Stephanie Hanna, French married to a Lebanese, built a career in investment banking in London, Dubai and Lebanon before she decided to take a break after having her twins. The break did not last too long for this mother of three: “I wanted to start something by myself but I’m not the kind of person who has a million idea about what to do!” Stephanie’s A-HA moment came when the nursery required her to label all the belongings of her 3 kids. True to her habit of buying everything online, Stephanie’s label hunt took her all around the world, since she couldn’t find a local company who provides that service. She ended up buying her labels from the U.S., which took 3 weeks to be delivered. “This is when the idea came up. Why shouldn’t I do that? It was very easy and it shouldn’t take too much of my brain to organize it. So I decided: let’s do some labels here and deliver them to the entire MENA region!”
Stephanie finds it funny that coming from a background where your main job was to create business plans and financial models, she didn’t have any of those when she launched her startup. Product research and competition analysis meant ordering labels from all over the world, recording the time it takes them to be delivered and testing their durability in her dishwasher. This is when she decided that her competitive edge would be the quality of the tags she made. And just like that ESSMAK.com was designed and built. ESSMAK allows you to customize labels with your child’s name and favorite design in a few minutes, place an order and receive them within a few days. It removes the hassle of having to write your child’s name on a handful of blank labels that would gradually fade away and peel before the school year ends.
For her first year in business, Stephanie focused on the local market, targeting the visitors of Faraya and Faqra summer exhibitions, right before the school year started. “The best way to introduce the people to the website was by showing them the actual product. Although online shopping is not very common in Lebanon, building an initial physical contact helped driving traffic to the website later on,” explains Stephanie.
Obviously the local market is not the only market that Stephanie is interested in. She had already built her website in Arabic and had aimed to launch ESSMAK in the Middle Eastern market, having particular interest in the Emirates and Saudi Arabia. She drives business to her website by creating ad campaigns on social media and networking platforms popular in each targeted country.
Entering the competition of Femme Francophone Entrepreneure 2015 organized by Berytech and the Agence Francophone Universitaire was a jump-station for Stephanie and her startup. The rules of the competition required that she had a vision and a proper business plan in place: “It made me think really hard of where I want to be and where I want to take the company.” Contestants received trainings in all aspects of business management and one-on-one coaching sessions to perfect their business model. Only one would eventually receive the first prize: ESSMAK.com.
Winning the competition gave ESSMAK a new cash injection and plenty of exposure. An article written about her participation and victory in L’orient le Jour brought interested investors to Stephanie’s door. But Stephanie is not ready for investors yet: “The hardest part about bringing in investors is the feeling that you are selling a piece of your baby. You question whether it is the right time, if you should wait to have a better valuation, wait a little bit more to see how the sales are going for the first time during a full peek season and see how you can negotiate. The final decision is based on the growth strategy that you have set for your business.” All will come in right time.
On the personal level, winning the competition was a form of validation of Stephanie’s entrepreneurial endeavor to her circle of family, friends and acquaintances: “Some people didn’t know what I was really doing. They didn’t take me seriously at first. They thought I was one of those ladies who open a business for fun. I’m not bored! I’m launching a business to make money. Otherwise, I can perfectly keep myself occupied with lots of other things!”
This is where Stephanie feels the strain of Middle Eastern culture, which fosters the concept of ‘a mom who doesn’t NEED to work should stay home and take care of the kids’. She has a different point of view: “I think it is very rewarding to be a ‘mompreneur’, a title I wear with pride. I come from a very different background; my mom always worked and I was always top of the class. In fact, a lot of studies show that children achieve a lot better when they have a working mother.”
The biggest challenge Stephanie faces in being a ‘mompreneur’ is time management: “I start very early because schools start very early here. Fortunately it allows me to do a lot of business calls with local schools and nurseries. I asm not home when the kids get from school and nursery but I make sure I get home by 4. I need to make sure that my eldest does his homework. He’s not like me; he doesn’t study by himself. I have to keep an eye on him!”
Femme Francophone Entrepreneure 2016 is open for applications. Apply here.