In an old unit on a worn-out industrial estate in Wales, Kamal Ali is typically hard at work.
In 2016 the unassuming former teacher came up with an idea which went global before it even arrived on UK shores. Today Kamal sells to 180 companies, exports thousands of units a month to more than 40 countries, and owns a company selling a product with huge international demand.
From starting out as the only man on his fashion design university course to teaching creatives in Cairo and growing his business My Salah Mat after noticing his youngest son struggling to pray at home, Kamal has crammed a lot into his 40 years - but nothing has come easy for him. The father-of-two and husband from Pillgwenlly in Newport, one of Wales’ most deprived communities, struggled with undiagnosed dyslexia in school and had to work “super hard” to pass his GCSEs before studying at the old Caerleon campus and winning a scholarship for his MA product design degree.
After returning to Newport from Egypt in 2016 where he’d spent two years teaching documentary film and digital animation to American students, he couldn’t have been happier in his teaching career which was going from strength to strength. But after exhaustive Google searches for a product to help his son learn salah, which can be translated to prayer, he had an inkling his time teaching was nearing its end.
“I couldn’t find a tool that would help my son anywhere online, so I opened up my design software and started drawing a mat with hands and feet on it, and initially it was just that,” Kamal remembered of his invention’s early days. “Around that I thought of buttons, and things we say during Islamic prayer. From my course I knew someone in China that could make the mat for me, so we quickly put something together. It struck me how I could really push it on and how it could make sounds to guide people through the praying process. It took two years to perfect, and I travelled to China to make sure everything about the product was perfect. I launched it in 2018 and we made a little video. My son and my niece were on the box and one of my ex-students from my days in Cairo edited it all for me. The video went viral and by the time the mats arrived in the UK we’d received thousands of orders. We were literally receiving more orders than we could make.”
Kamal and his trusted 25-year-old marketing sidekick Alex Fell - My Salah Mat’s only full-time employees - didn’t rest on their laurels. With the help of Kamal's wife Fatiha they emailed every social media influencer they could think of who they thought might use the mat with their children on their profiles for free as the sales continued to rocket.
“Influencers was the new marketing strategy and we went full force into it,” Kamal explained. “Word of mouth marketing remains the most powerful type of marketing, and it worked wonders for us.”
He is recalling the company’s roots from inside the Tardis-like unit which is home to an office, a video room and a kitchen. “We are happy here,” he smiled, surveying the modest space. “It’s home, it’s comfortable, we walk in every day and the place feels happy. I always ask Alex whether he is happy, that’s important to me. I don’t want to mess with it if we’re happy with where we are. To be happy in your job can’t be underestimated.
“We often laugh when we think that the world’s first ever interactive prayer mat has come from here. Prayer has been around for 1,400 years and yet it took someone in Newport to do this. I am proud of that, and when I travel the world for conferences I always begin with: ‘I’m Kamal, and I’m from Newport in Wales.’ I want to shout about that, I’m proud to come from Newport and proud to be from Pill.”
His heritage and pride in Pillgwenlly is a theme he revisits. “We want to be known as a massive global brand born in Pill in Newport. Home will always be Newport. Pill has given me so much. I had a happy childhood here and a positive upbringing - an upbringing that reminds me I must stay humble. Money is a route that can lead you astray, right? I try to always remember that. I’ll always be passionate about Pill. Before I went to Cairo I was in the local paper campaigning about the state of the litter in Pill Park.”
Could he ever have envisaged the business would become so successful? “Honestly no, but even if it went wrong, I thought it was a calculated risk because I made the decision to try this for the right reasons. What is an entrepreneur? For me an entrepreneur isn’t someone who makes something to chase money, they are someone who finds ways to solve problems through creativity. Why did I do it? I did it to help support my children and ultimately other families. That’s the foundation of My Salah Mat - helping people to achieve their goals, just like when I was a teacher.”
And what if it all went wrong? “I am a teacher and taught for ten years before I stumbled across this idea. I’d have happily returned to teaching if everything went wrong, and I still would now. I think that way of thinking probably enables me to operate the business with an element of freedom. It’s taken me time mentally to get to this point, but I do everything with my faith in mind, and I have faith that everything happens for a reason. My faith is what drives me and it was my faith that led me to this.”