Exclusive Interview with CEO of Khawaja Holdings, Serial Entrepreneur and Investor
Tell us a bit about yourself.
My name is Mustafa Khawaja. I am turning 31 this month, on New Year's Eve. I was born and raised in New Jersey, which is right next to New York. Many people don't know where it is, so I just say, New York. I am an entrepreneur.
Tell us about your entrepreneurial journey.
I started at a very young age, and honestly, I just followed my passions. Since I was 15 or 16, I was very big into working out, lifting weights, and taking supplements. I used to go to the same store every month with my brother.
I tried to convince my father; I said that we should open up the same store that we go to. I forgot the name, but it was like a franchise. My father, being an immigrant from Pakistan to America and working 9-5, wasn't a business-oriented person. But after much convincing, he helped me open the store, and I opened the store when I was 17 years old. I was going to college at that time. I was studying forensic accounting, but I was also interning on Wall Street. I've always been a numbers guy—I've always wanted to work with numbers, stock markets. I was always good at maths; I think that was my best subject in school. And I guess you can say I liked money at a young age. There's nothing wrong with admitting that.
That was the era when Amazon got really big in the States, going back 13 or 14 years ago. Amazon was becoming huge. We started selling on Amazon the same products we're selling in our store. My store was in a very small town, which I think was only one mile long. There are only so many people you can cater to in a small town, so we took advantage of Amazon and started listing all our products there.
I remember that my store was right across the street from the post office. At one point, we were getting so many orders on Amazon, that we were doing more business in one day on Amazon than we were in a month at the store. I was in my late teens, carrying these big bags of orders to the post office.
Two years later, I decided to close the store because we were beyond that at that point; you know, as a business, you're constantly evolving. I think we evolved into more than e-commerce; I also started doing many exports using Amazon International. As a Wall Street guy, I noticed that if I'm selling something for $30 in the States, I can sell it for £30 in the UK and I was making money on currency exchange when you convert it. I started doing that and finished my degree, and continued to work on Wall Street. But at 20 or 21, I decided that this is not the life for me. Too many hours and travelling from New Jersey to New York—it was too much. I promised my father that I would finish my education because as Pakistanis, education is the biggest thing for us. I promised him I'll finish that, and once I'm done, I still want to do my own business. So I did that. And at 22 or 23, I sold that company—the import-export company. I sold it for seven figures. From there, I think I really started on my entrepreneurial journey.
You consider yourself a “serial entrepreneur”, what does that mean?
To be honest, I don't like these names. But I do call myself a ‘serial entrepreneur’ just to help people and for them to understand what it is. For me, a serial entrepreneur is somebody who is constantly starting new businesses or investing in new businesses. You know, an entrepreneur is somebody who starts one journey and sticks to that journey, and that's okay. For a serial entrepreneur like me, thankfully, I have an amazing team. When I start something or invest in something, I go solely by myself—I focus on it—it's my baby. Once it's ready to walk, I'll pass it on, and I'll delegate it to my team. So to me, that's the life of a serial entrepreneur.
How do you decide what companies/products to invest in?
When I'm investing, I categorise it into two sections: a company and a person. If it's a company, we look at the financials—at the health of the company, and as to why they need investment. I like to stick to a certain scope. Health and beauty are big, but now I've ventured off into technology, and real estate; I have some but I don't really like to focus on it.
What is your definition of success?
The definition of success to me, I think, is very different from other people. There's nothing wrong with equating success to financial goals or materialistic items. But for me, success is—honestly—just to be truly happy.
Since I've started my journey when I was 17, I've met thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands, of entrepreneurs—some of the most successful people in the world, to be honest. I don't want to be somebody who equates success to a materialistic item or a dollar figure because I know so many people who are constantly wanting. For example, for a million dollars they'll work; however possible to gain a million, then they would want five and then 10; eventually, they want 50. It's a never-ending journey. The next thing you know, you're 90 years old, and let's say you're on your deathbed—did you really enjoy your life or live your life? To be successful means to be truly happy with what I have, with the people around me, and with caring for my mental health
How do you deal with failure?
When you get on this path of being an entrepreneur, you have to be ready to fail. It's not like you're going to become an overnight millionaire, or whatever your goal is—that is just not going to happen. It's reality. That's why it just goes back to your passion. When you're passionate about something, you're going to have bumps in the road—it's inevitable. And if you think it's not going to happen, then you shouldn't start this journey. Failure is something that you have to be prepared for. Being an entrepreneur is not just a word. It's not just having a business—it's a lifestyle, you have to be prepared for a 24/7 job, and working for yourself is sometimes very difficult. You're taking care of employees, you have a lot of responsibilities, and you're going to fail. But when you fail, you learn from your mistakes. And when you learn from your mistakes, you fix those mistakes, you fix the business and you evolve. Humans, businesses—we're constantly evolving.
What advice would you give your 20-year-old self?
To be honest, I don't think that I would give the 20-year-old me any advice, because the man I am today at almost 31 is a combination of everything that has happened to me in these past 11 years: the good, the bad, the in-between. There's been a lot of good, but there's also been a ton of bad; there has also been a ton of in-between.
The mentality that I try not to stress about are the bad things going on, because it's out of our control. When something bad happens on a daily basis, I just try to figure out what happened, what I can do to fix it. To be an owner of a business, you have to be a leader. And when you're a leader, you cannot stress, because you have so many people looking up to you, their livelihoods. That's one thing that many people who work for me—even my younger brother—actually tell me: that I never stress. Inside, I might be stressing out, and I might be panicking, but I cannot show it. You have to be able to adapt quickly to change, even right now with what's going on with the market due to COVID. It's affected a lot of businesses, and if somebody says it didn't affect their business, they're probably Amazon. You know, that's the only company I know that is doing well, as well as Walmart in America. But businesses have to adapt, and if you don't adapt, unfortunately, it's just going to hurt.
What advice would you give to an entrepreneur starting out?
Always follow your passions—don't do it for fame or do it to put on social media. Don’t act like you're better than anybody; pursue entrepreneurship because you're honestly passionate about something. When you're passionate, you won't give up. It's a tough journey, and there's gonna be so many times that you want to give up because you're not going to make money for a while. You know, it's constant work. It's constant effort at the end of the day. So, my number one advice—always—is do it because you believe in something or you want to help someone. For me, health and wellness was my first business, I still focus on it. It's my passion. Secondly, it helps people—you're bettering their lives, whether it's a vitamin or supplement.
I give advice on social media. To be honest, I don't use social media to make money. It's a platform where I can actually help people through the lessons that I've learned on my journey because to be an entrepreneur is a self-discovery journey. You honestly figure out so many things about life. It's beautiful, at the end of the day.
Who inspires you with awe and why?
I draw my biggest inspiration from my parents, with the more significant influence coming from my father. It's not easy to move to a different country and be an immigrant. When my mother got pregnant two months later, he went to America. For two years, he didn't see my mother, or my sister, even. My parents risked their lives for us, their children—having to move to a country when you're 30, or 35, and you have to work from the bottom. You work these odd jobs and you leave your family behind, similar to what I am doing right now. My family is in America, and I'm here in Dubai.
Every day as a child, I saw my father waking up at 5 in the morning, driving two hours to his job, and coming home at 7 or 8 in the evening. I don't come from a super-wealthy family, middle class for sure. My father worked hard, and now that he's retired, he's depressed because he's a man that's used to working.
My parents are my biggest supporters. They're my biggest fans, and I just love it.
How do you look after your mental health?
There's nothing wrong with going and seeking help. I highly advise it, and there's nothing wrong with it. People, sometimes, have too much pride and ego like, “Hey, I cannot go speak to somebody.”
For me, personally, it's hard. There's this constant stream of challenges in life. It's not easy. It's not just the title—there are responsibilities attached to it. My mind is always working, always thinking. Maybe that's why I don't sleep much at times, too, but exercise helps me a lot.
I actually like to go on walks every night. I try to leave my phone and go on a walk for an hour. It's not necessarily for the cardio or the exercise—it's just that it relaxes me. Mental health is definitely—extremely—important. And you need to just be able to balance everything in life, the good and the bad. Make time for yourself. It's okay—you have responsibilities, you have businesses. But I think I got much better at this a few years ago, when I started believing in spending time with myself, so I like to be alone sometimes. To be honest, I work so much during the week, and I'm constantly in meetings. On the weekends, I don't even respond to my phone sometimes. I like to stay in, while everybody's going out. But I love to stay in, to spend time with myself. And I think self-love is very important.
What’s that one quote you live by?
I don't have a quote that I live by, but I have a motto that I live by. My personal motto, which I always tell everyone, is that: “If you give me 100%, I will give you 200%.”
I like to live my life with no regrets, whether it's spending my time for a friendship, or a relationship, or business, or family. When I'm passionate about something, I will give 200% of what I have. That way, if it doesn't work out—whether it be about business, friendship or relationship—I move on with my life peacefully because I have no regrets. I know that as a human being, I did everything that I can on my part. And that's it, because life, to me, is a book. When you close one chapter, you move on to the next one. When you read a book, you don't read it backwards, right? Yeah, you keep going on. I leave that chapter there and I move on to the next one, and then to the next one; this way, I can sleep peacefully at night knowing I'm a good person, and I gave everything in my life 200%.
As I said, my biggest motivation comes from my family. The number one thing about me is that I'm very family-oriented. I'm a very simple guy. People might think differently because I have businesses, and this or that, but for me, I'm a simple guy, with a simple life. 'm just very family-oriented, and my parents mean the world to me. My biggest accomplishment in life is the fact that I've been supporting my family. I bought my parents a house when I was 25 or 26. So, the biggest accomplishment in my life is the fact that I can make my parents happy and proud of me—that's it. And that's what keeps me going.