I was born in Athens, Greece from refugee Lebanese/Iraqi parents in 1985 who fled the Middle East after the 25 year long civil war in Lebanon. After I moved to New York for six months in 1987, I ended up in San Diego County where I spent the rest and current years of my life. I was raised in a ghetto neighborhood by a single Mother who worked two jobs to raise my sister and I, after my Father left us at the age of seven.
My Mother sacrificed her own pleasures to ensure I had the best of the best that she could afford throughout my childhood. She always stressed education as being the number one priority. To keep me off the streets, she sent me to work at the age of 15 in a family owned fast food restaurant. This stage of my life was what set the foundation for my future. I’d spend Friday game day nights cleaning dirty tables and nasty restrooms while my peers were enjoying popcorn and hot dogs at the high school football game and house parties to follow.
At 18, I was offered 50% of one of the Tom’s Franchise locations but due to family pressure to continue my education, I missed the opportunity. I attended a local community college completed my AA, transferred to a CSU for my BS, and later completed my MBA at Ashford University while employed by them. After college I was asked to work as a government contractor to train the military on insurgent activity and the Arabic language prior to their deployment where I was able to save some capital due to the fact that room and board was provided for me on military bases in California. It was after this opportunity that I was able to have my first taste of entrepreneurship.
I took the capital I had saved up to start up my first business, a hookah Lounge. I struggled with my start up capital and could not get lending from financial institutes nor friends or family which led me to ask my best friend if he was interested in a partnership. At the age of 24, I came up with $60,000 to open our small 1200 sq ft location while I was also a Personal Banker for Wells Fargo Bank. One year into the partnership after assuming I had made it, everything went sour. We had licensing and legal pressure from San Diego Police Department due to some fights that originated out of our establishment as well terminating my partnership for many reasons. I ended up making my initial investment back that year and flipped my 50% to a buyer for a good amount and continued working at the bank.
The reason I have a corporate job is because the business structure and operations of my Hookah Lounges are from 6PM – 2AM which leaves the entire day to continue to be productive. I have an office job where I network and market with young professionals while getting paid near to six figures a year. So its icing on the cake, I make money network during the day and pull my co-workers in for happy hour beer and hookah after work.
Expecting a promotion to become a Business Banker that went sour because of several politics within the company, a friend of mine spoke to me about Ashford University, a for-profit University that is owned and publicly traded by Bridgepoint Education. He said he lasted three months at Wells Fargo and now makes almost six figures at Ashford and knew I could be successful as well. Since my salary wasn’t cutting it, I made the move to Ashford. Within six months I was making twice as much, six months later promoted to Management tripling my income along with a free education where I completed my MBA in Organizational Management. This increase in salary and the money I had saved up from the previous business allowed me to open my own Hookah Lounge in a College city of San Marcos where I was the only one allowed and currently grandfathered in.
I can go for days on this topic. Never involve business and money with family and friends. I come from a middle eastern culture and unfortunately we tend to not like to see one another become successful and tensions build up. Responsibility was a key factor, I could not rely on my partner. I worked for Wells Fargo 9AM – 6PM and came straight to the lounge only to see a mess and my partner hanging out with his friends instead of paying attention to sales and customer needs. He wasn’t a business savvy individual and I only got into partnership with him because it was my last option to get more capital to start up. We butted heads a lot. I wanted to operate a certain way and he wanted his way. That was a major issue. Opportunity cost was also an issue, if I left the lounge he would complain he worked more than I did and vice versa. Legal responsibility fell on me. Majority of licensing, permits, lease agreement was all in my name.
My first business didn’t necessarily fail, I had a falling out with my partner. I opened again because it was and still is my passion to entertain people in this industry. Some lessons learned: business is business, don’t get me wrong, you want to be generous to your clients and friends and family but at the end of the day, there are bills to pay therefore I don’t let close friends and family do as they please. They are served like regular customers. Secondly, even though its a mom and pop level business, you have to operate it formally like major lounges and restaurants from waitresses to even the POS system.
I was an All-American tri-athlete in high school and was introduced to hookah lounges my senior year. After graduation you know how it goes: people go to college, kids get into trouble, have children, etc. Instead, I went overseas to visit the homeland Beirut, Lebanon. While traveling through Europe my eyes opened up to business and to push myself to achieve what I saw others had achieved. Through my undergrad I used to come home from work and school and make hookah while surfing the internet til 2-3am every night. I frequented a few hookah lounges that were around then and that was the thing to do for 18-20 year old people at the time. For 21+ year olds, it was the before or after the club thing to do. So as I built my social network I would hear all the complaints from people about the hookah lounges which triggered me to embark on my own venture.
Ashford University is located in Clinton, Iowa but our online offices are based out of San Diego. This is a for-profit publicly traded company that relies on student enrollments for revenue and profits therefore the tenure of individual in Southern California with sales background is higher than out of state. I work at one out of the three San Diego locations with my laptop and phone with warm and cold leads.
As a University Advisor I am a mobile Advisor and have access to leaving the office even though majority of the time is spent there. Nara Ultra Lounge is located down the street so fortunately I get off work and drive down the street to the business. Being that my business operates at night I am able to continue my 9-5 and run my business at night. It definitely is not easy, I rarely get a full nights sleep and I pound energy drinks all day and night.
Being that hookah lounges tend to attract a lot of college students the college area is always where you’ll see one pop up. Gratefully the location I fought for grandfathered me in which helped two fold. College students want a hang out spot, they also want to get out of the house, use free wi-fi and relax, study while enjoying a hookah in a cultivated environment. The demographic of the location is key as well that is why college areas work great for this type of business.
My other location Nara Ultra Lounge is in central San Diego. I chose this location because I built clients from my partnership days where our location was a mile away. It is a destination spot to say the least. Centrally located all areas can easily get to my lounge from three different freeways and it takes about 15 minutes from major cities and colleges in San Diego. This location was important because I wanted to compete against other lounges but did not want to open near them for social reasons in the middle eastern community.
You might believe my strategies aren’t sufficient enough to stay in business but so far they’ve been working well. Believe it or not there was no budget for marketing. I built my businesses from the ground up with friends, family, and social media. Facebook and Instagram have been key players in my marketing strategy.
Most of my business is from my social network around Southern California. I am currently with Yelp for both locations which does help but majority is word of mouth and social media. I put all my efforts in creating Facebook event invite pages for weekly specials, DJs, and events at the lounges where 3000+ people get the invite weekly. I have gotten feedback that I create and invite too many times via Facebook events so I have it limited to special events. I will say that I am currently researching some changes for my older location which I have neglected due to operating the new one and need to kick up the life in the old one. So I’m working on some new pricing and changing the decor and bringing in some new DJs.
The first Nara lounge is currently open during remodeling. Davis Kruminis at Davis Ink Ltd. did such a beautful job with Nara Ultra Lounge along with several other highend nightclubs and lounges in California, that I implemented a few of his ideas into the first Nara lounge to recreate the the decor at that lounge. I have also realized that the prices at the firest lounge need to drop due to being in a college area. I can’t charge a premium price for hookah rentals anymore as the market is saturated and people are willing to drive to save a buck. So new pricing is being introduced.
I do plan on focusing my efforts on my entrepreneurial ventures in the near future. I am actually taking advantage of the convenience, location, salary, and networking aspect of my corporate job. But it will take saving up some more money before I fully let go of my day job. I spent all my savings and cash to open the second business but it is on the up and up and I was able to treat myself to the Lambo! The Lambo was a big purchase for me so I am currently rebuilding my capital base and once I reach a comfortable number in my savings account I will leave my day job and focus more on my current businesses and new ventures.
Since I could remember I loved exotic cars. I remember as a child in elementary school I showed my mom a picture of a Ferrari F50 and told her one day I will get this car. With Instagram and Facebook being a big part of my social life, I follow a lot of exotic car pages and have been posting pics of Gallardos for the past few years. I have even been on a few rallies like Targa Trophy and have attended plenty Cars and Coffee meets in Southern Cali.
Entrepreneurship isn’t for everyone, you’re going to have highs and lows, successes and failures, it’s a life commitment and you are married to your businesses so always try to find a balance between family, social life and your business life because it does get overwhelming.