Samar Nabulsi, is the owner of Big on Children, and mother of two girls, Taya aged 4 and Daysa aged 3. She is also the wife to her husband Ramzy, who has his own successful and expanding business and it has its own demanding and gruelling work schedule too. So how does it she do it all? Her incredible expanding (or exploding) brand, Big on Children, has really taken off; it has unique and personalised educational products for children, including personalised CDs and DVDs to singing alarm clocks that say your child’s name, to security bracelets that link with your phone. It’s a great place to shop for the children’s birthdays – I know some of my mum friends are delighted to receiving these gifts on behalf of their children. Big on Children has expanded out of Dubai and opened its first international franchise in New York’s most well-known toy store FAO Schwarz. We are grateful that Samar has taken time out to sit down to talk to us about her vision for her children and for her business.
Can you tell me about your children and how old they are?
My eldest daughter Taya is four years old and she thinks she is a real princess! Her name means princess and she might as well be one. She is very well behaved and her mannerisms for a four year old are quite surprising. My youngest daughter Dasya is three years old and she can be an absolute angel when she wants to be! She is very cheeky and her smile can literally get her away with murder. A lot of people wonder why I chose the name “Dasya” and I always explain: I had a very tough pregnancy before I got pregnant with Taya, which resulted in a slightly major surgery and the loss of my first child. Taya was 100% naturally planned and calculated despite my 50% chance of becoming pregnant. Dasya was a complete surprise! They are only a year apart. “A gift from God” is what her name means in Greek. So I have a princess and an angel.
What school did you choose and why?
For nurseries, I was really only looking for convenience and cleanliness but thankfully, I found much more than that at The Kangaroo Kids. I sent Taya to nursery at the age of 18 months. In just four months, I saw a huge difference in her shy character. She became friendlier and more sociable, which is exactly the reason why I put her in school that early. I needed her to learn how to interact with her younger sister at home. Dasya of course followed her sister’s footsteps. She loves her nursery and her teacher. When we are on holiday, she wears her uniform, carries her school bag and asks me to drop her off to school in the morning.
This year was my first Pre-K experience. Jumeira Baccalaureate School (JBS) was my first and only choice. I graduated from a similar programme in Jordan so I was familiar with the curriculum and I understood the programme. In my experience, I feel that this level of education is probably the best based on the success rate my school has had with graduates securing placement at top universities in the US and the UK. So my choice in school is purely based on the programme offered and the level of education I wish my children to receive.
When children are below 5 years, do you believe in play or academics?
I don’t see why we have to separate play from academics. I believe in academics through play. I also believe that music is a major part of the child’s development, which is the reason why I loved the personalised CDs and introduced them to the region. Music is one of the few ways we communicate with babies. We find ourselves singing to them from the day they are born or even during pregnancy.
The new edutainment products in my opinion are fantastic. While I understand doll houses and tea parties are important to promote the child’s imagination, I think educational toys are just as important. Jigsaw puzzles, alphabet and number games, storytelling and counting are all educational in nature. Singing, dancing, role play and sports are all great ways to develop the child academically, physically and creatively.
Why did you start the business Big on Children?
When my husband and I were still engaged, he said to me we will grow ‘Big On Group’ together. I believed that I could, but never really thought it would be for a children’s concept. While travelling on our honeymoon, we came across this really attractive kiosk that sold personalised children’s products and that caught my attention. I bought tons of them for my nieces and nephews. Their reaction when they heard their name repeated over 90 times in a CD was indescribable. I couldn’t get their beautiful smiles out of my head. Fast forward three years to my daughter’s first birthday, I played the CD during the party and I got tons of great feedback from the parents. The birthday song played on the surround system was in her name! That’s what caused the big WOW factor at the party. It was then that it really hit me. These products were not available here or anywhere else in the Middle East and so Big On Children was born. These products were sold by an American company called SingYourName™ however; we wanted to expand on the Big On concept. I had a lot of friends and family members asking why we didn’t just call the company SingYourName™ and I always responded: “This will be the first of many other brands that we would like to introduce to the market.” Luckily, I was right. We went from one exclusive brand to six in under two years. Our company growth and commitment landed us the SME Award of the Year by Arabian Business StartUp. The response from Dubai residents was slow in the beginning since our first and flagship store opened in The Dubai Mall (a mall known for tourists more than residents). We raised awareness through our marketing and PR campaigns and added more locations around town. Our first international location is in FAO Schwarz™, one of the top five most visited touristic sites in New York City. We then opened in Hamleys™ (The Dubai Mall), and most recently, in Kids HQ in Al Barsha. We went from one location to four and growing.
Can you tell us a bit more about Big on Children, and what age groups are appropriate for the store?
I believe our songs are timeless and ageless. It’s been four years and I still play the personalised CDs for my daughters every morning in the car and of course, during their birthday parties. The soft toys are not only great for one-year-olds but are also quite popular with adults for Valentine’s Day gifts and birthdays. Our clocks have a really universal appeal. On several occasions, we had grandchildren buy the clocks for their grandparents. Our DVDs are usually popular amongst two to five year olds, but we also saw that children with special needs enjoy the movie regardless of their age.
We are also the exclusive resellers of Hooligans, a 100% fair trade kids clothing brand for newborns through to six-year-olds. The cute styles are all made from the finest cotton, are nickel-free and a portion of the proceeds go to the Wildlife Education Trust. We love a good story and the best part of Hooligans is that every piece of clothing is lovingly made by working mothers.
List three products from your store that are relevant to my children who are aged between 8 months – 6 years?
How about we split our products into two categories? One is for what your children will enjoy and the other is for what you as a parent would love. Very few places offer products to satisfy both parent and child, which is why we do things differently.
For your eight-month-old baby, our personalised CDs are great because you will find your child listening intently waiting for his name to be repeated again and again in the entire album. Research shows that name recognition helps improve the child’s listening and abilities to interact. Numerous studies have been conducted to support this critical cornerstone in child development. Our wide selection of personalised plush is a fantastic way to put your child to bed at night as he falls asleep, holding his teddy close while it sings his name.
Our personalised DVDs are a major hit for older children between the ages of two to four. They see themselves as the stars in their own movie. Your boy can become the hero or your girl can turn into a princess for around 25 minutes. These are great for shy children as it boosts self-esteem and confidence.
For children over four years, our personalised alarm clocks are their favourite. The children can choose between six different designs and their name is programmed in the clock. The alarm is set and when it’s time for it to go off, it sings: “Wake up, wake up Eddie, it’s time to get out of bed”. I particularly use the clock as a tool to keep my early risers in bed longer J they know that they are not allowed to get out of bed until their song finishes.
Now moving to what you would love as a parent:
First and foremost: My Buddy Tag™ which is a Bluetooth-enabled wristband that connects to your smartphone and alerts you when your child has gone out of reach. Perfect for parks, malls and airports! If it goes underwater, it signals an alarm warning you again that the connection to your child is lost. You also receive an email from Google maps with the last seen location before the device disconnected. You can have up to six Bluetooth wristbands connected to one smartphone. Great for school trips or even a play date with other children.
Secondly, our Label Itz collection of personalised silicon bands that fit most sippy cups; baby bottles; toothbrushes; spoons, and pencils, etc. These are great to help your children identify their belongings at school and to help stop the spread of germs! Also a great way for you to communicate to the caregiver if your child has any intolerances or allergies as it enables you to clearly mark them on the band.
How has it been working whilst having young children? How do you balance home life and work life?
Work and home life are interrelated. Like many mothers out there, I’ve fine-tuned my multi-tasking skills and pride myself on being a mother first and entrepreneur second. I also learnt that family time is about quality of time not the quantity. The key lies in striking that perfect balance between the two and if it means replying to emails at 1am, then so be it. Both jobs are demanding and deserving of my 100% and, so far, I’m fortunate enough to have a strong support team through my business partner, Lara, and our staff at the office and at home. Running your own business is stressful but it allows for flexible working hours during the day. This ultimately means I am there for every activity at school, play dates, parks and after-school activities for my two girls. Although we have an office, I tend to work a lot from The Dubai Mall because our shop is located there. When we meet suppliers, potential distributors for the region, and the media, it cuts down on my travel time on the road. Two and half hours of my day is already dedicated to becoming a world class driver between drop offs, picking up and going to activities.
Do you have two top tips about organising work life and home life?
Support means having a good team that you can depend on to get the job done and done right. I cannot be everywhere all the time, so I consider myself very lucky to have a wonderful support team in both the office and at home. My husband’s support in both the business and the family plays a major role in what I consider one of the keys to my success.
Knowledge is power. If you know what you are up against or you understand the dynamics of your business, life and family, then you hold the key to success in your own hands. Part of the reason as to why I am always reading and researching new products, the market, child psychology, etc is because it puts me in a more powerful position to make any decision in my life.
How would describe your parenting style?
I grew up in a home where discipline was fun. We would play; travel; study; climb trees, and ride bicycles, etc. all within a proper social boundary. I wanted to be exactly like my mother because I think I turned out alright. However, at this point in time, it has become quite difficult to discipline. All those psychological theories about how we raise our children made me doubt my style. So I tried the “no punishment – only reward method”. That created a bigger mess and more aggravation! Enter Super Granny. I think I love her on a personal level because she made me realise that my mother’s method in raising us was absolutely correct! We were punished (and by punishment I mean “go to your room and think about what you did”) when we needed to be and we were rewarded when we did things the right way. I felt that the majority of my time with my children was all about discipline and no fun. So now, I try to follow in my parents’ footsteps and enjoy every minute I spend with my children. I take turns in spending time with each one alone and our reward is solving puzzles together or reading a new story, which is great quality time. My style is probably disciplined fun!
Your husband travels for work or works long hours, how do you and your husband try to organise time with the children?
My husband does travel a lot, so my ultimate goal is to spend as much time with the children when he is travelling. So puzzles are our favourite activity at home. Our weekly treat is going to the bookshop and buying a new book or a new puzzle. Our aim is to show dad when he returns from his trip what we have been up to during his absence. When Ramzy is home, we enjoy taking them to the beach or on Friday mornings to the play areas (before they get crowded). Ramzy gets on every ride with them as I take pictures and videos with my camera. The balance between what I do with them and what he does with them is great as he gets to enjoy the things I cannot due to my weak stomach when it comes to rides and merry-go-rounds.
What are three behaviors from your children that are a big no-no?
Spitting: it drives me NUTS! So I managed to stop that right from the beginning.
Hitting: I don’t believe in violence! I truly believe that a solution can be reached by talking. I still see my daughters occasionally hit when they think I’m not looking, but I do NOT let that go. They are put in time out on the spot when that rare occasion happens. I think they just need reminding.
Nagging: I am still working on this one. I don’t think they mean to nag, but you don’t need to repeat “mama” a thousand times if I am already listening to you. Haha
Do you believe in organic foods? Or what do you believe in when it comes to nourishing your children?
I believe in maternal instinct and balance. Our mothers did not have access to any of the research and advancements that we have today and we came out alright. There are things that I don’t feed my kids and others that I’m okay with them having. It really is a conscious but logical choice I make as and when. I try not to obsess too much because the human body evolves, science progresses and what could be bad today is good tomorrow. It’s a learning curve.
What are your 3 favourite bedtime books with the children?
It used to be my choice. Now it is their choice. We have a library of books at home, so every night it is a different story. However, lately they have been choosing:
Jasmine from Aladdin – Disney
A Big Guy Took My Ball – by Mo Willems
An Arabic story about Maryam and bath time by Nabiha Mheidly.
Big On Children can be found in The Dubai Mall (+971 388 2345), Kids HQ and internationally at FAO Schwarz in NYC.