The Covid-19 pandemic upended the world economy and closed many businesses.
But for enterprising entrepreneurs Amna Aijaz, 30, Haroon Tahir, 28, and Arafat Ali Khan, 46, co-founders of start-up POPC, it was the perfect moment to pivot, disrupt, look for market gaps and capitalise on available opportunities.
Dubai-based POPC is an online marketplace that showcases the designs of local and global artists and helps them to sell their art online.
The idea was conceptualised during the peak of the pandemic, as two of the co-founders were looking for alternative streams of income. POPC’s beta website was launched in April last year and was officially launched in September.
“Amna was a struggling artist looking for an online platform where she could sell her artwork and I was also looking to create my own line of merchandise … this was when we realised there was no marketplace catering to the artist community in the region,” Mr Tahir, head of marketing at POPC, tells The National.
“The pandemic was also a massive turning point as we were both looking for alternative sources of income with the events and creative businesses — Amna’s and my respective industries — came to a standstill. This prompted us to build POPC that is an artist marketplace created in the region … and for the region.”
Ms Aijaz and Mr Tahir were classmates at the American University in Dubai and became close friends over the years. Mr Khan was Ms Aijaz’s director at one of her earlier jobs, while Mr Tahir had worked with him previously on a client project.
Ms Aijaz first came up with the idea to establish POPC in September 2020.
“We were aligned as it was bridging a gap that was nobody’s priority, and it was specifically geared towards promoting healthy pop culture … we love art … we love pop culture … and we wanted to build a place that brings it all together on your favourite products,” says Mr Tahir.
The co-founders then proposed the idea to Mr Khan, now POPC's group chief executive, who immediately came on board. He helped them to raise funds through his Dubai business, Waverider Entertainment, an intellectual property and content creation company.
The POPC co-founders, who are aiming to raise fresh capital by the end of this year, did not disclose the exact amount of the initial funding. It charges a commission for every product sold through its marketplace, while the remainder goes to the artist.
Mr Tahir says POPC’s journey begins with artists and keeps them in the spotlight.
The artists first create their designs and then send the digital formats to the POPC.
They are then applied to a variety of merchandise, including T-shirts, hoodies, mugs, caps and wall art, and digital copies of products are uploaded to POPC’s website.
When a customer orders the product, it is produced on-demand and shipped within five days.
Currently, POPC showcases the designs of nearly 30 artists on its website and they aim to add 20 more artists by the end of third quarter this year.
However, since launching POPC has experienced its share of setbacks that it is working to overcome.
“We faced several obstacles as one of the first on-demand artist marketplaces … there was no infrastructure for on-demand merchandise production in the region. Producers here usually operate on a ‘bulk’ model so explaining our model to them was very difficult,” says Mr Tahir.
“However, we were insistent on sticking to only producing an item once the order was placed as it helped to save unwanted expenditures and was also an eco-friendly option due to no wastage of products … it took us a year, but we finally found the right production team that was aligned with us and adhered to the highest-quality standards.”
The co-founders also found it challenging to find the right web developer team to help build an interactive e-commerce platform. They addressed the issue by hiring an in-house team to support their niche goals.
Helping regional artists to understand the value of joining an artist marketplace was also a challenge for POPC.
“We addressed this issue by hosting artist meetups, online sessions and participating in events where we could speak to artists one-on-one,” Mr Tahir says.
Gulf countries are investing in growing an entrepreneurship ecosystem as they look to diversify their economies and fuel post-pandemic growth.
Saudi Arabia was the most funded market for start-ups in the three months to March, attracting $359 million out of the total $818 million capital for the Middle East and North Africa region, according to a report by Magnitt.
Egypt came in second with $284 million, followed by the UAE at $152 million, the report found.
POPC, which has served more than 2,000 clients since its inception, is currently shipping its products across the UAE and Saudi Arabia — the Arab world’s largest economies.
The company, which aims to become profitable by the end of 2024, expects the number of its customers to increase exponentially as it aims to invest heavily in marketing, work towards reducing customer acquisition cost and sign on new artists.
It plans to start shipping across other GCC countries and the wider Middle East region by the fourth quarter of this year.
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“We also plan to continue participating in several regional events so that we can connect with our customers and artists in-person and launch our own pop-up stores.”
“We are also developing an Arabic comic book reader platform called POPC Reads. It will be home to comics created by regional artists and writers and host international titles. We plan to launch it by the fourth quarter of this year,” Mr Tahir says.
While POPC is catering to a niche clientele, the co-founders are confident they will successfully bring their products into the mainstream.
“Artist and creator-driven merchandise and wall art is a massive untapped market in the region. The categories of merchandise we sell do fall under the mass market and our customer group is extremely diverse between 16 to 50 years.”
“We have seen a fantastic response to our merchandise at in-person events as well. The market is only set to grow as the general population’s appetite for unique, locally-produced merchandise increases,” Mr Tahir says.
In the past, POPC has also participated in local events such as Middle East Film and Comic Con and Bred Abu Dhabi, where it has sold its designs through pop-up stores.
Q&A: Haroon Tahir, co-founder and head of marketing at POPC
How do you view the competition in your industry?
We welcome any competition and are confident that we have enough unique value propositions to stand out from it.
Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
Taking POPC to become one of the region’s top e-commerce success stories and a household name. We want the POPC brand to be synonymous with all things pop culture and art globally.
Are you a risk-taker or a cautious entrepreneur?
The journey of entrepreneurship is naturally riddled with risks but the approach that my partners and I take is always cautious and calculated, where we weigh our costs and benefits before proceeding with any major decision.
If you could change one thing in your entrepreneurial journey, what would it be?
I wish I had just started earlier.
Are you on a hiring spree?
Currently, we are a team of eight people. We are currently in the process of hiring two more people that would be supporting POPC and our parent company’s [Waverider’s] other projects.
What successful start-ups do you wish you could have started and why?
There are many regional success stories like Careem and Namshi that inspire us and affirm that there is an appetite for new local brands in the region and we hope to emulate their success.
What new skills have you learnt in the process of launching your start-up?
Adaptability, agility and listening closely to our customers, artists and stakeholders are some of the many skills I have learnt.
What is your mantra for success?
I believe in following the guiding principles of the three Cs — consistency, creativity and care.
Who is your role model in entrepreneurship?
I love watching Mark Cuban and Daymond John on Shark Tank and seeing how they structure and approach their businesses. Walt Disney is an inspiration too because of his vision and creativity.
I have also been inspired by the work ethics of my father and sister who have always taught me to work harder, never let my ego come in the way of my work and put a lot of attention and care into everything I do.
What are your investment priorities?
All our investment will be driven towards further improving our customer and artist experience, whether it’s adding more functionalities to our e-commerce platform or automating certain processes or launching new product lines. As we are an infant brand, marketing is of great importance to us, so we will be investing in digital marketing, events, and activations as well.