Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 12 November 2019

Generation start-up: Businessmentals helps other fledgling ventures get off the ground

The Dubai-based e-commerce company offers would-be entrepreneurs practical lessons in how to set up a business

Entrepreneur Steve Ashby says contrary to commonly held belief, most would-be start-up owners are over 40. Ruel Pableo for The National 
Entrepreneur Steve Ashby says contrary to commonly held belief, most would-be start-up owners are over 40. Ruel Pableo for The National 

New Zealander Steve Ashby launched his start-up Businessmentals in the UAE in 2017 with one clear ambition: to provide other would-be entrepreneurs with everything they needed to know to succeed in what can be a daunting and all too often doomed undertaking.

Now migrated to an online operation, Businessmentals promises to teach its clients how to launch and keep going profitably by defining a start-up's product, market and audience and how to understand and speak the language of business. The company also offers entrepreneurs the basics of accounting, social media and digital marketing, as well as managing outsourced providers and getting those stubborn clients to pay.

"It’s an ecommerce business; we design and develop products for small businesses," says Mr Ashby, who in another guise was managing director of Vivoteq Middle East, which he started in 2009, a specialist indoor air quality business with a primary focus on hotels and large residences.

As Businessmentals' founder and chief executive, he brings a deep well of experience to the role. With some 35 years plus of experience in corporate human resources, he says the company he self-financed is built on the lessons he learned working for global organisations such as Compass Group in the UK, where he was HR director for the Remote Services Division until 2008. "I’ve taken that 'big thinking’ about structured approaches and processes and now we’re bringing it down to the sort of things that small businesses need to do," he says.

Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, July 3, 2019. Portrait of Steve Ashby, Founder, Businessmentals. Victor Besa/The National Section: BZ Reporter: Christian Nelson
Steve Ashby, founder of Businessmentals.Victor Besa/The National

As he points out, even if you’re a business of one you still need a business plan. "It doesn’t have to be the 50 page document that we used to have but it's got to have your strategy, schedule, how you market yourself and how you get clients and so on. There are four or five elements to it but you’ve still got to do it," he says.

According to Mr Ashby, reasearch shows that around 87 per cent of businesses that fail so so because they don’t have a plan and that includes small businesses.

Research by US market intelligence platform CB Insights this year found 70 per cent of start-up tech companies fail. Consumer hardware start-ups fail even more frequently, with 97 per cent ultimately dying or becoming “zombies” - still existing but not operating. In fact, the number one reason why start-ups fail, the research found, was “no market need". In other words, there was no customer.

Businessmentals provides those signing up with detailed online courses that takes the fledgling entrepreneur through the whole process of going into business, starting with why an individual wants to set up at all. "You’ve got to have a pretty good reason for it in the first place – and we look at things such as whether you’re going to have an 'away from' strategy or a 'towards' strategy," Mr Ashby says

“Away from”, he says, refers to those who are stuck in a role where they find themselves thinking: "I can’t stand where I work, I hate what I’m doing, I can never find a parking space – I know, I’ll start my own business." That lasts about 15 minutes, he says, before the would-be entrepreneur suddenly realises he or she has taken on something they are totally unprepared for.

"The other way is to approach it like, ‘I know what I’m doing, I know what the market wants because I’ve researched it, I know where the clients are and how to approach them – I’m there,’" says Mr Ashby.

Businessmentals' offering of 60 in-house videos plus 30 or 40 business development templates begins from that point; making the right decision for the right reasons in the first place. It covers the target market, plan, how to put a brand together, marketing, social media and advertising and pricing. It also has advice on how to approach outsourcing for "if you start to get a bit busy, so you can continue to grow and scale", he says, and looks at what kind of tech support will be needed.

What Mr Ashby calls his Really Useful Guide to Setting up your own Business also offers 10 hours of business expert mentorship.

The career HR executive, 65 years old and "still going like a train", is keen to dispel some commonly held beliefs about the whole start-up scene. Globally, he says, the average age of people setting up businesses is 48. "Not the millennials - there are lots, obviously - but the overwhelming proportion of people are in their late 40s, early 50s."

That view is supported by research from the US. According to studies this year out of Duke University, the Kauffman Foundation and the Founder Institute, the average US entrepreneur is actually 40 when launching his or her first start-up - and the average age of leaders of high-growth start-ups is 45.

Mr Ashby says women in their early 50s are the fastest growing demographic worldwide – setting up businesses four times faster than men of around the same age.

"In the immortal words of Annie Lenox, these women are doing it for themselves," he adds.

Businessmentals has been through a couple of iterations since launch about two years ago. Originally it was more of a paper-based version with sets of templates and lessons on the processes required to start and maintain a new business.

"We sold some, it was going OK, but we realised that it wasn’t immediate enough for people. It was like one small part of the solution and what people actually needed was step-by-step," Mr Ashby says.

"So about six or seven months ago I did a bit more research and found the way that the online courses market is going has completely flummoxed the experts – they said it was going to die around 2017/18 but it’s just gone through the roof," he adds, and the decision to go digital was made. He says one reason for the rise in the online business courses market is because there are very few places or ways in which people can actually learn the practical lessons in how to set a business up.

"I looked at that and thought, OK we are going to build something that other people can use really easily – we’re saying here’s a course that teaches you everything you need to know about how to start a business, and the feedback we’re getting is that it’s really powerful," he says.

For instance, if a client suggests something they want advice on, the company will find an expert, "download" everything they know about the subject, and put it into an online course.

"We do the videos, the presentation, and the expert gets a good commission on each one we sell," says Mr Ashby.

The company has plans to develop the service and perhaps move into foreign language versions with teams of specialists in new locations but the root of the business will remain the same: giving those who want it a helping hand to start, maintain and grow their own business.

However, while advocating the rise of entrepreneurs in their 40s and 50s, Mr Ashby still relies heavily on millennial know-how.

Out of his approximately 25,000 connections on LinkedIn, about 13,000 are actively following him - a valuable market for targeted email advertising campaigns and a good source of specialists with skills that can become part of the Businessmentals' package. But it's the company's use of Facebook advertising that has become key to its success. Here, he admits, he is out of his depth. "I don’t know how to do any of this – I have an incredible team of freelancers to run that aspect of the business.

"The average age of the team of women working with me, here in the region, in the Philippines and a couple of other places, is 25 – and they’ve got minds like steel traps," he says.

"Janice, one of our outsourced suppliers, runs an agency of virtual assistants in the Philippines who are Facebook social media experts. One of her clients recently joined the million-dollar a year earnings club and what he markets is how to use Facebook adverts – and he’s 28."

Mr Ashby says Facebook allows the firm to run whole series of ads and test them, find out what works and almost minute-by-minute keep adjusting what Businessmentals is offering to match what people are looking for.

"This woman [in the Philippines] knows exactly how the process works - and it’s complicated - but it’s staggering how effective it is."

Perhaps what Businessmentals represents, apart from a successful start-up, is just how potent the mix of time-served experience and razor-sharp social media understanding can really be.

Updated: July 27, 2019 05:46 PM

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