Mazen Kanaan is chief executive and co-founder of House of Pops, a UAE brand of fruit-based, sustainably-packaged ice lollies.
In four years, it has grown from two to 80 employees through pop-up shops around Dubai to also catering for schools, hotels, events, supplying Carrefour supermarkets and franchising in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.
Strong sales at their Dubai Expo 2020 kiosk helped them to expand to a factory seven times larger than their old premises.
Mr Kanaan, who is from Lebanon, worked in marketing with Tate & Lyle, in ice cream for Unilever, and at Lipton.
Now 38, he recently married co-founder Marcela Sancho. They share an apartment on Dubai’s Palm Jumeirah.
Did money feature in your upbringing?
I come from a humble background; a family of four. My parents are teachers. My father also had a shop where he would sell and repair watches.
We lived in a rented house on the outskirts of Beirut.
In Lebanon, there is this concept that owning a house equals stability. When you are a kid, they tell you: “You need good grades to enter a good university to get a good job, so that you buy your house.”
My parents were managing to make ends meet, doing double shifts (school and shop). They went the extra mile, sacrificed things, they could have bought a house, but said: “Let’s invest in the education of our kids.” So, I went to good schools.
How did you first earn?
Pocket money was not overflowing. I asked them to give whatever they can afford.
There was a centre near our house where people played computer games. I had a part-time job there.
Next was when I started a scholarship at the Lebanese American University, working as a waiter in a restaurant for four days (a week) making around $250 a month.
After university, I was selling ironing machines door-to-door for $1,500 each.
When you are making your own money, it’s easier to spend on things you believe are important — you are independent. But when your parents are giving you money, there is more responsibility.
What led to your profession?
I graduated with a high distinction in economics and got two offers; a Fulbright scholarship to continue my studies in the US and an offer from Unilever to join their management trainee [programme] in Saudi Arabia, and start making money and saving money.
I went to Saudi Arabia, spent six years there, then Turkey and landed here eight years ago with Unilever working on their ice cream.
Why swap a stable job for popsicles?
Going to supermarkets four or five years ago, there was a plethora of healthy snacks, but the ice cream category was still full of fat, high-sugar products. There was a gap for something healthy, natural and tasty at the same time.
I was confident about my understanding of the ice cream business, my ability to create a brand and not just launch a product.
I had a very good job, but for me this was about going the extra mile, trying to shoot for something really impressive.
Our vision is to be the number one healthy ice cream in the region.
How did you fund the venture?
I left Unilever and took six months to build this business with Marcela. When the factory was ready to produce, I took a job with Tate & Lyle and worked for three years in parallel.
I was funding the thing; my end of service, savings, everything went there.
It was hard to leave Tate & Lyle, the job was good. It is challenging (leaving a salary), but when you see the potential, sometimes it goes beyond money. The reward of achieving something is extremely high.
Did the pandemic impact growth?
The two of us started with a small bike and a big dream in Ripe market. We opened our first shop in the second year.
Covid-19 came … and our online sales skyrocketed. People were at home, wanted something to cheer them up.
Then, once things started opening up, online sales started going down, but our shop sales started going up. It’s pandemic-proof.
What is your spending and saving mix?
I spend on what I can afford, but I am not one who would save until he’s 50 to do wonderful things.
I cannot delay the gratification. I did so for five years in Saudi Arabia.
Now, I live a balanced life. I work hard and reward myself and people around me.
I like to spend on creating moments, to travel with my wife, give back to my parents, nice trips and nice occasions. I get a lot of joy seeing my loved ones happy.
Where do you store your wealth?
When I was in Saudi Arabia, I bought a house in Lebanon. When I came to Dubai, I bought apartments that I’m renting out.
On the other extreme, I invested in cryptocurrency, an acceptable amount, high reward, high fluctuation. And I’m investing in the company.
What is your key financial milestone?
Buying the house in Lebanon. Although a small investment compared with what I have done after that, it was an indication that I have turned around my life.
It ticked a box and my parents currently live there. I felt proud about it.
Professionally, House of Pops is my best investment. It’s on an exponential journey.
Any cherished purchases?
When I was working in that restaurant, I saved $1,000, my parents gave me $3,000 and I bought a Volkswagen Passat that was 12 years old.
When I was 30 and came to Dubai I purchased a new Porsche Carrera.
Putting aside the value, it was a statement of my financial progression. It has emotional meaning.
I’m not a fan of luxury cars, but being able to get it at that age with my own money was a big thing.
How do you feel about money?
Money cannot buy everything. It cannot buy health, but money is very important.
I was born during war and we spent time in bunkers. I saw my parents struggle, trying to get things together, so money is like my passport for security.
It’s also a means to create memories and bring stability to our home.
Are you wise with money?
I was always pretty sensible, was never hasty spending on luxury I cannot afford.
Having money doesn’t really make you change if you are a careful person. The quality of the reward could be higher, bigger, but is also more affordable (now).
And I always saved — if I had not, I could not have launched House of Pops. I would save according to the plan, then spend the rest.
Any financial regrets?
Not cashing out on cryptocurrency. I focused on one and it skyrocketed.
I said, “I will wait,” and then … I still own it. Next time, I’ll have a target, hit it and cash out.
What are your goals?
In House of Pops, we draw an acceptable salary and keep reinvesting. Profits long term will come to us, but we take enough to live a really good life.
We’re getting offers for investing in the company. This feeling of being independent, not only financially but in decisions, is amazing.
We don’t have a magic number that if we get “this offer” we’re selling because we enjoy what we are doing.