Posted on April 28, 2020

Mohammed Al-Matwi’s mind was working furiously. It was the last week of February, and the 26-year-old founder and CEO of The Perfume Factory had just returned from a road show in Kuwait to a scenario that seemed to be escalating by the day: the COVID-19 pandemic.

Prior to his trip, he had heard about the spread of the virus in other countries. What he hadn’t anticipated was the speed with which it would come knocking at his door. The alumnus of Carnegie Mellon University in Qatar (CMU-Q) – a Qatar Foundation partner university – now says his staff often recall their boss’ poker-faced expression. But his calm demeanor belied the truth: he was struggling to make sense of what was happening, while reflecting on how far he’d travelled in business – and whether that journey would now come to an abrupt end.

Taxiing out

In 2017, a freshly-graduated Al-Matwi was working in a full-time office job. Yet his innate adventurous streak and business acumen – traits that led him to study business and information in university – left him restless and longing to try out something out of the ordinary. It didn’t take long to discover it: a fruitless search for a specific fragrance in the local market led him to perfumery.

“I learnt that local perfumers were faced with a dilemma: for decades, they imported liquid raw materials to mix their own scents,” he says. “These chemicals, when imported by individual businesses, are expensive and are often from unreliable suppliers. The result was that the final products were always expensive, and often, of low quality. “I immediately knew what I wanted to do – I wanted to set up a business that would provide perfumers in Qatar with cheaper, high-quality liquid raw materials as well as finished products.”

Taking off

Al-Matwi set up the country’s first perfume factory in 2017. Over the next two years – a time which he says, “had so many ups and downs that it resembled an ECG graph” – his business steadily grew.

By the second half of 2019 and early 2020, “things were smoother”. The local market had embraced the young entrepreneur’s initiative; he’d showcased his products at a major perfume exhibition in Qatar, and been the sponsor of another one. Additionally, he had held roadshows in Russia and Kuwait, he’d begun talks with the US embassy to promote his products in the US, and he was in discussions with retailers in South America – all while still doing his initial full-time job. All in all, things were where he “wanted them to be”.

Taking stock

“All businesses go through frequent patches of turbulence,” says Al-Matwi with a wry smile, as he recalls his emotions during the first week of March 2020, by which time the full scale of COVID-19 was becoming clear. “But this was as if I’d been thrown out of orbit into an entirely new solar system.” “When I landed back in Qatar after my trip to Kuwait in February, I knew I’d have to adapt. After a few days of rather frantic self-reflection and analysis, I felt the very same emotion that moved me to set up the factory in 2017 surface again – I wanted to do something that would directly help those living in this country.”

For a few days, he mentally sifted through the pros and cons of various other ventures he could explore, yet nothing ticked the boxes. Again, it was, in his own words, “sheer providence” – a chance conversation with a local factory owner who worked with chemicals – that gave him his next idea. “I realized that disinfectants and hand sanitizers share over 90 percent of the same raw materials as perfumes. And, given that they were critical to helping stop the spread of coronavirus, my first thought was that this would be the perfect way in which I could contribute to the wellbeing of my people.”

Making a change of course

Al-Matwi knew there was a rising demand for personal antiseptics. But he wanted to go one step further and make perfumed hand sanitizer sprays and disinfectants. Would there be a market for them? He had to be sure. “I’ve always been a risk-taker,” he says, “but my years at CMU-Q taught me that they had to be calculated ones. In order for my tentative plan to be successful, I had to test my hypothesis in the market. For that, I had to be a little creative.” Al-Matwi had his team graphically create a picture of perfumed hand sanitizers and posted it on his social media account. Within the next few hours, he received dozens of enquiries – clearly there was a market for his proposed products. In under a month, Al-Matwi and his team developed an entire range of personal disinfectants, from liquid sanitizers, to perfumed disinfectants, to antiseptic sprays for furniture and electronics.

Coming in to land

Today, these products – available in both odorless and scented form – are being sold in bottles, canisters, pocket-sprays and gallon-size containers within pharmacies and supermarkets across Qatar. As he narrates his experiences, Al-Matwi compares the last few weeks to planning a trip for one destination – but landing in another.

“There have been challenges,” he explains. “Almost overnight, I’ve had to adapt to an entirely new market, clientele, and even pace of production. I’m manufacturing stuff by the gallon and it’s being sold as quickly as it’s made. “But when the very first batch of disinfectants were bottled, my entire team were delighted – we were proud that along with other safety measures, our products would keep people safe and healthy. “This feeling of fulfilment, though, is different from three years ago. It comes from sleepless nights; from going with the flow, changing course – and appreciating a new destination.”