Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 4 April 2020

Meet the Dubai 'moonlighters' building their business by night

Shared work spaces are increasingly popular among employees looking to launch their own venture

Copywriter Jessi Smith went freelance after having her first child and says shared workspaces overcome the productivity slump you get working from home. Ruel Pableo for The National
Copywriter Jessi Smith went freelance after having her first child and says shared workspaces overcome the productivity slump you get working from home. Ruel Pableo for The National

A growing army of 'moonlighters' are working through the night to get fledgling businesses off the ground while holding down full-time jobs during the day.

They are part of a new generation of professionals turning their back on the traditional office environment in favour of shared working spaces.

It is becoming a viable option for many in Dubai who are looking to avoid the pitfalls of working from home without having to subscribe to a rigid nine-to-five office environment.

It’s an opportunity to work in a more creative environment with people from different companies right beside you

Muhammed Mekki, AstroLabs

Firms such as AstroLabs are capitalising on the demand by renting out spaces to companies, and individuals.

Better flexibility, lower overheads and the opportunity to work in a more creative environment were just some of the reasons why so many were choosing shared workspaces, said Muhammed Mekki, who co-founded AstroLabs in Jumeirah Lakes Towers.

“When you combine the hidden costs of starting up a business it makes sense," he said.

“People don’t have to worry about how much they have to allocate for utilities, cleaning or other things, they might have not have taken into account, like repairs.

“Plus it’s an opportunity to work in a more creative environment with people from different companies right beside you.”

AstroLabs, which is aimed at tech entrepreneurs and start-ups, currently has 250 people working from its two sites.

Membership starts from Dh750 a month for what Mr Mekki calls 'moonlighters'. These are people that work through the night on using the facility to work on setting up their own companies.

Muhammed Mekki says many of the entrepreneurs at AstroLabs have day jobs and work on their own business by night. Chris Whiteoak / The National
Muhammed Mekki says many of the entrepreneurs at AstroLabs have day jobs and work on their own business by night. Chris Whiteoak / The National

More often than not, their daytime is spent working for someone else.

They are able to spend their evenings and nights building their own companies because visa issues, over having a second job, are not applicable until their new companies are up and running.

Contrary to popular belief, it is not against the law to work for two employers in the UAE.

Anyone living here on a work visa can apply for a second one, according to the Ministry of Human Resources and Emiratisation. That would allow them to work for another employer, for no more than eight hours a day.

But working for a company without that can lead to fines of up to Dh50,000.

And when the time comes to get the company off the ground, start-ups must ensure they secure a business licence.

Desk space, at AstroLabs, for companies that are fully licensed, can cost up to Dh3,500, with additional fees for new members of staff who join the team.

AstroLabs' most famous alumni is Deliveroo Mena, which began life there with just one employee.

“So far we have helped 300 companies get started up in the region,” he said.

“It’s usually when teams reach a number of 10 [staff] that they move out into their own offices.”

One person who has taken advantage of shared workspaces is Edward Daou, 29, co-founder of digital advertisers Acquisit.

There are nine people in his company, all working from AstroLabs.

“From a pure business model it makes absolute sense,” said the French-Lebanese entrepreneur.

“It is good seeing so many different people and it feels like we are less on our own."

British freelance copywriter Jessi Smith, 34, is one of the legions of people in Dubai who have made the move to working from a shared space.

Dawn Barnable, managing director of PR firm The B Collective, works with her team at flexible workspace The Co Dubai. Victor Besa / The National
Dawn Barnable found a host of prospective clients working around her at The Co Dubai. Victor Besa / The National

She decided to go freelance when she had her baby, wanting more than the 45-day maternity leave her company offered her.

“I worked from home at the start and would literally prop my baby on my lap and balance a laptop on my knees,” she said.

“Then as my child’s needs changed and my reputation grew, I needed to work full-time and decided to opt for a co-working space.”

She was working from a shared space in the Rove Hotel in Dubai Marina when The National caught up with her.

Many of the spaces that I use are in F&B outlets in hotels, so you can end up spending a lot of money on food

Jessi Smith, freelance copywriter

“Using a shared working space gives me somewhere familiar to work from without the distractions of home or the politics and time-wasting of an office environment,” she said.

“At home I have a beautiful desk that creates a great work space, but I also have a toddler and the fridge, combined they probably demand between four to five hours of my attention a day.”

However, she warned shared workspaces were not without their shortcomings.

“It can be costly. Many of the spaces that I use are in F&B outlets in hotels, so you can end up spending a lot of money on food,” she said.

“I also spend between Dh490 and Dh800 per month on rental, depending on where I sign to.”

Dawn Barnable, managing director of PR firm The B Collective, works with her team at The Co Dubai, which was set up to offer flexible workspaces for entrepreneurs.

“It’s been great from a networking point of view as there are many different types of companies, brands and individuals sharing the space either in an office or out in the communal working areas," said the 38-year-old Canadian.

“If we need to scale up or down in terms of office size, we’re able to do that easily at a reasonable cost and no fuss.”

Updated: October 3, 2019 02:48 PM

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