In the wake of revolutions this spring and summer, discourse about modern identity in the Arab World seems to have translated into a distinct call to action. Long-simmering desires to cast off a sense of heavy cultural import from outside are now manifesting in push for local, organic, culturally relevant content and technology. Small businesses from gaming companies to animators to mobile app creators to designers are pledging to create products that go beyond reimagining the past to express homegrown creativity.
One startup doing this elegantly is Kashida Design, a Lebanese product design and furniture company that creates products based on Arabic letterforms. Designers Elie Abou Jamra and Mirna Hamady founded the company this past July out of a shared passion for the beauty of Arabic script and a shared vision for forming letters into sleek ergonomic products. Unlike some of the fetishised Arabic art that oozes out of Dubai, Kashida’s designs avoid fuss. Their fledging success speaks to the fact that the region- and the world- is hungry for the simplicity of its wooden chairs and bookshelves.
As Wamda chatted with founder Elie Abou Jamra, he confessed that the secret to their success is having a good partnership and having a deep passion for typography and design that infuses every product.
1) How did you decide to start Kashida?
Abou Jamra: It all started in July this year when my partner Mirna and I thought about doing something that would basically inspire a new generation of people around us. I’d been working as a designer for two years, and as designers, we are very exposed to Arabic type. I learned a lot about typography during my internship at design firm LineType in Germany with Nadine Shaheen, an award-winning typographist.
Yet most people in the general public are losing knowledge about the history of Arabic calligraphy and its value. So we thought about creating functional objects that you could use everyday, as supposed to just having Arabic text in a painting or poster.
2) What was a key turning point in your approach?
The most critical decision we made was to actually begin to work together to create new things. Mirna and I had both had the idea for Kashida for awhile, ever since our third year of university, but we hadn’t developed it. Then we discovered international design competition tasmeemDoha and decided to apply. This was a great opportunity for us, because it helped us put everything together and really focus. After we submitted our idea, we were then voted one of the top five entrepreneurship challenge winners. That’s when we realized the idea had traction.
We also received a boost from the Maurice Fadel Prize, a business plan competition for North Lebanon. Competing for the prize helped us work on the details of our business model and improve our presentation skills and ability to deal with investors. We ended up winning third place out of 503 competitors.
We were the youngest at the competition, and we were just two, and that was very telling. Our friends also helped us and supported us; we all worked together to start it. After doing well at these competitions, we decided to launch; we decided not to wait. We had the confidence, the winning channels, and passion.
3) What is the biggest problem that you faced (or are facing) in your company?
We haven’t had huge problems; we’ve simply been focused on expanding and learning a lot.
4) Do you see your market as local, regional, or global? Do you plan to expand?
Hopefully our market will be global. We are headquartered in Lebanon, but also have brand representatives in Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Hopefully we will extend further into the Gulf and Europe as well.
So far we have been very happy with our sales- we have serious potential orders that would reaching up to 15 and 20 products, including both customized and ready-made products. And through Google Analytics, we’ve discovered that people from Lebanon, UAE, Saudi, Qatar, Jordan, Egypt, the U.S., the U.K., India, Canada, Brazil, Argentina, Russia and even from Africa, were visiting our site.
Our aim is to make Arabic letterforms and words flow all over the world. If the language disappears, than a history and culture disappears. We want to have a product that has a function, but also has cultural value embedded in it. That way we are informing people and educating them about the beauty and the variety of Arabic structures. And we ourselves are still learning how deep the Arabic letter is and how various the varieties. So it's a learning process for everybody.
5) How do you plan to generate revenue? How did you decide on this model?
Right now we generate revenue by selling through our marketing channels, our network of interior designers, and the internet, but we are aiming to open retail stores soon.
6) How long did it take you to get funding if you received funding? How was that process?
We haven’t taken on investment yet, but we have several parties asking to invest.
7) How do you manage your partnership with Mirna?
We collaborate and complement each other in the way we work. Neither of us knows everything on our own, but we communicate and support each other. There is no division in our duties; we simply work together on everything. We’ve loved working with each other ever since we were classmates in the American University of Beirut (AUB) Department of Graphic Design. We also have freelancers working with us, as well as a finance manager and our producers and suppliers, and yes, we are hiring.
8) What does your spouse or family think of your company? Has owning a company made you financially more secure, or not?
Our families are very proud of us.
It’s a bit early for us to discuss whether Kashida will make us financially secure or not. But for us, it's not just the financial part that matters, it's the passion for what we do. If we lost our passion, we wouldn’t be able to sustain ourselves.
9) How does your reimagining of Arabic script speak to the changes we see in the region lately?
Arabic culture has a history of craftsmanship that we are at risk of losing or forgetting with all of the political instability that's happening. Our solution to retaining this craftsmanship is simply to continue to communicate it. We inform people about the way that script can be beautiful but also something like a bookcase, that you interact with everyday as part of your life.
10) What advice would give a fellow entrepreneur?
I would give the advice that the late Steve Jobs gave in his commencement speech at Stanford: follow your heart and it will take you there. Don't think twice if you have the passion for what you really want to do- passion will keep you going.
This isn’t just vague advice; it’s a reality for us. There are many things that we face everyday that require a lot of thinking and studying, like understanding our market, but to truly excel, you have to love what you’re doing. It has to belong to you. If you don't have this central element, I don't think your products will really sell.
I just speak from my humble experience at Kashida, where we
continually try to improve. We just want to learn, and learn, and