Once a spender, now a business owner: UAE national Houda A. Rahman walks us through her entrepreneurial journey. Image Credit: Supplied

Dubai: Long before UAE national Houda A. Rahman entered the entrepreneurial ecosystem and prided herself in becoming her own boss in Dubai, there was a time she preferred spending to saving.

“I'm someone who has always liked to spend. I didn't save a lot of money. When I started my business, I could have had more capital, if I had the foresight of saving,” shared Houda, as she recalled starting ‘Thowby’, a Dubai-based online boutique for abayas - traditional women’s clothing.

“Nevertheless, after a period of time, you adapt to the routine and begin calculating and managing finances better. As a business owner, you always have a lot on your shoulders, and with time, you eventually acquire the skills you need to manage things from start to finish.”

With an increasing number of women nowadays opting for a more stylish and modern adaptation of abayas, across different cultures and backgrounds, Houda was able to build a successful retail business despite launching it in a pandemic setting. Here’s a detailed breakdown on how she went about it.

How much did it cost to start your business?

“I initially began the business with about Dh700,000. That helped me cover costs for employees, rent, and the right resources vis-a-vis the sourcing of material, the right machinery and my production factory,” Houda revealed.

“At the start of the business, I hired freelancers, since I know I cannot recruit a full core team for every function in the business due to cost implications. The key to hiring freelancers is to find the right freelancer with a calibre to support your business, which took me a lot of searching but it was worth it in the end.”

How did you fund the initial investment?

The initial investment for Houda’s business came from her savings and also from external sources of funding. “These outside investments were from investors who were contacts I had made during my pre-start-up days,” Houda added.

“My work experience proved to be a springboard for me to start my own business. Banking on the skills that were built over 15 years of my career at managerial jobs, I put it all together for my start-up.”

Houda’s retail business is part of the small and medium enterprise (SME) sector, a market that the Dubai Economy agency is tasked with developing. The Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum Foundation (MBRF), which her business is a member of, also provides support to the business.

What were some challenges you faced when starting?

She was very particular about how she wanted to represent business’ brand, which is why it took time for her to get things in motion.

“The biggest challenge was all the firsts; how to put together the first collection, how to present it to the world, what would be the first impression of the brand. It was important for me to get everything just right,” Houda further explained.

“During the early stages especially, I had to be closely involved with every step of the process. This is something I still make sure to do. We prepared the first collection and launched it with a fashion show. The concept worked well for us.”

Houda recalls starting ‘Thowby’, a Dubai-based online boutique for abayas - traditional women’s clothing. Picture used for illustrative purposes.

Houda’s second challenge as a retailer was finding the right market for the right audience, the right platforms and the right channels. The motive was to reach potential buyers to whom the brand can sell and serve.

“We already had consignments with multi-brand boutiques and exhibitions in the UAE. Taking an e-commerce route was a second solution for us. It gave us a platform to reach a global audience and reach far and wide with our vision for fashion.”

Despite the years of work experience Houda had at various administrative levels, she still faced challenges each step of the way to get her business up and running, given that an entrepreneur has to be apprised with every single movement in their business, know the brand in and out and stay up to speed with everything.

“For instance, you have to scout for photoshoots, go out and connect with the right resources, network with resource persons who can bring something to the table, build a team that is synced with your financial provisions and professional requirements. The list is never-ending. Attention to detail is significant,” she added.

What are your operating expenses on a monthly basis?

“The boutique is now five years old. As we grew in size and operations expanded, so did our expenses and our customer base,” revealed Houda.

What she ensured throughout, though, is that the business breaks even. “By doing that, you keep your business standing. Operating a business during the pandemic was a major challenge. Even so, I tried to abide by the break-even mantra by reducing costs wherever I could.

“To cope, I added changes to my business model. I am proud to say even under the harsh conditions during the pandemic, I didn't have to let go of any employee. There were some temporary salary cuts, yes, but we’re back on regular payrolls now.”

In light of the market’s economic circumstances, Houda tweaked the range of the business’ abaya prices to encourage sales.

“I personally looked after my existing clientele, building on the loyalty that runs mutually. Right from the moment an order is placed to the time there is satisfaction on both ends, customer service is something we focus our efforts on and we have garnered appreciation for it consistently,” added Houda.

Any final tips to help entrepreneurs start a business on their own?

“The first is knowing what you want to do. Believe that it will come to fruition, even though it might take time. Prior to starting a business, it is best to educate yourself about the market and the product you want to add to it. What is your vision?” noted Houda.

“Once you know you are passionate and have conviction in your idea, the first door is already unlocked. The next steps will be to develop a strategy that will pave the way to your goals. Consider challenges to be a ladder. Be persistent as you climb every step, and once you get to the top, the reward is worth it.”