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10 Questions with Aamir Ahmad

10 Questions with Aamir Ahmad

Issue 89 February 2012

Inspired by the rags to riches stories of his grandfather and uncles, Aamir Ahmad ploughed his life savings into a furniture catalogue business. Down, but not out, he recovered to create dwell, a fast growing furniture brand.


Aamir Ahmad graduated from Manchester University with a degree in Computer Science in 1989, and went to work as a consultant for the Boston Consultancy Group. He launched his first business, Ocean, in 1995, which he then sold in 2002. In November 2003, Aamir launched dwell, a up-market furniture business, which has now grown to 19 stores. Aamir has made his success with dwell based on the threepronged approach of exclusive product, aspirational presentation, and accessibility. He has an in-house team who design the furniture, 90% of which is exclusive to dwell. In the last financial year, dwell’s sales totalled over £35 million, and Aamir has plans to launch 52 new stores across the whole of the United Kingdom over the next four years.

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1. How did your education and upbringing have an influence on you?
Education and upbringing make you everything you are. Like with most Asian parents, I was told to work hard and do well at school, and my parents were quite traditional, but not strict. I chose to study computer science at university, which wasn’t very common back then, and because I wasn’t studying law, accountancy or medicine, my parents didn’t know what to tell their friends, so they would say to people that I did engineering! I chose computer science because I enjoyed maths, as well as the practicality in the subject. I also enjoyed the creativity in programming. It wasn’t something that was too academic, but it was logical.


2. Which people do you admire the most and why?
I’m always fascinated by people who are able to achieve lots of things in their lives. You get people who start a business, move on to something else, write a book, start a family and it’s just incredible that they manage to accomplish that in one lifetime, so I’m a great admirer of those who can multi-task well.


I also have great respect for people who have started from something really small and built it up themselves. My grandfather and some of my uncles all had commercial businesses out in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, and they went from rags to riches, so whenever they came to the UK on business trips, I was always taken by the fact that they were out there building something for themselves, and not just sitting behind a desk, working for someone else.


3. What was your biggest break and was there an element of luck involved?
I don’t think I’ve ever had a big break in the running of my business. And a lot of people talk about luck in business, but I don’t see it that way. For me, I believe that you see opportunity and you decide whether you want to take advantage of it. It’s all about realising opportunities and making the most of what comes along.


4. What has been your biggest failure and how did you recover?

When I started my first business, I went through a series of horrible failures. I started a furniture catalogue company based on some of  the American models that had succeeded. It was sheer determination that got me started in the first place, but it never really took off at that pace. It’s interesting because you can plan your business out as much as you want, and assume it’s going to succeed, but it never quite works out that way.


I put my life savings into printing the catalogue, and some friends and I went around London distributing 30,000 copies. The week after, we sat at home in anticipation of telephone orders, but didn’t receive a single phone call! We ended up getting one or two in after that, and fortunately some other leads came through. It was also summer at the time, so while others were out enjoying themselves and having barbeques, we were delivering catalogues with nothing to show for it. But in business you have to be fairly optimistic and push yourself forward.


Another issue I faced in the first business was related to growth. It was around the time of the dot-com boom, where the mentality was to keep growing, and we did that without making any consistent profit, which wasn’t a smart idea. With my second business, I’ve been more cautious and ensured that we’ve been making enough profit along the way.

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5. What motivates you to continue with your work/business?
The most important factor is the feeling that you’re achieving and building something. It’s quite exciting when you’re running your own business, and you envisage a new direction for it to grow into, and after a few months, it comes to life. I’m always very ambitious, and like to take risks, as well as continuously implementing new things within the business.


But you can’t deny that running your own business is a 24/7 job. Some people start their own business because they want to have more flexibility and take time to make decisions, but the truth is that when you’re an entrepreneur, your boss is with you everywhere you go.


6. What is the best piece of advice that you have ever received?
I was once told never to get so attached or fixated on my business, and this probably applies to most spheres of life. If you get too attached to your business or idea, and it doesn’t work out, then you will be left with nothing. The crux of the matter is that you have to maintain a balance in what you do, so your eggs aren’t all in one basket.


7. What are the enemies of success?

They have to be the two extremes of self-doubt and overconfidence. You have to have an element of self-belief, but you can’t think that you are immortal and that nothing will bring you down. It’s important to have a healthy confidence in yourself, but be able to admit when things are growing wrong.


It’s also worthwhile to be self aware of your own strengths and weaknesses. If I want to do something, I have to be able to determine whether I can do it myself or if I need someone else to help me with my task. Never be afraid to admit that someone else is better than you at doing a certain task.


8. How do you give back to the community/society?
I try to give as much as possible, and implement it within my daily life. But I believe that charity is something to do privately, and shouldn’t be boasted about. I would never tell someone that they should donate or support charities; rather it is better to tell them that it will be something that is rewarding to them. And even if you can’t give financially, there are other ways to support.


Having been brought up in a stable and loving environment, I am particularly drawn to charities that help children and the homeless, because it’s very difficult for children or anyone to make something of themselves with no support or guidance.


9. How do religious values play a role in your work/business?
In Islam, the practice of charity and looking after orphans are two areas that are of particular importance to me, as is providing for your family and others who are less fortunate than yourself.


Having humility and ensuring brotherhood are two other constant themes in Islam, and how you should never show off, or use your wealth to live a lavish lifestyle when members of your family aren’t doing as well. I strongly feel that these themes are under-emphasised in the community, and people tend to focus more on the ritualistic side of the religion.


10. What would you say to people when it is time for you to leave this world?
I hope that I have loved and cared for people as much as I could have. I would also ask for forgiveness from anyone that I have wronged or mistreated. I would tell people to make sure that they care for the people around them. In modern society, people can sit around and worry about their own problems for an endless amount of time. I’m that sort of person, where a lot of things are going through my head, so I can tend to over-think those thoughts too. But the solution is to think about someone else, by getting out and talking to friends and family. A lot of people’s difficulties and strife have an air of selfishness about them, and this is the only way to overcome them.

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