What is a clinical psychologist, who worked with survivors of political torture, doing publishing a new series of comic books in the Middle East based on Allah’s 99 virtues? The way Naif al Mutawa describes it, his comics — called The 99 — are simply an entertaining way to promote wisdom, generosity, mercy and the many other positive values inspired not only by Islam, but also by so many other religions.
It was an idea that came to him in a taxi. Al Mutawa says he was upset that Islam in a post-9/11 world was seen negatively by many. So he decided to work on creating multicultural comic-book characters who could address the misperception. He thought of Pokemon, he thought of Islam and then he connected the two to create The 99 — boy and girl characters from 99 countries based on 99 virtues.
In a letter written last year to his five sons, who are between one and 12 years old, al Mutawa said he wanted to create a concept that’s popular in the East and West. “I would go back to the very sources from which others took violent and hateful messages and offer messages of tolerance and peace in their place,” he wrote. “I would give my heroes a Trojan horse in the form of The 99. Islam was my Helen and I wanted her back.”
As a first-time entrepreneur selling a dream from the deserts of Kuwait, it has been a demanding journey. But al Mutawa — named by The Royal Islamic Strategic Studies Centre in its 2009 list of the world’s 500 most influential Muslims — has managed to raise funding and enlist hundreds of animators in India to help with the next part of his dream project: This year, an animated series based on the 99 characters comes to television screens in the U.S.
Al Mutawa, who believes he is on the verge of creating more superheroes to join the likes of Superman and Batman, talks with Arabic Knowledge at Wharton about innovation in the Middle East, his journey to found Kuwait-based Teshkeel Media Group and his entrepreneurial superpowers.
Edited extracts of the conversation follow.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton:Why hasn’t the spirit of entrepreneurship really taken off in theMiddle East?
Naif al Mutawa:First and foremost, entrepreneurship is based in theUnited States. The reason for that is the demographic shift that happened after the discovery of theNew World. By definition, people who [movedto] theNew Worldhad to start something new,somewhere new,and that was entrepreneurship. The country then became the most powerful in the world…[and] the fact that [this]had an influence on Europe and some parts ofAsiahashelped transport the culture around the world.
The problem with theMiddle Eastand entrepreneurship is that you have to look at how moneytypicallyhas been made in the region. InKuwait, there was some entrepreneurship early on — people who owned ships hired people to work for them. It is…as if there was a lot of risk in the past to operate and now it’s seen as a luxury not to take that risk. It’s almost like a stigma to venture out, because that’s how peopledid it in the old days. There is a paradigm shift, but not necessarily a positive one in terms of how entrepreneurship is viewed here.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton:Do you see yourself as someone who broke the mould?
Al Mutawa:It’s tough to say whether I am breaking the mould or continuing the mould. My grandfather was the Honda dealer here inKuwait. He got his start by going toIran, buying a couple of cars, bringing them back and eventually buildinga Honda dealership. Most of my education was in theUnited States. If I had just grown up here and only had access to information that I would have had being here, I would have been breaking the mould. But [as I went to] business school in theU.S., I was doing what I knew. In that sense, I was not breaking the mould.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton:You started with an idea that came to you in a cab. What were the big hurdles you faced in taking that ideaforward? What’s the journey been like?
Al Mutawa:It has been seven years. The first hurdle was myself. The idea was out there, if you will. As it is, people like to call psychologists crazy. It makes them feel better. When I had the idea, I couldn’t putit out of my head. I thought if I pull this off, I will have a bigger responsibility. This was not merely a financial [responsibility]; it also had a social message. On the other hand, I wanted investors’ money. I kept thinking that if I don’t get funding,I would be this crazy guy who tried. If I got funded, moved forward and failed, I would be known as this crazy person who took people’s money.
I was very passionate about it and I wanted to do it, but I had never done it before. I didn’t want to be seenas somebody who sold words. I felt like a charlatan. I thought I have spun this story, now what?
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton:You battled yourself and then what happened?
Al Mutawa:I got my money, but I made a lot of mistakes. I started second guessing myself. That was a stumbling block. I got the money too easily and too quickly, and I thought there must be something wrong. I started buying licenses for DC Comics and Marvel for the region and filling the void. I knew it would take at least two years forthe 99 idea to become a product. I wanted to create a comic-book industry in the region, but it didn’t work. We made no money from it and we are not doing it anymore.
The next challenge was how do I get U.S.-based creators, who had worked on Batman and Spiderman, to work on Islam-based comic-book characters post 9/11? I was able to convince a few of them.
The next challenge was how to convince the various ministries of information [in theMiddle East]. Are we going to be allowed [to set upthe business] or not? InSaudi Arabia, we were allowed, then not allowed, allowed and again not allowed. We had a kind of love-hate relationship there.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton:What about other markets?
Al Mutawa:It was smooth sailing. How do we know that our product is global? By being able to sell licenses inIndia,Indonesia,TurkeyandChina.
The other challenge was to convince people that what we were doing was not religion. I also got a lot of push back from people-“What are you doing with 99 names? It is sacrilege.” It became distracting. So when I did my second round of financing, I went to an Islamic bank that had a seven-member Sharia board. Now, when people ask me [about the 99 names], I say, “Why don’t you speak to the sheikhs on the board and see whether they are right about religion or you are?” That helped immensely.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton:There’s an argument that governments in the region are like mothers and the citizens like spoiled children. Do you buy this argument?
Al Mutawa:I can only talk aboutKuwait. I can tell you that the wayKuwaithas raised its population is not the way a psychologist would advise a parent. How do you break that? Within the system, you have people in positions by virtue of who they are. That trickles down. You can’t have a meritocracy and an autocracy. It doesn’t work. It’s like having a family-owned company that has a small public shareholder. InKuwait, education is free and food is subsidized. The state takes care of the population, but by doing that they don’t force the population to take care of itself. That becomes the biggest impediment to entrepreneurship.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton:What are the other impediments?
Al Mutawa:InKuwait, financing is an issue. If I have a small idea and need money, I can take it to a businessman or the government. The government will match [your funds] four to one, but they want an 80% [stake]. They let you buy them out later, but put you out of control from day one. You put in all that cash, but there is no “sweat equity” involved. I launched a second business last year-Kuwait’s only psychological centre — and I decided to self-finance it. I didn’t want to put in money but not be in control. I would have loved the finance because it would have taken that monkey off my back.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton:How do find the right idea? Do you stumble upon it or work on finding one?
Al Mutawa:The right idea finds you. You see a problem, but then you see a solution that becomes an opportunity. There also has to be the right mindset, which is more important. You have to be flexible, able to shift gears quickly and not be stuck in a cocoon with that one idea.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton:How do you deal with the frustrations that come with it?
Al Mutawa:There are good days and bad days. It’s a roller-coaster ride. Right now, I am in my third round of financing. I was supposed to raise $11 million; I have got $12.5 million, but my lead investors are pushing me to raise $15 million. This is a new thing I have to do. I have deadlines and I know I will get there, but it’s a new race. I am constantly doing sprints at the same time as a marathon.
But one thing I have learned along the way is to never burn bridges. I would not kill any relationshipbecause nine times out of 10, it can come back at some point to help me. I have been lucky to get money from friends and family — $1 million came from business school friends when I started.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton:Is networking hugely important for anentrepreneur?
Al Mutawa:It’s not about a product. People invest in your ability to pull off a product. What were these people thinking when I said I was going to create a global media franchise from the dust ofKuwaitCitybased on Islamic archetypes …and it’s going to work as a business? I don’t think I’d fund that.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton:Has a bigger focus on trading and little focus on manufacturing stymied the spirit of entrepreneurship in the region?
Al Mutawa:For entrepreneurship, you need access to capital, which doesn’t exist. You need to protect intellectual property, which doesn’t exist. You have to come up with a product that is global in nature. In theUnited States, you can createsomething for theU.S.market,and the global part can be an afterthought. But if you are inKuwaitorBahrainand you want to do something consumer-based, what are you going to do? Itbecomes another real estate company or another investment bank.