Saher Bhatti, 32, a UAE-based British expat, recalls how practising law taught her to be realistic and accept detours in her entrepreneurial journey. Image Credit: Supplied

“Perceive rejection as redirection,” said Saher Bhatti, 32, a UAE-based British expat, as she recalled how practising law taught her to be realistic and accept that detours and re-routing are highly likely to happen when setting ambitious goals.

Her career as a lawyer made her resilient and persistent. Like the business world, she said the law field is demanding, involving many knockbacks and challenging times (along with late nights and lots of coffee). Therefore, maintaining a 'when' and 'never if' mind-set helped her be focused and grounded even during difficult times.

She has learned not to waste time and money from a young age and practised saving money. "From my part-time jobs before working as a lawyer, I managed to save at least 10 per cent of my earnings to cover unexpected outgoings. I've adopted this approach in business as well, always trying to save or reinvest the money to continually grow the company in a lean, efficient manner and reduce risk."

Before starting her business in the fashion industry, she worked as a commercial lawyer in London.

Bhatti worked in London for a few years before pursuing her first business venture. "Before launching Lawful London, I didn't have any business experience; however, having worked in London at an international firm, I gained a broad understanding of various types of businesses of different sizes and from multiple industries.

As a lawyer, I worked in many industries, and although I didn't have specific experience in launching a retail business, I always gravitated towards working with fashion and e-commerce brands

- Saher Bhatti

"As a lawyer, I worked in many industries, including those in the finance, technology, pharmaceutical and marketing sectors. However, I always gravitated towards working with fashion and e-commerce brands. This helped me recognise my passion from an early stage in my career and ultimately led me to set up a business in this area.

"Although I didn't have specific experience in launching a retail business, I did have experience working with fashion and e-commerce brands. Working with such brands in a legal capacity helped develop my general commercial awareness and exposed the challenges and objectives of companies of this nature."

The idea to set up a business in handbags only came from her need and struggles.

When working in London, Bhatti commuted for over an hour a day, carrying all her business essentials and change of shoes needed on her journey. However, she struggled to find suitable work bags that were durable and thoughtfully designed with a minimal appearance for use in a corporate environment.

She observed and identified a gap in the market in the form of minimalist and work-appropriate handbags that were explicitly designed for the working woman. She said that a woman needed to carry (amongst other things) a laptop, notebook, drinks bottle, and shoes when on the go but wanted something versatile and mid-market suitable for daily use.

Bhatti found the bags currently available on the market either lacked functionality and style or were retailed at an excessively high price point. This inspired her to create a specifically designed brand for the modern woman who wanted a mid-market functional product without compromising style.

Saher Bhatti always focused on keeping the business lean by not launching multiple products or ranges since the brand is still in infancy.

Bhatti invested her savings in starting the business.

The initial capital she put into the company's launch in the UK in 2019 was Dh117,900 (GBP25,000). "This covered costs for product design services, making of prototypes, trialling different factories to assess product quality, website design, marketing and the first bulk stock order, including shipping to the UK. Besides the initial stock order to the UK, which totalled roughly Dh56,592 (GBP12,000), which included shipping by ocean freight to UK, duties and taxes, the most considerable expense related to product design and marketing."

Bhatti’s brand has grown over the last two years, and she used the capital from the company's organic growth to expand into the Middle East.

"The initial expense of Middle East expansion is obtaining the trade license and registering the company name; this equated to roughly Dh23,408 (GBP5,000). To be efficient in the Middle East, we also needed to set up logistics cost-effectively to ensure that we maintained the quality of the products and service to a high standard despite customer orders now being handled by a local third party.

"Therefore, we met with a range of third-party logistics providers in UAE to find a centre that could dispatch our products in the Middle East and who was also able to offer same-day shipping and cash on delivery for our customers."

They chose to work with a fulfilment centre called IQ Fulfilment, the first robotic fulfilment centre in UAE that offers a personal and tailored approach to businesses.

Bhatti added that working in the UAE is particularly lucrative compared with the other markets they operate in. It has significantly lower tax rates (just 5 per cent VAT), making it a commercially more profitable region and less burdensome from an administrative perspective. "The reduced tax liability in this region has assisted cash flow and enabled us to grow in a way that we haven't yet been able to do in UK and EU, partly due to higher outgoings attributed to tax in these respective markets.

The reduced tax liability in this region has assisted cash flow and enabled us to grow in a way that we haven't yet been able to do in UK and EU

- Saher Bhatti

"Our Dubai business, for example, has enabled us to fund our upcoming new collection launch event scheduled for June. We haven't hosted any brand events in other markets, as we don't have sufficient capital to fund this and our current overheads."

Four lessons Saher Bhatti shared from her journey into entrepreneurship

Lesson #1: Focus on your niche business idea, and deliver the highest quality product.

Bhatti always focused on keeping the business lean by not launching multiple products or ranges since the brand is still in infancy.

"We have only launched one collection of products, available in limited classic colours. Therefore, our initial focus has been on one area to ensure that these products are of the highest quality and manufactured in the best possible way before expanding the range and exploring new styles.

"For the initial collection, we didn't want to launch products which were too daring from the outset and for which there was no market validation. We selected products which were classic in style as we knew they were already popular in the mainstream market – such as the ‘east/west tote’ style.

"However, we chose to differentiate the products mainly from the interior functionality perspective rather than the silhouette and measured the success of these products before considering more versatile and less traditional handbag styles.

"We are also committed to not holding too much stock at any one time – we order little and often, which has helped us with cash flow and reduced our risk."

The idea to set up a business in handbags only came from Saher Bhatti's need and struggles.

Lesson #2: Success is not an overnight story, but growth occurs gradually.

Bhatti saw companies of all sizes growing incrementally during her career as a lawyer. "They were all very successful businesses, but they weren't successful overnight – I learnt that every business story is unique. The overnight success story was years in the making with lots of bumps along the way.

"As our brand has grown and received market validation, we have partnered with fulfilment centres globally to service the customer base cost-effectively and are now in a position to start increasing our order volumes and incrementally scale up."

Bhatti has worked alongside several companies going through funding rounds or receiving large sums of debt financing to promote their business ventures. She added that for growing efficiently, spending decisions should continue to be made in a calculated manner and with the same degree of care as when you bootstrapped the business at the beginning.

Lesson #3: Cash flow is vital when running a business.

Bhatti added that one should stagger large outgoings when investment is absent to ensure that cash flow is optimal to cover random and reoccurring (sometimes unexpected) costs.

"We have adopted a lean strategy from the beginning whereby only limited large outgoings such as bulk stock orders, storage cost renewals, and campaign photoshoots are planned at any one time. This allowed us to have sufficient funds available for month-to-month running costs."

She added that one should not feel the pressure of conforming to other brands and their way of doing things. "A particular strategy that has worked for one brand; for example, doesn't mean it will work for yours or is even suitable for your brand. It's your journey, brand, and direction, and you know it better than anyone, so trust your instincts, and if something doesn't feel quite right for your brand, it's ok to pivot and explore other options."

Moreover, she considered long-term planning is vital in deciding when/what to invest in, and you must check what has already worked well. She added that if you know that a particular feature, for example, has historically worked well for the brand, then creating a product which includes that feature within a new style could be a sensible approach for a new product.

She also stated that distinguishing what hasn't worked so well is also essential to remove it from plans and designs for the brand's long-term success, helping you keep the business lean and avoid costly stock purchases.

Lesson #4: Listening to those who have already expressed an interest in your products (with existing customers) can derive value.

Bhatti said that they are a warm audience; their voice is particularly influential when making upcoming product decisions because they have not yet purchased. "There could be a fundamental and common reason they have not yet converted, such as a missing component from the product. Gaining feedback from this audience is essential when considering product investment and new designs, and addressing this could yield great results."