Not even 10 years have passed since Tamer al Masri and Michael Makdah first set up Jobedu in Rainbow Street’s Souk Jara. From these relatively humble beginnings, the company has grown remarkably, and is currently looking towards the future and its expansion in Gulf markets and beyond.
By Rebecca Irvine
When Tamer al Masri and Michael Makdah first laid out their wares on a market stall at Amman’s Souk Jara in 2007, they couldn’t have predicted just how much interest there would be for t-shirts emblazoned with Jobedu’s inimitable variety of pop culture images and slogans.
The 600 t-shirts the pair took to the market in their first year were quickly snapped up, and when they returned in 2008 it was with a clearer brand identity, better quality, and a stock of 4,000 t-shirts. Since then they’ve been growing fast, opening stores in Jabal Al-Lweibdeh and Abdoun. They haven’t stopped there, though, and the company has now successfully moved into selling internationally, with their eye-catching products stocked across the Gulf and sold online, while further growth is also in the pipeline.
The two friends have known each other since their teenage years, first meeting in high school in Amman. Despite going their separate ways for university—al Masri to Canada, while Makdah remained in Jordan—they eventually reunited back in Jordan to form Jobedu. For them, the brand was at the forefront of what they sought to create. “What we wanted to do was to create a brand that people can relate to. Basically, get as many people involved as possible, and just make it an extremely public brand. We thought the easiest way to get the brand out there was t-shirts. Make a name, and make some t-shirts,” al Masri explained.
Building the Brand
They began with just $4,000, and got their first seed fund from a friend: $150,000 in installments over their first four years. Their experience of running a startup in Jordan in the mid noughties wasn’t always easy though, with investment opportunities thin on the ground. “When we started in 2007 there were no seed funds, there was no Oasis , and by 2010 when they came around we already needed a medium-sized investment, and they were still at seed. So by the time they were at medium, we needed expansion. So we were always early in terms of what the investor market offers,” al Masri said.
Getting their name out enough to have sway with producers and investors also took time. “It took us quite a bit to build clout with everyone,” al Masri said. In practice, this meant spending several years securing a credit line for just JD15,000, and building relationships with factories to establish payment terms.
A major breakthrough came in 2010, however, when Jobedu found a novel way around the problem and ran a campaign through the crowdinvesting platform, Eureeca. The campaign was a great success, with the company reaching its target in just four days, and then exceeding it to raise $190,000 from 28 different investors. “People of all walks of life invested: people that work in banking, consulting, business owners from the UAE and Qatar, some people from Saudi, and a lot from Jordan,” al Masri said. The investment, offered at 5.35 percent equity, allowed Jobedu to expand its operations and invest in hiring more staff.
A lot has changed in the structure of the company since those early days where the pair of friends ran the company together. While Makdah is no longer involved in the day-to-day running of the company, al Masri has taken on the marketing portfolio. On top of this, Zayd Abidi now heads up the entire company, with Mohammad Zaytoun as head of operations. These changes have allowed the company to respond to new challenges, and put forward its expansion plans. There are now 25 people involved with the company, something that al Masri is particularly proud of. “It’s the most surreal feeling we get seeing the team arguing about either a challenge, or something that’s better for the company … I guess our core success is that the brand is no longer ours—Michael and Tamer. It’s a very public brand, we’re really just catering now.”
The growth of the company this way can be seen in its sales, which have expanded beyond the original core base of retails stores. Jobedu now runs a successful online store, one of the fastest growing sectors for their sales. In 2014, online sales accounted for just 0.78 of total sales, while this year it’s 5 percent. Orders have increased from five per week to 10 to 15 each week, mostly from Saudi Arabia and the UAE, and even further afield from the United States.
Since 2013, Jobedu products have been sold through Virgin Megastores in the UAE and online at Namshi.com, adding further international dimensions to their portfolio. The company also has a small team on the ground in the United States, tackling that market and handling the growth of Jobedu America with an increasing number of online sales there. The relative ease of expanding into these different markets is something the team has found refreshing. They’ve managed to secure a credit line in the United States of $100,000, which contrasts starkly with the JD15,000 they got their hands on in Jordan.
Beyond this, the umbrella company of Jobedu has branched out further, with a growing merchandise company, Merchmallow. The company produces merchandise for a huge range of companies from gyms, automobiles, NGOs, and more. Merchmallow now accounts for around 40 percent of revenue, and looks set to expand even further in the future.
Returning to its roots though, t-shirts remain the most iconic of Jobedu’s products, and still the largest selling item in their retail stores. The range goes well beyond that now, and is impressively extensive. The apparel range extended into t-shirts for children, babies, racer-back and long-sleeve varieties, as well as onesies and hoodies. There’s also a range of key rings, bookmarks, and posters. There’s no sign of this slowing down either. “Hopefully one day we’ll even go further into jackets and just have a complete apparel line and accessories,” al Masri explained.
The Jobedu brand and its brand identity are without a doubt one of the company’s key strengths, and it’s readily apparent that the identity of the company is something of great value during its founding and growth. “The brand we wanted to create is a brand that speaks to youth and we want it to be as homegrown as possible.”
Perhaps most illustrative of this mindset is the company’s name itself: Jobedu offers a clear reference to Jordan and its Bedouin heritage. This is a particularly self-conscious move, with Bedouin values providing a source of inspiration during the founding of the company. Al Masri said: “[The Bedouins] are a people who make the most out of nothing, and that’s exactly what every entrepreneur tries to do. You have to survive and flourish in very harsh environments, and as an entrepreneur, you get minimal help but you still have an idea that you want to push … So the idea was why look far for a model for inspiration if it’s right there?”
It might seem counterintuitive then that a brand with such a strong Jordanian identity could have global appeal. But that’s exactly what the team is aiming for. “Our goal is to be the first Arab brand that goes global, just in terms of an Arab apparel lifestyle brand,” al Masri said. With the online sales racking up not only in the Arab world but also in the United States and other developed markets, it doesn’t seem like that’s entirely unlikely either. International sales of current designs, even featuring Arabic calligraphy, has been strong. “We’ve started to export Arab culture, which is awesome,” he said. Beyond this though, the company is seeking to not only export Arab culture, but to “export and include.” For this reason many new designs are “very western-inspired,” either by Hollywood, television series, or pop-cultural icons.
The values of the brand can be seen most clearly in action when looking at the range of designers involved in creating Jobedu’s iconic products. The median age of those involved with the company is just 23, and several of the designers creating new content are even as young as 18 or 19. As well as continuing to work with Jordanian designers, the company also extends its international reach in this department, with designers from Iran and Morocco becoming involved with the aim “to get as many flavors as possible mixed up.”
The next move for the company is to raise its first Series A fund, something that will allow for far greater operational expansion. For part of this, the company is considering returning once again to the crowdinvesting platform of Eureeca. Beyond proving to be an effective way for the company to gain investment, this also lines up with the company’s core goals. “That’s part of the brand—to make it owned by the people.” To facilitate this, the ticket size will be vastly decreased, from the $1,000 it was on the company’s first outing on the platform, to $200. With this, the team hopes to attract investors as young as university students, to allow the company to be their first investment. “If the youth are creating it, what if the youth owned it as well?” said al Masri.
The move to venture capital financing comes on the back of significant growth for the company in recent years. In 2013, the company grew 10 percent, while this had leapt to 25 percent in 2014. Meanwhile, this year the company has grown 50 percent, and already reached last year’s sales of $600,00. This year, they hope to close around $800,000, with that increasing significantly in the future given plans for expanded distribution.
One way the company is going about this expanded distribution is through a franchise in Saudi Arabia, with the operations currently being set up before the store opens there. Ultimately, expansion through opening their own stores is the ideal for Jobedu. Despite being sold in outlets in the GCC, the company currently has none of its own stores outside Jordan. As a result, they are looking to open stores in malls within the Kingdom as a precursor to opening stores in the GCC. While online retail is the fastest growing dimension of Jobedu, the in-store retail experience is something they are keen to preserve. “Our stores are where the staff is always welcoming, it’s an experience in itself just to go and hang out with the people there.”
However, such rapid growth has not been without its challenges. As a company built by young entrepreneurs, the team finds the need to be adaptable to its new, and often novel, situations. “We’re still working on aligning ourselves to what better fits the needs of this growth. We’ve never dealt with this before. We’ve never had a regional brand; we’ve never had multiple stores.” With a flexible approach, and ensuring they continually check in with their goals, the company is coping with the challenges it meets. “We’re getting a grasp of things. Next year should be a much, much smoother year,” al Masri said.
As the company moves ahead into its future expansion, the preservation of its core identity is something that is very much considered. “Our partner in Saudi is very much like us in terms of mindset, and in terms of the dedication to culture and making it accessible,” al Masri explained. “This is something that gives the Jordanian team peace of mind. “There are a lot of people who can just take the brand and explode it in terms of sales and reach, but we’d rather grow organically,” he said.
If anything could exemplify Jobedu, and arguably the reason for its continued appeal, this commitment to their core brand is it. “I would like people to see the company as a creative, cultural merchandiser, a creative cultural company that puts the youth at the forefront of everything it does,” al Masri said.