x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Why I had a financial awakening

After enjoying an extravagant lifestyle during his youth, this web designer from Sharjah dedicated himself to Islam, rejected luxuries and spent two years living in a caretaker's flat.

Fahed Bizzari, owner of Online Associates, gives 30 per cent of his earnings to orphanages in Bangladesh and the Palestinian Territories.
Fahed Bizzari, owner of Online Associates, gives 30 per cent of his earnings to orphanages in Bangladesh and the Palestinian Territories.

I'm 29 years old, and I was born and raised in the UK, but I am originally Palestinian. My dad is also an entrepreneur; he was into construction, property and had a software company in the 1970s. My mother was an artist, but is now retired. I am the youngest of four children, and maybe for that reason I was spoiled the most. I grew up with an extremely extravagant lifestyle. When I was at boarding school, between the ages of 12 and 16, my parents were concerned about my welfare, so they set up tabs for me at the local restaurants and newsagents. I would have dinner and wouldn't have to pay. So I got into a habit from a young age of buying without cash.

I had easy money, so I spent it easily. I could spend £3,000 (Dh16,600) to £4,000 a day without feeling bad. I spent my money on designer clothes (I had about 15 Versace suits) and perfumes, and I hated public transport, so I used to pay for black cabs or a chauffeur. It was ridiculous. When I was young, I used to go to my dad's office, and he was the boss for about 50 people. Since then, I knew I wanted to be the boss.

I failed my first year at London Guildhall University. Then I attended Middlesex University to study marketing, and graduated with a first-class degree. It was all because of a major turnaround in life at age 19. Growing up, I knew almost nothing about Islam, but at university, I became extremely religious. Part of the reason was that I had done something really bad, and it made me question how good a person I was. My guilt led me down a path of severe repentance and toward Islam. Aside from that, I also met some Muslim people at university who were very happy with life even though they didn't have much, whereas I was unhappy even with everything I had.

When I became extremely religious, my parents didn't want anything to do with me because there was an extreme change in my behaviour and attitude, and they felt that I was rejecting the values they had raised me with. So I went from being subsidised and having a luxurious lifestyle to being on my own. I had to take out a student loan of about £1,500 (Dh5,423) per year to pay for tuition. The annual student loan also included £2,000 in cash.

Luckily, I didn't have to pay rent. Next to my university there was a mosque and they had a flat for a caretaker. They allowed me to stay there rent-free for two years after some friends with ties to the mosque told them about my situation and recommended me as a tenant. I learnt to live on very meagre means. At one point, I had about £500 on me, which lasted about six months. People in the community who knew about my situation also helped me; they invited me to their house or gave me home-cooked food. I ate most of my dinners at home, and my flatmate, who was working and paid rent, cooked our meals.

After graduation, I went on a religious journey for about a year. I took classes, and travelled to South Africa, America and the Middle East to spend time learning from scholars. In 2005, after I returned to the UK, my friend asked me to help him market a software program that two friends of his had developed. I put in my investment - £1,000 loaned to me by a friend - but things went sour with them because they used my investment for another business. I withdrew all my intellectual capital and decided to start my own company. My dad - who had accepted the new me by then - gave me advice on the business. I spent £100 to set it up, which pays for the incorporation of the business in the UK.

A friend of mine, who was a programmer, joined me and we spent all of our free time developing the software. We were looking to develop an effective SMS gateway that would allow businesses to send bulk text messages cheaply. I was renting a small room at the back side of a taxi office for £100 a month. We didn't have any real costs - just phone calls, a one-time cost to purchase a computer and internet fees - which came to about £200 to £300 a month. That year I got married. I had received about £5,000 as a gift from my parents, which was what was paying for everything.

The company was not profitable for a year, and my father was telling me I was wasting my time. I decided to give up on it one day, and my wife and I moved to the UAE in 2007. But within a few weeks, the sales started coming in. A month before I left, as a last hope, I decided to use search-engine marketing, which essentially relies on other businesses searching for my product online. For about six months before that I had tried different strategies such as word of mouth, cold calling, direct mail marketing and door-to-door sales, all of which failed.

There was also a miracle involved early on that resulted in a boost of about 1,000 customers. I wrote an article about SMS for businesses, and it was translated into French. France was an untapped market, and suddenly I had all of these French customers. Now I have more than 12,500 corporate customers, including Better Homes, the University of Toronto and BMI Airlines, and the business is worth just under £500,000. 

It is run by sales and technical staff in the UK, and I also manage things from here. In March 2009, I employed a web designer and set up Online Associates as a development design agency in the Sharjah Airport Free Zone. I needed Dh150,000 in start-up capital, which I took from the money I made from my communications business. However, the market was saturated with web design companies, and our efforts weren't working, so we pulled the plug on it. Four months ago, I relaunched Online Associates as a consultancy business.

As a consultative web architect, the advice I give is about everything to do with the web, but the focus is on business development. I learn everything about the client's company, including their goals, and come up with ways to further their plans more effectively and more cheaply using internet tools. I spend Dh100,000 a year on a four-bedroom house with a pool in Sharjah, where I live with my wife and four kids. Whenever I spend money now, it's about my family and children; I like to spend on their development.

The only extravagant habit that stayed with me is flying business class. When I was a kid, I was flying first class. The problem is, once you've flown on business or first class, going to economy is difficult. Logically, I know I should just fly economy, but it's just one last thing I haven't been able to knock out of my system. I have every intention of becoming a self-made billionaire. I intend to invest most of the money I make in good causes.

I'm not interested in extravagance, but I am interested in doing things with money. About 20 to 30 per cent of what I earn goes to orphanages in Bangladesh and the Palestinian Territories. I've already tasted extravagance, so I don't aspire to it. Now it's about finding balance. * As told to Sanam Islam