says. “I get so excited when they tell me their aches are gone, they can sleep better or how it affects their emotional wellbeing. I get to see the result of what I do on a daily basis.” Now she’s conquered Bahrain, Zabar is also looking to find partners in the region to franchise her brand. “Every day is a new adventure and we’re keeping our eyes wide open for opportunities that can allow us to help others further.” We, for one, would love to see a Namaste in every corner of the globe.
Budaiya Highway, www.namastebh.com (17 591 565).

Wafa Alobaidat, serial entrepreneur
Anyone who knows a thing or two about start-ups in Bahrain will have come across this powerhouse of a lady before. Wafa Alobaidat is an extremely active entrepreneur and started it all in Bahrain with PR and design agency Obai & Hill in 2010, which, five years later, won Start Up of the Year at the Bahrain Entrepreneurship Awards.

For most people, a fully fledged creative consultancy with a team of ten people would be enough, but Alobaidat is extremely active in the SME (small and medium-sized enterprise) community, and she’s also been busy launching new business after new business. She now also adds to her portfolio the line of wooden sunglasses, Barrel & Drum, and Sukkar, a collection of quirky accessories, among others, including a new accounting service, which we find out more about here as she tells us about the challenges of being a “serial entrepreneur”.

How difficult (or not!) was it to set up Obai and Hill as a business in the first place?
Yes, of course it was! It included endless working years, not paying myself at first, sacrificing weekends and time away from my family and friends to build something that could stand on its own two feet. I needed to be relentless as a problem solver in order to solve issues with registration, logistics, hiring. But I did it and now, looking back, I am so proud to have gone through those initial years to look at the company we built.

What traits do you think an entrepreneur needs in order to succeed?
Discipline, focus, hunger and drive, being humble, and hard, hard work.

What has been the highlight for you?
Winning first place at the Bahrain Entrepreneurship Awards in 2015, getting recognition for our work and a grant to assist us in scaling our firm. Also, working with some of the brightest, most passionate people who became my colleagues and team members at the company, bringing on my brothers as partners in the firm, launching Barrel and Drum in Riyadat Mall, launching Milk concept store and working with our wonderful clients.

How different were the processes of setting up the various businesses?
Obai & Hill was the hardest to set up. We are selling a service in a competitive market and we needed to pioneer in our way of problem solving, and marketing who we were and what we were capable of. The products [such as the wooden sunglasses under Barrel & Drum] were challenging in their own way. You have to master logistics, product design, inventory and operations. However, they are both equally rewarding to work on.

Are you working on anything else now?
Right now I need to focus on scaling my agency and marketing and promoting O Studio – our new photography studio space in Hidd which offers equipment and studio rentals – and O Accounting, a company that offers affordable accounting to small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), plus Milk, our new store that supports emerging designers.

How challenging do you believe it is for smaller businesses to succeed here?
Not challenging at all. When you have the right idea or an idea you want to test out, and a supportive system around you, with all the free tools online and support you can find from organisations in Bahrain, then you should be fine. Bahrain is a great place to test and grow ideas that can scale regionally.

What advice would you like to give to budding entrepreneurs?
Go for it! We need entrepreneurs now more than ever to solve problems, create jobs, add value to our society and economy. Surround yourself with mentors and positive people, mirror those you look up to and push and work harder than anyone you know.

What industry is lacking in Bahrain?
Innovation and technology and research through tech is high on a lot of different organisations’ agendas.
www.wafaalobaidat.com.

Al Riwaq Art Space
Not-for-profit institution Al Riwaq Art Space has been supporting artists for years from their Adliya-based hub. The four-storey building has gallery spaces, a healthy café with free wi-fi (great for entrepreneurs setting up!), a lovely shop, a library and studio space. Inside, the team runs regular exhibitions, workshops and film screenings, generally offering budding creatives a platform to help them reach an audience. Since setting up in 1998, the team, led by Bayan al-Barak Kanoo, has done all of this very, very well indeed. In particular, The Nest, Al Riwaq’s annual outdoor market (see left), which takes place this month, has become a springboard for all sorts of budding entrepreneurs.

“The Nest offers start-ups and emerging brands the opportunity to take part as vendors,” explains arts manager Hadeel Eltayeb. “Even if all they have is the spark of an idea and a visually impressive Instagram, we have taken a chance on many brands when we believe in their product and merchandise.”
Over the years, businesses such as Bossy Kitchen (see page 14), T-shirt designers Day ‘N’ Age, arts hub Amina’s Gallery and 1:1 Architecture began simply as a market stall at The Nest. “The exposure is why we love to encourage brand-new businesses to launch with us. With the footfall we get on weekends from both the GCC region and international visitors, we can guarantee that your brand will be in the heart and centre of one of Bahrain’s biggest annual attractions.”

Eltayeb truly believes that this kind of do-it-yourself approach to entrepreneurship, by testing out your product at a market stall, for example, is a great way to go about setting up your new business. “Setting up makeshift stalls and stands is good market research and brings you face-to-face with customers,” she advises. “And it’s good for the customers who want to ask you things about your production, materials, ingredients, and so on.”

At the moment, she says, there is a gap in the restaurant industry for something in between fine-dining and cheap and cheerful. “Bahrain still needs something in the middle – upmarket street food, where the ingredients are organic, locally sourced and fresh. There is a real green movement in Bahrain and consumers really care about where their ingredients come from.

“It would be great for local businesses to stay true to local flavours, but give best-loved dishes a bit of a makeover.”

Sage & Sirloin, Nataly Hajjar and Mureed Nusseir
Back in 2008, entrepreneur Mureed Nusseir noticed a gap in the Bahraini market for gourmet food and high-end products; a place where people could shop and then enjoy a premium meal at home. By May, this had become the now much-loved gourmet deli Sage & Sirloin, which has its humble home in Hamala.

“It was difficult [to set up Sage & Sirloin] in different aspects,” operations manager Nataly Hajjar, who is also Nusseir’s wife, tells us. “One was to find a location back in 2008 that was not in a mall, but easy to access, and another was to find suppliers from around the world to supply a small business in a small country.” But they made it work and, since then, the business has evolved from a simple butchery and delicatessen to also encompass a catering service and casual dining experience as well. Just recently, the pair also opened already-popular urban bistro The Foundry in Adliya. “The processes of setting up both businesses were definitely different,” says Hajjar. In comparison to Sage & Sirloin, where it is important to find the right suppliers, products and maintain the quality of gourmet and deli food, The Foundry had more challenges in terms of décor. “It was more difficult to set up as it is much larger, on four levels. The interior was custom-made locally with imported raw material, as our designer was from Greece, plus to find the right staff for a place like The Foundry was challenging.”

However, within just a few months, The Foundry has proved to be a success with Bahrain’s foodies and nightowls, and Sage & Sirloin continues to enjoy its popularity among the island’s gourmands. What’s next for them, we ask? It’s simple (kind of). “Expansion in the region.” We’d certainly travel for that burger.
Visit www.sageandsirloin.com and www.thefoundry2.saltid.com.

The Nurtury, Mariam AlHamer
There are plenty of fun businesses popping up in Bahrain, but what about those important, community-focused ones? This is where Mariam AlHamer, founder and owner of The Nurtury, comes in. The Nurtury, a maternity resource centre, spawned from a need to educate parents
and parents-to-be on pregnancy, childbirth and beyond.

As with other entrepreneurs on these pages, who endeavoured to set up something brand-new to Bahrain, AlHamer found it difficult to get through the initial stages of establishing her business. “We faced several regulatory barriers at the beginning, because there was no such activity that would include all the services we offer,” she tells us. “The process of creating a new activity was challenging because it required coordination between several governmental and regulatory entities.” Yet, again, just as with the entrepreneurs, her patience and determination paid off, as her bid was successful and now she’s able to live out her dreams as a businesswoman and parent, helping other parents.

“Our mission is to nurture, support and empower all new parents with compassionate service, quality information and outstanding products,” she says, determinedly. “We serve as a resource centre that educates, guides and encourages parents as they learn how to care for their baby… We believe that this kind of business will work because it fills a gap in the market by addressing a need that every family has.”

This was a gap AlHamer first noticed when she began her own journey through motherhood. “As a mother of two, I felt the urge to pass on my knowledge and experience of pregnancy and childbirth to other parents who may have insecurities or questions on the natural cycle of life.”
Follow The Nurtury on Instagram @thenurturybh for more information.

I Heart Film Productions, Helen and Shereen
Friends Helen and Shereen had been working in the film industry, in Bahrain and the UK, for a while before joining forces to establish I Heart Film Productions. “The business was a challenge for us to set up, because we went through a private agency,” they explain. “It would have been quicker if we had done it ourselves.”
Once sorted, however, they immediately got to work setting up a small office and going after big clients. “Film and social media is so powerful, especially in this part of the world. We are fortunate that most of our clients really understand the benefit video has in marketing their businesses.”

Not that that means they just put together typical, sterile corporate films. Helen and Shereen pride themselves on telling a company’s story. “We try and bring a humanist approach to all our subjects. We produce films that are engaging, as well as entertaining.”

So far, the duo have created films for massive brands such as Standard Chartered Bank, the Bahrain Authority of Culture and Antiquities, and even yours truly (Time Out), but it’s not just about business for them. “Our aim is to produce short films and, one day, features about subject matters which mean a lot to us.”
www.iheartfilm.co.uk.

Maison du Maillot, Faezeh Faiz Fakhroo and Leila Siassi
We’ve had film, food and fitness, so now we’re turning our attentions to fashion. Not just any fashion, either, but the kind that’s most important to people living on a desert island surrounded by sea – swimwear.

Beautiful bikinis, beach bags and sun hats are what sisters Faezeh Faiz Fakhroo and Leila Siassi were dreaming about when they first set up trendy e-boutique Maison du Maillot. “We saw there was a missing niche in the market for year-round resort-wear and swimwear,” Fakhroo tells us. “We knew that if we built the right website, with the right collection, right team and customer service there would be a demand.”

As a one-stop shop for “contemporary, warm weather clothing”, Maison du Maillot caters not only to Bahrain but also customers around the world, by housing high-end, international designers. They also offer next-day delivery around the Gulf.

Sure, it’s been a challenge, but it’s one Siassi and Fakhroo were 100 percent committed to, and one that has so far been successful. “We definitely had challenges in the beginning as e-commerce is relatively new to Bahrain,” Fakhroo explains. “Payment gateways and banking issues are the biggest hurdle in this region, but like everything, when there is a will, there is a way!”

Fakhroo still believes there is much scope for other tech and digital businesses to start here. She believes in it so much, in fact, that just recently she left her day job as a marketing manager to focus fully on furthering the site’s reach. “It’s been an exciting few weeks with us going full speed. We are now actively looking for investors and to scale the business.”
www.maisonmaillot.com.

Words BookStore Café, Eileen Abuhamad and Rana Aljalahma
These two friends bonded over a love of coffee and books around six years ago and, thus, Words BookStore Café was born. A small book shop-cum-café in Budaiya, Words took approximately one year to set up, which, Abuhamad tells us, was actually “pretty straightforward” to do thanks to all the help they received from Tamkeen. Since then, the shop has attracted bookworms from all over the city, looking for a respite.

“We both love books and the café culture, and we have always been interested in bringing the community together,” Abuhamad says. “We get inspired by the people who come in and we get a thrill when collaborations are formed through chance meetings at the store.” It’s certainly a great place to browse through novels and have a read while sipping some coffee, but they also run story time sessions for kids, workshops for all, film screenings, cooking demonstrations and have a new pop-up space, where local artists and entrepreneurs can set up shop. This month, for example, Marriette Carstens is running a homeopathy workshop on Wednesday November 16 and Dejana Subsol will show us how to create healthy food for kids on Wednesday November 23. Nadia Kawash is talking about the GAPS Diet on Monday November 14 and a charity sale is on from November 10 to 12, with all proceeds going to the Children and Mother’s Welfare Society.

As entrepreneurs themselves, and big supporters of local businesses, the next trends they’d like to see here are more healthy options for food, and fitness centres for children. Ideas, anyone?
Palm Square, Budaiya Highway, www.wordsbookstorecafe.com (17 690 790).

Ten top tips for entrepreneurs
In 50 countries, with 160 chapters, and more than 12,000 business owners, the Entrepreneurs’ Organisation brings together some of the brightest business owners, helping them to learn and grow through collaborations and events throughout the year. In Bahrain, there are 36 members and regular events, including a talk last month with Mike Hoff, founder and CEO of MHC (Mike Hoff Consulting), a privately owned executive consulting business in the UAE. He and the members talked strategies and tactics entrepreneurs need to employ in order to scale businesses sustainably. Before he flew off, he left us with his top ten tips for budding entrepreneurs.

1 Define your business purpose – why you do what you do, beyond pure profit.

2 Discover and describe your core values and use them to inform your recruitment and talent management strategies.

3 Make sure you are very clear on your business’ strengths and core competences and then use these to maximise your business performance.

4 Identify your company’s weaknesses and also have a plan in place to neutralise these.

5 Be very clear on your business goals for the year and current quarter.

6 Focus on your top three to five priorities in the current quarter and ensure you have someone accountable to deliver each one.

7 Have meaningful metrics in place that easily and accurately show the health of the company.

8 Communicate with everyone in the organisation in a relevant and timely manner – too many meetings strangle a business.

9 Check that you have the right people in the right place doing the right things at the right time.

10 Ensure you have sufficient sources of cash (ideally, internally sourced) to fuel your growth, checking your company’s cash balance daily and forecasting forward your requirements.

Corporate executive Alan Miltz is talking “Revenue is Vanity” to members of EO on November 20. Visit www.eonetwork.org/bahrain for more information.

The Nest 2016
“Melting Pot”

This year, the theme at annual outdoor art market The Nest, which takes place from November 24 to December 17, is “Melting Pot”, celebrating cultural fusions found on the island. Alongside artists’ installations, market stalls and workshops, a series of talks with VIP guests is planned, with the likes of Spanish graffitist Ruben Sanchez, Lebanese artist Jad Khoury and Bahraini architect and artist Nasser Al Zayani among those set to speak. There will also be plenty of musical performances, with local acts such as Belly of Paris and Aalaat joining a few regional musicians who are flying in specially for the occasion.
For more information follow @alriwaq on Instagram or visit the gallery in Adliya, Block 338, www.alriwaqartspace.com (17 717 441).

Advice from the entrepreneurs
“Make sure you have a solid business plan and an original concept. And location is key. The pop-up concept is such a great platform for people thinking about starting a new business and that was one of the reasons we decided to open our new space. Given the current economic climate, it is challenging for any business to succeed here or anywhere. Businesses here are extremely lucky in that they can receive subsidies from Tamkeen, which is a huge help, especially when you are starting a new business.”
Eileen Abuhamad, Words BookStore Café

“Work hard and be prepared to make sacrifices, such as spending less time with family and friends, and not having a regular income in the beginning. There are so many opportunities in Bahrain across lots of sectors. What we would particularly like to see is the development of the tech and digital scene. There is still so much room for growth here. From e-commerce, warehousing to apps and other innovative solutions, there is lots we can do here.”
Faezeh Fakhroo, Maison du Maillot

“Build your business around a cause you passionately believe in and give it your all. Instead of competing with businesses in your field, collaborate with them to help bring your ideas into reality. Take advantage of all the support and resources available in Bahrain for entrepreneurs. Succeeding in starting a small business is challenging at any point in time, but if you believe in what you do and do it with passion then you are off to a good start. Bahrain offers many incentives and tools that can help new and small businesses flourish. We must take full advantage of these resources and make sure we are utilising them in the best way.”
Mariam AlHamer, The Nurtury

“Be original and don’t let the stress get to you. Add something new to the market; it’s easy to copy other concepts, but you’ll take more pride and appreciate your work more if you create something completely new, leaving a mark on society. Sometimes you’ll have to give up your social life in the beginning, but that’s okay, it’s only temporary and you’ll need to do whatever it takes to make the business successful, even if it means doing some labour work yourself.”
Mohammed Al Khalifa, Bossy Kitchen

“The most important thing, no matter how small the business is, is to hire an accountant from the beginning of the project to manage your accounts and keep you in check with your expenses.”
Nataly Hajjar, Sage & Sirloin

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