Oil baron: How to profit from a chance discovery

Tom Welsh
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THE argan tree isn’t found in many suburban gardens. Native to southwest Morocco and the Israeli Negev, it grows knotted and thorny, thriving only in harsh semi-desert environments. But Dana Elemara, organic food enthusiast, import-exporter, and supplier to the cosmetics industry, found a way to capitalise on this exotic survivor.

Formerly of Goldman Sachs, Elemara came to entrepreneurship by chance. Never her first choice of career, Goldman was an easy option after a maths degree. “I needed to be the best at what I do, and I was never going to be the best at Goldman Sachs,” says Elemara. The idea for her business was similarly unplanned. “I hadn’t heard of argan oil before a family friend started raving about it a couple years ago. I found it by accident.” Her inspiration, however tenuous, was quick to take hold.

The result – a company called Arganic – is an eccentric mix of stylish organic food start-up (the chef Yotam Ottolenghi is a fan of her product) and import-export commodity business. Food is what interests Elemara (argan is an expensive olive oil equivalent), but the oil’s industrial application in the cosmetic industry is where she makes her money. “It’s fine to supply restaurants, but they only ever order one litre at a time,” she says.

It’s easy to be sceptical of Arganic. Where’s the scalability? What’s to stop cosmetic companies buying direct from the oil’s rural Moroccan producers? Is this a long-term business model? Isn’t it all a little niche?

But Elemara is persuasive. Her story is a lesson in determination and of the importance of remaining open-minded. She found her producer after a barnstorming search of the Moroccan wilds. She shrugs off the difficulties of a woman doing business in North Africa. And she didn’t access outside finance. Despite her previous professional career, she raised the seed money by working on commission – selling Christmas toys at Hamley’s toy store.

There were difficulties, of course. “There were always reasons why my business might have failed,” she says. “But I knew it was unique.” Elemara now has exclusive rights to distribute argan oil in the UK from her Moroccan producer.

She is dogmatic about the importance of staying receptive to wider uses for a product or service. “I’m obsessed with food,” she says. But start-ups have to cast their nets widely – to pounce on any potential avenue of making profit, any fresh new way of applying their idea.

Elemara’s attitude to finance is also unorthodox. “I wanted to avoid outside investors,” she says. “I was afraid of someone trying to change my idea and my approach.” Of course, for many start-ups, venture capital can be vital and the advice of an experienced investment partner could prove the difference between successs or failure. But it could also result in unwelcome entanglement.

Elemara, however, points to alternatives to official ties. “Ignore a hell of a lot of people,” she says. “But listen to those with experience.” For her, this meant getting involved with both her local business centre and Shell LiveWire. The latter is a competition that has been running in the UK since 1982. It also offers free online services to young entrepreneurs.

It could be particularly useful for London-based entrepreneurs, says Elemara. “Businesses in the north east or Scotland, they get so much support. But Londoners are left to fend for themselves.” Shell gives out four monthly prizes of £1,000 (one of which Elemara won). But more important to her was the process of applying for the award. “Having to give speeches, having to submit a business plan, it really helped me focus on the core purpose of my business and idea.”

Arganic isn’t a particularly innovative business, nor is it necessarily unique. But Elemara’s breezy confidence is evidence of how the difficulties that stack up against new entrepreneurs are rarely insurmountable. “So many businesses fail,” she says. “But I’m still positive.”

Founded: January 2012

Company name: Arganic

Age: 27

Lives: Maida Vale

Previous jobs: Analyst at Goldman Sachs, management consultant in Dubai

Reading: I don’t have much time to read, but the last book I read was Any Human Heart by William Boyd

Talents: Painting (I had a painting published in The Times when I was younger), mathematics, cooking, roller-blading

Heroes: I don’t have any heroes, but look up to Johnny Earl (who started the cult t-shirt brand Johnny Cupcakes), the late Vidal Sassoon and Jo Malone.

Motto: “Don’t be invisible, always make an impression, and be someone who gets remembered”

First ambition: To change the world

Awards: Great Taste Award 2012, BBC Good Food Champion 2012, Shell LiveWire Young Entrepreneur of the Year 2012 finalist.