Dubai: For budding entrepreneurs trying to find their way in the creative industries, the UAE can, at times, seem daunting. But you wouldn't think so, meeting entrepreneurs Ahmad and Rashid Bin Shabib.
The 26-year-old Emirati twins launched Shelter in 2009. They had already developed a reputation for their earlier forays — the brownbag.ae online store, and the Brownbook bi-monthly magazine.
The brothers said the Shelter was a direct response to the lack of creative businesses in Dubai.
Shelter has converted a 40,000 square foot warehouse in Al Quoz to provide office space and support material needed for budding entrepreneurs, from freelance writers, to architects, and bloggers.
The offices, open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, are available to rent for a fraction of the cost of regular office space. "Whether we succeeded or failed was not our core mission, it was to develop something that was truly unique," said Rashid at the Abu Dhabi Forum on Entrepreneurship conference earlier this year.
"When we launched our magazine, we started in the warehouse. From that, we decided to create a working environment in a warehouse for other start-ups.
"What you need to do in order to stimulate the community is to show them role models and success stories." In addition to the actual workspace, Shelter also houses a mini-cinema, a large reception space to hold events, and a café operated by More Cafe.
The promoters' concept is to create a meeting ground for people to share ideas, exhibit their work, and host film screenings, workshops, lectures and corporate events.
The brothers said that as awareness of the Shelter increased, so had the footfall with more businesses — and their owners — using it for its intended purpose.
"The long-term vision of Shelter is very simple — we wanted to figure out the mechanism to jump start a business without over regulating or anything that might hamper [the owner's] creativity," Ahmad said. "We wanted to inspire these start-up guys and give them a good environment."
The UAE telecom operator du had a vital role to play in the launch of Shelter as part of its own corporate social responsibility programme. Hala Badri, executive vice-president for corporate communications at du said: "Working together with Rashid and Ahmad Bin Shabib, we are creating a suitable business incubation environment for SMEs [small and medium enterprises] and providing the right impetus to career development and opportunities for UAE nationals".
The brothers insisted Shelter was never created to generate major profits, but had covered its costs since it started. "How can you monetise a cultural concept?" Ahmad added.
After gaining a strong foothold in Dubai, the brothers said they were working to take the concept to other emirates. A Shelter in Sharjah had already opened, and a third, for Abu Dhabi, was on the way. "Sharjah for us is a commercial exercise," Ahmad said.
"They approached us and wanted to plug this model and generate more contact. The Sharjah Shelter is moving along. It's as slow as Dubai was at the beginning, but it's picking up. The community there is incredibly small and we're trying to figure out how to get the students on board."
With its business model running well in the UAE, the prospects for extending it to other Gulf cities are looking good. There's no stopping these brothers.
It was in 2006 that the brownbag.ae online shopping portal was launched. The site, catering to shoppers in the UAE, has set itself a goal of selling and delivering more than 3,000 products within an hour.
This was followed a year later by brownbook.ae, a bi-monthly magazine that publishes articles on lifestyle, art and culture articles to challenge preconceptions about the area.
"When we started brownbag it was doing well, but it wasn't a cash card and didn't generate much income," said Ahmad Bin Shabib at the Abu Dhabi conference earlier this year.
"So we moved from that to Brownbook magazine which now sells copies in New York, London and Hong Kong. Brownbag was successful... has gotten major endorsements which are very important... where people are not stigmatising the Middle East.
Top 5 tips
• Have a strong and healthy routine
• Set annual budgets from the start so you know you're not spending too much
• Don't let the business take over completely. Dedicate some time during the day to read and educate yourself about new things
• People tend to think that they own their own business. It's the customers that own the business and it's important to give ownership back to them; and
• Don't compare yourself to others. Once you start comparing yourself to others, you start to lose track of where you are. Focus on what's important.