A new wave of creative startups are emerging, whereby international trends are merged with Iraqi culture. A lack of relevant jobs in the country makes it increasingly difficult to find passionate and purposeful employment. As a result, many young people are trying to create a business out of their hobbies so that they can do what they love.
One of those people is Ali Shihab Al-aaedi, Co-founder of the Iraqi Nerds Store, the online marketplace for print-on-demand products, Iraqi pop culture apparels, and accessories. Customised items relevant to the ever-changing trends of the internet are difficult to find in Iraq, so Iraqi Nerds custom-design products based on what the customer wants. Items can include wall art, stickers, pins, socks and jewellery.
Customer service is a distinguishing aspect of the business. “We focus on dealing with our customers in a very friendly and loving way. We do our best to provide high-quality prints even if it costs us more than usual. If the order is delayed, the customer will get everything for free, including delivery” says Ali. “We’ve also had students comment on our posts saying how much they love an item but cannot afford it. A situation like that touches us because all of us were students and we couldn’t afford most of the stuff we wanted to buy. So we immediately give them anything they want for free.”
Launching an Iraqi Pop Culture Business
Ali always dreamed of starting his own business. Something he could create, manage, and advertise by himself. “It just gives a huge sense of achievement and confidence for anyone who starts their business and watches it grow and succeed. I enjoy working in this field and I love all of the stuff we are selling”.
Launching a business in Iraq comes with many cultural hurdles as well. Oftentimes, it is family and friends that discourage budding founders due to the risks involved. In Ali’s experience, he was told that he was wasting time and his business would not be as big as he imagined. “It hurts to hear that from them and it even distracts you from focusing on the startup. It made me doubt myself a lot. I’ve been through it all but my advice is to keep fighting for it. Let your project’s success speak for you.”
Expecting to Fail
Low expectations led Ali to be pleasantly surprised with the growing success of Iraqi Nerds. “I always thought my startup would fail after a few months. I expected the number of buyers to deplete. I’d be left with a couple of customers every month and that would be it. But this experience made me believe that if you put in all your effort and give it time, eventually you’ll achieve what you set out for.”
Some of the challenges that Iraqi Nerds face relates to regularly sourcing new inventory and being able to advertise and sell existing items. Customer loyalty is also a struggle as loyalty schemes and behaviours are not commonplace. A change in consumer behaviour will require a joint effort from startups and companies to provide incentives. The benefits of which, won’t be seen for years to come.
The team want to expand their business by offering products that cannot be found in the country, such as special prints.
“We believe that a good business should grow on its own. Most people wait on funding to grow or launch their business because they are afraid of the risk, or they don’t want to start small and build up in baby steps. Baby steps are a good model for a startup because we will fail a lot and we will learn a lot in return. Those failures will benefit us in the future.”
Part of the store’s vision is to offer customisable design services and prints. This way, buyers can purchase gifts with sentimental value. As most printing services in Iraq are outsourced to Turkey, there is a huge potential for high quality, in-country printing services that can offer a quick turnaround on items.
Advice for Entrepreneurs
Ali admits that having a successful startup requires a lot of sacrifices. “Sometimes, I don’t buy things for myself that I need so that I can spend it on my startup. If someone wants to commit to their business, they have to sacrifice time, money, and resources.”
“The Iraqi market lacks so many services and products which are not available in our market in comparison to other countries. So it doesn’t have to be a new idea. We can learn from other startups around the world. We should try to accomplish the same work that they have done in their community and bring it to our market.”
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