It is often said that businesses are built on nothing but passion. Although many entrepreneurs talk about the importance of having passion to build a business, there are only a few people in Nepal who are actually passionate about their work, one among them is Ahmed Dulla--the founder of Dulla Shoes. Dulla shoes, which took form six years ago, on April 1, 2011, has become a well-recognised footwear brand in Kathmandu.
Strangely, for such a successful entrepreneur, Dulla was not a bright student. “I was just not interested in my studies. I was such a bad student that I learned the basics of maths, like subtraction and division, only when I was in the seventh grade. I even repeated classes twice--once while I was in the fourth grade and then once in the seventh grade,” says Dulla.
After somehow getting through school, when it was time for Dulla to pick a stream, Dulla chose to study Humanities, which was back then one of the most looked-down-upon subjects in the Indian subcontinent. “While bright students chose science and mid-range students went for commerce, the leftovers would go for humanities. And since I was not a particularly bright student, I went for humanities with the intention of at least passing my exams,” says Dulla.
In 2006, after graduating high school, Dulla turned to Google and researched on the best job prospects for students of humanities. Out of the long list of things that Google listed, he was particularly interested in a detailed three-year course on footwear technology in Noida, Delhi.
Fascination with shoes
Although Dulla’s career with shoes and footwear started only in 2006, he was always fascinated by shoes. For Dulla, shoes were what chocolates were for other children. “I was one of those children who cried when he didn’t get the shoes he wanted. I remember how, when I was in grade four, I cried for hours because my parents wouldn’t buy me a pair of shoes that cost more than eight thousand rupees,” says Dulla.
Although Dulla had made up his mind to pursue a career in shoe designing, making the case with his parents was not easy. A career in shoe designing meant a lot of social stigma, the social perception that making shoes was a profession meant for lower castes created doubts for Dulla. But he had made up his mind and told what he wanted to his parents. After an initial resistance, his father- a restaurateur by profession agreed to his son’s choice.
The three years Dulla spent at Noida College of Footwear Technology were one of the best learning days of his life. “The course comprised of 80 percent practical and 20 percent theory. And I absolutely loved the classes; as soon as the class ended in the evening, I would be looking forward to attending another one the next day,” says Dulla. After three years of nine-to-five classes of sorting, cutting, stitching, designing, cleaning and writing, Dulla completed his course.
I absolutely loved the classes; as soon as the class ended in the evening, I would be looking forward to attending another one the next day
Growing through internship
Companies like Nike and Puma were offering jobs to Dulla after the completion of his course. Instead, he opted for an internship at G Shoe Exports, a leading supplier, exporter and manufacturer of shoes in Mumbai that designed and manufactured shoes for all sorts of European brands. “From the very beginning, I was very clear on not wanting just a job; primarily because I feared I would be limited to a department, and also because I wanted to go to every department and learn everything I could,” says Dulla.
The free-roaming internship at G Shoe Exports helped Dulla see how things were actually done in the real world. Working with different departments and talking to laborers, managers and others helped Dulla understand the nuts and bolts of the shoemaking process. The company offered Dulla a job after he completed his internship, but Dulla had other plans. He instead started his own collection.
From rags to riches
Dulla took social media as his platform. He posted pictures of his designs on his Facebook page seeking customers. Next day, enquiries started floating. And, encouraged by market acceptance, he started making a few pairs and sold them to the enquirers. “My supervisors at G Shoe Exports never encouraged my designs. But now that I could see that people actually liked my designs and were interested in buying it, I found confidence in my products and realised that there was a market for handcrafted shoes,” says Dulla.
He then came back to Nepal in early 2011 and continued designing and selling exclusively customised pairs to other individuals, meant for the wealthy middle class who could afford designer pieces. He would post his designs on Facebook, people who knew him ordered and he sat up all night to finish and deliver the custom pieces. The word-of-mouth spread. Soon his Facebook page reached to thousands.
Setting up a company.
In April 2011, Dulla sensed growing demand for his shoes and decided to open a company. He collected money here and there and invested two and a half lakhs then to start his collection of handmade shoes. He was thinking of a name, when one of his friends suggested using his family surname, Dulla and branding it. He liked the suggestion and asked a designer to make a logo with the name. The hired designer made a logo but the print came out wrong with a strike right above the design. For some reason, Ahmed Dulla, liked the accidental strip and decided to use it. The accidental name, as well as the logo, remains intact today.
Becoming a ladies’ man
His earlier experiences working on exclusive single pairs had given some hints to where his target market lied. He saw that women loved designer shoes and changed their shoes more frequently than men. And having witnessed the most enthusiasm in teenage girls, he first planned on making teenage footwears for fashion-loving teenage girls.
But, the market proved different. Instead of teenage girls that he initially targeted, Dulla shoes were increasing selling to corporate ladies and working women. Later, Dulla realised despite higher interest teenage girls didn’t earn to spend and had to depend on family for pocket money. Whereas working women and corporate staffs could afford the shoes and were fashionable and they were the ones who could back their want with money. So, Dulla shoes decided to focus on ladies shoes, producing exclusive designer shoes with an immaculate understanding of their needs.
The magic of hundred
After running his business for some time and identifying his target market, Ahmed Dulla could see quite a lot of following on his Facebook page. His followers, unlike lot others, were responsive, engaged and convertible followers. Now, he wanted to grow from selling one or two pairs and thought of limited edition shoes. He then used his Facebook page to release a design with just hundreds of pairs of shoes available for sale.
This exclusivity combined with the earlier impression Dulla made helped the concept gain an instant traction. Hundreds of followers on facebook enquired about, made pre-orders and referred to numerous other potential customers. Dulla shoes quickly became a famous brand competing with any other brand in Nepal.
Secret sauce of success
“Customer service is the only thing that keeps Dulla shoes apart”, says Dulla, and from how Dulla shoes has been run, he couldn’t be more right. Honest and outright communication with a humble approach to making customers aware seemingly sets Dulla shoes apart. “Once a customer showed doubt in a pair of shoes asking if it was an authentic leather, to gain his confidence, I cut the shoes from middle and educated him on the material and what makes a good leather. He ended up buying three pairs of shoes”, says Dulla.
Moreover, Ahmed Dulla’s Quora profile is one of the best sources of footwear knowledge for anyone--- whether you want to know how a pair of shoes is stitched or how they can be repaired. On a product level, Dulla shoes almost have a lifetime guarantee, promising repairs till the shoes are dead.
Customer service is the only thing that keeps Dulla shoes apart
Today Dulla shoes has expanded its collection to men's shoes as well as leather bags. And interestingly, the demand for men’s shoes was driven by his initial base of customers- the women. “Some of our customers wanted us to produce men’s shoes as they were finding it difficult to get a gift for their spouses. And we listened to them,” says Dulla.
Furthermore, there was a time when new designs were floated and leather was surplus. They were thinking what next, and decided to try leather bags. And, now they have a leather bags collection. “We try things that we really want to, and probably because of our brand recognition, things go pretty well at the end”, says Dulla humbly.
Business Mantra- Continuation and non-dilution
Ahmed Dulla’s business mantra is simply doing what he really loves to do without worrying a lot about other things. Currently, Dulla is really passionate about shoes and designs, works on a sample, trains his staff and prepares each handmade items in his store. He lets others know from his facebook and delivers to his customers as per order. And Dulla says, “He really enjoys doing it now, the day he stops enjoying it, he will probably not do it.”
People have shown interest to invest in the venture. But Dulla has stuck to his own and has not accepted any proposal, as he believes it simply dilutes his passion. He plans to grow his business organically. With the continued growth and smart brand building that Dulla has been doing, one cannot argue that some businesses are simply better keeping on organic growth.