Wafa AlObaidat is the Chief Executive Officer and Creative Director of Obai and Hill. Obai and Hill provide its clients with creative and innovative designs and strategic solutions that give them the needed competitive edge in the current marketplace. Obai and Hill aim to bring young innovative designers into a new light and bridge the gap between the unestablished younger designer and the client, creating a business for the Middle Eastern consumer and the breadth of young talent in Europe.
In 2015, Obai and Hill received the Start-Up of the Year award, hosted by the Bahrain Entrepreneurship Awards. In line with the Kingdom’s national economic vision, the inaugural award celebrates the achievements of Bahrain’s entrepreneurs and their socio-economic role in spurring a private sector-driven economy. In addition to her involvement with Obai and Hill, Wafa is a Feature Contributor to Start Up Bahrain, an award-winning independent publication for startups and entrepreneurship, and a columnist at Khaleejesque Magazine where she writes about startups, design, and the creative industry in the Middle East.
Wafa is also a Shaper in the Global Shapers Community, a network of city-based Hubs developed and led by young leaders between 20 and 30 years old who want to develop their leadership potential to better serve society.
Wafa is a committee member of the SME Society in the Bahrain Chamber of Commerce. Wafa’s expertise includes community building, business management, communication skills, concept creation, managing teams, and business development. Wafa earned her Bachelor’s Degree in Interior and Spatial Design from Chelsea College of Art and Design at the University of the Arts in London. She is fluent in Arabic and English.
Hey Wafa, can you take us through Sketchbook and its concept?
As a graduate of the Chelsea College of Art and Design, I have worked with Vogue Nippon and designers like Liza Bruce and Marko Matysik of Big/Show Magazine. The idea for Sketchbook was born out of Obaidat’s desire to build a platform to support emerging artists and designers. Initially, I focused on the U.K. but later expanding to the Arab world, Sketchbook is an online magazine that looks like it was printed in actual sketchbooks, showcasing underground fashion, art, illustration, photography, and design.
With neither funding nor advertising, I was armed only with her passion for design and persuasive charm. It was terribly difficult at first. When I started to meet people to get them involved and they saw that I was 22 years old, they just ran the other way! I really had to sell the concept of the magazine via email so I spent a good 5-6 hours a day emailing illustrators, designers, and writers to get them to contribute their work to the magazine.
At the end of the day, I was filling a gap by providing a haven for creative expression for young designers. I trusted many juniors with big responsibilities and shared space on our platform for them to write, design, and review events, projects, and exhibitions.
How does the story continue?
After launching Sketchbook, I was offered the opportunity to become editor of Dia-boutique, which was the number one e-luxury site in the Middle East at the time. I had also been reporting for High Life Dubai, Borderline, and Prim Magazine in New York as a fashion journalist and contributor.
What about the setup process of Obai & Hill?
It was then that I decided to launch my own agency Obai & Hill, offering bespoke creative services and solutions in the areas of design, PR, marketing, and digital.
Some of my London projects have involved designing pop-up spaces on the trendy Carnaby Street and the Clothes Show Expo in Earl’s Court. In Bahrain, her client portfolio has included big brands like McDonalds and Vapiano, and local brands like Bahrain Flour Mill and Green Diamond.
It is known that your consulting services were in high demand in the UK after your online publication, Sketchbook Magazine, became an overnight success, can you talk us through that story?
I started Sketchbook Magazine back in January 2009 because I realised I was looking for something in the market that I just couldn’t find anywhere. I wanted a publication rich in illustrations, drawings, and where the characters of my favorite bloggers and designers were being explored. I was constantly looking for raw scratchy magazines that resembled my own sketchbooks and notebooks. Something not so glossy and which I could be rough with (tear, add post its etc) so I went about creating the concept of Sketchbook.
The name comes from my love for sketchbooks. Sketchbook aims to be a different notebook every time. I want my reader to be surprised by each issue and to have a favorite ‘sketchbook’ or issue. But what it’s trying to do is reveal the “behind the scenes” of the industry.
What makes Sketchbook different from other magazines?
Its ability to embrace anything and everything. Anyone who walks through my door gets a place at the magazine. Even if it’s interning for a few days, we always make room for people with ideas and projects. It’s the only way we are able to constantly evolve and embrace digital media. My entire team is on top of the social media game. I think it’s only with that attitude that we were able to communicate with our audience.
Was it hard to start your business?
It was terribly hard because I went about it on my own with no funding whatsoever. I started to meet people to get them involved and when they saw that I was 22 years old they just ran the other way. I really had to sell the concept of the magazine via email so I spent a good 5-6 hours a day emailing illustrators/designers/writers to get them to contribute their work to the magazine.
It was really tough, but slowly I started to accumulate a great team. Features Editor Luma Bashmi was the heartbeat of the magazine, she really combed through all the technical challenges of the Sketchbook brand and helped me push-start the project. Creative director and cover designer John Paul Thurlow agreed to illustrate my cover (Style Bubble cover we are now famous for). Charlotte Nicod was my dream graphic designer; she came up with the logo of the magazine and really nailed the look and feel of it. Sketchbook is still solely funded by me but it’s worth it when you see such great results.
How do you manage your business and keep it up and running?
I have a great staff of writers, editors, designers, illustrators that work with me on a daily basis. Our studio is always buzzing with people conducting interviews, launching events. We have meetings in the kitchen, and the doorbell is always ringing. I delegate and give everyone freedom to do what they think is right. Decisions get made faster and quicker and people are loyal to the projects that they work with.
I have a great PR team who update, update, update and are constantly coming up with creative ways to market what we do. I have been meeting 5 people a day consistently for almost a year which has changed the way I work. Just going through portfolios and having conversations with people keeps me excited about new projects and collaborations.
What about the trials and tribulations endured along the way?
Despite Obai & Hill’s success in one of the world’s most competitive cities, moving back to Bahrain was not that straightforward.
It took me one whole year to get familiar with the organisations, the business culture, how things worked, and who’s who. It taught me that if I were to expand to another city or country I would need time to really understand the market. Other culture shocks included commercial registration barriers, office space requirements, and high capital prerequisites. In London, I could work from my studio apartment and not have to deal with registrations or fees to start up — all I needed was some space and a laptop in comparison to my U.K. vs Bahrain experience.
I was also devastated to discover that if I wanted to publish a magazine in Bahrain, I needed to show the Ministry of Commerce BD 50,000 (more than $132,000 USD) in my account and have five Bahraini partners. Unfortunately, some of our laws are outdated and hinder productivity and innovation.
I started my Bahrain operations with a senior designer, an accountant, and an account manager, hiring them organically and one at a time as she secured new projects. Today, Obaidat’s team consists of nine 20-something women (and one man) who see themselves as creative problem-solvers driven by elevating their clients’ brands.
I wish I had known that without any business or accounting experience, my first hire should have been an accountant. As a creative person, lack of discipline is an issue and I mismanaged funds that I earned through services and mixed them up with my personal accounts. We then started scoring retainer projects which allowed me to created cash flow budgets for the year ahead and plan my next hire.
How are you offering your clients bespoke services and creative solutions, with a twist?
Being a local team we offer localized solutions, we offer great service, we befriend our clients and we are on call 24/7. It is a lifestyle to serve.
Who are the team behind Obai & Hill? What does your company structure look like?
20 team members, 7 managers, 2 partners. My team are creative, dynamic, energetic, problem solvers and aim to add value.
What would you like to see changed in entrepreneurship?
Innovation being introduced, and more technology-driven solutions, and also for entrepreneurship based mindset and teams.
How are you planning to expand Obai & Hill?
First to Riyadh, then to Oman, we are setting up our offices and moving some of our key staff to do the transition.
A most rewarding moment in your personal life?
Finishing Ironman Bahrain twice, being only one of 29 Bahraini women to do so in my hometown. Winning the startup of the year award at the entrepreneurship awards in Bahrain in 2015.
What do you think makes a great PR agency?
A company that makes brands awesome, problem solves, comes up with creative solutions to PR product, and is a clients partner.
What gives you ultimate career satisfaction?
Overachieving when it comes to client KPIs and expectations, growing my firm year-on-year, and learning.
Can you tell us what areas you have struggled in professionally, whilst building Obai & Hill?
Accounting at first, then operations and recruiting, dealing with potential investors, now my challenge is to scale up, and figuring out how to penetrate the GCC.
Have you ever had a mentor? If so how has this benefitted you to grow?
I have had more than 20 mentors my whole life, they are incredible resources and I have had them based on socialisation, such as operations, accounting and finance, business model development, lead generation and mentors who problem solve with me.
What outlets do use to market Obai & Hill?
Social media, our website, our monthly newsletter, e-mail marketing and attending exhibtions.
Which methods are you using to build your audience and expand your network?
Humanising my content, building my personal brand, sharing content and experiences, cross promoting my clients, sending out monthly newsletters, doing CSR based events, supporting charities, speaking at events and at schools and conducting leadership seminars.
What is the best piece of advice you have received to date?
Don’t start listing why you can’t do something, that is the easiest thing a person can do. We are raised in a culture of fear and people are always ready to tell you that your ideas are not realistic, but I think you need to be unrealistic to pursue what you want. If you have no passion for anything start exploring – path finds, don’t just be stuck in a rut, nothing will ever come to you, you must go and find what makes you happy and make it your career.
How do you create an evenly balanced work and personal life?
I don’t, I work all day and think about work all night, I fit in a workout and social event when I can, some days are chaotic some days are calm, some weeks I achieve a lot, some weeks I procrastinate or am I am stuck, some weeks are more social, some I want to be alone and work. There is no rhythm to the madness.
Which other leading entrepreneurs and leading female pioneers do you also admire and why?
Sheryl Sandberg, Oprah, Sophia Amoruso, because they’re purpose aligns with their day to day work, they are impacting women in a positive way around the world and they are energetic and inspiring
What Youtube or online space channels are you watching currently?
Girl Boss media, I am a subscriber to their video content so enjoying watching the videos and learning from the rallies that took place.
What is a good article or book you have read recently?
‘Lean In’ by Sheryl Sandberg, ‘Girl Boss’ by Sophia Amoruso, ‘A Life Without Limits’ by Chrissie Wellington and then ‘Are You Fully Charged’ by Tom Rath.
How do you measure your terms of success?
Happiness and sense of fulfillment in body, mind, and soul.
What does #BEYOUROWN mean to you?
A cool platform with a cool crew running it.
Lastly, what is next for you throughout 2018?
Creating a platform and forum for youth that can debate, creating a Women’s network, opening an office in Riyadh for Obai and Hill, reading 12 books, potentially participating and completing my third Ironman race.