Turning games into ventures

 

Omar Sherif, Owner, Geeky Lizard has always been passionate about creating his own venture. In a conversation with Capital Business, he shares with us his entrepreneurial path that led him to establish the UAE's first independent provider of table top games and trading card games.

 

Give us some background about Geeky Lizard.

Geeky Lizard is a social business for the table top games community, and one of the first of its kind in the UAE. We sell cards and other equipment for fantasy role-playing trading card games like Warhammer and Magic The Gathering. But our main purpose is to provide a space for people who play these games, and the pop subcultures that go with them. Geeky Lizard is also a place for people interested in learning how to play these games.

Unlike a normal business, where the customer is treated simply as a potential source of profit, I am also focused on creating a gaming community. Geeky Lizard is a place for gamers to socialize, play and feel at home. In some places these pop subcultures are looked upon as a bit strange, so Geeky Lizard is a place gamers can embrace their love of the subculture and make new friends.

 

How did you get started?

Around the age of 10, my cousin Marwan Al-Khaja and I were very interested in the pop culture world of anime (Japanese animation) and comic books - that was all we did and talked about at that age!  At that time Dubai was still quite a small place, and we had to buy many of the products we wanted when we travelled or by mail order. We both said that it would be great to have a shop in Dubai that sells all the things that we like, and that we should definitely open a similar store when we grow up.

Currently, Marwan is the first and only Emirati comic book grader, carrying on his passion for comic books. As for myself, I was introduced to table top games. By understanding their social and community benefits, I decided to invest in this area and spread the popularity of this pursuit further in the UAE.

I approached Dubai SME at the Department of Economic Development to get support. After many meetings and discussions, I managed to convince them that my idea could be a viable functioning business with potential and many benefits.

How was your experience as an Emirati at the Grandprix Moscow: “Magic – The Gathering?”

I lost, but I learned a lot, both as a player and a business owner. I learned how to play the game at the professional level by watching some of the different strategies that professionals adopt.

What kind of bottlenecks have you encountered during your journey so far?

When I first started the company, I had to educate people about my business, approach other gaming groups, other communities and work hard to identify “fellow geeks”; it was quite the journey!

Several of the pop culture groups, claim to be community – rather than profit – driven but I haven’t always found that to be the case. One of the Local Anime Clubs introduced me to a store owner that sells toys. He convinced me to partner with him to set-up an event. I did all the work. But, unfortunately, a few days before the exhibition he refused to sign the contract that we agreed upon and therefore burdened me with the financial responsibility and the logistics of organizing the whole program by myself. However, I didn’t let that put me off and with hard work and ambition, I eventually made the event a success.

Moreover, I’ve come up against numerous challenges throughout my journey but I’m very grateful because it has taught me an invaluable lesson: when one door closes, another opens and customers should be at the core of a business – never lose sight of your audience.

How can trading card games translate into trading in the real world?

These games are fun, but they are also great ways to understand concepts like supply and demand, scarcity and market value because players are trading thousands of different cards.

They are also a great way to learn English – my own English skills have largely come from playing fantasy role-playing games, reading comic books and such.

 

How do you plan to take your business to the next level?

We are about to open our own dedicated shop in Executive Towers in Business Bay – at the moment we operate at the coffee shop Bean Machine. We now have a dedicated community of players who were either playing before or to whom we have introduced the games. As word of our welcome spreads, we are seeing people bringing more and more friends along to play. Our own dedicated Geeky Lizard shop will be a permanent home for all these gamers and their hobbies.

 

The pop culture scene is also growing in Dubai more generally and that helps. For example Dubai now hosts its own edition of the hugely popular convention Comic Con every year, with other large scale events such as IGN. These events are made for the fans of cult entertainment and pop culture. We participate enthusiastically at Comic Con and promote Geeky Lizard to the fans there.

 

According to you, what is the best way to strengthen this platform from an entrepreneurial perspective?

I think the first thing is to talk about the social and educational benefits of fantasy role-playing games.  There has been already many researches on this subject done by several universities. And I have witnessed it myself, with players of different age groups and cultures sitting together and making new friends. I think this is very beneficial in a cosmopolitan place like Dubai. I have lived in the UAE my whole life and have never seen people from different cultures mixing so easily!

In terms of marketing our business, because we are in a niche market I believe that social media is the most effective way to communicate our offering. Some of our new players have recently arrived from abroad and have brought these hobbies with them. They usually look online for places in Dubai where they can meet like-minded people. This is why I run two Facebook pages and I am also an active member of three Facebook table top games community groups.

What is your message for young Emirati entrepreneurs?

One of our gamers is a dean at a university and he asked some budding student entrepreneurs what they thought of my business. One of them said that I sounded like someone who was following his heart. This student hoped that he would also be able to follow his heart once he graduated, and create a business from something that he loved. That is my first piece of advice to other Emiratis considering entrepreneurship – pick something that you truly love because then you will have a passion to make it a great success. What I am doing now is the dream I had as a child.

From my experience so far as an entrepreneur, my other advices would be:

-          Be original with your business idea. A run-of-the-mill café next to five other run-of-the-mill cafés is never going to be an extraordinary business that creates an extraordinary contribution to our society here in Dubai.  

-          Travel the world, travel to places you never knew existed. Learn from their customs and local cultures - what they like, what they hate, what they do for fun. This will help you develop an original idea for your new business.

-          Follow your heart, not everything is instant money and a cushy desk job. Which achievements will you be happy about towards the end of your life?

-          Know your friends, and know your enemies. Trust your friends to help you stand up; know that your enemies will try to make you fail

-          Be a leader, as amend: HH Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum , Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai said in his book My Vision: “Only a lion can lead lions, and all Emiratis are lions”. Sometimes being a lion may seem too aggressive and impatient to some, but we are a nation of leadership and results, never forget that.

-          Learn from people who have succeeded and those that have failed. Let them both inspire you.

-          A lot of the things you learn at school are not applicable. The real world has its own set of rules, and the business world is no stranger to this.

-          Be patient, Rome wasn’t built in a day, neither was Dubai, and neither will your business be.

We are only 10% in our own country, and to me the support of that 10% is more valuable than anything else. Nothing makes me happier than seeing my fellow countrymen by my side gaming with me at Geeky Lizard.

About Omar Sherif

Omar Sherif is the owner of Geeky Lizard, a DED licenced “Community Gaming” business and the UAE's first independent provider of Table Top Games, Trading Card Games, Comics, Collectables, Miniature Painting Services. Omar is an Emirati national who became the first Gulf National to participate in a global championship for a trading card game known as: Grandprix Moscow: “Magic – The Gathering”.

His ambition is to be fully dedicated to his hobby and encourage more people from the UAE to play this game. His project is listed under the Mohamed bin Rashid’s entrepreneurship program and has the support of DED for SMEs. 

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