What I learned from failing

Alhumdulilah there are so many blessings in my life today. I run a successful design & branding studio working on projects that I love every week.

But that wasn’t always the case, not by a long shot! In fact, I was so close to giving up on my dream. Thank God I didn’t.

Just over ten years ago I first started travelling to classical Islamic cities like Granada in Spain and Fes in Morocco. Every year I would save up money from my mainstream freelancing design business and pay the enormous sums of money it cost to fly from Australia. In the first few trips I was able to also make Umrah, and have incredibly memorable experiences in cities like Beirut, Damascus & Istanbul. Every time I would return home on a creative and spiritual high. I would be like “How cool is this Ummah, we have the most amazing artists and creative heritage in the world! I want to be part of that!”

So I set about creating a collection of artwork that fused the traditional, classical influences from my travels in the Middle East with my modern graphic design style. I thought they were so cool and I worked really hard on making them something special. I decided they would be a hit at the next Eid Festival that was coming up (to help pay for more travel, of course!) and I spent a lot of time, money, blood, sweat & tears getting everything ready! (The blood came from piercing fingers while piecing together artwork frame 🙂

At the Eid Fair, I couldn’t really afford my own stall so I shared with someone else and setup my print collection in a hidden corner of the bazaar. I was sure people would be amazed by how cool they were! But they weren’t. Hardly anyone noticed, or cared. During the entire day, I sold about two and went home disappointed. Maybe Muslims only liked the old, traditional style I thought.

Not deterred, I kept working on my ideas in my spare time over the following year and revamped the whole collection. I hired a full stall next Eid, invested in some better marketing and was ready to be a hit!  But, again, hardly any sales – I couldn’t believe it. I got lots of compliments and interest but what was I doing wrong?

The following year, I said to myself, “Alright, this is your last chance Muslim community! If you don’t like my stuff then I’m going to quit and never focus on Islamic art or design again!” I was serious, I couldn’t really justify spending a lot of time getting work ready that never got sold. Creating the artwork was fun for me but it would just have to be a personal hobby once in a while. I was planning to stop doing any creative projects for Muslims and just focus on my own mainstream graphic design. And, SubhanAllah, do you know what happened? I sold out of every single piece I brought that day, Alhumdulilah.

What changed? When I think back, it was probably a few things. One, I listened to people. The first two years I made assumptions about what people wanted. I found out there was a massive difference in taste between generations. The Uncles & Aunties just didn’t get it – and were happy to keep buying hideous plastic gold & black ‘artwork’ made on a factory floor. The younger crowds totally liked the artwork & design approach but the format I was selling it in was too expensive and impractical. In the third year, I found a way that made it easy to buy, transport and frame. I refined the artwork itself much more than my earlier crude efforts too. That event boosted my confidence and kickstarted my career working on Muslim-oriented creative projects. I also made a whole bunch of contacts and it got me thinking about international events that I started attending the following year. After a couple of those larger events, I was able to connect with a huge network of people and, before long, I had some amazing projects coming my way from all around the world.

To think, I was so close to turning away from the kind of creative work that is now at the core of my day! So, to everyone who purchased my artwork & prints from me that day, JazakAllahu Khairun!!  Allah is the best of planners.

Note for aspiring entrepreneurs: Did you notice that the ‘problem’ itself remained the same during all three attempts (i.e. a lack of contemporary Islamic art & design) but the solution changed. In the startup world, they would call this ‘making a pivot’ – trying  different solutions to a well defined problem. You usually need to pivot many times before the finding the best solution and business model. I also needed to understand the customer segments better. This ‘pivot’ served me well, so when I attended the large international events, I knew to just smile at the Uncles & Aunties but start conversations with the younger crowds 🙂

Tips: Don’t give up easily. The creators of Angry Birds released 51 games unsuccessfully before their mega hit. That is incredible tenacity and dedication. I was ready to give up after 3!

Have you had any failures that you’re trying to turn into success?