Startup MGZN recently caught up with Ali Rajaie, CEO & Founder of Yamal Boats, and Layla Al Sharif, Owner & Cake Artist at Sugar & Lace. A husband-and-wife team with widely divergent areas of expertise.
Ahmed AlSawafiri: We’re so glad you guys are here, and we’re extremely proud of your individual success stories. So from the beginning—please tell us about yourselves.
Ali: I had always wanted to start my own business, but never knew exactly what I wanted to do. I just went with the flow over the course of my education and career. I went to Canada and graduated as an electrical engineer specializing in microelectronics, which didn’t have any kind of application in this region at the time. When I came back to Bahrain, I got a job as a system developer in one of the leading banks, which was not really my thing. I excelled at it, but I was not happy. I was spending eight (and sometimes twelve) hours each day doing something I didn’t enjoy—so I quit.
I had an opportunity with the family business, in real estate. I did that for two years. Again, I was not very happy, because I was not able to do things the way that I wanted to. I did some soul-searching and thought back to my childhood, trying to figure out the field that would really excite me. I found out that I loved to build things, create things. When I was a kid, I used to break all of my toys and make new ones; then I’d break them again, and make something else. That was my passion. I also loved the sea, diving, and nature. Gradually, the idea emerged: manufacturing boats. My passion is not necessarily in boats but in the manufacturing process itself. I started with that.
From day one, there were a lot of challenges around financing and startup capital. I learned that when you have a dream or objective in your life, it’s important not to think about the obstacles first. Think about what you want to do—the objective, the goal you want to reach. Get convinced and believe in it—then you can approach it. Whenever obstacles get in the way, there is always a way to solve them.
Layla: When Ali started his business, I still had a job. I kept telling him, “Do what you want to do now. Get it over and done with, so when it’s my turn, you’re already settled in.”[Laughing]
Ahmed: That’s a good approach; very smart.
Layla: The fact that Ali started his business first really helped me because he knew how I felt at my day job, and how unfulfilling it is. When you don’t want to be there anymore, you’re no longer passionate about your job, and you really just want to follow your own dreams. The second I sat down and had a really serious conversation with him about leaving my job, he got it right away. He said, “You know what? I know what you’re going through.”
With the economic situation in Bahrain, things were very shaky. My job was pretty stable. I was a manager at Gulf Air, had been there for seven years with lots of promise;, my salary was great, the perks were great, and I had benefits and medical. It was really good, but you know, there comes a point when you think, it doesn’t matter. Whatever else they’re going to give me, I don’t want it anymore. I don’t want the extra money. I was just finished, you know?
Baking is something I have always done since I was a kid. I always thought that I should be an artist, as in painting on canvas because that’s what we think an artist is. For some reason, though, I couldn’t get myself to sit and paint. One thing led to another. I was experimenting with the things I loved doing. I started getting into life coaching because I really enjoyed helping people. I was in process of becoming a certified co-active coach. At the same time, I was pursuing cake decorating. I was at a crossroads in my life. I didn’t actually choose cakes; I got sucked into it without making a conscious decision. It just happened. It’s like when you meet someone you are destined to marry. It happens so quickly, without you even knowing. It’s the same kind of pull, the same gravity. The universe decided for me.
I looked up schools and found a college of confectionary arts in Toronto—a two-month program. I thought there was no way I could leave my job for two months—they wouldn’t let me. It was that phase when Gulf Air had started giving out packages to their staff. We were supposed to have meetings with the Acting CEO about the vision of the company. I already had this gut feeling in my stomach that it was time for me to exit, but I didn’t tell anyone. The Acting CEO met with the whole company, and I thought, if their visions aren’t in line with mine, I will take it as a cue to leave.
It was the toughest decision of my life—tougher than choosing a spouse, tougher than moving to Bahrain from Dubai, tougher than choosing which university to attend. It was so big for me, but I had this future vision, and it didn’t matter to me what anyone else thought except my husband. We agreed that I would go alone and leave him back with my kids, who were aged three and four years old. You know that in this part of the world, it is taboo for a mom to leave her children at such a young age. The day I stepped foot in Canada was the first day of Ramadan and I had to fast crazy hours for the whole month with 7 AM classes.
There were many obstacles, but I just brushed them off. When the kids are older they won’t even remember those two months. Fasting? Who cares? I wanted to be there. I excelled in all of my classes there. I put my heart into everything I did and learned.
When I came back, I knew I had entered a level that no one else in Bahrain was at. I was now the first local certified professional. Sugar & Lace was born and things just took off.
Ahmed: Ali, did the fact that you were both working make your decision to leave your job easier, considering that there was an alternate source of income contributing to the family?
Ali: Yes, definitely. At that time, having another source of income as a backup was something that helped make our decision easier. The most important thing was the support I got from her. When I discussed the idea with her, she told me to go for it.
Ahmed: And were you then in a stable, financial position for her to take the risk and leave her job?
Ali: No. A big no. It was very difficult. I remember perfectly the day she came home and told me: I had a panic attack. It was the first time in my life that had happened. I think you learn, though, that you can always find a solution for your problems. One way or another, if you are serious enough, with determination and persistence, you can pull it off. It is possible; you can manage it. The most important thing is that you and your spouse are in sync and on board together.
Layla: When you make the decision to become an entrepreneur, I think it’s the bravest decision you can make, especially if you are leaving your job. I’m not scared of anything now. Put me into anything, and I’ll make do. I think that was the most difficult decision for both of us.
Ahmed: In the past, entrepreneurs were people who didn’t graduate, couldn’t find a job, or started up out of desperation. But now, a lot of people are leaving extremely good jobs, very senior roles, by choice. It’s a social shift.
Ali: In Bahrain, there are a lot of educated, creative, talented people, and there is a good ecosystem to support them. I’m talking about Tamkeen, Bahrain Business Incubator Centerand Bahrain Development Bank, for example—and startups. That culture is starting to build, gradually and nicely.
Layla: We have a beautiful culture in Bahrain now that all of these startups are happening.
Ahmed: It’s definitely a good thing. It’s just different. It’s not what we were brought up to be.
Layla: This is how we want to bring our children up. My parents were both working parents, and they worked until they retired. No one ventured into business, and that’s why they couldn’t relate to what I was doing, or really support it. They were advocating what they knew best. But now that they can see tangible results (not just a concept in my mind), they are really supporting me.
Bader Kamal: So, how do you manage? Everyone who owns their own business gets stressed. How do you deal with the children?
Layla: I don’t get stressed.[Laughing]
Ali: She’s a cool, person to have around. It’s difficult. Sometimes, I come home very stressed. I try to go into my own cocoon be by myself for a little bit, and just cool down. The next day, I think about it, and try to get through it. With your spouse, there should be a kind of understanding. She does very well at cooling things down. If I am angry, pissed off, or whatever, she will try to retreat a little bit and not make it a big problem.
Ahmed: Throughout the startup experience, did you have any mentors?
Ali: For my business, one of the main people who helped me get through all of this was Dr. Samer Al Jishi, Managing Director at BFG International,
BFG International had a boats line by the name of Voyager Marine. When BFG International restructured their business, Voyager marine was discontinued but all the boat designs, molds and equipments remained as part of their assets. I spotted an opportunity and approached them by proposing re-introducing these boats under Yamal Boats brand and BFG License.
That kind of collaboration between an established organization and a startup like Yamal Boats is a good example of how SMEs and Larger organizations can collaborate for a better economical echo system in Bahrain.
According to my initial feasibility study, I needed approx BD 500,000 to start my business but with my collaboration with BFG International, I was able to start my business with a startup capital less than BD 100,000.
I still keep a close relationship with Dr. Samer and always seek his advice in many aspects of my business. Technical knowledge transfer, Technical support, Space support and financial support are few examples of things BFG offered and me and continue to offer me.
AHMED: You reduced it from 500,000 to…?
Ali: I started my business with 60,000.
Ahmed: Was it financed personally?
Ali: It was both personal and from the bank, from Bahrain Development Bank. BDB’s unlimited support and encouragement made a big difference in where Yamal Boats is today.
Ahmed: And how about you, Layla?
Layla: I don’t have a mentor like Ali does, but seeing a lot of young Bahraini women venturing into their own businesses definitely helped. They are close in age to me, close in lifestyle, and these were the people who made me think, you know, if they can do it, I can do it. I can definitely do it.
I approached and spoke with the people I was inspired by. I met with them, and I came to know them personally.
Ali had already started his business, so I also learned a lot just by living the entrepreneurial life through his eyes.
Ahmed: How about the way you started? Did you basically fund it yourself, through the exit package you got from Gulf Air?
Layla: Yes. I invested it into my study, and stay in Canada.
Bader: In your business, do you do smaller projects and cakes?
Layla: I do when its something that excites me, but I try to take only bigger cakes. There’s no other person in Bahrain who can do large-scale, and honestly, that’s what I enjoy. I have a certain style of elegant cakes that I love to do and people are starting to recognize that, which is attracting more of those kinds of orders. My ultimate passion lies in wedding cakes and I have quite a few lined up for the winter wedding season. i
Bader: Do you think you will reach a point in your career where you’ll have to sacrifice certain things—values or your style—in order to sustain a project?
Layla: Unfortunately, I think this happens to all businesses when they grow—especially when you start hiring people, and need to trust others to do part of your job, So I’m still contemplating that.
Ahmed: Ali, can you give us an idea of your startup parameters? What do you offer, and what is your product right now?
Ali: We offer pleasure boats. We do not offer normal fishing boats or luxury boats—it’s something in between. Sports-fishing boats, basically. Our clients range from beginners to experts because now we have a line of 14-foot to 35-foot boats. We also Introduced and 33 foot Carbon Fiber Speedboat that can achieve 73mph.
We are also becoming very well-known in Bahrain for offering high-quality Boat and Yacht refurbishment and modification services. We can do anything from repairs and paint jobs to the full exterior and interior modifications.We also offer marina floating docks systems. We’ve installed our first project, and we have many more in the works.
We also ventured into other areas of fiberglass and composites fields such as Carbon Fiber manufacturing. Our first Carbon Fiber project was manufacturing a full car body for Bahrain University GO-Green clean energy car. That was the start of our collaboration with Bahrain University which is considered a milestone in Yamal Boat’s Journey.
Ahmed: If you don’t mind, could you list some starting prices, to give people an idea?
Ali: The Skater 140, the 14-footer, starts at 1,200 dinars and can go up to 4,500 dinars for a full option one including an engine and trailer. The SeaQuest 210, the 21-footer starts from 4,500 up to 12,000 dinars, also for a full option one including an engine and trailer. Then we have the SeaQuest 350, a 35-footer, which starts at 16,000 dinars without an engine or trailer. The Viper 330, our 33-footer high-speed boat, starts at 50,000 dinars, and this includes a Twin Mercury Verdado 300 horsepower engines.
Ahmed: Who are your main clients?
Ali: For the Boats, our clients are locals and expats from beginners to experts. We also have clients from Saudi Arabia and UAE and currently exploring the Kuwait Market.
For the repair and Maintenance works, our main clients are yacht and pleasure boat owners. We have a good base of expat boat owners who approach us for high-quality boat jobs.
Bader: Have you ever had issues because of the price of your product? Do you offer solutions like financing?
Ali: For our customers, yes. We have an alliance with a specific bank (AlBaraka Bank), and they have been very supportive of my business.
Ahmed: In either of your businesses, have you benefitted from any of the Tamkeen programs or Bahrain Development Bank programs?
Ali: Yes I have. I got a startup loan and space allocation at BBIC from BDB in addition to financial advisory help as well as marketing and promotion help.
I also Benefited from Tamkeen mainly for machinery, Marketing and Exhibition support.
Ahmed: How did you find the whole experience?
Ali: Of course, Tamkeen schemes had a very positive impact on my business but I think as their client base grew rapidly, the process of getting access to the schemes became more difficult. On the other hand, some beneficiaries exploited the system and treated Tamkeen Schemes as a free source of money which forced Tamkeen to tighten their selection, authorization and monitoring process which in return impacted the genuine beneficiary who needed to benefit from the schemes the most.
Another problem was that service providers for Tamkeen Beneficiaries started raising up their fees whenever they have an inquiry through Tamkeen leading to false price inflation.
I also suggest that Tamkeen should consider allocating scheme funds to businesses according to the nature of the business industry. For example, it is not fair that a factory with heavy machinery requirements receives the same amount of machinery fund as a small Ice Cream shop.
Ahmed: Were you affected by the fact that Tamkeen stopped their program?
Ali: Yes. I approached them for the second scheme, but by the time I had finished all my planning, they had closed the program. I had plans for marketing, new machinery, and exhibition participation but I have to put these plans on hold until they reinstate their program.
Bader: If something really amazing were to happen to you or your career tomorrow, what would it be? What would change everything?
Ali: I really want to shift my business from build-to-order boats to mass production so it will be great if I can find a party who can place a large order for boats so I can take my business to the next level.
Layla: I’m trying to get Ali to do something in mass production for the cake industry. I tell him all the time, the cake industry in Bahrain is not exploited at all. Everything we buy, all the materials and tools we use, come from abroad—but these are things we can supply and create. I really want to do something to bring the cake industry here up to scale with the rest of the world. Other countries are doing shows, competitions, and events, and reality shows, that’s what I really want to start in Bahrain.
Bader: You are trying to contribute to a cultural shift through what you’ve experienced. We’re doing the same at Startup Bahrain—trying to elevate the cultural startup. Every startup entrepreneur is doing the same thing, in some way, and has the revolutionary urge to change things. Times are different today.
Ali: I have a personal interest in changing people’s mindsets and push them to be more entrepreneurial and really look at entrepreneurship as alternative career option and lifestyle. I see entrepreneurship as a way of life rather than just someone who starts a business. Entrepreneurs have certain characters like innovative thinking, risk-taking, persistence and high self-confidence and most importantly have NO Fear of failure. You can have these qualities whether you are a business owner, employee or even a parent.
Layla: That’s my ultimate goal; to inspire others to live their dreams. When I was doing a lot of soul-searching and thinking about life and my purpose of being, I realized that it is to inspire people. My cake business just gave me a voice, a platform. Now I can genuinely lead by example and say, “Take control of your life and what you want to do. It’s in your hands.”
Bader: The meaning of your life is to give meaning to other people’s lives.
Ali: Do something you love. If you have a job, you should have a passion for it. Don’t do it just because they’re paying you for it, or because it gives you a nice social status. All of these reasons are not the right ones. If you need to be spending 8, 9, 10, or even 16 hours of your life there on a daily basis, you have to enjoy it.
Layla: Entrepreneurship is not for everyone—and it shouldn’t be. We need people at jobs, we need nine-to-fivers. We also need types who think, no—nine to five doesn’t work for me.
Ali: Even people at stable jobs need the entrepreneurial mentality. You should be able to add something of value to your business or yourself, and learn something new. Don’t sit there just to get your salary at the end of the month.
I remember, when I was doing my thesis for my degree, I went to a Venture Capital Bank and met one of the managers there. I was talking about our culture, and he said that all Bahrainis are employees in the morning and entrepreneurs in the evening. It’s true. A good example is a civil engineer that I know who has a government job and a very successful money generating civil engineering firm. Although his business is generating him a very good source of income, he is still clinging to his government job until retirement age. Just imagine what he can do if he focuses all his time and energy in his business!!
Bader: If an entrepreneur had 1,000 BD, what is one of the best things they could do with that money right now?
Layla: Invest in yourself, because knowledge is power. Acquire the skillset that will make you a professional in your industry. If I didn’t have the skillset, I’d be just another baker. we are at our day jobs, we don’t have time. We get too committed, we forget about ourselves, and we don’t know who we are at the end of the day. That’s why people are like, “I don’t know what business I want to open.” They haven’t spent enough time to explore the things they like to do, the things they’re good at.
Ahmed: What do you think of the younger generation using a tiny salary of 400, 500, or 700 dinars to get a Lexus?
Layla: You know, it’s not right, but it’s not bad at the beginning of your career, because it’s the first time you’re making money. I spent money on myself when I started working, but it should just be a phase.
Ali: Obviously, buying a car is not a terrible decision. It’s costly, yes; but buying a car is different from buying an expensive car. You don’t have to set yourself up for failure.
ahmed: You can live moderately and use that money for something else.
Layla: Yes. When you are young, you don’t have responsibilities yet, and you are making money. It’s the best time to experiment financially. You still have time to make up for it.
Bader: Okay, this is a slightly negative question. Does having a partner who also runs their own business in any way slow down your own business? Would there ever be a scenario in which it could slow you down somehow, or affect you?
Ali: It might require compromises from each partner. At the end of the day, we are living under one roof, and there is a limit to what we can do. Sometimes, there will be problems, but I think they should be discussed.
Layla: The biggest compromise would probably be time, because each person wants to spend the maximum amount time in their own businesses.
Bader: If you were completely free now, and had nothing to do or worry about but still had your careers, what would you do in your spare time? No other responsibilities or obligations.
Layla: Traveling. I used to travel a lot; for work or leisure when I was with the airlines. When I left the perks of the tickets didn’t matter at all, , I am going to make enough money to buy my own tickets.
Ahmed: How did you hear about Startup Bahrain, and what is your honest opinion about it?
Ali: I thought, what a great idea. I see the energy and the response of the people, and I think it’s really a great thing.
Layla: It’s a great thing for Bahrain, as well as for entrepreneurs. We are each other’s support system. We feed off of each other, and we are inspired by each other. I see what you are doing, and it just fuels me to keep doing what I’m doing. We really need this.
Ahmed: It is very important that we help each other out, because no one else is.
Ali: The startup mornings you do are amazing, because sometimes, just sitting with other businessmen and talking about your daily problems is like business therapy. It’s amazing how many things we all have in common. One guy might be a few years ahead of you, and has already gone through all of this. Another might say, “I had exactly the same problem, and this is what I did,” and you can apply that to your business. You can get a lot of inspiration out of the assemblies. That is how I started my business. I started meeting people, and they said, “Oh yeah, you can do it.”
Ahmed: You said when you have an objective or a dream—if you want to go somewhere—it’s important to set all of your problems aside, and just focus on that direction. As problems come, you can manage them. That is absolutely true.
Layla: One problem at a time.
Ali: And you will solve them. This is what I like to do, and this is what I want to do with my life.
Layla: When you believe in it, you can see it, its important to keep your focus on the objective, as many things will crop up on the way.
Ahmed: For sure! Thank you Ali and Layla for giving us the opportunity to chat with you. You’re both very inspirational, this was great!