Here is the story of a passionpreneur who started on his own following a rejection and has established a successful venture out of his love for shoes.
Shakespeare once said:
“I have seen many unhappy kings but many happy shoemakers.”
This is a story of one such happy and passionate footwear technologist, whose designs were once dumped into the dustbin for not being up to the mark but now are loved and sought after in Nepal and abroad. Presenting to you – Mr. Ahmad Dulla, who has seen it all, the good and the ugly, the failures and the successes, but has always trusted his own craft and pursued his passion for shoes.
Turning Passion Into Career: One Step At A Time
As the morning shows the day, Dulla’s love for shoes was quite evident since his childhood. A creative child who loved anything but studies, he barely passed his exams and hated maths like anything. But he liked shoes. He would ask his parents to buy him expensive shoes all the time. He loved shoes so much that whenever his parents bought him new shoes, instead of wearing them, he would hang them up in the wall and wonder how they were made.
His lack of interest in studies gave his parents no choice but to enroll him in a boarding school in Kalimpong, India, but that did not help either. To avoid complex computations and number crunching of mathematics, he choose a safer and simpler path of studying humanities in his high school. But how long could he escape the realities of the life. Eventually, he was hit hard by the ultimate question that would change his life i.e.” What could he do in his life” with mediocre marks and that too as a humanities student. While he meant no disrespect to the field of study itself but like a science or a commerce student who could pursue prestigious professional courses, everyone assumed a humanities student had very limited options. Dulla vividly remembers how he googled “what can a humanities student do in life” and how he accidentally stumbled upon “footwear technology” among various options:
“As a humanities student in a society with preconceived notions for certain jobs to be labelled as successful and rest to be failures, I happened to browse the internet to figure out what I could do in future after my high school. Maybe it was the destiny and my love for shoes, I clicked a website that talked about a course about footwear technology and it totally grasped my attention. The course was masterly designed with 80% of practical and 20% of theory classes. And that was exactly I was looking for. “
Back then people had no idea about such a course or a profession of a footwear technologist and he had hard times explaining his career choice to his parents and friends. His friends would even make fun of him and call him “Mochi” (meaning a cobbler). They would also say that they will see him in the streets mending people’s shoes. His own family members would ask why he was planning to do such a lower class job. But deep down, he wanted to pursue this path for two reasons. First, his interests in the shoes and second, this was an unconventional career path and an uncharted journey where no one among his known ones had ventured into.
Despite all these, he applied to the Diploma course in Footwear Technology at the prestigious Footwear Design and Development Institute, Noida, India. It must be his passion for shoes or the strong commitment to do something in life as a humanities student or his confidence in himself to take the road less travelled and make all the difference, he got admission where out of 20,000 applicants only 60 would be eventually selected.
The course helped Dulla build a solid foundation about the craft of shoe making. The course structure was exactly what Dulla was looking for: more practical without having to read bulky books. This further helped spiked his interest in shoes and made him a hard working and curious disciple. He liked the classes so much that he would never miss a class and had the highest attendance.
He vividly remembers:
“We were taught how to not only make shoes but also the inner components and also the technical aspects of how machines were operated. As I learnt more my curiosity increased and I would desperately wait for the next class. My interest level was top most. Everyday I learnt something new and after class I would practice everything I learnt. I became so good that I was making shoes and selling it to my friends. I was so occupied designing and making the shoes that I even missed the college placements, which I only realized when it was over. The college administration came to know about my little commercial endeavor in the college and they had to send me back. At the end I had nothing, no more classes, no more making shoes and no job.”
Starting On Your Own
After missing the placements and being sent away from college, he had nothing to do. So he joined an internship in Bombay at an export house where the designing team designed shoes for all big European brands. He was supposed to do the internship during his college but he was too occupied on his own at the college making and selling shoes to his friends. As an intern, he did everything else but designing. He fondly remembers:
“I was busy acting as peon, ringing the bell for factory workers, doing a lot of photocopies, taking stuffs here and there. But the good part was I was talking to a lot people, esp. the factory workers, with whom I am still in touch today and whenever I have some problem with shoes or any other technical problem, I always go back to them.”
More than designing, he was handling the logistics and at the same time making lifelong relationship by talking to people and learning from them. During the last month of his internship, I was supposed to do a designing project focussed on summer footwear collection for women. I was really happy that I could get my hands on designing finally and got everything ready in 2 weeks. He fondly remembers:
“When I presented, they rejected all my designs. One of the design according to my supervisor was so bad, so poor that he asked me to throw it in the dustbin. I was taken aback and perplexed, so asked him again if he was sure about it. He said it was the best place for the design. And I had no choice but to throw it in the dustbin.”
But before he left the room, he clicked the picture of that design and posted on facebook without any caption or thought. To his surprise, he started getting enquiries about the shoe followed with orders. This actually instilled hope and confidence that he did not need anyone’s validation and neither was he suited to work for someone else when he could design and make his own shoes. Therefore, he moved back to Nepal to be close to his dear ones and pursue his own venture. He shares:
“When you are away working under someone, you work six days a week and get one day off which is spent in cleaning and resting. There is no one to look after you if you fall sick, no time for eating and no one to ask about how you are doing. My decision to get back was the solution to be my own boss and grow with the support and concerns of my family”
On his return to Nepal, he noticed how limited were the the choices available to the customers in Nepal in terms of premium branded shoes. While there were few international brands, the local Nepali brands in the premium segment were non-existent. Therefore, he decided to focus on the premium segment and hence started making premium shoes. The journey that started with the initial capital of 2.5 lakh rupees (approx. USD 2200) borrowed from his father and a lot of passion is now one of the most successful shoe brand in the country.
Here is what Dulla has to say about the USP of “Dulla Shoes“:
- Real Leather- First and foremost unique selling point about our product is that we use real leather. There are many shops and brands that say that but they use synthesized and mixed leather which is not real leather at all.
- Limited Edition- Our products are limited edition. We only make 100 pairs of a design and it will never be re-made. We want to make it premium and special, something worth having.
- Hand Made- Everything is handmade. All the processes, stitching, designing, everything is handcrafted. He mentions that he wants to teach his craft and pass it on to other people in the future.
Lessons From The Journey So Far
While the journey of over 10 years have been an interesting one for Dulla, he is a firm believer that hard work and passion ultimately pays off. Within few years of starting his venture, he started getting the recognition for his work and through word of mouth his craft flourished. The media kept featuring him and his work and ultimately made “Dulla Shoes” a well known premium footwear brand in Nepal and abroad. Here are few lessons he had to share from the roller coaster ride so far:
- About the trend of starting a business: Entrepreneurship is the buzzword today and everyone is interested in starting something of their own to get that tag of an “entrepreneur” these days. Upon asking about such trends, Dulla shares that passion is very important and you got to love what you do, you cannot start a business just because the majority of the world is doing so or a particular sector is profitable. He further added,
“The business may be profitable now but it may not last. In my case, I love what I do and I continuously want to learn about the art of making shoes. Trend alone is not enough of a reason to start a business.”
- Familiarity with the business processes: Dulla admits that when he started back in 2012, he did not know about the business process and legal compliances involved. All he wanted was to make great shoes. He did not even care to register his business or the trademark. He learnt his lesson that hard way. He emphasizes the importance of legal compliance in the business and explains no matter how good you are at what you do but you should complete the basic formalities when you start your venture. Just because he did not focus on registration and getting approvals for his company and the trademark, he had to lose all he had worked on for an entire year just like that. He had to start again with a new company: The Factory Team. But as they say mistakes make great lessons, he has continuously learnt and evolved as an entrepreneur. He shares:
“Everything just has been a one step at a time process for me. Every business idea and model came from experience and customers. Experience is the best teacher.”
- Identifying the opportunities from within the business: Everything that he does can be traced back to two aspects of the business: products and customers. He has always believed in the idea that “customer is the king/queen” and his designs have often been inspired from his customers and their needs. His new wedding collection that is currently very popular is inspired by a customer who came frequently to buy shoes for the wedding. That helped his realize that there was a market for shoes for the weddings in Nepal.
What Has Changed? Comparing Now With Then
“Before we had a small market and it was comparatively easy to manage. I did everything from marketing to production to delivery myself. Now, the business has grown, the team has gotten bigger, and there is more demand in the market as our customers have also grown, so there are more challenges as we grow.”
Working Alone to Building A TEAM
For the 3 years, Dulla used to do everything alone. He felt business is easy and could handle everything like an one man army. It’s only with time and the growth, he realized the need for a team. He emphasizes how everyone is equally important in his team and one they don the uniform, no one is more important that other and no one is able to tell who the manager is and who the office assistant is.
“Everyone works as a team.“
The Way Forward
As Steve Jobs said you can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards, Dulla today looks back and realizes how far he has come. He started his own business without any idea about entrepreneurship. All he wanted was to pursue his passion and make that passion a career. That passion has today transformed him into an entrepreneur. Dulla reiterates that the best thing about pursuing the passion as a career has been that he was never in any hurry and he has enjoyed the whole process. He passed on many offers and opportunities to grow faster and even bigger because he does not only view his venture as a money making business. He envisions it as a work of art that provides him complete creative freedom and the satisfaction that money would not provide. His idea of growth is to grow steadily and organically. He feels one should stretch his/her legs according to the coverlet. He adds:
I have no specific plans, I am keeping myself open and letting my creativity and intuition guide me. I am continuously learning, moving forward and growing organically. Someday, I want to write every detail and every trouble that I faced in my life so that someone else doesn’t have to go through it all and they can all learn from my experience and mistakes.
Message To The Aspiring Entrepreneurs
Here is what Dulla has to say to the aspiring entrepreneurs:
- Failure: You should never be afraid of failure. Our society treats failures and mistakes in a negative way, as if it was a crime to make mistake or fail. But that will only deter you from doing anything and without doing you will never know. In my case I embraced failures and never saw it as the problem but the part of the journey. I have repeated my classes in schools. With repetition I learnt better. Sometimes my designs do not come up as I wanted, I re-work on them because I take it as a new learning opportunity. Until you fail, you will never know the taste of success. So, fail, fail fast, fail forward, and learn from those failure. It’s absolutely alright to fail.
- Target Market: You should always know your target market. You cannot sell your products to everyone and make everyone happy. There will be people who will like it and those who will chose something else over your products. Many people also have the misconception that “Made in Nepal” products should be cheap as they are inferior in quality. But, we too can produce premium products which can compete with the international brands not just on the quality but also the price. If someone says my products are expensive, then I believe that my products were never meant for them. I have my own target market and accordingly design my products keeping my target customers in mind.
- Passion and Consistent Work: Passion and consistent pursuit of that passion is what differentiates you from the rest and determine where you reach. If you aren’t passionate about it, don’t do it. Don’t do it just for money, money is something that will eventually come.
The venture that Dulla started with a small capital and a lot of passion has grown manifold and continues to grow. Learn as you grow has been the success mantra for Dulla and his “The Factory Team” has grown from a one man venture to a family of over 25 members and still growing. Dulla and his team have continuously evolved over the last ten years to establish themselves as a well-known premium footwear brand.
In the global footwear industry that boasts of a ~USD 250 billion market size, Nepal’s contribution is about 1%. The Nepali market today is flooded with various international and domestic brands but “Dulla Shoes” have been able to stand out from the rest and have a very dedicated set of loyal customers. People who complained about the price have become regular customers and to meet the ever growing demands, Dulla has been opening new stores. We wish him all the best for his venture and sincerely thank him for his contribution to the Nepali economy as a whole. We need more enterprising Nepalis (उद्यमी नेपाली ) like Dulla to realize the vision of “Prosperous Nepal”.