x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

Make way for the new profit generators

Youth will not be wasted on these youngsters, who all jumped into the world of business and created their own start-ups before the age of 25. Although they find ageism can be an obstacle, experts say it is no match for their budding young entreprenurial optimism.

Youth will not be wasted on these youngsters, who all jumped into the world of business and created their own start-ups before the age of 25. Although they find ageism can be an obstacle, experts say it is no match for their budding young entreprenurial optimism.
Youth will not be wasted on these youngsters, who all jumped into the world of business and created their own start-ups before the age of 25. Although they find ageism can be an obstacle, experts say it is no match for their budding young entreprenurial optimism.

It's 5pm and a group of young people has gathered in a Dubai park. To a casual observer, they look like friends catching up at the end of the working day. But these youngsters are actually meeting for the first time because they have one thing in common: they are all entrepreneurs who set up their companies by the age of 25. And as they question each other about their respective businesses, they seem oblivious to the enormity of their achievements at such a young age.

"Running my own company is something I've wanted to do as long as I can remember," says Ebony-Jane Penny, the founder of wordofmouth.ae, a company that manages clients' social media accounts and also incorporates a deal-sharing website. "My parents used to say, 'We know you will have your own company one day' and while I never felt any pressure to do so, I knew it would happen and I would be successful."

Ms Penny, 25, launched her business in September last year with a silent partner using savings she had accumulated from a sales and marketing job in London. The businesswoman, who moved to the UAE from the UK in 2009, admits she took time to commit to her decision, even flying back to the UK for a holiday last August to muster the courage to see it through.

"I probably could have launched eight months earlier than I did, but I was worried about the risk. I had all the forms ready to go and when I went back to the UK, my friends and family said, 'You've been talking about this for ages, so now you've got to do it'.

"On the plane ride back, I hardly said a word because I was thinking about the business non-stop. I registered the company the next day and it's the best thing I've ever done because once you've put your name to it, you have to do it."

Since then, Ms Penny has seen her business grow at a phenomenal pace. She has already recouped the Dh35,000 investment she made to legalise the company as well as the other set-up costs, such as equipment for her office, a car and a year's rent for a one-bedroom apartment in The Greens area of Dubai.

The businesswoman has also switched her focus from a deal-sharing website to the social media arm of her company because demand for her downloadable voucher concept was too low.

"The social media side has taken off and we have some really big clients. It's so in demand that we can't ignore it," adds Ms Penny, who has two staff members and plans to hire more - proof that with a good idea and enough energy to see it through, anyone can launch a business regardless of their age.

This is the philosophy of John Martin St Valery, the chairman of the entrepreneurs focus group for the British Business Group (BBG), who says entrepreneurship is actively "fostered" in the UAE.

"It's not easy to set up a business, but it's certainly encouraged," he says. "There is an informal mentor system in the UAE and business groups like BBG assist young professional members when they have bright, new ideas."

For Sneha Bhatia, 26, and her sister Ravisha, 24, from India, running their own cake business was not part of their life plans. Both sisters were working in the finance sector, with Sneha working as an operations supervisor and Ravisha as an internal controls operator. But after organising a bake sale to raise Dh800 to fund the education of a child in India, orders flooded in.

With Sneha working as the baker and her younger sister the cake artist, the pair decided to set up Sugaholic - investing Dh50,000 of their savings into the fledgling venture. One year on and business is booming. The sisters are baking three cakes a day and up to 90 a month. But they admit, despite the high demand, they are earning half their previous salaries.

"Our profits aren't a lot because we've invested in expensive equipment, such as cake mixers, cake bowls and cake boxes," says Sneha, who has lived in the UAE her entire life. "We are doing this because it helps us live the life we want without depending on our parents and also lets us do what we love doing."

The siblings are so passionate about their new vocation, they are willing to commit seven days a week to the business, working up to 14 hours a day.

"Ravisha gets up at 5am and works though to 10pm and I start at 9am and work until midnight or two in the morning," says Sneha, who lives with her family in Bur Dubai. "Our working hours are crazy; we do get tired and we don't really have a personal life anymore, but we love it. We've had to learn to say no because at one time, it did affect our health and our sleep because we were so tired and stressed from baking too many cakes."

Long hours seem to be a feature of entrepreneurial life. Ms Penny also works up to 15 hours a day, seven days a week and says she took her first day off in six months last week.

"I'm not a workaholic by nature, but I feel like I want to do this," she says. "If I was working for someone else, I wouldn't put in those hours because everything that I do would be their profit. I'd rather the money went into my pocket and if I feel like a lie-in I can have one. I don't have to answer to anybody."

Although Ms Penny has plans to take on two more staff in the autumn to ease her workload and the Bhatia sisters plan to open their own shop to hire extra staff to increase their production rate, one thing is for sure - taking on more staff does not guarantee a shorter working day.

Anand Kumar, 22, is the executive director of Abra, a visual merchandising and store design company based in the International Media Production Zone in Dubai.

When he joined the company - first set up by his father 17 years ago - Mr Kumar managed 30 staff, but he now oversees 100 and with the company's production operating 24/7, he sometimes works seven days a week.

"Most of my friends are still studying, so it is hard if they are meeting up and I can't be there," says Mr Kumar. "And while it was not planned that I would join the business as soon as I did, it was growing so much that my presence was needed."

Mr Kumar, who had plans to go into event management, first started working in the company on a part-time basis in 2008, combining his university studies in commerce and management at the University of Wollongong in Dubai with his position at the company. He joined full time as the company head two years ago, taking control of the day-to-day running of the business while his father, who still acts as managing director, focused on new opportunities.

The young businessman says he regularly argues with his father over management issues, with the older Mr Kumar preferring a more informal HR style and the son a more formalised approach. And while Mr Kumar says he is the "conservative" head in the business, he has introduced a series of new initiatives to update the company and help it expand regionally and internationally.

"It was previously a one-man show, so people knew my dad's name more than the company's name. So I'm trying to make it more of a brand with a corporate identity," says Mr Kumar. "My father and I clash on a lot of things because of our different management styles and because I live at home as well, it means I live with my boss, so it can be difficult to draw the line between your personal and professional life. We don't communicate as much as when we didn't work together."

But Mr Kumar says the biggest challenge has been getting his staff and his clients to take him seriously because of his age.

"People have some difficulty having me in charge. From my side, I have to earn their respect. I can command people to do things, but it might not be executed to my liking. I've tried to get a feel for the different departments, so that when I speak to the individuals who are older than me I understand their job role and the issues they face.

"Getting clients to take me seriously and trust me is also difficult. I have to convince them that I have the capability to deliver because I command the show."

Mr Martin St Valery says young business leaders will always face issues with their age, but they should not be deterred. "We all look back to our early days and that struggle to be taken seriously and I do sympathise with that, but tenacity is more important and proving oneself or one's business," he says. "There are some fabulous seedling ideas coming out into the market from young entrepreneurs that the rest of us would be foolish to ignore, so they need to have the confidence to keep pushing away. Yes, sometimes they won't be taken seriously, but they shouldn't let that stop them."

And Mr Martin St Valery says he believes the UAE is the perfect location for young entrepreneurs to embark on new ventures.

"There certainly is an entrepreneurial spirit in the UAE," he says. "A high percentage of our 2,000-plus members are individuals from the UK who have seen an opportunity to perhaps be more entrepreneurial in an expat environment than they could be at home, where they might feel more constrained.

"That, coupled with the current economic climate, encourages people to look beyond their borders in terms of where the growth opportunities are. There's no doubt that in financial terms, the UAE is a frontier market moving towards emerging market and that's a fertile ground for entrepreneurs."

Setting up on your own can certainly be extremely fruitful because the income earned is yours to spend as you wish. But when it comes to spending, the young business owners are all treading carefully, reinvesting the majority of their earnings back into their businesses.

"I'm trying to save as much as possible," says Ms Penny.

"I do like shopping and I do treat myself, but you have to be three months ahead of your costs because you never know what is going to happen. I want to have that safety net so that I can hire staff and save for my next investment, which will probably be property in the UK. If I was spending all the money, I would not be able to do those things."

And despite their success so far, being labelled an entrepreneur does not sit comfortably with all of the young company heads. "I cringe when I hear the word entrepreneur," says Ms Penny. "To me, entrepreneurs are people doing super well and earning millions. And while I wouldn't say no to that lifestyle, I wouldn't want to be so engrossed in a company that I sacrificed my life for a business - that would be very sad."

arayer@thenational.ae