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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 17 December 2018

A band of heroes for region

The Life: Many fledgling brand builders may be familiar with Dr Naif Al Mutawa - the Kuwaiti creator behind The 99 comic book franchise. But few are likely to have heard about his business strategies for running the venture. He shares some of his insights.
The 99 comic book franchise, created by Naif Al Mutawa of Kuwait, has followers such as this young Indonesian boy, above. Adek Berry / AFP
The 99 comic book franchise, created by Naif Al Mutawa of Kuwait, has followers such as this young Indonesian boy, above. Adek Berry / AFP

Nobody loves hearing a story of business struggle-and-success more than an entrepreneur.

But while many builders of fledgling brands may be familiar with Naif Al Mutawa - the Kuwaiti creator behind The 99 comic book franchise - few are likely to have heard about his business strategies for the venture.

Mr Al Mutawa's latest chapter started once he ended his career as a clinical psychologist working in Kuwait with former war prisoners and in New York with survivors of political torture.

He turned his attention to his passion for writing children's books and, in 2003, created a team of superheroes based on Islamic culture and society. His superheroes have since appeared in comic books, an animated series and a made-for-TV movie. Some characters have been featured in a crossover with Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman, in a collaboration that Barack Obama, the president of the United States, publicly praised during a summit on entrepreneurship.

Not bad for a business that got its start on the back of a paper mat from a restaurant in a Howard Johnson hotel.

During an event held in Dubai last month by Endeavor, which assists entrepreneurs, a roomful of business owners got to hear from Mr Al Mutawa first-hand. He discussed his strategies for securing seed funding, striking business deals and managing his workload.

Finding funds

The first pitch to potential investors is often the hardest.

Mr Al Mutawa reached out to possible funders while studying business at Columbia University and conceptualising The 99.

"I figured out early on that I wasn't going to be the one who makes all the finance," he said. "So what I did was, every Sunday, I invited 20 students into my apartment and I cooked Kuwaiti food and got to know them."

He later emailed these classmates with his pitch and secured about US$1 million (Dh3.67m). Another $6m came from sources such as banks, and Mr Al Mutawa went on to raise about $37m over the years. The Dubai private-equity company Abraaj Capital has also invested in Mr Al Mutawa's company, Teshkeel Comics, which was founded in 2004.

Striking deals

Comic book franchises have great potential in merchandising deals for toys, videogames and clothing.

Teshkeel has struck two such deals, in Turkey and Spain.

"Turkey is the market [where] we have the most licences," Mr Al Mutawa said. "[The 99] is on TV, there's a comic book licence and there's a back-to-school licence."

Yet he acknowledged having made poor deals in the past, including buying the licence to translate Marvel's Spider-man comic book and some from DC Comics into Arabic.

"Even Spider-man at its best month with us, including Egypt and Saudi, was [selling] 6,000 copies," he said. "We have made a lot of mistakes."

He plans to leave to licence holders the decisions about how much The 99 merchandise should be made in advance - since they know market demand best. That way, if The 99 proves less popular than expected, there will not be excessproduct.

Shifting management style

In the early days, Mr Al Mutawa said, he was much more involved in all aspects of the company instead of empowering his employees to take charge. He would scrutinise every script and episode of The 99's animated series.

"I don't put too many rules on our creative team, because you don't want censorship on them," he said.

Yet one particular scene was supposed to take place in a bar, which he changed to a cafe. "It made it that much more acceptable to people we were trying to target," he explained.

Sometimes, though, he falls back into his old habits.

While launching his company's Facebook page, Mr Al Mutawa read through books about social media and visited the site up to six times a day to track ads and see what worked or did not. "I drove my wife crazy," he said.

"Most CEOs won't sit there and say 'I'll be the one who does the Facebook page',' he said. "But if I'm going to judge somebody else's work, I want to know what is involved."

nparmar@thenational.ae

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