StartupBahrain team was truly honored to meet with Ms. Sonya Janahi, the lady entrepreneur behind Maya le Chocolaterie. Ms. Janahi is a true role model for all young and ambitious entrepreneurs. Our interview with her reveals a lot of her success recipe and secrets to starting a business and growing it beyond the local boundaries.
Ms. Janahi, tell us a bit about Maya La Chocolaterie ?
Prior to starting Maya La Chocolaterie, I spent years in the banking industry and wanted to start a concept which is both fun and unique. Like many, my passion for chocolate, and specifically dark chocolate drove me to visit and admire some of the most renowned chocolatiers in Europe, leaving me mesmerized in a chocolate heaven.
This same love and passion for chocolate is what drove me to start, manage and enjoy this incredibly exciting venture; the art of chocolate and baking.
What’s behind the name “Maya” ?
A lot of people think “Maya” is the name of a girl, while in reality the name comes from the Mayan tribe who discovered and used choco beans thousands of years ago.
What are your plans for Ramadan?
Ramadan has always been a special month for us at Maya La Chocolaterie and Maya Delices. All our shops in Bahrain and abroad will have a special Ramadan theme. We are introducing 3 new items for Ramadan; Ramadan mousse, chocolate rangeena and a date pie. In addition to our special ‘Gerga3on’ collections, as well as catering for Ramadan ‘Ghabgahs’ and ‘majalis’.
How did you expand your business beyond Bahain ?
Franchising the business was the first item on our agenda of the Maya business strategy, right from the planning phase, with of course the vision of an IPO future. We were very well prepared and consulted with key experts in franchising. It was extremely important for us to make Bahrain a great success to help us with our plans and we were successful at that. Unfortunately, the consultation was mainly from international parties, as it was difficult to acquire local expertise without divulging the details of the concept and facing the threat of Plagiarism, specially that we have a limitation to experts in artisan chocolate and dessert production which lacks additives and preservatives.
We received our first franchisee application after just 3 months of opening the Bahrain shop, and this confirmed that we are on the right track. It was one of our Khaleeji customers who has extreme passion for the concept. Today, we have branches in Qatar, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Oman, Jordan and Lebanon. We are also in discussion with investors in the US, UK, North Africa and Asia. Since our initiation in 2007, we have successfully managed to on average open 3 franchised locations per year, and all out of Bahrain.
What were the biggest challenges you encountered?
Funding was one of the biggest challenges specially when creating and developing a brand at an international level from inception. We started this business using our own personal savings and acquiring personal loans. Despite the times we applied for funding from local banks including the ones that cater to small and medium businesses, we were turned down, as we were considered as a major risk! Not only that, but some of the banks actually took our ideas and instead of funding a venture capital project, they started competing by franchising foreign brands and introducing it in Bahrain! Such situations challenged us more and pushed our determination to create a success story, as we believe in our concept, its uniqueness and its future prospect.
Another challenge is the absence of a regulation, which protects business owners from employees who resign and give away your trade secrets. Although we have a clear clause in our employment contracts which protects us in this regard, in reality no law or regulation in Bahrain supports us as the business owners to control such situations.
What do you think of the entrepreneurship support programs and Bahrain and have you benefited from any of them?
Unfortunately not. We tried to apply for a number of the support programs offered by Tamkeen but we could not get any because of an administrative issue where our address could not be accepted by the ‘system’. We have 3 businesses, which share the same building and address, and this seems to be ‘un-processable’.
We are also not convinced with the fact that businesses are being treated equally. This just does not help the economy in any way. We initiate ideas, develop news concepts and export products out of Bahrain, this means we are contributing to the country’s GDP. Does it make sense for us to be treated just like businesses that import and resell foreign products? We don’t think so.
What has been the biggest rewards of having your own business?
I would say self-satisfaction and impact. Self-satisfaction justifies your theory and makes you a stronger person, while impact shows you the effect of your hard work on your team, economy, and even customers.
Having our own business also gives us the opportunity to contribute back to the community through joint programs and campaigns with various charity organizations in Bahrain. Every member of Maya has an obligation to give back to the community, as we owe our success to the community, to our customers.
What’s your advice to young entrepreneurs?
Never give up and think BIG! You are bound to make mistakes, and it’s such mistakes that makes you a better and stronger leader. Be creative and have faith in whatever you do. Lead a strong team who will be committed and have passion for your vision. A lot of people might put you down and have doubts in what you do. Use such negativity to push your determination to create a success story. Such obstacles should never break your vision and belief in what you do; instead it should make you indestructible and aim for bigger success stories.
Entrepreneurship is not a rosy journey, it’s actually full of obstacles and challenges, but the taste of success is exquisite.