When Belgian expat Valerie Reynaert, 44, moved to the UAE in 2003, she recalled how she was easily blown away by the glitz and glamour, like any other new resident. But she also went on to reveal how it was this eye for beauty and lifestyle which she gradually developed into a new business in 2020.
"When I unexpectedly moved to Dubai, I had no idea what to expect from Dubai and what the beauty industry looked like. But it was nearly two decades in the business and beauty space which fuelled a drive to recently launch my first start-up," she revealed.
Born and raised in Belgium, Reynaert started her career as a beauty therapist back in 2000 after having studied at international beauty school Lise Loriot in Brussels. But before she did, she also studied economics, modern languages and even law back in her home country.
When I unexpectedly moved to Dubai, I had no idea what to expect from Dubai and what the beauty industry looked like
Amassing corporate experience before entrepreneurship
In the span of three years, she has held jobs as a training manager for a cosmetics distributor, general manager at US-based wellness provider Soothe Group, where she managed a number of salons, before working as Brand Director at Abu Dhabi-based hair salon chain Nayomi Beauty Salons Middle East.
After also having taken up a master's degree in marketing from Dubai-based Middlesex University in 2013, she held the position of International Business Development Director at The Grooming Company and the role of managing director at Sisters Beauty Lounge, JetSet and Trevor Sorbie Dubai, in 2017.
By adapting to such management-level corporate work practices, Reynaert developed a knack for business and numbers, which later equipped her in setting up her own business. She ventured into entrepreneurship in 2020 in Dubai when starting an advisory platform for salon owners in the region.
What made you quit working management-level corporate jobs?
In her role as a general manager of a chain of hair and beauty salons, she went from running one chain to multiple chains, and later also even setting up a distribution company. “It also taught me how not to run a business, which turned out to be more beneficial than I initially thought,” said Reynaert.
"The corporate culture had unfortunately distanced me from my core vision, so much so that I no longer understood what I was doing there. Mentally, I couldn't continue being a part of it. So, after several years of developing the business I worked at, I quit, and started VR Beauty Consulting."
The business coaching online platform, which is focussed at primarily improving profitability of hair and beauty salons, was launched right at the start of the pandemic, so the core business offering was developed, keeping in mind the online-favouring market dynamics presented by the pandemic.
When people earn more money than back home, they may want to live a better life but may forget how important it is to put money aside
Learn to manage a business by learning to manage money
"For me, it was a friend who had moved back to Belgium after many years in Dubai. When I saw her two years following her move, I asked if she had missed Dubai. She 'replied she was happy in Belgium but had one regret: she hadn't saved more,” said Reynaert.
This was what made her relook at her lifestyle, save money, and invest in her first property. “I am investing more wisely and focusing on finding ways to make money work for me [since].”
“When people earn more money than back home, they may want to live a better life but may forget how important it is to put money aside. We all often go through this till someone wakes us up," added Reynaert, while stressing on the importance of saving even 5 per cent of your income as you begin.
What money management lessons you learnt from your parents?
Her parents were the most prominent example that hard work pays off. "My parents were hairdressers, having run their own salon business for 50 years. They were as fortunate as I am that, early in life, they found their passion and could make their profession out of it,” she added.
"Early on, my parents invested in properties and taught me how important that is because whatever happens, you will always have a roof above your head. I have invested in property in my home country, and I dream and look forward to opening the door to a home I own here in Dubai."
Apart from her parents, Reynaert also said the best-selling book ‘Rich Dad, Poor Dad’ and podcast ‘The Financial Feminist’ helped her manage her money. They have encouraged me to make it a standard practice to immediately transfer a set percentage of all revenues into my savings account."
Early on, my parents invested in properties and taught me how important that is because whatever happens, you will always have a roof above your head
What were your main expenses in starting a business in Dubai?
Reynaert, who financed the initial investment costs of her business from her savings, said she was always on a look-out for low-cost options when it comes to business costs. "For the license, I opted for RAKEZ [Ras Al Khaimah Economic Zone] because, at that time, they were running a promotional offer for women entrepreneurs. Additionally, there were costs for the visa and website."
She managed to also cost-effectively develop her website through a company that believed in her start-up journey. For copywriting, she hired someone on Fiverr and received free support from her friends for brainstorming and designing her logo, editing, branding and developing IG [Instagram] look."
Reynaert detailed out the following expenses when starting out: A one-year freelance permit, plus visa cost of Dh10,042, while the website cost Dh4,725. Copy-writing content cost Dh735, while business cards cost Dh1,000, with the total cost coming to Dh16,502.
Business tip: Learn to adapt to the clients' rapidly varying environments.
"I first had to learn to accommodate rapidly changing customer situations, and move quickly to address that need. This approach led us to develop several services and fixes for a beauty industry that was then navigating through the health crisis," Reynaert explained.
"My work involves a lot of financial analysis of my client's businesses to improve their performance. This can be achieved in various ways, from analysing costs to increasing sales. However, the most common experience is that business owners don't know the small details of their salons' financial performance.
"They know what their salons cost them, and how much revenue it generates, but they do not analyse the cost of sales, percentage of retail sales, profit margins or even net profit performance. These are metrics to identify problem areas for your business. So I spend time working to track these metrics."
My work involves a lot of financial analysis of my client's businesses to improve their performance
Here are four lessons Reynaert learnt in her journey of entrepreneurship:
Lesson #1: In a business, sales are important, but costs drive profit
When sharing her business experience, Reynaert said she witnessed a key problem with some of the salon owners she worked with since launching her platform.
“Your top-line sales can be robust, yet you can still lose money. You have to manage costs actively and constantly to make your business profitable. Managing costs is about training, consistency and discipline by you and your team.”
Lesson #2: Distinguish between ‘must haves’ and ‘nice to haves’
Before investing cash into new resources, Reynaert recommends business owners first working to maximise productivity and profitability from your existing resources.
“I have business owners who work hard to persuade me that they can grow if they have the latest software, a new salon location or more equipment. These I have come to realise are 'nice to have's'."
Lesson #3: Cash-flow must be the number one priority
"You can have clients coming through the door and manage your operations perfectly, but if you don't have cash in the bank to meet your obligations, planned and unplanned, it can close your doors quicker than you could imagine."
It is often said that you should keep three months of cash reserves to keep a business going, but Reynaert said that post-COVID, she believes it's now closer to six months cash reserve. “This is not an easy objective to meet. However, it could make the difference between survival and closure."
Lesson #4: Insure your property and equipment
"Secure a good insurance policy and consider it as buying your 'peace of mind'. It may feel like you are paying money for something you can't see and doesn't generate sales, but believe me, having insurance is good business practice. It will be worth it if things go wrong," she noted.