Ekta Keswani is the director of OK Middle East Productions, which fabricates company stands for exhibitions such as Arab Health, The Hotel Show and Gitex Technology Week. She talks about how she recently quit a stable career to strike out with her own business.
What was your passion while growing up in India?
I was always doing the planning around my family's parties, events, weddings. I left that passion of mine and I pursued my studies as a software engineer. I went into the IT profession.
You've been in the UAE for over a decade now. What was your last gig before you started the business?
I was the UAE operations manager for an IT firm. I left the IT industry in December.
I was handling business and support. The market was not so great. That's why my foreman said "why don't you get involved in sales"? The day I was told to do sales was the day I put in my papers and said: "I'll do sales directly from my company." Then I resigned and moved on.
You had actually started your business, from home, last year before jumping into it full-time in January. What was that like?
First of all, with working from home, I thought productivity is not that high. Secondly, I had a need for hiring employees. I already have five employees hired within the last five months. I filled that need. Then I thought "I need my own design studio for fabrications and designing banners". I have an office now … [and] 50 per cent partnership in a mini-factory where we actually do the mock-up of the entire stand.
How big is a stand, and how much do clients pay for one?
It can be 18 square metres, up to 160 sq metres. The cheapest starts from Dh20,000 (US$5,445). At the moment it's Dh125,000 for the largest stands.
What was one of your earliest challenges?
It was a big challenge for me to pick up the phone and do a cold call. I started making calls to my friend and said "listen to me because I'm not a sales person".
So you used your friends to practice your sales pitch?
Yes. I was saying: "I need your help and I just can't do it." After two or three weeks, I thought "what's wrong with me? Let me practice on clients directly". Now I make over 50 calls a day.
What's your goal right now in terms of growing your business?
I'm working on 100 per cent ownership of the fabrication unit. It is quite challenging. Of course, financially, I can just invest immediately and do 100 per cent ownership - but I'm going slow in the market.
We've seen in the last two years, with the recession, things going sour for people. What I'm doing in my first year is to have retainerships. Next year, I'll sign long-term deals with them and 2012 is what I'm looking for [to get 100 per cent ownership].