x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Sweet dreams with SMEs (who are we to disagree?)

The Life: Mostafa Shirah, founder of Brandsyrup, brands SMEs as he keeps an eye out for the next big thing.

Mostafa Shirah is the founder of Brandsyrup, which aims to help SMEs step out in style and gain momentum. Sarah Dea / The National
Mostafa Shirah is the founder of Brandsyrup, which aims to help SMEs step out in style and gain momentum. Sarah Dea / The National

Size does not matter, at least when it comes to branding, says Mostafa Shirah.

Based in Jeddah, Mr Shirah runs a small enterprise called Brandsyrup that aims to help small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) step out in style and gain momentum.

It is all about making the new business in the block look cool, says the 28-year-old, adding: "It's not a lie, it's a promise."

Branding for SMEs is still in its infancy in the Emirates, and associating with the smaller guys keeps his business hungry for growth and new ideas, Mr Shirah says.

"I want to be a part of the next big thing," he adds.

For that reason, he has developed a different business model from most branding agencies.

Those who pay his service fees can do so in instalments. For others, Mr Shirah does not get paid in cash but takes 20 to 30 per cent equity in the company.

He is already a partner in four successful businesses in Saudi Arabia including Qualite, a Lebanese chocolatier with retail and wedding services, and Artscape, a landscape design company, both based in Jeddah.

In Dubai, Brandsyrup has six clients, all with a limited marketing budget ranging from Dh30,000 to Dh70,000 "which is very small", says Mr Shirah.

"We still come across mature businesses in the Middle East that have not applied proper branding under the false claim that their businesses do not need it," says Mr Shirah, who believes Arabian Gulf SMEs have a long way to go before they fully understand the value of branding.

Mr Shirah, who joined the executive MBA programme at Hult University in Dubai last September, has come a long way himself.

At 16, he decided to discover Saudi Arabia beyond the safety net of his family.

After a summer at a law firm, he took on a waiter's job in a coffee shop. The sight of Saudis working as waiters was so rare that Al Jazirah newspaper featured his story and those of nine other Saudi waiters - the first 10 nationals to officially wait tables.

"It taught me a lot, including how to serve people and strangers," Mr Shirah recalls, adding he also washed bathrooms for a few weeks. "I became humbler."

He went on to study aerospace engineering, dropped out of the course and then worked as an English teacher, a chef, a part-time music teacher playing drums and saxophone and even as a manager in a bank.

Leaving banking behind in 2009, he launched Brandsyrup in Jeddah in February that year with a 100,000 Saudi riyals.

"Branding is to businesses and syrup is to pancakes," he explains about the curious name of his company, which he considers more of a social enterprise helping the smaller guys in the business community.

"When you get bigger, it is difficult to do business with SMEs to sustain the cost," he adds.

One of his clients is Dubai-based Livescale, which creates scale models of architectural buildings and was previously known as Atelier Sami Bou Habib after the name of its owner before rebranding itself two years ago, says its director Hisham Bou Habib.There were a number of reasons behind the effort. "Financial crisis, technology coming into the nature of the business, and lots of competition and market change," says Mr Bou Habib.

And it worked out.

"Branding has helped people recognise the company faster and more people remember it," Mr Bou Habib says. "All our clients are not one-timers, now they are loyal to the brand."

The company has also doubled its number of clients and almost half of that now comes from the web. It even opened a branch in Riyadh two years ago.

However, the trick to a successful branding for an SME is be honest, Mr Bou Habib says.

"If you are an SME show yourself as an SME, not a large corporation," he says. "If you over-promise, it would work for a short time but it would fail."

Mr Shirah wants to stick with supporting the SME community for now. "It's a joy to be a part of SMEs that are young, successful and ambitious," he says.