… You don’t always have to be the trendsetter. We often waste time and energy trying to think of unique promo videos to increase our membership, rather than simply hopping on existing trends. People often want more of the same, you just have to find the creativity that’s already there, replicate it, and make it better.
As a part of our series called “Making Something From Nothing”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Leila Muhaizen.
Leila Muhaizen is the founder and CEO of Baklava, the true Arab relationship app for dating, marriage and friendships. Leila combined both her experience in social entrepreneurship and project management, her education, and her passion for bringing people together to build an innovative, one-of-a-kind app. She is a native of Lebanon and graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Media and Communications with an emphasis in Marketing from the American University of Beirut.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a bit about your “childhood backstory”?
Iwas raised in a traditional tight-knit community in Lebanon with my single mother and brother. Technically, it was just us three, but it always felt like we had a village supporting us. People there have known each other for generations and have developed a sense of responsibility and loyalty to one another. I used to complain as a teenager that I had five women mothering me at once. It was an atypical family dynamic, but it is what shaped my appreciation for community.
After working for five years at a corporate job, I was laid off due to the COVID-19 pandemic. I jumped at the opportunity to do something personally meaningful. That’s when I started Baklava.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
There’s a quote that I live by and that I’ve carried with me from my childhood. It’s from Peter Pan. Early in the story, Peter is encouraging Wendy to think of happy thoughts to make her fly. After unsuccessful attempts, Wendy finally lets her true inner and wildly fantastic thoughts out and says to herself, “I’ll think of a mermaid lagoon, underneath a magic moon.” It is only then she sees herself lift up and fly to Neverland.
And when you think about it, Neverland is a place where you never set your feet on the ground. You are always pushing past boundaries and liberating your mindset to manifest your heart’s desires. I never want to be weighed down by adulthood and lose the lightheartedness that keeps me going. Always think of Neverland.
Is there a particular book, podcast, or film that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
The book series that will stay with me forever is Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling. The story and lessons are timeless, especially as they relate to how Harry navigates his two identities of being a “normal kid” but also the “chosen one.” Harry sets an example of what leadership should be. It is his grounded and honest character that makes him best suited for power even though he never sought it. Similarly to how startup founders find themselves thrust into leadership positions and must take the mantle; they are often surprised by how well, or not, they wear it. It’s a story that speaks to the new person we all want to become while remaining true to ourselves as we embrace the unique challenges that arise with our growth.
Ok super. Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion. There is no shortage of good ideas out there. Many people have good ideas all the time. But people seem to struggle in taking a good idea and translating it into an actual business. Can you share a few ideas from your experience about how to overcome this challenge?
The best way to start developing an idea is to find a mentor. Choose someone who has had successful experiences with similar product concepts to what you’re developing. We tend to overthink and overcomplicate, but oftentimes the roadmap is already paved for us, and we simply have to replicate a process that’s proven successful.
In my case, I started from scratch with no ideas, just a fascination with startups, so I followed the process first and then the idea developed itself. My mentor had given me a book, Designing Your Life, and said, “This is not a book of great ideas, but it is a roadmap of proven steps that produce many potentially great ideas.” Unlike traditional career mapping books that often capitalize on your interest-inventory, this book prompts us to think of the life experience we want first and then design the building blocks of it — including your business ideas. In other words, for a business idea to be successful, it has to meaningfully complement your life.
Often when people think of a new idea, they dismiss it saying someone else must have thought of it before. How would you recommend that someone go about researching whether or not their idea has already been created?
With Baklava, we were lucky to be “the first and only,” yet we still stood in the face of giants like Tinder and Bumble who have a strong market hold. The key is to differentiate your product enough so that the big fish and the oversaturated market don’t scare you anymore. Baklava is designed to personify Arabic culture, which makes it far more attractive to our target market than any mainstream app will be. Our target market is not the entire world population, our goal is to connect Arab communities. You have to research an overlooked need and jump at the opportunity to present a solution. Ideas similar to yours most likely exist, but innovation is when you take an existing idea and give it a twist to find your niche.
For the benefit of our readers, can you outline the steps one has to go through, from when they think of the idea, until it finally lands in a customer’s hands?
The first step is a no brainer, do your due diligence with market research and competitors. After you feel confident with your idea and have created a wireframe (blueprint) of your product, take it to your designer to create a mockup with a rendered click-through model. It is crucial that your product has a seamless and enjoyable user experience, which brings us to the most important step: collect feedback. Bounce your mockup off friends, family, even enemies. You will learn that there’s a behavioral formula that you should translate into your technology. For example, where do people’s eyes first go when they open a page? Which features catch their attention? Does swiping up feel more natural than diagonal? Remove any aspect that seems robotic or unnatural. Spending the most time on this step will save you money on making expensive changes in the code development stage later. Once your app is fully developed, and you’ve ironed out the final kinks through test groups, you’re finally ready to launch. Here’s where the real fun begins. How do you create hype for your new cool app? Word of mouth is huge for social apps like Baklava. Our friends and families blasted it on social media, and that’s how we received our first few hundred founding members. Now, we get thousands of downloads from every viral TikTok video or Instagram Reel — that’s a good deal to me!
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Started Leading My Company” and why?
- Nobody ever tells you that starting a company is like getting married. The moment you’re in that contract with your colleagues, you’re there for better or for worse. You love each other, you argue about finances, and you make all your decisions together.
- You don’t always have to be the trendsetter. We often waste time and energy trying to think of unique promo videos to increase our membership, rather than simply hopping on existing trends. People often want more of the same, you just have to find the creativity that’s already there, replicate it, and make it better.
- Allow yourself to delegate work while you step up into a mentorship position. You always think you can do everything better, and no one else can do it the same way, but that will only lead to burning out and alienating your colleagues.
- Your people skills are more valuable than your technical ones. It’s a misconception that you should have a coding degree or an MBA to start your business. Be a charismatic leader with an inspiring vision and hire a skillful technical team to back you up.
- Stay close to your users. Remember, you’re in a marriage with your company and your users are your children. Nurture them now and they’ll take care of you later! Focus on user retention by creating strong personal connections and capitalizing on brand loyalty.
Let’s imagine that a reader reading this interview has an idea for a product that they would like to invent. What are the first few steps that you would recommend that they take?
First, find a mentor to be your guide. Second, hire a designer to create a sketch of your ideas. Third, peer review the sketch with your peers, mentors, and your mentor’s peers. Fourth, send it to an engineer to develop a code for the product (app). Fifth, run the final product by test groups to clean out any remaining mistakes. Sixth, publish the final product (app) on the App Store and Google Play. The third step is perhaps the most crucial and where you need to spend most time. You don’t want to develop something and go back to the drawing board again and say the design doesn’t work. You can always fix bugs and make updates, but redesigning significant portions costs you time and money.
There are many invention development consultants. Would you recommend that a person with a new idea hire such a consultant, or should they try to strike out on their own?
I would say don’t waste your money or time hiring a consultant at these early stages. I’ve had multiple incredible business mentors in my six years of working and they all welcomed taking me under their wing for free. Some have also become close friends and life coaches. Find the right mentor for you by talking to as many inspiring figures as possible. Start with your alumni, Linkedin connections, and even cold emails. Don’t underestimate people’s willingness to share their success stories when you demonstrate curiosity.
What are your thoughts about bootstrapping vs looking for venture capital? What is the best way to decide if you should do either one?
Baklava is bootstrapped and we’re bringing it to successful fruition this way. This structure works well for us because we have a niche market and operate as a boutique company that’s self-sustaining. Nothing scares me more than an investor smoking cigars at his desk in Silicon Valley and saying “Let’s change it from a dating app to a dessert delivery service.” We’re hellbent on succeeding our way.
However, this model is not for everyone. If you’re in a highly competitive “winner takes the market” kind of race, your best bet is to look for investors who can offer the resources to scale big and fast.
Ok. We are nearly done. Here are our final questions. How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
A couple from the app just got married last week. How much better can it be, creating new relationships, new homes, new life? I’m declaring myself as the “Godmother” of all children born because of the app.
You are an inspiration to a great many people. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
My movement would draw elements from Women’s Rights and my personal experiences. Women in the Middle East are inherently born with social restrictions that have stripped them from their right to grow their emotional intelligence. The arcane ideology that dating is a taboo has forced women to remain clueless on what a loving and healthy relationship should look like. Many end up marrying the first man they were “allowed” to date and often get locked in abusive marriages. I want Baklava to normalize dating for Arab women, just like it is normalized and even encouraged for Arab men. I wish for Baklava to empower women to take control of their love lives and swipe yes/no a hundred times before they choose the men to tie their lives to.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
Michelle Obama. After reading her memoir, Becoming, I was mesmerized by the deeply personal reckoning of a soulful woman who defied expectations. I couldn’t help but draw similarities with my life as she chronicled the events that shaped hers, from her childhood on the South Side of Chicago to mine in a similar area in Lebanon to her pressures to be a lawyer, as I was expected to be a doctor. Our breaking away from corporate jobs and pursuing meaningful community oriented careers and most importantly, the same way we started conversations about our race and culture. My favorite fun fact about her life is that Barack started out as her intern at a law firm. PS: we’re hiring interns.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.
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