Despite their respective experiences of early life financial struggles, performing artists and theatre producers Ella Louvaine Spira and Pietra De Mello Pittman feel that overcoming financial inhibitions is crucial when you decide to start a business. However, they also strongly believe in spending wisely and doing the required due diligence before forming partnerships and “jumping” on business opportunities.
Spira is the eldest of six siblings and didn’t grow up in a financially privileged setup although her great grandparents were successful businesspeople in Poland. But the business fell casualty to World War II. Severely traumatised, the surviving members of her family had to start all over again in England and rebuild their lives bit by bit.
On the other hand, Pittman hailed from a middle-class family where her grandmother financially supported her to attend a private school in England, and that’s where her love for ballet was nurtured. At the age of 16 she took up her first job to save enough to buy her ballet shoes when she got accepted into the Royal Ballet School with a grant.
What brought Spira and Pittman together is a strong urge to explore, practiSe and popularise socially relevant and cross-cultural performing arts through multi-disciplinary collaborations. With an urge “to create a legacy” that will outlive them they set up their first venture - Sisters Grimm in the UK in 2009, followed by their production company Pietra & Ella Production Shows LLC in the UAE in 2020.
The co-founders, who have disparate yet in many ways similar experiences when it comes to financial struggles, strongly believe that “overcoming limitations and inhibitions surrounding financial resources, savings and affordability is crucial when you decide to start a business and even in life as such”.
From the high cost of setting up a business in the UAE to first-mover challenges and hesitance from regional investors to support brand new creative entities with funding, the co-founders share some lessons.
Problem #1: It’s expensive to set up a production company
The cost of setting up a business especially a production company like ours in the UAE tends to be high, Spira stated. It can often act as an entry barrier. The co-founders spent Dh100,000 to get the required licenses to set up their production company in 2020. The expenses included a DED (Department of Economic Development) mainland entity license, ADGM (Abu Dhabi Global Market) license for IP and the initial setup cost. During the second year of operation, they spent roughly Dh50,000 more on additional components including getting a business bank account and paperwork, among others.
Lesson #1: Take baby steps and align with the right people
“A huge lesson that we learnt from setting up our first international office outside of the UK is that taking baby steps is crucial to first test the water before diving deep. It’s also important to align with the right people who are willing to give newcomers [like us] the right advice and help us build the right connections and partnerships. It’s also crucial to do the required due diligence before forming partnerships and jumping on opportunities.”
A huge lesson that we learnt from setting up our first international office outside of the UK is that taking baby steps is crucial to first test the water before diving deep.
Problem #2: First mover is not always an advantage
Having set up their production company in the UAE, the co-founders shared that due to lack of reference points they had to face several first-mover challenges. According to them the live entertainment industry is still at the nascent stage here although it holds huge growth potential. “Our kind of a production company that uses world-class dance disciplines within musical shows is a definite niche here. Besides the high cost of operation finding the right information was often difficult. For example, we initially learnt that a particular square footage office space is required to hire an ‘X’ number of employees and get their visas. However, we later discovered the option of virtual office spaces that’s far more cost-effective. The cost difference [per month] can be as much as Dh10,000 for virtual office space versus Dh35,000-40,000 for physical office space. In addition, physical venues to showcase our work is limited and expensive, more suited towards global corporates.”
Lesson #2: Avoid over-investing in corporate structures
For those interested to venture into the live entertainment space the co-founders have some advice. “Look at how things are being done by existing players in the segment, what kind of partnerships are being formed and then dive in to complement the offerings. There is always growth potential for creative entities like us in a multicultural landscape like the UAE but there are obstacles too. So, do your research and even seek help [from financial and legal experts] where required to better understand the existing guidelines and structures and how you can leverage them.”
Problem #3: Fundraising [from the region] hasn’t been easy
Although the co-founders have raised over 4 million pounds (roughly Dh20 million) in funding [through investment, donations, grants and sponsorship], over the years their fundraising journey in the region hasn’t been easy. “We haven’t secured any funding from the region yet although we’ve invested heavily around Dh3 million already on talent acquisition, developing our shows and establishing our creative art form here. What we feel is although public and private agencies are keen to nurture and promote the creative economy, there is hesitance on part of institutional investors when it comes to supporting niche concepts like our production company.”
Lesson #3: During fundraising ask for what your idea is worth
Sometimes women entrepreneurs, particularly, need an extra nudge to believe that they truly deserve the access to finance. “Especially while raising funding women entrepreneurs must have the conviction that we are worthy of every dirham/pound/dollar aligned with our vision for the business. Even today a closer look will reveal that the number of women-led enterprises receiving support from institutional investors is less than our male counterparts.”
Lesson #4: Create financial longevity with the available funds
As opposed to spending a massive amount of money on the first activity, it’s advisable to create a longer runway for business with the available funding. “Sometimes the market may not be ready for the first activity, something we’ve learnt from our experience in the region. But over time the community will warm up to a new art form or a new product/solution therein enabling entrepreneurs like us to create longevity.”
Lesson #5: Start with clear financial forecasting
When asked how important it is for a start-up to set aside a forecasted budget to grow the business right from the start, the co-founders emphasised. “It’s crucial to start with a clear financial forecasting aligned with the big vision. Build a roadmap as you start the entrepreneurial journey but be open-minded to shifts and pivots along the way. If anything, we’ve benefitted immensely by flexing, adapting and improvising our concepts and shows. It’s important to invest in areas that will bring the most authentic returns measured not only by the money but by the impact. This purpose-led vision has guided our investment decisions too. Besides financial planning there is also need for deep understanding of the regional landscape and cultural nuances to plan prudently. For example, in our case an understanding of the cultural calendar is important to plan our events accordingly, to get the best results.”