Abu Dhabi-based entrepreneurs reveal details of their journeys in the business world and offer their advice for anyone thinking of going it alone.
In late November, Abu Dhabi Municipality declared that it was slashing the cost of certificates required by small businesses importing goods from foreign countries.
The announcement was part of the government’s plans to foster economic growth across the country, details of which were revealed earlier in the year as part of a fifty billion dirham stimulus package announced by Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed.
As well as introducing easier visa processes and cheaper regulatory procedures, the new plans also included home working and the ability for small businesses to operate outside of free zones.
The reason for the increased support? Well, small to medium businesses (SMEs) play a huge role in the success of the city’s economy.
Despite the UAE having garnered fame with its skyscrapers, glistening palaces and five star leisure attractions, the backbone of the country’s economy relies on a more humble sector: SMEs.
From offering unique products to personalised services, local businesses also help to keep homegrown money circulating in Abu Dhabi.
For those who do decide to go it alone, the UAE itself is a great source of inspiration, having transformed from a collection of tiny townships to a leading economic hub in the relatively short timeframe of 47 years.
Persistence, diversification, planning and the ability to know when to seize an opportunity are skills that have propelled Abu Dhabi forward in the business world, something that Rita Bains, owner of Glamour Hair Salons, picked up on when she first came to the country over 20 years ago.
“There wasn’t anything quite like Glamour Hair Salons when I arrived in the UAE in 1998,” Rita explains.
“At that time, there were just two small salons that had some British stylists. I took advantage of this niche and made the decision to launch my British-led salon in 2010.”
Striving to fill the gaps in the local hair and beauty industry of the time, Glamour had a unique selling point, something that all SMEs need: “We were delivering world-class customer service with a truly pampering experience for our clients,” explains Rita.
Starting off for similar reasons, Brian Wholehan founded EZ Shade as he noticed a lack of available light covers in the local market.
“I started looking for inexpensive products that would install easily, but every light shade I found was expensive and required someone to install it with wiring and tools,” recalls Brian.
“That’s when I realized I should invent something that clips on to cover the bare lights. After sitting down with my friend, I drew some ideas out on a napkin, and took it from there.”
Though Brian’s business focuses on one simple product, the process of entrepreneurship still had its challenges: “Starting a business anywhere is scary,” confides Brian.
“The beginning was very challenging and it still is. The paperwork process here is confusing and expensive. But the government is starting to make the right moves to help entrepreneurs get started; support is more accessible and the new push for innovation is great.”
For Dzovig Van Kleef, owner of personal shopping and stylist services Service Codes, starting a small business in Abu Dhabi wasn’t initially her plan: “I actually started in Dubai but after a couple of years had to move to Abu Dhabi with my family,” she explains.
“In the beginning, it was difficult to leave behind what I had built up, but fast forward three years, I am very glad to be here.”
Compared to Dubai’s more crowded SME landscape, Dzovig believes that there are more opportunities in Abu Dhabi, as well as less competition.
Something else that puts Abu Dhabi at the forefront of the entrepreneur race is the support from the government, an element of the emirate’s business offerings that has helped owner of Sopranos pizza restaurant, Ghulmiyyah Majed Ghulmiyyah, to no end.
“The positivity and encouragement towards start-ups from the UAE government bodies has been tremendous,” the entrepreneur says.
“It would be great if developers could match the red carpet treatment and social awareness afforded to local entrepreneurs by the government. At the moment, extremely high rental rates set by developers can hinder SME businesses. Local start-ups are what the city needs to continue to drive the country’s economy forward,” he concluded.
Rajeev Lee, founder of online grocery platform bawiq.com, agrees: “Opening a business in the UAE is easy if you follow the detailed guidelines provided by the government.
“Since the government introduced its stimulus package, many of the start-up costs have now been alleviated, which in turn fast tracks a business’s opportunity to reach profitability. All in all, it’s great news for SMEs and entrepreneurs looking to open a business here.”
As well as a host of business support, entrepreneurs also need a strong dose of courage to make their business models a success.
For Dzovig, it’s important not to let fear stand in the way: “Don’t be afraid of trying new things, even if you have never done it before. If you want it, go for it,” says the Dutch mother and stylist.
Ghulmiyyah agrees: “When you find your true passion, you should aim for perfection and not let anything or anyone put you down.”
For Rita, as much as passion is important, she also advises caution and proper planning: “Don’t take a leap of faith. Do your homework, conduct a competitor analysis and ensure you have more than enough budget to build your business,” she warns.
Brian agrees, adding that you need to be prepared for the amount of hours and commitment you’ll need to give your new project: “Starting a business is not a 9-to-5 job, it’s 24/7.”
“Be prepared to give most of your time to the business. Once you have all that sorted and still have the confidence and belief in your idea, make sure you have a support team in place.”
Rajeev adds: “The most important traits that I believe you need in order to be a successful entrepreneur, are to never take no for an answer, be persistent, positive and not be afraid to fail. “You must always be willing to take the risk and if you are going to do it, do it right.”
It’s never going to be an easy ride – as Rita says: “You’re officially an entrepreneur when you’re burning the midnight oil.”
But seeing the customer satisfaction when you’ve delivered a service and successfully turned your passion into your paycheck is something with which our entrepreneurs agree that the nine-to-five grind can’t compete.
Tips to follow
Bernard Lee, co-founder of co-working space and entrepreneurial platform GlassQube, shares valuable tips to help budding business owners manage the process of entrepreneurship.
Test your hypothesis: Always beta test your idea before you go all-in, then iterate or pivot based on the knowledge you accumulate from the test. Your business should be a never-ending series of commercial experiments and subsequent adjustments.
Know when to pivot: Trust the data and commit to making a categorical shift in your business model if necessary.
Have a high tolerance for risk and stress: To be a serious entrepreneur is to live a life filled with commercial and personal risks. This comes with tremendous, intensely unpleasant stress that can last for weeks or months, and can be personally overwhelming. If you don’t love risk and can’t handle intense stress, then the life of an entrepreneur is probably not for you.
Cash is king, sometimes: Underfunded start-ups will always have a higher propensity to fail faster than well funded ones. However, in my opinion, there can be an inflection point at which your business may be underfunded but still makes sense to push forward. This is a key moment where your appetite for risk and stress come into play because sometimes, you just have to play with the hand that you’re dealt.
Hire the right people: Your early hires will not only play a critical role in the commercial success or failure of your business, but they will also represent the cultural foundation of your brand. Make the personal investment upfront to fully vet your potential hires and take your time. I typically take a minimum of three months to vet a potential new hire and meet all hires personally over several formal and informal settings.
WORDS Hayley Skirka and Ferdinand Godinez