Sally Corander | INTERACT EVENTS 

Sally Corander combined years of experience as a conference professional with a passion for sport to set up a boutique of sporting events and businesses. Her biggest success so far has been the Dubai Dash, the UAE’s first annual corporate relay running race in December last year, where 45 companies participated in teams of 10.

The 35-year-old Briton launched Interact Events in March 2014 with a licence from Meydan Freezone. “I’ve worked in conferences and events for over a decade and I’m particularly passionate about the sport industry,” she says. “Prior to starting up Interact, I was heading up the sports and yachting conference division at a global company. I launched Interact because I saw an opportunity to bring together similarly passionate people, together with the relevant authorities (in this case the Sports Councils), to drive new initiatives and effect positive change in the industry. Improving the sport ecosystem and increasing participation in sport, especially at a community level, ultimately benefit all of us.”

Making the leap to entrepreneur was difficult, she says. “I thought about it for over a year beforehand. I sought advice from friends and industry contacts. But most of all I asked people I knew who had made similar decisions. Nobody I spoke to said they regretted it. That was what finally swayed me.”

Among her earliest successes was a series of Sport Industry Forums, organised with the support of the respective Sports Councils in Dubai and Abu Dhabi. “They were closed door, without press, so people felt encouraged to speak freely. They were and I believe still are well received,” she says. 

Launching the Dubai Dash after that also tested her personally. “It was a lot of fun but hard work. My daughter Sophie was born in July that year, which meant that I experienced my first six months of parenthood while putting together the Dash. She often accompanied me on site visits, much to the surprise of suppliers!”

It wasn’t easy, however: early funds came from her own savings and she used her credit card if she needed to. Bank funding wasn’t a serious option for her: “After making initial enquiries I could see it wasn’t going anywhere. They are notoriously difficult. I’ve attended conferences and seminars for small business owners and it’s a common complaint from everybody that banks don’t support small enterprises in the way they should.”

After investing a total of Dh70,000, she says she made enough money from her business activities to carry on. “I’m not actively looking for funding. That said, I’ve been approached twice recently by groups wanting to buy into the business as a partner,” she says. 

Biggest lesson: Focus on your goals. Chasing too many unrealistic opportunities without focus negatively impacted the business, she says. “It impacted my time spent on high-value activities.” 

Michele Grosso | DEMOCRANCE

Democrance was founded in 2015 with the aim of bringing insurance to those who need it most. The fintech platform aims to reach 350 million under-insured low-income earners in the Middle East over mobile phones, with premiums as low as Dh1-Dh2 a week. 

“On average, each person possesses 1.1 mobile phones in the region,” says Michele Grosso, the company’s founder and CEO, an Italian national who has worked with brands such as AXA and MetLife in France, Egypt and the UAE. “Through that phone they can purchase, pay for and use insurance. It took a lot of work to redesign the whole insurance value chain around the mobile phone, but our proprietary technology is now ready to disrupt the centuries-old insurance industry.” 

Grosso, who invested $150,000 (Dh550,942) of his own savings and borrowed money to get the platform up and running, didn’t even try going to banks for a loan. “I knew I wouldn’t get it. Start-ups all over cannot access traditional loans as banks consider them too risky a class to lend to. 

This holds especially true in the Middle East, where even established SMEs have troubles finding funding.” 

The DMCC-licensed company has had enough early successes to recently start a seed round of funding. Over the next five years, Grosso, 30, expects to offer more products through an increased roster of distribution partners and he wants to expand beyond Middle East and Africa. 

Biggest lesson: Passion counts for a lot. “It takes a lot of passion, passion and some more passion. Focus, stamina and some luck help too.”

Geet Bhalla and Digvijay Pratap | HOLIDAYME 

The travel boom led Indian nationals Digvijay Pratap and Geet Bhalla to launch an online booking engine for travellers in 2014. The duo secured $7 million (Dh25.7 million) in a second round of funding this month, after an earlier tranche of $4 million. The website, HolidayMe, lets consumers design and book holiday packages, hotels, flights and sightseeing activities all over the world with confirmations in real time, says Bhalla, 38. It has served more than 50,000 customers since its launch. 

“We were disappointed with the websites in the Middle East. Traditional travel websites were cumbersome, rarely provided what the customers were looking for and the overall experience was disappointing.”

Starting out was tough: they operated from a room in Dubai, with the money to pay for licences and set-up costs — between $75,000 and $80,000 — furnished by themselves. 

The other biggest challenge lay in attracting talent. “It was difficult to convince top tech professionals to even come and interview for us. But, our persistence and vision persuaded them. From starting off with three employees, we are now a team of more than 120 professionals.”

The DMCC-licensed company now aims to become the largest holiday provider in the Middle East. 

Biggest lesson: You gotta believe. “[Quitting] the comforts of our established, well-paying jobs to become entrepreneurs with a vision in a new market was a tremendous leap of faith. But from the outset we were convinced of our idea and we knew it was the right thing to do.”

Waldemar Buttner | ABIYA

The pretty mashrabiyas that you see on UAE buildings could be made right here, in Ras Al Khaimah. 

The specialist manufacturer Abiya has been operating out of the RAK Free Trade Zone since November 2013 and has supplied construction panels featuring the popular Middle Eastern designs to projects such as the Dubai Chamber of Commerce and Nurai Island Resorts. The self-funded company was recently named the fastest-growing business in the zone among 8,000 entities.

Waldemar Buttner, a 32-year-old German, hit on the idea in dealings with UAE government bodies as an architectural consultant. He says the guidelines from UAE authorities suggest using local architectural elements in modern architecture. “Mashrabiya, fretwork, jali and decorative screens are a great way to comply with these requirements,” he says. 

Along the way, he’s learned several lessons. Dealing with local suppliers can be a nightmare, for instance. “Suppliers are in the market for many years, but their approach can be very trivial. Their commitment to time is ridiculous. Their prices change from day to day. The quality is poor,” he says. “We turned a misery into our competitive advantage by shifting processes in-house.”

Biggest lesson: Be your own person. “In business, everybody has a thought, opinion or comment and it’s important to develop a strong mind, determination and have a willingness to overcome adversity,” he says.