Rachel Portsmore feels she has arrived at a crossroads in her life. After working in Dubai for five years as a sales manager for a software company, the 37-year-old Briton wants more. Her job, she says, involves regular travel around the Middle East and Africa, with plenty of perks to offset the long hours - but Ms Portsmore has a burning desire to start her own business and strike out on her own.
"I am not sure which way it will go, but that doesn't scare me and I am not afraid to try or take chances," she says. "I want to make something of the ideas I have." Her first idea was to attend a personal finance planning session called "How to Get Out of the Rat Race", held last Saturday at the Dubai Community Theatre and Arts Centre in the Mall of the Emirates. The one-day event attracted more than 400 people who came to listen to seven speakers from the local business community.
The panel tackled issues such as financial insecurity, becoming your own boss, generating additional income and using various tools to build and expand a business. The event was hosted by the Right Selection Group, a training and development consultancy in Dubai. Gautam Ganglani, the group's managing director, says that given the difficult financial climate, this small-business seminar has never been more timely and important.
"When things were going well, as they have in the last five years, there was a freedom of spending, and today those temptations can become painful," he says. "I think people would prefer to find solutions to allow that freedom rather than curtail their spending. They can cut back in the short term, but the pleasure of spending and upgrading themselves in society is a feel-good factor." Ms Portsmore remains uncertain as to which kind of business to pursue. Instead, she attended the meeting simply to learn about the process of making her ambition a reality.
"I have always wanted my own business, although I think today is about people getting on the road to doing one of the speakers' courses," she says. "As a person you have to want it enough and find the time. I could say I don't have the time because I work 24/7, but I want it so much and I was desperate to speak to people who have done it." Reg Athwal is one entrepreneur who has done it. The founder of RAW Group, a UAE-based company that provides corporate and employee development training, Mr Athwal served as one of these seven speakers. He says he has faced considerable challenges since the credit crunch started.
The British entrepreneur says he has lost a considerable amount of money in property back home. On the upside, RAW Group appears unscathed. Mr Athwal adds that OneTVo, a web-TV platform that he launched with a local partner, remains stable despite adverse market conditions. With his companies still in relatively good shape, Mr Athwal believes the lesson for budding entrepreneurs is that success can be achieved or maintained at the worst of times. And he urges people stuck in the rat race to think about their life goals.
"One has to have options to say, 'do I want to go from employee to self-employed?' Become a freelancer, consult or start a business and have a great idea for launching a new service or product," he says. "That could be their way of getting out. It's about going from employed, to self-employed, to having a business and then income." Angus Fraser, a 54-year-old Briton who works for a training and consultancy firm, also plans to become his own boss. He has spent the past five years working part time for the consultancy firm, and spends just three days a week at the office.
To fill his spare time, Mr Fraser has helped to set up a marketing and consulting network website called iLearningGlobal. He describes it as "a platform that enables subscribers to find new marketing contacts and drum up more business". Serving businesses all over the Emirates, Mr Fraser has built up a modest clientele. But he says he has a long way to go to have lasting success. "I was aware there is a 97 per cent failure rate from the start, but I want to be in the successful 3 per cent, which doesn't come overnight - and it's not easy," he explains. "I have set myself 12 months to break even on my costs. From there, I want to be making a living from it."
After recently attending a previous seminar with the same speakers, Mr Fraser signed up for the "Rat Race" conference to pick up information he missed the first time around. He also wanted to meet like-minded people among the attendees. Looking out over the crowd, Mr Athwal says those in attendance have accepted that something isn't right in the lives, and chosen to make a difference. He believes this positive, can-do attitude is essential for anyone hoping to get a better job, launch a company or get out of the rat race.
"If you look at how the mind works, we have 60,000 thoughts on average each day, from which we either control ourselves or we are influenced," he explains. "The majority of people are influenced, so they are not putting in good data like: 'What shall I do, how can I get out of this, what can I create and develop?' It's 'look what's happened to me and this could happen', so they worry and that manifests."
How someone reacts to stories in a newspaper is a good indication of their mindset, he adds. When reading articles, people can score them from zero to 10, with zero being the most negative to 10 the absolute positive. In most cases, Mr Athwal expects to find far more gloomy stories than jolly ones. "People like bad news and that has an impact on you," he says. "It's always good to know what's going on, but you need to have a filter that decides whether you choose to let it in and affect you or read it and that's it."
Friends, family and colleagues can also affect someone's state of mind, according to Mr Athwal. But it's those people who remain positive, even if they are unsatisfied at work or in financial trouble, that can make a difference. "You have to get your mindset right, which is 'my financial situation isn't good, but what am I going to do about it?' Do you look for a different job or make yourself more visible to your CEO and say 'what else can I do to solve the problems of the company?' It's about the mindset, and that's what will help people get out of losing sleep or being stressed," he explains.
Mr Ganglani of Right Selection Group has his own advice for expatriates seeking a change. He says the internet is a solid starting point for people stuck in dead-end jobs, saying that a few quick searches can unlock doors to lifestyle coaches with myriad ideas, as well as expansive networks and possible business partners. He also insists that - despite the financial downturn - entrepreneurs can prosper, providing they remain flexible and willing to adapt to a changing trading environment.
His second lesson is one Mr Ganglani has himself learnt in recent months. Like most companies, the Right Selection Group has suffered a drop in demand since the downturn started. The operation's core business relied on corporations booking staff training and motivation seminars. But with most companies slashing their budgets, the consultancy has had to create new revenue streams and stage different events, after seeing business plummet 50 per cent.
"Corporate business is down because banks and property companies are not spending anything like they used to, so I changed the business to reach the end users and create seminars like this one," he says. "The price points of our events are down because we want to reach more people." Fortunately, he was successful in this endeavour. Many attendees, such as Ms Portsmore, now feel a great sense of optimism as they pursue their own businesses.
"It will be the start of something wonderful," she says. "I always think of how we only use about 14 per cent of our brain, and it intrigues me what people could achieve if you look beyond that."