Firas Kittaneh

CEO Interview With Firas Kittaneh: The Internet Entrepreneur Behind AmeriSleep and One Mall Group

Eat your own dog food. That’s what Firas Kittaneh says. With a passion for growing successful brands, Firas lives and breathes by the rule that you can’t convince people to buy a lousy product – you have to make something you are proud to put your name on: and he’s doing just that.

Firas started with a fluffy slipper kiosk in a mall with his brother while he was in school but, like many other successful entrepreneurs, he eventually started ditching class to run the shop and then used the profits to open his first retail store. Now he’s the CEO and co-founder of One Mall Group, a group of internet retailers revolutionizing the online shopping experience. We found a few minutes in his jet setting schedule to talk about the career switch from doctor to businessman, the importance of risk taking and how his favorite perk about working for himself is the daily post-lunch nap in his office.

Alister & Paine: Tell me about the inception of One Mall Group—you went from being on track to becoming a doctor to a successful entrepreneur instead?
Firas Kittaneh: I’ve had a deep itch to create something that goes beyond myself.  Even before college, I remember thinking that I do NOT want to just get any old job when I left University.  I wanted to first CREATE the job I wanted, and then use it to create jobs for other people around me.

I also love the draw of the Wild, Wild West gold rush.  Whether or not print and TV media “gets it”, we all know the Internet is rapidly changing things globally.  Being an Internet Entrepreneur forces me to stay on my toes.  We’re still little babies in this field – even the ones who have been online for 10 or 15 years.  Things can change in minutes, swing wildly from one website to the next… it can be very scary, exciting, overwhelming and empowering all at once!

Success is supposed to be worth it, not easy. And, if success were guaranteed, the journey wouldn’t be the same. – Firas Kittaneh

Alister & Paine: Why mattresses and housewares? What was the attraction?
Firas Kittaneh: I love high barriers to entry.  Absolutely love them.  It keeps small competitors from diluting the marketplace with inferior knock-off products. Just about anyone can plop down $100 and get 50 iPhone cases from a wholesaler.  The logistics are terribly easy – send money, wait for package from FedEx, put them all on eBay. But selling a large item takes a very special set of stills.  It’s a real challenge.  The logistics are a nightmare – which is awesome for us, because it keeps all of the copycats away.

Alister & Paine: What was the initial marketing strategy?
Firas Kittaneh: Our strategy for each product line can be boiled down to one sentence, always.  Each product line needs a clear, definable goal in 10 words or less.  For Memory Foam Mattresses, our marketing motto was: “Help people feel comfortable buying a memory foam bed without ever touching it.” That was goal one, and all of our marketing focused on that.  We became experts at selling virtually, holding the customer’s hand through the process, and helping them make a tough (and expensive) decision.

Alister & Paine: How has business grown since the launch of the company?
Firas Kittaneh: Our first online store was so successful that within the first six months we shut down our brick-and-mortar store. All of our transactions moved online, we focused on becoming experts in the e-commerce game and it allowed us to move all of the manufacturing back to the USA.

Alister & Paine: What do you think is the secret to hiring the right employees?
Firas Kittaneh: Hire people based on gut.  Many people exaggerate their resumes and make up references – it’s just a fact of life.  The one thing that’s impossible to fake is how well you get along with the person sitting across from you.  Companies should equip themselves with persistent, passionate employees that love what they do and especially people with whom they get along with.

Alister & Paine: How has e-commerce changed in the last few years and what do you see changing in the next few?
Firas Kittaneh: Easily the biggest change is that people aren’t afraid to submit their credit card details to a Web site.  Second, more people are turning to the Web first before going to a retail store, meaning they are able to comparison shop on-the-fly and are armed with WAY more information before they leave their house.

Also, crowdsourcing is taking over. Smaller designers can get a million hits overnight with a breakthrough product.  This means that the eCommerce sites which are paying close attention will learn right away what’s hot and what’s not based on the trends in the social web. This means a lot less waste in the supply chain, because we’ll know a product is hot BEFORE we bother to stock it in our warehouse, and in many cases we’ll know up-front how many people will want it beforehand.

Alister & Paine: Why is SEO so important for companies doing business online?
Firas Kittaneh: Too many people have the “If you build it, they will come” mentality.  It’s totally false – customers are online searching for solutions to their problems, and it’s up to the companies to help them find their product which will solve the problem.  SEO is by far the most direct way to do this.

SEO can also help you build trust with your customers. We trust websites on the first page of google, and by doing SEO and ranking high for your industry related terms, your website becomes THE brand name.

Alister & Paine: Why are risks so vital for entrepreneurial success?
Firas Kittaneh: Unless you take risks, you can’t build up your tolerance for them.  Just like jumping off a high diving board… you start with the low board and work your way up to the high board over time, as you get more comfortable through repetition.  When you take risks, the first time you take a small risk it will make your stomach churn.  Then as your risk tolerance grows you can take greater and greater risks.

Alister & Paine: Where do you find your daily inspiration?
Firas Kittaneh: I look in other industries to see which promotions and products are bubbling up through the pipeline.  I look at social media for trends that people are picking up on… for example, the “organic” movement was closely tied to social media and if you were paying attention you could see it coming a mile away.  I also find a TON of inspiration walking around the office and talking with employees about a difficult sale.  Those are the best times for us to become inspired to “fix” the problems and make the sale smoother for the next customer!

Alister & Paine: Who are your top three entrepreneurial execs/CEO heroes?
Firas Kittaneh: Richard Branson – the eternal optimist.  Tony Hsieh – totally focused on end users.  Steve Jobs – driven by perfection.  If you sum them up, you get someone who knows their product is going to be a success, because they spent countless hours focused on what the customer wanted and making sure to deliver the highest-quality, polished product to them.

Alister & Paine: What advice would you give to other aspiring entrepreneurs looking to start their own business?
Firas Kittaneh: Start young and make your mistakes early while you’re young and have time to recover when you fail.  And you WILL fail many times before you succeed, so get comfortable with failing.  Remember, Edison didn’t fail 999 times, he learned 999 ways NOT to build a light bulb.