How two founders turned their frustrations into a startup
For Ibrahim Abudyak and Hiba Balfaqih, it was utter frustration with the state of their lives and mental health that led to the founding of The Smash Room, a unique venue where people can break things to relieve stress or simply enjoy a rather violent way to have fun with friends.
Five years ago, Balfaqih was dealing with the loss of her grandmother and realised that traditional ways of dealing with grief were proving unfruitful. The day she took a baseball bat to an old printer was the day she found solace and understood that physically taking out her pain was what helped. The idea for Smash Room was born in that moment.
She mentioned the idea to Abudyak, who at the time was facing several personal challenges, including being fired from his corporate job and going through a divorce. Today, the Smash Room celebrates its fifth anniversary, with plans to expand via a franchise model. It is a profitable business, maintaining revenue growth of 15-20 per cent year on year and counts 18,000 “Smashers” since its inception. But from a personal standpoint, Abudyak’s entrepreneurial journey was far less smooth.
After graduating as a mechanical engineer in Jordan, he followed his passion for cars and worked for the Fiat Chrysler Group, spending five years gaining experience and working his way up the company, making it to country manager in the UAE for sales and marketing. But he was eventually fired and decided to venture into the startup space.
His first startup was Crankat.com, a used car marketplace which aimed to create trust between users and used car sellers.
“The reason it failed was because I partnered up with the wrong people. Instead of having [complementary] skillsets, they were an exact mirror of myself which you may think is a good thing, but it’s the opposite. You’ve got to work with people who complement your skillsets, you align with them in terms of values,” says Abudyak.
The founders also disagreed on important issues like equity and profit sharing and with no real contracts in place, it created a friction that was difficult to escape.
“All of these things I never knew about, I didn’t have proper experience. Nothing was written at the beginning, it was all verbal [agreements] and handshakes - the Arab way of doing it doesn’t work for a business. Everything needs to be documented and that was one of the biggest learnings. The business ran for a few months and it was profitable, but we had to shut it down because of [the issues between] the partners.”
The disappointment Abudyak felt failing his first venture was “nothing compared to getting fired and going through a divorce”, so it wasn’t long before he embarked on his second startup idea.
He started an e-commerce company selling miniature cars, which he sourced from a US-based wholesaler that specialised in collectable items. Abudyak began selling these miniature cars on Souq.com, before it was acquired by Amazon. But this venture also failed within a few months due to the challenges of operating in the e-commerce space. The time it would take to prepare and ship an order was not “really worth it” according to Abudyak as it “couldn’t grow and scale”.
“I had a few other smaller ideas. I was never emotionally attached to failure, what I worked on in terms of my belief system was razing the guilt and shame about starting something and not succeeding in it,” he says. “In one way or another, you learn through trying. If you don’t fail, it means you don’t try enough. Having the right mindset for an entrepreneur is something that differentiates those who take up entrepreneurship and stay, compared to those who think it’s sexy and then realise it’s not easy.”
By the time Abudyak met Balfaqih, the latter had also experienced her own fair share of business failures. She’d bought a franchise, but her franchisee ran off with her money.
“We both came from a background where we understood the value of finding the right partner and we both understood that business might include failure and we were both ok with it,” says Abudyak adding that his own sales and operations background complemented Balfaqih’s creative experience.
The friends, having learned from their past mistakes, outlined and defined their roles clearly for starting Smash Room. Abudyak would build the process and the system, working with the contractors, hiring the ream and the overall operations, while Balfaqih focused on the creative process.
“We agreed on the decision-making process and what happens in terms of conflict. This is someone who was really mature about taking a business to the next level,” he says.
The Smash Room was finally operational after overcoming initial challenges like securing a trade licence and the high costs of setting up in Dubai. Today, the company hails itself as a sustainable business, sourcing electronic waste from junkyards and partnering with companies to ensure proper recycling after smashing sessions.
“We’ve probably recycled over 70,000 electronics. We buy them from junkyards in Ajman, there are mountains of these old electronics waiting for someone to pick them up. We created an ecosystem out of the whole situation. We give [e-waste] another life,” says Abudyak.
Global e-waste is thought to hold roughly $60 billion worth of raw materials such as gold, palladium, silver, and copper. In 2021, 57.4 million metric tonnes (Mt) of e-waste was generated, growing by an average of 2 Mt a year. Only 17.4 per cent of e-waste is known to be collected and properly recycled.
The biggest challenge the pair faced was during the Covid-19 lockdowns. They had to shutter their doors for four months while still paying rent and their employees’ salaries. So the team had to adapt, creating the "Smashbox" to bring the experience into people's homes. Selling them online, the Smashbox contained small electronics and a rubber hammer, offering a taste of the Smash Room during lockdown. While it brought in some cash, it served more as a marketing exercise than a revenue replacement.
Now, with ambitious plans for a world-first "Smash Mobil," Balfaqih and Abudyak are set to take their concept on the road, offering a mobile Smash Room experience for private parties, events, and even offices. "It's always been a dream since the start," says Abudyak. "It's time to make that dream come true."