Business | Features

Who Dares Wins

Entrepreneurs, and the small businesses they engender, are the lifeblood of the new economy where emphasis is slowly shifting to the hyper local. With products and services specifically targeted to the communal markets they serve, startups are often responsible for catalysing not just pecuniary well-being but also cultures and sub-cultures. Despite the cards being sometimes stacked against them, several young entrepreneurs in Dubai have started viable businesses through dint of competence and persistence.

  • By Hisham Wyne, freelance writer, 4Men
  • Published: 00:00 October 1, 2010
  • 4Men

  • Image Credit: Supplied

Sohrab Jahanbani
COO and co-founder, GoNabit

Jahanbani is one of those arcane people typically identified as ‘serial entrepreneurs' - people whose life is an endless iteration of identified opportunities and niche ideas.

Jahanbani, a British citizen, has been in Dubai for less than three years, but that hasn't hampered his enterprising ways. Together with Canadian business partner Dan Stuart, he has already set up GoNabit, an e-commerce portal that leverages the power of group purchases. Not surprising, considering that Jahanbani has a track record of spawning businesses where he goes.

Jahanbani recalls his first meeting with Stuart. "I had started pitching ideas on group buying daily deals to a few people in Dubai, when I was told that someone called Dan Stuart had also hit on the idea. Coincidentally, I ran into him at a dinner party that night and we got talking."

The result of their collaboration is a portal offering a marketing and sales tool for small firms and entrepreneurs.

The GoNabit model is simplicity itself. Small businesses are invited to include GoNabit in their marketing mix on a no-win, no fee principle. There is no upfront risk, as GoNabit clients pay according to the sales the portal generates for them. For consumers, the value lies in exploring daily deals, hidden gems and leveraging the power of group buys to achieve sizeable discounts.

GoNabit launched on May 26, 2010 in Dubai and June 26 in Abu Dhabi. Jahanbani says the portals have already closed over 90 deals, saving consumers more than Dh700,000 in the process. When asked what the future may hold for GoNabit, Jahanbani says the success of the business stems from its local focus and its commitment to promoting each deal. Offering too many deals would dilute focus, and hence efficacy.

The solution, he believes, is to go hyper-local, for instance, setting up discrete sites for deals in old and new Dubai. In addition, Jahanbani foresees expansion to other leading cities in the GCC region fairly soon.

Danish Farhan
CEO, Xiche

Ask Danish Farhan why he chose to become an entrepreneur and he shrugs wryly, saying "I knew how to do little else." The autodidactic CEO of Xiche may have a point. He did the rounds of the London Film School, American University of Dubai and American University of Sharjah before realising academia was perhaps not his forte. He worked with Emirates Airlines for three years, after which he took on a research and forecasting role with IBM at 18. According to him, Xiche was set up to "help businesses answer the very questions I had been asking them in my role as researcher."

But Xiche was almost the victim of its own success. It expanded rapidly, and was acquired by once-client Future Pipelines. Soon, Farhan found himself being marginalised and the company he founded being taken in directions he did not like. Eventually he decided to exit, keeping the brand name he had legally registered. In 2004, Farhan decided to rebuild Xiche. He had learnt his lesson and decided to grow organically. He has never had more than 20 people on the payroll since, and is anxious not to lose the intimacy and flexibly his small business offers.

While Xiche may have the soul and spirit of a small boutique consultancy, it boasts a healthy turnover of over $11 million per annum. With concerns including a technology house and an interior design company, the group does over $20 million in business a year.

Farhan is determined to keep thinking big by thinking small. He makes clear that Xiche is not a supplier for its clients but a representative that manages suppliers on the clients' behalf. He says, Xiche is a hybrid consultancy because it combines three basic tenets of business: the strategy that is the core of the business, the brand, which is the strategy manifesting through tangible and intangible artefacts and sprinkles of facilitating technology.

Fellow businessperson, ex-client and former senior vice-president of Internet Pictures Corporation (iPix) Tim Brookes, says that Farhan, originally from India, has been impeccable in maintaining a people-centric innovative streak.

"It's been interesting to say the least watching this young man and his firm consistently stay ahead of the curve for almost a decade now."

Mohammad Al Awadi
Co-Owner, Wild Peeta

"All foods undergo evolution, but this didn't seem the case with the shawarma," explains Mohammad Al Awadi. He says the goal was to offer the shawarma its rightful place in international cuisine, which led to the idea of fusion restaurant Wild Peeta.

Mohammad and his brother Peyman contacted malls to ask for space confident the high footfall would translate into promising sales. Al Awadi notes, with a hint of annoyed disappointment, that they never received a reply; at least not in the affirmative. He professes to not comprehend this disdain for new business ideas. Malls had empty spaces, he explains, and were not cash strapped. A new culinary venture had very little in the way of risk, yet there was no interest in the creation of something new and local.

After trying for a decade, the brothers revised their business plan. They decided to operate as a delivery business, and moved into a restaurant space in Healthcare City, where rents were competitive and the location central. Al Awadi notes that the Shaikh Mohammad Bin Rashid Establishment for Small and Medium Size Enterprises was very supportive. They offered to fund 30 per cent of the business and the enterprising brothers invested over Dh600,000 of their own savings to get their idea off the ground.

Their travails had not as yet concluded. A few months after opening, Wild Peeta suffered massive flooding that caused havoc. The business was insured, but Al Awadi recalls having to "dog the insurance company" for a payout. During this time, the Al Awadi brothers continued paying staff salaries. Al Awadi insists, "Looking after the staff is a priority. It's important to be ethical in business." Wild Peeta was up and running again after four months.

With brisk business, Wild Peeta is now heading down the expansion trail. Two new outlets are planned in Dubai, with Abu Dhabi and other emirates next on the agenda. The brothers are looking for a franchise licensing scheme where operators can access expertise, recipes and proprietary information for a licence fee estimated at Dh300,000 a year.

Ashraf Ghori
Founder, Xpanse

Ashraf Ghori started out as an artist and illustrator who drew and scripted comic books. In his current guise as entrepreneur, he has not moved too far from his initial passion.

Ghori has been mostly self-employed as a 3-D animator during his time in Dubai. When his freelance ways could no longer keep pace with demand, he started Xpanse in 2007. It's a tight-knit community of four people, offering animation for websites, concept designs, walk-throughs and television commercials. Xpanse is doing sufficiently well to generate revenues that can be diverted to Ghori's first passion: sci-fi superheroes.

"Xpanse's success gave me the means to actually put together plans for Dubai's first animated sci-fi film," he explains.

The initial script, about a time travelling cyborg charged with recording important historical events, was a bit ambitious. Hence, Ghori pared it down to an eight-minute short film called Levity: Xero Error, which is one of the events witnessed by his temporally displaced historian. Ghori has been to the Cannes Film Festival to showcase his short film, and is now looking for funds to extend the concept to feature length. "If technological prowess and imagination is at hand, one has almost a duty to express oneself," he says. He is working on a new script, FOB city, whose subject matter centres around expatriate kids growing up in a city very similar to Dubai.

While Ghori's films stem from the love of the sci-fi genre, he feels his projects are commercially viable and will eventually do well. At the same time, Xpanse is also expanding by focusing on very high quality animation at affordable prices. Ghori feels the new wave of advertisement is heavily reliant on online animations that can capture attention, and that Xpanse stands poised to deliver.

Farhan of Xiche agrees. "I've known Ashraf for over a decade, and it wasn't always for business. One doesn't need to look further than him to see the key to success is in the passion," says Farhan.

"Over the last ten years, besides building one of the most creative animation outfits around, he has built immense goodwill among his peers and clients that is possibly unrivalled in this business," he adds

Mohammad Abedin
Founder, The Foo Dog

Mohammed Abedin combines student life with a penchant for comic books and conceptual art. It was when Dubai Men's College flew him to Japan as a cultural ambassador that he realised a latent love affair with quirky Japanese toys and anime.

That initial impetus led to the creation of The Foo Dog, a company that supplies eight-inch vinyl dolls to artists, painters and customisers. The Japanese-inspired dolls are essentially a canvas in 3-D, offering a form of self-expression not restricted to the ubiquitous uniformity of traditional canvas.

Abedin says the only way to learn the intricacies of entrepreneur activity is through trials and travails. He designed his MEGA doll, and then commenced the search for a manufacturer in China to produce in bulk according to his exacting specifications. Umpteen video demonstrations and emails later, Abedin received his first prototype. He also acquired a license, available to Emiratis from the Dubai Department of Economic Development (DED) for approximately Dh1,600 a year, to run a business from home. He decided an exhibition of customised dolls followed by an auction was an appropriate launch, and set about recruiting artists. "I gave them the MEGA vinyl doll at no cost, and asked them to customise it. The artists kept the auction proceeds. I decided on a hundred artists, including a baker, an illustrator and a photographer. It was a showcase of diverse urban talent," he says.

Emirati columnist and commentator Sultan Al Qassemi is Abedin's mentor and former teacher. He notes that Abedin always had a penchant for exploring expression through illustration.

"In Entrepreneurship class I noticed that Mohammed would stay in during the breaks and work on sketches of a characters that were inspired by various cultures and themes. He has gone about starting his own business in record time after graduating which reflects the clear thought process he had in mind," says Al Qassemi. "Mohammed will go on to be one of the most influential young artistic entrepreneurs in the UAE since he not only pursued his dream but through a creative collaboration process with other artists gave his peers an opportunity to create and so turn their own dreams into reality."

He is well on his way, with a larger version of the MEGA in the works, and invitations to shows in London and New York to showcase customised toys. He is helping the artist community, and considers himself a member. But the MEGA dolls, retailing at Virgin Megastores for Dh149 a piece, will only generate sufficient revenue to cover sunk costs by 2011.

"The only way to learn to be an entrepreneur is to be an entrepreneur. Others can help and advise, but you only really learn your business by going about it. Tenacity, persistence and a sense of humour are essential," says Abedin.

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