As entrepreneurs, we often hate working for others which leads us to create our own businesses.
Many struggle to balance their day jobs while taking on entrepreneurship on the side as it is mentally and physically consuming. Others like Yanni Albana thrive on the constant hustle because it helps shape his self discipline and will to succeed.
During the day, Yanni works at a University where his job is to act as an advisor and network with hundreds of individuals. At night, Yanni is the owner and operator of Nara Ultra Lounge, a hookah lounge based out of San Diego, California. Although working a 9-5, Yanni has built up a thriving business and is ready to take the next step.
Tell us a little bit about your upbringing…
I was born in Athens, Greece from refugee Lebanese/Iraqi parents in 1985 who fled the Middle East after the 25 year long civil war in Lebanon. After I moved to New York for six months in 1987, I ended up in San Diego County where I spent the rest and current years of my life. I was raised in a ghetto neighborhood by a single Mother who worked two jobs to raise my sister and I, after my Father left us at the age of seven.
My Mother sacrificed her own pleasures to ensure I had the best of the best that she could afford throughout my childhood. She always stressed education as being the number one priority. To keep me off the streets, she sent me to work at the age of 15 in a family owned fast food restaurant. This stage of my life was what set the foundation for my future. I’d spend Friday game day nights cleaning dirty tables and nasty restrooms while my peers were enjoying popcorn and hot dogs at the high school football game and house parties to follow.
How did the family business and education play into your life?
At 18, I was offered 50% of one of the Tom’s Franchise locations but due to family pressure to continue my education, I missed the opportunity. I attended a local community college completed my AA, transferred to a CSU for my BS, and later completed my MBA at Ashford University while employed by them.
After college I was asked to work as a government contractor to train the military on insurgent activity and the Arabic language prior to their deployment where I was able to save some capital due to the fact that room and board was provided for me on military bases in California. It was after this opportunity that I was able to have my first taste of entrepreneurship.
What was that first taste of entrepreneurship that got you hooked?
I took the capital I had saved up to start up my first business, a hookah Lounge. I struggled with my start up capital and could not get lending from financial institutes nor friends or family which led me to ask my best friend if he was interested in a partnership. At the age of 24, I came up with $60,000 to open our small 1200 sq ft location while I was also a Personal Banker for Wells Fargo Bank.
One year into the partnership after assuming I had made it, everything went sour. We had licensing and legal pressure from San Diego Police Department due to some fights that originated out of our establishment as well terminating my partnership for many reasons. I ended up making my initial investment back that year and flipped my 50% to a buyer for a good amount and continued working at the bank.
So you had a full time job and ran a business on the side. How did you manage that?
The reason I have a corporate job is because the business structure and operations of my Hookah Lounges are from 6PM – 2AM which leaves the entire day to continue to be productive. I have an office job where I network and market with young professionals while getting paid near to six figures a year. So its icing on the cake, I make money network during the day and pull my co-workers in for happy hour beer and hookah after work.
You mentioned previously you attended Ashford University and now work for them. How did you go from Wells Fargo to Ashford?
Expecting a promotion to become a Business Banker that went sour because of several politics within the company, a friend of mine spoke to me about Ashford University, a for-profit University that is owned and publicly traded by Bridgepoint Education. He said he lasted three months at Wells Fargo and now makes almost six figures at Ashford and knew I could be successful as well.
Since my salary wasn’t cutting it, I made the move to Ashford. Within six months I was making twice as much, six months later promoted to Management tripling my income along with a free education where I completed my MBA in Organizational Management.
This increase in salary and the money I had saved up from the previous business allowed me to open my own Hookah Lounge in a College city of San Marcos where I was the only one allowed and currently grandfathered in.
You mentioned you and your partner didn’t see eye to eye which ultimately lead to your exit from your first hookah lounge. What did you learn from that incident?
I can go for days on this topic. Never involve business and money with family and friends. I come from a middle eastern culture and unfortunately we tend to not like to see one another become successful and tensions build up.
Responsibility was a key factor, I could not rely on my partner. I worked for Wells Fargo 9AM – 6PM and came straight to the lounge only to see a mess and my partner hanging out with his friends instead of paying attention to sales and customer needs. He wasn’t a business savvy individual and I only got into partnership with him because it was my last option to get more capital to start up.
We butted heads a lot. I wanted to operate a certain way and he wanted his way. That was a major issue. Opportunity cost was also an issue, if I left the lounge he would complain he worked more than I did and vice versa. Legal responsibility fell on me. Majority of licensing, permits, lease agreement was all in my name.
After your first business failed, why did you attempt it again and what lessons from the first did you apply towards the new one?
My first business didn’t necessarily fail, I had a falling out with my partner. I opened again because it was and still is my passion to entertain people in this industry. Some lessons learned: business is business, don’t get me wrong, you want to be generous to your clients and friends and family but at the end of the day, there are bills to pay therefore I don’t let close friends and family do as they please. They are served like regular customers. Secondly, even though its a mom and pop level business, you have to operate it formally like major lounges and restaurants from waitresses to even the POS system.
Why did you decide on a hookah lounge as a business when it seems its common to see clubs, lounges, and bars come and go?
I was an All-American tri-athlete in high school and was introduced to hookah lounges my senior year. After graduation you know how it goes: people go to college, kids get into trouble, have children, etc. Instead, I went overseas to visit the homeland Beirut, Lebanon. While traveling through Europe my eyes opened up to business and to push myself to achieve what I saw others had achieved.
Through my undergrad I used to come home from work and school and make hookah while surfing the internet til 2-3am every night. I frequented a few hookah lounges that were around then and that was the thing to do for 18-20 year old people at the time. For 21+ year olds, it was the before or after the club thing to do. So as I built my social network I would hear all the complaints from people about the hookah lounges which triggered me to embark on my own venture.
First and foremost, my desire for hookah grew strong but I was in college struggling with a single mom so couldn’t afford going out every night. Second, I was the life of the party and everyone wanted to know what I was up to and what was the happening spot. Third, from a business perspective, the mark up on hookah rentals is extremely high and the profit margin makes it a no brainer.
You make a great point about clubs and lounges coming and going and hookah lounges do fall into that category. For the most part however, I have seen 85%+ still around after 10 years. It takes a lot to keep them the place to be. My second lounge Nara Ultra Lounge is designed by Davis Kruminis, a famous well known interior designer of major night clubs and restaurants in southern California and the USA. My older lounge is grandfathered in a college town which gives me control of the market there as I am the only option within a 20 mile radius.
How do you manage your business and the day to day operations with a full time job?
Ashford University is located in Clinton, Iowa but our online offices are based out of San Diego. This is a for-profit publicly traded company that relies on student enrollments for revenue and profits therefore the tenure of individual in Southern California with sales background is higher than out of state. I work at one out of the three San Diego locations with my laptop and phone with warm and cold leads.
As a University Advisor I am a mobile Advisor and have access to leaving the office even though majority of the time is spent there. Nara Ultra Lounge is located down the street so fortunately I get off work and drive down the street to the business. Being that my business operates at night I am able to continue my 9-5 and run my business at night. It definitely is not easy, I rarely get a full nights sleep and I pound energy drinks all day and night.
You mentioned your latest hookah lounge is in San Diego. Tell us about the importance of location.
Being that hookah lounges tend to attract a lot of college students the college area is always where you’ll see one pop up. Gratefully the location I fought for grandfathered me in which helped two fold. College students want a hang out spot, they also want to get out of the house, use free wi-fi and relax, study while enjoying a hookah in a cultivated environment. The demographic of the location is key as well that is why college areas work great for this type of business.
My other location Nara Ultra Lounge is in central San Diego. I chose this location because I built clients from my partnership days where our location was a mile away. It is a destination spot to say the least. Centrally located all areas can easily get to my lounge from three different freeways and it takes about 15 minutes from major cities and colleges in San Diego. This location was important because I wanted to compete against other lounges but did not want to open near them for social reasons in the middle eastern community.
Tell us about the growth of Nara and some marketing strategies you’ve used…
You might believe my strategies aren’t sufficient enough to stay in business but so far they’ve been working well. Believe it or not there was no budget for marketing. I built my businesses from the ground up with friends, family, and social media. Facebook and Instagram have been key players in my marketing strategy.
I put all my efforts in creating Facebook event invite pages for weekly specials, DJs, and events at the lounges where 3000+ people get the invite weekly. I have gotten feedback that I create and invite too many times via Facebook events so I have it limited to special events.
I will say that I am currently researching some changes for my older location which I have neglected due to operating the new one and need to kick up the life in the old one. So I’m working on some new pricing and changing the decor and bringing in some new DJs.
What do you have in store for Nara to stay innovative and ahead of the curve?
The first Nara lounge is currently open during remodeling. Davis Kruminis at Davis Ink Ltd. did such a beautful job with Nara Ultra Lounge along with several other highend nightclubs and lounges in California, that I implemented a few of his ideas into the first Nara lounge to recreate the the decor at that lounge. I have also realized that the prices at the firest lounge need to drop due to being in a college area. I can’t charge a premium price for hookah rentals anymore as the market is saturated and people are willing to drive to save a buck. So new pricing is being introduced.
I am also getting new DJs in there this week and the following to change the ambiance and vibe of that location and bring in new and old customers for a new experience. I will also be adding some appetizers and new coffees and drinks. Another plus is a billiards just opened a few days ago next door so we hope that their business will help with ours and we can help them.
I am now building networks with wholesalers and distributors of hookah products which I want to get involved in. I am also helping a friend market and introduce his charcoal and new line of hookah tobacco and we plan on working on some accessories and hookah products made in China to wholesale across the USA and overseas.
When do you think you’ll make the jump to focus on your business full time?
I do plan on focusing my efforts on my entrepreneurial ventures in the near future. I am actually taking advantage of the convenience, location, salary, and networking aspect of my corporate job. But it will take saving up some more money before I fully let go of my day job. I spent all my savings and cash to open the second business but it is on the up and up and I was able to treat myself to the Lambo!
The Lambo was a big purchase for me so I am currently rebuilding my capital base and once I reach a comfortable number in my savings account I will leave my day job and focus more on my current businesses and new ventures.
You recently picked up a Lamborghini Gallardo as a award to yourself. Tell us about that experience.
Since I could remember I loved exotic cars. I remember as a child in elementary school I showed my mom a picture of a Ferrari F50 and told her one day I will get this car. With Instagram and Facebook being a big part of my social life, I follow a lot of exotic car pages and have been posting pics of Gallardos for the past few years. I have even been on a few rallies like Targa Trophy and have attended plenty Cars and Coffee meets in Southern Cali.
But in reality it all started in high school. I was the first kid to get my license and car junior year right around the Fast and Furious movies. I was into street racing before and the movies just kept me motivated for more. I’ve owned several modified Hondas and 3 series BMWs but the Gallardo by far has been the most exhilarating car I have owned. I can tell you the women numbers have increased ALOT. The looks, the thumbs up, the pictures, the fun and laughter of peoples reactions to seeing my Gallardo and hearing the engine roar is something else but with all this success and the cars, the haters add up as well. I also own a Range Rover Sport with 24s that is very clean.
Lastly, tell us your best piece of advice for any entrepreneur reading this…
Entrepreneurship isn’t for everyone, you’re going to have highs and lows, successes and failures, it’s a life commitment and you are married to your businesses so always try to find a balance between family, social life and your business life because it does get overwhelming.