Local entrepreneurs and experts for tips on setting up in Dubai
Dubai has an international reputation for being ambitious, a city built on the bold risks and creative new ideas of entrepreneurs, and each year sees hundreds more start-ups take the plunge. The latest to garner public attention comes from homegrown talent Mohamed and Peyman Parham Al Awadi, the Emirati brothers who founded the city’s Wild Peeta restaurant. Their new project, Peeta Planet, is a TV travel series that takes them around the world to meet other entrepreneurs. Who they meet and where they go is dictated by their followers on Facebook and Twitter: they’re calling the scheme ‘social travel’.
‘You can expect to see real people with common passions connecting with each other across the world, sharing great stories and inspiring initiatives,’ explains Peyman. ‘These are people who’ve decided to follow their passion, and haven’t looked back.’ But setting up a business anywhere isn’t just about following your dreams – it’s a test of everything from your business idea and finances to your optimism and determination.
‘If you’re setting up a business in Dubai, or anywhere, however long you think things are going to take to set up, add 50 percent; however much money you think you’re going to make in the first few months, subtract 40 percent; and whatever you think your costs are going to be, add 50 percent,’ says Liam Wholey, CEO and co-founder of The Travel Attaché, a luxury travel firm based in Dubai, and The Ticket Attaché, which specialises in getting its clients access to the world’s most prestigious events. Though this is his first entrepreneurial venture in Dubai, launched last November as part of a joint venture with The Kanoo Group, Liam’s entire CV is a list of new businesses. ‘All I’ve done is start-ups. None of them have been mine per-se. This is the first time I’ve started a new brand, and it’s been a very interesting learning curve. Even in a relatively small place like Dubai, it’s a lot of hard work.’
According to Julie Logan, professor of entrepreneurship at Dubai’s Cass Business School, there are three key questions a potential entrepreneur should ask themselves before taking the leap: do I really want to do all of the activities involved in running a business? Do I want to work long hours? And does the business idea fit with my personal vision? You need to be sure about all of these, or risk setting yourself up for failure. As for working out whether the idea itself is worth pursuing, she suggests the only way to check its viability is to do extensive market research, then get out and get selling. ‘A good way to know if your idea is going to be successful is to try it out part time first. If people are willing to commit to buying from you, you know what you’re offering is good.’
If you’re considering leaving your current paid job to set up your own company, Liam’s advice is to first spend a lot of time planning, make sure you have the finances, mitigate all the risks you possibly can, then jump. ‘The majority of start-ups fail because either they run out of cash, or they give up too early. Frankly, it’s very, very hard at times, and you have to have faith in your own ability, and the people around you. You will have dark days, you will have really tough days, but they don’t last forever. You just have to be really dogged and determined,’ he says.
‘You also have to be an optimist,’ explains Ravi Bushari, one of the founders of Dubai’s Duplays, which launched in 2007 to run social sport leagues across the city. ‘I remember the first time we were trying to rent facilities here and we couldn’t even get past security to convince the school principal to see us and let us rent their facilities.’ Today, the company has more than 40,000 members in the UAE, organises sport for more than 5,000 people a week, and has just embarked on a bold expansion into Delhi in India. This month it begins operations in Riyadh and Doha. ‘It’s really important to find good people to work with: entrepreneurship can be a very lonely endeavour if you’re just by yourself,’ he says.
Liam agrees, noting that one of the best pieces of advice he has been given is to get your significant other involved. That way, they are not only also invested, but they will understand when you’re struggling, and be able to support you when the going is tough.
Advice on setting up Finding all the information you need to set up a business in Dubai can be incredibly confusing. Fortunately, there are tools that can help you navigate decisions such as whether to base yourself in a free zone or not, how to go about applying for a licence, and what kind of documentation you’ll need. Licences themselves vary in cost, not only between emirates, but across different free zones inside Dubai, of which there are now 23. For example, licences for businesses in Jebel Ali Free Zone start from about Dhs5,500, compared with Dhs20,000 in JLT. Freezonesuae.com can answer many of these questions, while sites such as Dubaimediacity.com explain how to get licensed in TECOM’s media free zone specifically.
Support groups It’s not uncommon to face challenges, and sometimes those closest to you might not understand what you’re going through. There are a number of social, community and support groups in the city, including the women-only Heels and Deals (www.heelsanddeals.org) which also hosts networking events. Also try the large number of industry-specific groups on Meetup.com, including Dubai Internet Marketing Entrepreneurs.
Speaking to other people who have launched their own business (successfully or otherwise) is a great way to start, especially if you’re going it alone. Make Business Hub in Dubai Marina (04 392 9216) and Shelter in Al Quoz (04 380 9040) both hold regular networking events and talks by local entrepreneurs.
Funding There are several organisations that make it their business to invest in new ideas, such as Seedstartup.com, which focuses on web and mobile businesses, and start-up accelerator Oasis500 (www.oasis500.com), which is based in Jordan but invests far beyond – and has announced it is looking to invest in more than 100 new and existing companies in 2013. Angel investment network Envestors (www.envestors.ae) and MBC Ventures (www.mbc.net) are also good places to start, with the latter offering extra support through TV ads.