In episode 15 of the Startups Without Borders Podcast, we meet Iraqi entrepreneur Alaa Alnuaimi, who moved to Turkey as war broke out in Iraq and managed to build a massive design studio that gained the attention of international giants, including Nike, Pizza Hut, and KFC.
By Ahmed Abuzaid
Raised by a sculptor and painter father, Alaa Alnuaimi was exposed to various types of art and creative approaches early in his entire life. Having grown up in Kirkuk, Iraq, the young designer and developer co-founded -99 design studio when he moved to Istanbul, turning his lifelong passion into a professional studio that garnered the attention of global giants including Nike and KFC.
As we launch season 3 of the Startups Without Borders Podcast, Alaa recalls his journey across Egypt, Syria, and then into Turkey in an attempt to find a place to call home while striving to pursue his passion.
This is a story about what it takes to follow your dreams, doing whatever it takes despite the odds to turn dreams into reality – even when you don’t know the culture or speak the language.
“It was dark times in my country. I had to leave somehow and at the time I was still studying in my final year of pharmacy in Baghdad.”
Alaa recalls the journey that started in 2006, in an attempt to find his family’s new home. This is where along the journey, he not only discovered the difficulties of continuing studies in a different country but also that perseverance pays off. He recalls his family history entrenched in arts and design and him finding his interest to be a point from which to derive strength.
When in doubt, DIY
Alaa worked his way through the design field with self-education, downloading as many tutorials as he could get his hands on while still in Syria while also almost compulsive buying scratch cards. The now-self-taught designer once in Turkey, despite lack of knowledge of the Turkish language, discovered the world or freelancing abroad to broaden his opportunity net and bypass this issue. Quickly, not only did he get clients in other parts of the country, but also from the US and Europe.
From freelancer to entrepreneur
Alaa says that creating of solid relationships was a basis for good business. This is where one of his freelance clients in Turkey, a software company, needed more hands-on design work.
“The networks I’ve made were by doing good work and having ethics. Make your work speak for you. And each time you have a meeting with anyone, make the most out of it. Leave your mark in the meeting, whatever that mark is.”
Their software was very good. They found that the area they were lacking in was design. That’s where their mutually beneficial working relationship developed into an opportunity for him to start an actual agency – a natural next step to capitalize on growth momentum.
“Just do it”
What started off as a pipe dream to “one day work with Nike” became a reality when he created -99 Design – and the 13-person startup simply kept pressing on and putting in the work. And clearly it spoke for itself as he tells us that there were no backchannels or introductions involved in creating the Nike connection. But rather, they were approached like any agency that stood out on its own merit. Alaa goes on to describe how the main attribute his company looks for in hiring is passion. How that is the main driver of good work and what grows a junior staffer into more. This is seen in the work they produce, how they talk about the industry. Putting their hearts into it.
There’s always room for improvement
Alaa describes how he inspires his team to strive for excellence even in times of success. This is where his team once won an award for a web design. He describes a moment of jubilation as any agency should have, but instead insisted that the company not get comfortable. Because to him that means stagnation. Instead, he urged them to keep learning, keep improving their skills and knowledge to, in fact, continue to achieve these milestones.