Randi Rahbar is the founder of ShopYoBrand, an ecommerce platform that ships international products to Iraqis who don’t have payment cards. She aims to sell Kurdish handicrafts around the world. Originally from Iraqi Kurdistan, she was raised in the Netherlands.
Connecting Iraqis with global commerce
I don’t remember a day in my life in Iraq when I haven’t witnessed and read about issues in our banking system. We’ve always been a cash-based country, and the credit card is not something that you can use easily here. Don’t forget that, in both Baghdad and Kurdistan [an autonomous province of Iraq], we have lived under constant wars and frequent protests and closures. Internal divisions, corruption, and wars didn’t help create a stable monetary system.
The whole system of using a phone or a credit card to pay for anything is lacking in this country. People don’t trust mobile money here as there is so much poverty, unemployment, and bankruptcy in our banks.
My idea seemed very simple to me: I do the shipping for customers in Iraq, and they pay me in cash. They can experience the world of online shopping, then send me the link to the items they want to buy. The fact that I have a Dutch debit card and a Swedish credit card enables me to deliver original brands from Europe and the US.
In 2018, I started out making the ShopYoBrand website, at home, by myself. I had no IT assistance. In under two years, my platform became an online mall with different stores. I grew my community and social media and educated people about how to shop online without a credit card.
“Is it really worth it?”
I didn’t get a dime of funding so I relied on my family to support me, as most Middle Eastern families do for their children. It’s rare here for a woman to go and knock on doors to ask for funds. Even if you made it as a business, people would judge you and wonder where you got the money from. Sometimes I used to wake up thinking, Should I just give up? Is it really worth it?
And even if I have a credit card, what do I do with a credit card in a country like Iraq? For example, high-end secure-gateway online stores like eBay won’t always accept purchases from Iraq, even with an international credit card. There’s also a huge gap here in terms of bringing in other brands, let’s say Amazon, which we do not have direct access to from Iraq. What I did is, I provided access to Amazon for people who don’t have payment cards.
I found a way to two mailing addresses that exist outside Iraq (in the UK and US). Many people do this now. For example, Amazon will send the orders to the shipping addresses I have and then, from there, we have logistics companies that will ship them on to Iraq. I had to build relationships with shipping, flying, and cargo companies.
I have a female taxi driver who delivers for us. She makes a manual invoice at the customer’s door and the customers repay us in cash. All we charge is shipping costs. I used a pricing-value-based strategy where, for example, if you buy something for $100, we charge you $20. Delivery usually takes two to three weeks.
I once had a customer who bought two Prada bags that cost about $7,500. My customers love Apple products too. Simple things like AirPods and headphones. Iraqis love to shop for kids. Women here love Gucci, Chanel. They love Burberry. Young people like Zara, Gap, Adidas.
The Kurdish touch
I got very frustrated and bored as my website gradually became a luxury destination for the rich, which had not been my intent at all. Focusing on international brands and copy-pasting shopping links is a boring routine. I realized that mostly what I like is not international brands, but local brands made by Iraqis themselves.
I do not want to just make my website Western; I want to connect the outside world to our Iraqi culture through our hard work in fashion and art. I want to make it specific to our own life experience and local concepts. Currently, I am planning to expand to countries outside Iraq and add a Kurdish touch to my platform. My goal is to ship local crafts to any customer abroad via local and international shipping companies.
Another thing I learned is that finding a welcoming space and mentorship options are essential. There are many things we can’t find out on our own. I learned about the start-up incubator program Five One Labs in Kurdistan. Now I have a co-working space. I feel secure and safe to be in that environment, especially as a woman living in a culture dominated by men.
The fact that we do everything manually and ship to customers’ doors connects people to us on a personal level. My customers call the female taxi driver to ask about their orders. Sometimes, they ask me questions like “What size do you think I should order?” “What kind of cream do you recommend for my skin?”
The people who support me and share my website from my local community are everything to me. They give me energy for tomorrow.