Issue of the month: Being an entrepreneur

Entrepreneurs on the trials and tribulations of setting up shop in the UAE

Who's who

1. Tariq Sanad
Tariq headed up Sales and Marketing for Careem and founded digital marketing platform Lime&Tonic. Now he’s CFO at Fetchr.

2. Ayshwarya Chari
Ayshwarya’s vision is to transform the online shopping landscape of the region through her e-commerce platform

3. Carolyne Allmark
Carolyne is a section editor at Time Out Kids. She loves to pick the brains of Dubai’s most interesting business owners.

4. Katy Gillett
Katy tried starting a second-hand retail shop when she was aged nine. It didn’t work. Now she’s Time Out Kids’ managing editor.

5. Mustafa Y. Koita

Mustafa provides organic milk to the families of the UAE. He started Koita, his company, because of his passion for healthy living, giving back to the community and his children.

6. Shubhang Bhattacharya

Shubhang has a passion for helping entrepreneurs realise their dreams and is now part of the team at Impact Hub, one of Dubai’s largest communities of creatives and techies.

7. Emer O’Doherty
Emer O’Doherty is a section editor at Time Out Kids. She has had loads of business ideas over the years, but none that have worked (yet).

8. Olivia Manner

Olivia started Hello Chef! meal delivery service two years ago. She recently won the Time Out Kids Family Entrepreneurial Award.

9. Meghan Cabral, founder of FizzKidz

Meghan discovered a need for entertaining, inexpensive and safe products for children and was inspired to create FizzKids in 2016.

10. Mark Drummond
The man behind, Mark designs and sells personalised gifts that are available both online and in retail stores.

Emer O'Doherty: Let’s kick this off — what makes an entrepreneur?
Mustafa Y. Koita: I think that entrepreneurship comes from a couple of different sources. Some people are born with that bug. There are different things that happen in your life, but it’s in your DNA.
Also, living in Dubai, from the leadership down, the city itself is a start-up. It has this entrepreneurship vibe. It’s beautiful. There’s lots of support.
Mark Drummond: It’s scary to start. It’s getting easier because the information is more clear. Before it was hard to find out how to start business. Now there are many opportunities.
There isn’t the competition there should be. It is expensive as a start-up – to get the trade licence and move forward. It’s a big step. Although nowadays you have pop-up markets and a lot of platforms where you can test your idea out before you make that decision.
Meghan Cabral: To put all that money up-front, you really need to be quite a business-oriented person and have a plan. I don’t have that foresight – I’m more creative. A lot of people like me — other mums — are here with their husbands and wondering what to do. They realise they could bring a product from their home country. That’s why you get such a nice mix at the markets.
Shubhang Bhattacharya: What we do is like the reality check. We have people coming in every day with ideas. Ninety-five percent don’t end up starting a business or even taking the next step. A lot of people aren’t comfortable with the grey areas there still are.

Emer: Do you help people who come with an idea to define it?
Shubhang: We tell them: “These are your competitiors, this is the kind of licence you’ll have to get, this is what you’ll have to invest.” We entertain everybody and all ideas. We will set up a session with a legal advisor and consultants. We try to educate people as much as possible. We have lots of workshops with various experts.
Tariq Sanad: The reason you have a lot of start-ups is because you have a lot of options. People don’t research all the options they have to see what suits you going in. You need to realise what you want to do and match how you want to do it. You need a real clear-cut understanding of what you’re doing. That’s the beauty of Dubai and the UAE – it is quite formal, it’s not that easy, you need to think about it and it forces you to think about it.

Emer: Is there somebody – a business leader, for example – here that you follow?
Mark: For me it comes down to my dad. He started a carpentry business when he was younger. We didn’t have much money then and that’s all he had from that business. I’m going to be expanding into the UK and now my dad is running that side of the business. My mum runs the emails. It’s more like family business. My other half is going to be joining in February.
Olivia Manner: [Recently started working with her husband.] The first year was stormy and now it’s starting to normalise and we’re finding our place. You need to find your place in business, but also in the family again.
Ashwarya Chari: Are you enjoying it?
Oliva: Now I am. [Everyone laughs.] You get to know your husband, his flaws and how he operates day-to-day. You usually come home from work and tell stories about your day, but you get one side of it. All of a sudden we see things we don’t like. We’re extreme opposites, which is why in a relationship we complement each other, but now we’re in an office. I said I was going to give it a year and see what happens, especially with small kids, but then you find this whole new phase. Now we respect each other on a whole new level.

Carolyne: A lot of you here are parents. How do you find it, managing both sides of life?
Meghan: What I’ve realised is my kids are my priority and business is second. If I hadn’t done that I would have done more with my business idea. It’s taken a back seat. You have a bit of a battle. Yes, I have what I wanted when I started, but it hasn’t gone as quickly as I wanted.
Olivia: I chose the other way round. I think it’s just a different set-up. A different choice. You’re living with the feeling “I could have had more with my business”, but I feel guilty about not spending enough time with the kids. My mum has always been a working mother. In my head it was never an option of not going to work. The good thing about having your own business is you can work from home a lot and you’re physically there.

Emer: Shubhang, do you find at Impact Hub you get a lot of parent entrepreneurs?
Shubhang: It’s tricky. We’ve had a lot of mothers who’ve given it a try. I’ve seen it is a huge challenge. We have most entrepreneurs coming from 9am to 6pm and they make it their office. Sometimes it doesn’t work out so well for parents. At the same time, it’s a huge market. There’s a conundrum there. A lot of mothers are getting into business. They’re influencing the way start-ups are going in the region for sure. They have home-grown businesses and they’re more flexible.

Carolyne: There are a lot more online businesses across the UAE. Is the infrastructure there to properly run one?
Tariq: You need the ability to go online and create a platform. Second, you need to collect money. The whole payment system is still not there, although it’s better now. That’s one of the reasons Fetchr started. Cash on delivery is a huge part. The reason it’s huge is because someone can pay cash, see the product and then pay the money. There’s still a trust issue.
Ashwarya: Eighty-three percent of our orders are cash on delivery. But that’s the first payment, not overall. When they see we’re real, when they get the product and it’s not coming 25 days down the line, it’s fine.
Olivia: We don’t offer that anymore. We used to only be cash on delivery. When you’re a small business, you don’t want to be at the bank half the day to deposit cash. And when you prepare a product and you’ve got perishable food and people aren’t home... My husband pushed, but I was petrified. I thought I’d lose all my customers. It didn’t happen. There are loyalists. It’s about the relationships.

Carolyne: With a food business, there must be a lot to think about...
Olivia: We’ve just set up our own kitchen. Every day I need to cross things off – fire extinguishers, training for staff, etc. but I think relationships with officials are important. They understand we’re a small business, they try to help and give you time to rectify things.
Ashwarya: The impression is it’s so hard and everyone is out to get you. The reality is quite the opposite and it’s quite nurturing. Ask for a solution and people will help you.
Mustafa: I don’t think what we’re saying is the hard part – you can find a solution for everything. I think the hard part is being an entrepreneur and that’s the same wherever you live. Do you have a good business plan? Do you have the ability to adapt? Do you have a good sense of humour? How do I manage cash flow and human capital?
I get my best advice from people who are starting now. These are the guys who need creativity to get around stuff and figure it out.

Emer: Have you been bitten by competition?
Mustafa: There’s a lot of competition here. It does two things, though – firstly, it validates your market. Secondly, it keeps you on your toes. As competition comes along, you’re thinking of ways to differentiate your product. If you don’t have competition, your model probably isn’t in the right place.
Ashwarya: I’m always happy to see more online stores, even if it’s direct competition, because people are still resistant to online buying. But they’re getting people online and then they’ll come to me.
Tariq: In the last two companies I’ve been working with fierce competition. It’s forcing you to innovate. They do something, you have to do something better.
It keeps your business growing. It makes it lively. It also makes it great for consumers, because they’re reaping the benefits. It helps build scale within your niche.

Carolyne: Have you made any mistakes?
Olivia: Lots and lots of mistakes, but nothing so far that’s been really damaging to the business. There’s plenty of time for those to come. [Everyone laughs.]
Tariq: The biggest mistake I’ve made is when it comes to hiring people. Don’t hire people because you have to. Hire the right people who are just as passionate as you to a certain degree. When you’re growing and you need people to get things done, you can’t risk it. As you grow further, you need to hire people who are better than you at certain things. Don’t be afraid of that.
Mark: For me, when I started, I had so many ideas. I had so many products at first. Then you look at where the money is coming from. I wasted the first few months adding and adding. Find something that works and then focus on that. As you grow the business, you can add.
Mustafa: We’ve made every mistake in the book and I think that works to my advantage. Every time I make a mistake I see it as an opportunity to learn. In our company’s culture, if you make a mistake or fail, then it’s okay. As long as I can pay the bills. We instill a culture where mistakes need to be made in order to grow. If anything, if they make a mistake, they won’t do it again. The most important point is you need to embrace failure. That attitude is a huge competitive advantage.

Carolyne: Now, has it all been worth it?
Mark: One hundred percent. I would never go back. Once you have your own thing – for me to design something, make something, sell something – it’s so rewarding.
Ashwarya: You learn a lot about yourself. It’s beyond worth it. You cannot go back. What I learned most about myself is I had to let go of my perfectionism.
I had so many ideas for my business to grow, but I was waiting for the right time. Sometimes it’s better just to do it. Do the best version of it. It’s never going to be perfect.
Meghan: I’m still in the early stages and now it’s time to push it to the next level. It’s a bit early for me to say. It’s a huge learning curve for me. There’s still time for me to change direction, if I need to.
Olivia: I get to be myself, which is the biggest thing. I was working in a big company before and I was wearing my suit, in my cubicle, and I didn’t feel like I fitted in. I felt constantly frustrated. I’m thinking I could be somewhere else, I’m working for someone else, not learning, not pushing myself. Yes, it’s a trade-off, but you get to be yourself.
Mustafa: Absolutely. It’s totally worth it, but it’s not for the faint-hearted. You’ve got to have a great sense of humour, you have to be resilient — it’s you versus the world.
Ashwarya: If the only reason you want to start a business is because you want flexibility, then don’t do it. [Everyone laughs.] Flexibility is a perk, and it’s a fabulous perk – I don’t miss my child’s Christmas concert, for example – but it also means I’m working until 1am that night.
I’m trading off constantly. It’s not what keeps me going when bills need to be paid and I don’t know how we’re going to pay them. You need to have the passion first, then flexibility is your perk.

Emer: Where does that passion come from?
Olivia: It is like a plant. You have to constantly feed it and water it. Then sometimes it dies a little bit. [Laughs.]
Ashwarya: Yes, like once a week. That pay-cheque sounds really good sometimes!

Emer: This is your product now, but are there other ideas you have?
Mustafa: All the time. I think one of the things you’ve learned from this session is that all of us are probably thinking of a billion things. Focus is so important. You’ve got to know when to say “no”.

The event

Time Out Kids' Coffee Club with The Ritz-Carlton, Dubai at Jumeirah Beach Residence

Time Out Kids Coffee Club takes place at this beautiful Jumeirah Beach Residence property in the intimate confines of the Blue Jade restaurant’s private dining area. Our panellists are treated to coffee and pastries, while we all debate the issues of the day affecting parents in Dubai most. If you would like to be part of our next event, or have a burning topic of your own you’d love to discuss with people in similar circumstances, please email us at We’re all ears!

Sunrise sessions are back at At The Top

Celebrate Opera Gallery Dubai’s tenth anniversary with Urban Poetry

DIFC’s gallery to bring a stand-out street art exhibition

Music favourite set for November launch in DXB

Ahlan rolls out lounge and meet and greet discounts


Follow us