The UAE is seen as a place of growth for start-up companies. Selina Denman talks to entrepreneurs who agree and tell us what it takes to succeed.
The difficulties and benefits of becoming your own boss in the UAE
The UAE is seen as a place of growth for start-up companies. Selina Denman talks to entrepreneurs who agree and tell us what it takes to succeed - beyond the ability to take a licking and keep on ticking.
"A famous entrepreneur once said that being an entrepreneur is like being a boxer. You have to be prepared to get punched in the face repeatedly. I think that's true," says Tarig El Sheikh, the managing director of the Dubai-headquartered Knot Standard, an online supplier of handmade, bespoke suits. He should know. El Sheikh has launched a number of start-ups in his time and has "done well out of it" on some occasions and "failed spectacularly" on others. "It's a constant learning process. You can't be afraid to fail," he says.
It's a lesson that Loretta Kiss had to learn the hard way. As a digital creative director working in the advertising industry, Kiss spent years designing other people's online businesses before deciding to launch her own. While her initial plan was to set up a site that would sell lingerie, after extensive market research she discovered that "there was a lot of saturation in the lingerie market and a big gap in the maternity side of things". So she launched Blush and Bloom, a Dubai-based online retailer of high-quality, well-priced maternity clothes, nursing bras, shapewear and maternity gifts.
Kiss and a couple of her friends initially planned to set up their own limited liability company (LLC), which would act as an umbrella for various brands. But early in the process, an unscrupulous public relations officer (PRO) absconded with Dh56,000 of their hard-earned cash. "We were bright eyed and bushy tailed and trusted everyone. We got receipts but they meant nothing. That was a difficult lesson to learn. It made it very tough at the beginning," Kiss recalls. But she persevered.
Kiss and El Sheikh represent an ever-growing number of people in the UAE who are leaving the safety of full-time salaried jobs to launch their own businesses. Both were present, along with the fashion design and image consultant Charlotte Van der Haer Richardson and Jai Tolani, the director of the recently-launched leather restoration company or "handbag spa", Lovin My Bags, to share their experiences at this week's Creative Entrepreneurship round table at Shelter in Dubai. Judging from the stellar turnout, they are not alone in wanting to take advantage of the business opportunities presented by what is still a young and relatively untapped market.
Dubai is certainly becoming increasingly entrepreneur friendly, says El Sheikh. "There is a great entrepreneurial ecosystem that is slowly starting to develop. A couple of venture capital companies are coming into the region and setting up incubators and there are some workspaces like Make and Shelter, which is awesome. So there are the beginnings of an infrastructure. Is it as advanced as Silicon Valley in San Francisco? No. We have many years before we get there."
While there has not been the same slew of start-ups setting up shop in Abu Dhabi, there are opportunities to be had in the capital as well, says Paul Traynor, founder of Moon by Mazoon, an Abu Dhabi-based design company best known for its personalised chairs and cushions depicting the skylines of the UAE. Having moved to Abu Dhabi three years ago because of his wife's job, Traynor bought an existing but flailing curtain and upholstery business in May 2011. He started making his Skyline cushions after his mother came to visit and struggled to find Abu Dhabi-centric souvenirs; he moved into chairs, bean bags, tepees and most recently, soft play items for children, after "listening to the mums" and uncovering gaps in Abu Dhabi's interiors market. "If I tried to set this business up in the UK or the US, I'd have no chance. I wouldn't be able to compete," he says. "Being only 40 years old, the UAE is a frontier for new business. It's very pioneering. They've got a lot of big brands but there's lots of smaller market niches to be filled."
The internet is having an obvious impact on the ability of smaller start-up companies to address customers and gain traction. The fact that internet access is rising rapidly in this part of the world is presenting business-savvy residents in the UAE with a host of new opportunities, further facilitating the region's emergence as a hub for entrepreneurship.
"Rewind to 15 or 20 years ago. To come up with an idea and test it and set up a company, even in the initial phase, would cost you a million dollars plus," says El Sheikh. "What the internet does is level the playing field. It dramatically reduces the cost of set-up and marketing and reaching out to clients. That's why we have seen a lot of industries being destabilised and revolutionised over the last 10 years.
"Internet penetration in the Middle East is rapidly growing - we are talking double-digit growth year-on-year. It's a very large population, it's dynamic, it's young and they are slowly getting comfortable with the concept of e-commerce and paying for things online. Internet security is also improving. It presents us with a great opportunity."
The opportunities are there but, while the fact that the UAE is still a developing market may mean that it is ripe for new business ideas, there is an inevitable flip side to that coin. The complex legalities of setting up a business, for example, leave many potential entrepreneurs stumped. "Everything is grey all the time and you never truly understand what you can legally do until someone says you can't do it," says Kiss. "One thing I was very particular about was my business licence, but there's still a lot of red tape and blurred lines that make it hard for people to know what the boundaries are and what they're allowed to do. I'm sure there's a lot of companies running on free zone licences, which technically aren't allowed to sell into Dubai, but they do. I wanted to make sure I wasn't one of those businesses."
Traynor recommends getting help. "I should really have got a PRO. I badly underestimated how much was involved - the visas, going to the courts and so on. There's always some document that you've forgotten. But I did find it useful to know a few words of Arabic. People would definitely be more helpful."
Funding is another problem area, says El Sheikh. "Funding is probably one of the biggest challenges. And I don't mean in terms of the early stages when you are bootstrapping or you are using money from friends and family. I mean at the stage when you need to talk to venture capital companies, or you need to talk to banks that provide some financing, or angels and super angels who've done well and want to help out other people.
"That's still quite nascent. It's growing, which is great, but I think most entrepreneurs will say that financing is one of the issues that they tend to come across. There's that missing gap for us.
"Another issue is labour and access to good quality talent. As you start to scale up your company, that becomes a real problem. If you consider labour mobility in the US, you are looking at a huge pool and they don't have issues with moving. Here, as an example, I found a great tech guy in Syria and this was a couple of months back when [the UAE] had … visa issues. These are the sorts of challenges we face."
For many entrepreneurs, particularly those in creative fields, there is the added struggle of transforming a great (but hypothetical) idea into a business reality. For Kiss, a designer "who's more creatively minded and thinks in pictures and words rather than numbers, the numbers side of thing can be a real struggle". The day-to-day humdrum of accounting is one of the things that many creatives fail to anticipate when they are imagining their new business empire.
"I'm from a marketing, PR and advertising background," says Lovin My Bags's Tolani. "It is a challenge because creative people are not particularly grounded when it comes to keeping costs low. They love to think of ideas and leave all the other stuff to other people. It takes some time to change your thinking a bit and get yourself into that mode. But once you start a business, you quickly realise that if you don't watch your operational costs month after month and monitor how your business is doing, you're not going to survive."
There is a commonly held belief that entrepreneurs are a breed in themselves; that there are certain, inherent character traits that make some people more inclined to set up their own businesses. El Sheikh disagrees. "I do feel that a lot of the traits of an entrepreneur can be taught. The ability to accept failure, learn from it, iterate, adapt and change quickly, for example. I've never met one entrepreneur who has the whole skill set. I have certain aspects of the entrepreneurial DNA but my co-founders have other aspects and we complement each other nicely."
So, while you may not think you are a born entrepreneur, with a solid business plan, a thick skin, good partners, a bit of patience and a whole lot of hard work, you too could join the growing army of UAE-based entrepreneurs - but you have to be in it for the long haul. "I believe you have to embrace fear and take that first step or else you'll never know," says Van der Haer Richardson.
"It's pretty lonely sometimes. I'll be in the car, pulling my hair out, thinking: 'What have I done. Why have I done this to myself'," says Traynor. "Then I'll go home and I'll have a lovely email from a customer and it's all worthwhile again. It's good to also have a strong family; I'm always bending my wife's ear.
"It's not easy - I'm a delivery boy, I'm a salesman, I'll cut foam … it's been a slog. But if I wasn't doing it, I'd be sitting at home thinking about it."