After Hashem Montasser built his successful career in finance, he still felt something was missing. From his desire to build something of his own and embrace his creative side, Hashem Montasser conceived the idea for The Lighthouse. Inspired by The Bloomsbury Group, a congregation of authors and intellectuals in the early 20th century, The Lighthouse is a cultural restaurant, concept store and meeting place for collaborators and creatives in Dubai. Building such an experiential business isn’t easy. Follow Hashem Montasser as he recounts the process of realizing his vision and growing his business.
Sam: [00:00:01] Welcome to ideamix radio, I’m Sam Jayanti and every week I chat with entrepreneurs, solopreneurs, career changers, experts, and enthusiasts for insider tips that you can apply to turn your idea into a business. So sit back and enjoy today’s show.
You build a successful career in finance and asset management. And yet something seems to be missing. So what do you do? You convince a colleague and a renowned chef to partner with you to start The Lighthouse, a food and beverage and lifestyle brand that operates out of Dubai with its first concept store in Dubai’s design district. Hashem Montasser is the founder and CEO of The Lighthouse. He was born and raised in Egypt and educated in the US, where he lived for 10 years before moving to London and then finally to Dubai in 2005. Hashem, it’s great to have you on the show today.
Hashem Montasser: [00:01:00] Thank you, Sam. Likewise. Happy to be here.
Sam: [00:01:03] So let’s dive in. Tell us, what was the spark, what was the urge that caused you to start The Lighthouse?
Hashem Montasser: [00:01:12] You know, I think– I was in banking and we’ll go probably a bit later into that, for a long time, almost 15 years. I was working in investment banking system, trading and asset management. And at some point, I felt that I was lacking some balance. So, you know, some parts of who I am and my skill set, especially my analytical one, was very heavily utilized. But I didn’t find there was a balance. I felt I had a creative side that was sort of no longer being addressed. And that imbalance was the first part for me to consider, even leaving a career in banking and moving to something else. And then I think there was also an issue of, which you just addressed, of earlier, personal fulfillment. I wanted to do something where I felt that, you know, this is something you could do for 5, 10, 20 years. And it needed to address both of those sides, analytical side and the creative side. It also needed to have personal meaning to me. And that’s really how the very broad concept of The Lighthouse started to form itself. You know, I had…my parents were teachers and my mother was a professor of English literature in Cairo growing up. And she had done her thesis on Virginia Woolf, a well-known British writer and author. Virginia Woolf was part of a group called The Bloomsbury Group, was an informal group of intellectual artists, economists like Keynes, writers like E.M. Forster, and they used to meet informally to brainstorm and typically around meals. And so that’s sort of how it started. And I said to myself, you know, Dubai needs something like that. We need a space that is inviting, first of all. Food seemed to make a lot of sense because people like to congregate around food. Where people can sit, talk, eat, shop. So those were the very broad strokes of how the idea of The Lighthouse started being formed in my head.
Sam: [00:03:01] That’s so interesting. And how did you go from that to then finding your co-founders and really developing a plan around how to execute on the idea? What are the key steps you took?
Hashem Montasser: [00:03:18] Those were probably the most painful steps when I look back. So The Lighthouse now is about two and a half years old. But we started working on this a year before we officially opened our doors in Dubai design district. And the first steps were very vital, but also very painful because we had a very broad concept and we didn’t know how to go about it. So we knew that we wanted to have a space for physical space. We knew that we needed to have the physical space being invited, but we also needed a commercial model that would be scalable and be sustainable. Right, this was not going to be a charity type of business. So, you know, we did a lot of research. I traveled in a lot of places, the U.S., Europe, Asia, looking at models where– we had this concept store idea as well. So we wanted to bring gifting, we thought, a few brands, you know, brands that were underrepresented in the Middle East into the mix that would be inviting. We wanted something very experiential. So I started traveling around and looking at similar businesses around the world. And what became clear was that most of the successful ones had been able to integrate food into the mix because it brings footfall, it’s experiential, people like to congregate around it, as I said. So that was our first step. Hany, who is my co-founder, had worked with me in asset management for the past 10 years, so we knew each other very well. He’s 10 years younger than me but was equally looking for a change. So, you know, I pitched him my idea and he really liked it and decided to join me. And once we had sort of had us catch the basic idea of The Lighthouse, we needed someone on the food side that would help us, but also would speak the same aesthetic and language like we do and bring in very high quality. And that’s how Chef Izu came in. Izu was already a well known chef in Dubai, he had opened La Petite Maison, which is a well known restaurant here and elsewhere in the world, as you know, in London and so on. In the Dubai Financial Center to great success he had moved on from there to open another restaurant, called Le Serre and I think he was also ready for a change and almost immediately understood what we wanted to do. And liked the idea of opening something that wasn’t just a restaurant. So he translated really a lot of our vision on the food side into a menu that’s cohesive. And that’s how it started. And we kind of came together, put together a business plan. And what was incredibly interesting and humbling about this is our business plan sort of thought that would be, you know, 60% retail and 40% F&B. The reality of our business today, almost three years into it, it’s 90% F&B and 10% retail. But that’s okay, you know, and you have to kind of adapt as we went on and acknowledge that where you start is not where you wind up being. As long as you’re providing a value to your customers and as long as people are happy coming in and we’re very lucky they are, so it’s a very popular place and sort of all-day hang out and eatery in Dubai.
Sam: [00:06:20] How did you go about finding your first customers?
Hashem Montasser: [00:06:25] So we went to the D3 sort of team and pitched them our idea. And they thought it was sort of interesting, but they were a bit skeptical. These two bankers coming to them, you know, pitching them an idea. About an experiential space. It’s very design oriented. Having Izu on our sort of team was crucial given his pedigree. And we sort of, you know, took the space. We brought an interior designer that I had worked with before, but she was really more focused on residential rather than sort F&B and commercial. And we liked that because we wanted The Lighthouse to feel a bit like a home. It was very important for us to not look like a typical restaurant. It did have already, you know, if you come in today and hope one day you’ll come and visit, you’ll see sort of it has this part concept store and the rest is– it’s a very inviting, very open restaurant. So we sort of just- we took the plunge and we were one of the first restaurants to open– one of the first places to open in the design district. That itself was, at that point, less than a year old. We opened and we just sort of waited. And almost from day one, it became extremely busy and popular. So what we realized right away was that we tapped into something. And when we were looking about putting together a business model, that was one of the crucial consequences beyond the idea, beyond the fact that we were hoping to execute well, you know, are you tapping into a void? And we felt that we were. It looked different than your typical restaurant. It looked fresh and by the people when they came and wanted to stay longer, they would come multiple times. We made sure the quality was very high. You also make sure the price point was reasonable. And that’s because our first customers were always going to be members of the design district. And just to kind of put that in perspective the design district is about eight thousand people that come in every day that work in eleven buildings in their offices. So we knew that we had to first cater to them. And if they like our product and our space, it would easily spread around Dubai. That’s exactly what happened. So our best ambassadors became many of the companies and individual sets that have come to D3 every day to work and they start telling their friends and so on, so forth. And then it said, since I’ve had a snowballing effect, as I’m sure you well know, especially sort of in what’s now broadly an F&B space. Word of mouth is always the best thing. It beats any review. People trust their friends and families and so on, so forth. We’ve been very, very lucky through that respect.
Sam: [00:09:03] So as you look back, what was the greatest challenge that you faced and what were what was a lesson or two that you learned that you think others should know about? [00:09:14][10.8]
Hashem Montasser: [00:09:16] I think the biggest challenge, especially kind of and, you know, my personality a little bit, given the personality, was to accept that if you started A, it’s okay to wind up in B. That’s probably a good thing because it means that, you know, the business model is flexible enough to accommodate that. So as I said, we started in my mind, we were really a concept store with food as opposed to a restaurant that also has a concept store and gifting items and so on. And that was an evolution and it was slow. And it was difficult for me at the beginning to sort of deviate from what I thought it would be. But so that was challenging. And it also meant that we had to, especially for Hany and I, have a very steep learning curve because we were learning on the fly. I mean your doors are open. So customers are coming in every day and you really have to learn on the fly. You can’t just sort of shut down the place for a week to learn your lessons. So we just have to be very flexible, very pragmatic and learn on the fly. I think that was very challenging. One of the lessons that are important to me is that I think, that’s something especially I think is relevant for my part of the world and the Middle East and other parts of maybe less so in the US today, is that people can see that you can have multiple careers. You know, you could start off, as I did you know, as a banker for almost 15 years, And even if you were successful in a particular career, if you feel that you want to make a switch, I think you need to not be scared of me. And I think for a lot of people, it’s very daunting. And we can talk more about that. But I think people need to feel that that’s something that you can do. And they shouldn’t shy away just because they’ve had some success from trying something different, even at the expense of potentially failing. And I think for many of us, that’s not in our DNA. And certainly, here in the Middle East without overdoing it culturally, that’s also sort of not the norm. So, you know, most people, you start off as doctors and continue being such and engineers and so on. And culturally, family and so on. That’s usually the accepted model. So I’m hoping that there is something here for people to see, among many other examples, that that’s something that can be done, can be done successfully. The caveat being is that it takes time. And people in many cases expect success overnight. I came from a financial markets business where things were happening very quickly. And I’m learning still today the hard way that you just have to give it time. Those changes, you know, does not happen overnight. And that’s actually okay. I have learned to enjoy that journey. That was something that’s not not very easy for me and didn’t necessarily come naturally.
Sam: [00:11:58] It’s much more about the journey than the destination. I’m learning that myself these days. That’s transcendental meditation.
Hashem Montasser: [00:12:05] Exactly. And it’s easier said than done. You know, I talked about that for some time, frankly even before I started, people were telling me “enjoy the journey”. It was very difficult for me at the beginning. I would listen to them. I would say, yes, I thought I was doing that, but I really wasn’t. I was very focused on the end point. And slowly but surely, sort of my mindset started changing and I’m very happy about that.
Sam: [00:12:30] Fabulous. Hashem, you talked about having built a long and successful career in finance before you started The Lighthouse. Tell us a little about your transition.
Hashem Montasser: [00:12:42] The transition was very painful for a number of reasons. I mean, one is I left my last business, so I was in the last 10 years I was in the asset management, essentially building two asset management businesses more or less from scratch. That became relatively large and successful businesses in this part of the world. And I decided at some point, as I said earlier, to move on and do something else. When I left, though, I didn’t have a concrete plan. So that was the first daunting point. I didn’t sort of develop it on the side. I didn’t think it was possible. I wasn’t able to think in those two very different modes. So I had to give myself time to almost detox. I must say, finance is toxic. I wouldn’t have stayed in it 15 years if there weren’t many enjoyable things, but I needed to change my point of reference. And that took a bit of time. And then my identity was also very much wrapped up in my previous careers. A lot of people identified me with my previous career I worked. So I remember the first sort of three to six months, maybe even year, even going out in public and talking to friends and so on. You know somebody would be asking, what are you up to? A very simple, innocent question. I would get very, you know clamped up, I worried about it, like what should I say? So it was painful. It was a slow transition. Once I started developing the initial footprint for business plans for The Lighthouse. I felt that and I started focusing more and more on implementing that, how to implement that. Then just this kind of finishing concept. But the formulation part was hard. And my advice to anyone doing that, and I know that many of your listeners, audience comes from a much prettier world, is to one, be patient and two, try to seek as much advice as possible. And that’s also painful because when you’re still in the formative period of building something, it’s like your baby, you really don’t– at least I didn’t tolerate criticism very well. But I learned to distance myself from it, said some people are trying to you and some of it was very, very fine, extremely helpful, some of it was…not. And that’s okay. So that was sort of a process which took about a year. And towards the end of that year, we started putting together a business plan for The Lighthouse. We worked with a very gifted graphic designer, which was – we’re very lucky she was a freelancer at the time – Now she’s one of the senior people, I have out here in Dubai, in the Middle East. And she helped us identify the brand values, great pace taking it slow. But what happened is at the end of it, we felt we had something that was very important because we had key values for the brand and those became the how do you say, the base of which we build the brand. And whether then it developed more into the F&B side, livestyle side or retail side almost didn’t matter because that was sort of our check-its. I think that’s a very, very important exercise. A lot of people short-circuit that process, because it’s painful and because it’s you want to kind of get to market. But I think if we had done that, we would have run the risk today of the brand diluting itself. So every time you have to sort of make an important decision, we go back to our brand values. You can say, does that fit with our brand, brand values, or not? And that’s been extremely helpful.
Sam: [00:16:09] So does that set of brand values also guide your partnership? I mean, partnerships are wonderful and they’re also hard. Tell us a little bit about what’s worked well, about your partnership with Hany and Chef Izu Ani, and what have been some of the challenges? How do you resolve disagreements?
Hashem Montasser: [00:16:31] That’s a very good question. Look, I mean, the fact that Hany and I came out with a lot of these brand values together so that I think was extremely helpful because it was almost like, you know, couples therapy in a way you know we sat there trying to put it all together. So that gave us the opportunity to talk it through as a very early stage. Right. “We don’t like this. I don’t like this. Why don’t you like it? Well, I like this.” So a lot of those issues, I think were resolved in an early stage. We were very lucky to have the ability to bring Izu on board and Izu shared with us I think the vision, he almost immediately understood our vision, understood how to translate it to, you know, a menu. And I think the experience that I think is great. Truly a talented person chef who also shared our sense of aesthetics, which I think is very good. So he was involved not just on that F&B side, he was involved in all aspects of design, retail, the overall experience. You know, the space has today become a space where a lot of entrepreneurs come, hang out, eat, shop. We do biweekly talks where we bring in entrepreneurs and talk to them. So he understood that there’s a value over and above. Just see that that’s a restaurant site. So I think there was a common vision from day one that was sort of extremely helpful. And without it, I think that partnership would have been very difficult to A) execute. But then continue to be part of. The downside is you have to compromise. You know there are lots of times where I feel I’m right about something and I’m used to, frankly, from my previous career. So running a business, and sort of you know making a decision and just running with it. And this is different. You have to sort of sit down and discuss things. Sometimes I have to admit being wrong, many times, in fact. But I also have to sometimes at the outset sort of see and realize that I don’t have the necessary background or experience and compromise. And that part was hard and still hard sometimes. But I think that the overall result has almost always been better than any of us just making the natural decision.
Sam: [00:18:42] So important that ability to compromise.
Hashem Montasser: [00:18:45] Yes not an easy thing.
Sam: [00:18:48] Definitely.
Hashem Montasser: [00:18:49] You are right.
Sam: [00:18:49] So tell us Hashem, what’s next on your agenda?
Hashem Montasser: [00:18:53] So, you know, we’re now about two and a half years old. We are looking to expand our physical footprint. Most likely in Dubai. But maybe also in the region as well. We’re looking at Saudi Arabia, which is a very big market compared to Dubai and a very interesting market. We’re also looking at the impact of technology. And I don’t think you can ignore it. You know, technology is having a huge impact on food in general. You know, I’m sure you know all the different models from, you know, cloud kitchens to virtual brands, et cetera. So we’re looking at that. We’re looking at potentially launching a virtual brand that would launch first in Dubai and then across the region. So I think while we’re looking to kind of physically expand, we’re also thinking very hard about how do we scale this sort of lifestyle brand, if you will, in other ways and once…how do you find a balance between an online and offline strategy? And that’s a difficult thing to do because you have a lot of people coming through the door every day and they behave in a certain way. And now we’re trying to build an online platform that behaviour is very different and we’re trying to do it in a way that it’s not siloed. We’re sort of two different businesses. How do we bring those two together? So that’s, I think, a challenge or a very interesting challenge. So part of our next challenge.
Sam: [00:20:13] That’s amazing. You’re so right, though. Every business needs to integrate the online with the offline because both aspects are so important and complementary.
Hashem Montasser: [00:20:23] And I don’t think there’s a particular formula yet. Right. I mean, almost every business is different, but from the big online businesses to the large offline business trying to go online, online, trying to go offline or finding a physical experience that sort of matches the online experience. I think that’s the next chapter for a lot of businesses because there really isn’t a clear roadmap for how you do that. But most of us realize that you most likely going forward, with a few exceptions, need a combination of the two. And then the other question that I have that does not relate, say, to my business. But I think is a very interesting question is, you know, looking at all of those all the carnage you’ve seen on the retail side across the world. What’s going to happen to all these physical spaces that are being abandoned? You know, how would they transform? They’re not going to stay open forever. So some experience. Something will have to come here and fill that void So be very interesting to see how those two can come together.
Sam: [00:21:23] Couldn’t agree more. I think what’s happening in retail is fascinating. And we’re still not through that evolution yet.
Hashem Montasser: [00:21:30] Exactly.
Sam: [00:21:31] Leaving an established and successful career to enter an entirely new business is never easy. But Hashem took the time to plan his pivot and has pivoted super successfully. Hashem, thank you so much for sharing your experience and lessons with us today.
Hashem Montasser: [00:21:48] Thank you for having me Sam, it’s a pleasure.
Sam: [00:21:51] Thanks for listening today. You can subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. And while you’re there, please do review the show. We love hearing from you. Good or bad. So e-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org or Instagram DM us. Our episode this week was produced by the incomparable Martin Milewski with music by the awesome Nashville based singer songwriter Doug Allen. You can learn more about Doug at dougallenmusic.com.
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