By Lynne Strang, Late-Blooming Entrepreneurs
Doha, Qatar has megamalls, luxurious hotels and soaring skyscrapers. It also has a small- but-scrappy souvenir business with its own style.
Doha Designs is the brainchild of Lee and Meredith Hedrick, two Annandale, Virginia teachers on temporary assignment in Qatar. Since its launch a year and a half ago, the Hedricks’ startup has found a niche among Doha’s many Western expatriates seeking good-quality mementos of their time in the city.
International living seemed to be in the cards for Lee, 41 and Meredith, 40, from the beginning. Both studied international relations at Michigan State University and served in the U.S. Peace Corps – he in Senegal and she in Turkmenistan.
While in Senegal, Lee was a small business development volunteer and worked with government agencies to coordinate Peace Corps activities to meet the needs of local entrepreneurs. Over the years, the couple dabbled in importing bamboo, rugs and other goods and selling them at weekend fairs.
Eventually, they moved to the Washington, D.C. area where they worked briefly for an international development company. Each earned a master’s degree in secondary education from George Washington University and landed a high school teaching position (Lee teaches history while Meredith specializes in English for Speakers of Other Languages, or ESOL). They bought a single-family home in a suburban neighborhood, became the parents of two boys and settled into a comfortable life.
Then in 2011, Meredith received an offer to teach in Doha for a year, with a possible extension of her contract. While the notion of moving almost 7,000 miles would be scary for some, the Hedricks felt the pull of wanderlust. They rented their home and, with their two young sons, embarked on an international adventure on the other side of the world.
Testing the Market
In Doha, the Hedrick family enjoyed many aspects of city’s culture. But after several months, Meredith realized her job wasn’t a fit. The couple also felt somewhat socially unfulfilled due to their work routines. They began exploring ideas for a side business that would expand their Doha network while providing another source of income.
Lee and Meredith, who describe themselves as “risk adverse,” tested the market for a souvenir business while Meredith still had a steady paycheck. The results from focus groups with local residents and other research suggested strong potential for their business idea.
One day, Meredith happened to be in a coffee shop and struck up a conversation with a woman who was buying eight or nine mugs to ship to her family and friends. “The person who comes up with a good Doha souvenir will become a millionaire,” the woman predicted. That chance encounter proved to be the final push for the Hedricks.
In February 2013, they launched Doha Designs as a part-time business (both Hedricks also teach at a local academy). Its signature item is a series of custom-designed vintage posters depicting Doha scenery. Other products include t-shirts, bags, postcards and handmade jewelry.
Doha Designs sells its products at local craft shows. It also has a few wholesale clients, including the Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) Qatar Gift Shop and the book store for Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service in Qatar.
Strengths and Weaknesses
The Hedricks believe they wouldn’t have opened a business had they moved to Doha when they were younger. “In our 20s, we didn’t have the same financial awareness and interests that we have now,” said Meredith. “At this stage in our lives, the business makes sense. There was a market need that we could meet fairly efficiently to earn extra money for the family, but not take too much time away from being with our kids.”
An understanding of each other’s strength and weaknesses is a key contributor to their success. Meredith oversees the show schedule, networking and wholesale clients while Lee manages the retail sales, finances and pricing. “We know what risks to take – and not to take – and have a good sense of our priorities” said Meredith.
They also know and accept the realities associated with their entrepreneurial endeavor. “When you own a business, you get a large share of the profits,” said Lee. “But you also get a large share of the headaches.”
The Hedricks aren’t sure what will happen to their business when they return to the United States. At least one retailer scheduled to open a location in Qatar’s new airport is interested in selling the couple’s products.
Regardless of Doha Designs’ future, Lee and Meredith’s worldwide travel seems destined to continue. So far, they’ve visited more than 50 countries and lived in five. All that international experience has influenced their view of life.
“We have faith that things will always work out and we aren’t so scared or intimidated by the unknown,” said Meredith.
“I like the proverb that goes something like, ‘If you can’t go through the door then go through the window, if you can’t go through the window go through the chimney,’” she added. “To me, it means there is always a way and don’t give up too easily.”