Starting from 'zero' is familiar to Maen Al Habahbeh. After all, he has done it three times. The entrepreneur in the tourism sector is now the owner of multiple businesses. But this journey wasn’t easy.
In 2002, at the age of 22, Al Habahbeh moved from a quiet, mountainous town in the south of Jordan, 20 metres away from the ancient city of Petra to the European country of Hungary.
At the time, there was barely much he knew about the city he was about to move to, Budapest, but he moved there for better opportunities and to marry his Hungarian wife.
“At that time, [society] was a bit closed and we had more information about western European countries, and not eastern European countries, such as Hungary,” he said.
As soon as he arrived, he had to get a job and get acquainted with the culture and more importantly, the language to survive in the land.
He soon found a job at an airline, where he was needed for his Arabic speaking skills. However, Al Habahbeh was never satisfied working in a nine-to-five job and after almost a decade, he decided it was time to start something of his own. Something where he could be “creative”.
Starting a business felt natural
“I felt limited at the job and there was no growth. I needed something where I could be creative and I wanted a higher, bigger career,” the 42-year-old told Gulf News.
“I didn’t prefer getting a new job either, I just knew I had to start my own business,” he added.
Al Habahbeh had saved up money while working. He used all his savings of 100,000 euros (Dh403,146) to start a small business.
“I started with a 24-hour grocery, which I operated for two years. I introduced food items, fruits, and vegetables from the Middle East region,” he said.
“I realised I did not like what I was doing. I made a complete loss with the grocery business and gifted the store to my friend,” he added.
I realised I did not like what I was doing. I made a complete loss with the grocery business and gifted the store to my friend.
While understanding the importance of doing what he likes, he also learnt more about the practicalities of running a business in Budapest. “I learnt a lot from the grocery business. For example, I realised with a business like this, having an imports and exports business [simultaneously] is needed. Also, it’s better to be done in a country with a coastline,” he added.
After giving away the store, he went on a short vacation to think of his next venture. Working at an office was not an option. “I went for a two-week hiatus and thought of what I could do next,” he said.
A travel business that focuses on customising people’s visits to Hungary and other parts of Europe made complete sense. It involved problem solving and being creative with the planning of the trips, a skill Al Habahbeh thought was underutilised at his previous job.
“In business, I can change and grow, I can be moving and always growing. Sometimes when people talk about an issue, they get stuck on that. I try to think of a solution immediately, this is how my brain works. For instance, when someone comes to me and says I’m thinking about visiting Hungary, but it won’t be enough. I start to think: ‘You can do all this, you can travel to Vienna…’,” he said.
Starting a travel business
He was again at zero. At least money wise. But he finally had an idea that was the beginning of his success. He started a travel business and called it Yalla Budapest.
The business revolved around helping Arab tourists visit Hungary and navigating their trips, something Al Habahbeh knew everything about at this point.
“I remember when I started Yalla Budapest, I had no money. I had maybe 25 euros (Dh100). It was a very bad situation at that time,” he said.
However, he used his strengths to take things forward. “I knew the culture, and history of the country and spoke the language 90 per cent as a local, as my friends like to say, so people knew to contact Maen, and he would do everything for them,” he said.
Funding and growing slowly
“In 2013, I took a loan of 5000 euros (Dh20,000) from a friend. I got a used PC and used furniture. I rented a small office and started the company,” he said.
The business slowly grew and the only marketing tool he employed was word of mouth.
“Within 6 months I could stand up again. I got stable enough to get 2 to 3 employees. In 2015, I was able to open my office in Dubai,” he said.
Coming to Dubai
Al Habahbeh visited Dubai for the first time to take part in the Arabian Travel Market exhibition for professionals in the tourism sector. Soon after, he knew that expanding his business to Dubai was his next move.
“I travelled back and forth between Hungary and the UAE. Even now, I come at least once a month. I used social media like Instagram and Facebook to promote the business.
"Business in Dubai is one of the biggest and best in the world. Business in Dubai has always been good. Even in COVID-19, we couldn’t go anywhere in the world, only to Dubai,” he said.
Speaking about how the UAE promotes entrepreneurship, he said: “They always have options and help businesses grow, have a good income, that’s why Dubai is very important to us.”
Once again, down to zero
In 2020, Al Habahbeh’s business was a well reputed name in the travel industry in Hungary, specialising in clients coming from the Middle East. Then, the COVID-19 pandemic hit, impacting the tourism sector across the globe.
According to the research website, economicsobservatory.com, between January and October 2020, the pandemic triggered a 70 per cent decline in international tourist arrivals compared with the same period in 2019.
And Al Habahbeh’s business was also impacted. He once again found himself at zero. “I just thought that starting from zero, I have done it three times in my life, so I have a good experience, he said.
“We had zero income and a lot of costs. I had to sell a lot of cars, close offices. I did not let any of my employees go, so that was a high cost to pay all the salaries,” he added.
However, he used this challenge as a lesson for the future. “I learnt a lot from it [the pandemic]. Now I have a real estate business and more. I have learnt from COVID-19 that we need to have a plan B, C, and D. It is not enough to only have a plan B,” he said.
“After recovering from the pandemic's impact, I started a lot of small businesses. I started a beauty salon and an apartment hotel in case of [an] emergency. For those who can, and have the energy, time, and of course, money, I suggest having options always. Don’t put all your eggs in one basket,” he said.
He also managed to reopen the closed offices after recovering from the pandemic and renamed his company ‘Budapest With Me’ for a more personal feel. “People come to me personally to plan their trip, so I named it that,” he said.
After multiple ventures, failures, successes, and learning opportunities, Al Habahbeh now owns businesses not only in Hungary and in the UAE but also in Qatar and Algeria. He manages around 11 employees across those businesses and has made multiple people’s trips to Hungary and beyond, a success.
For those looking to start their own business, Al Habahbeh shared his advice. “The first step would be that they must start thinking about doing what they like. Whether they can do it for a long time or not. I learnt that from the grocery business. I did not enjoy that field and that’s why I couldn’t do my best there. From that moment, I moved to only something that I’d like and do it for a long time, so I don’t just get income [from it] but also enjoy doing it,” he said.