From the age of eight, UAE-based Pakistani national Nida Sumar learnt to budget for expenses, at 13, she started trading. Over the past 10 years she has set up not one but three businesses.
Sumar, currently in her mid-30s, learnt budgeting skills quite early in life. At the age of eight she was already part of the “budget day” when her parents allocated money for monthly expenses. Everything from groceries to eating out was accounted for. In doing so, suggestions from every family member, which included Sumar and her two siblings, were duly considered.
“Hailing from humble beginnings, my parents had to manage a household of five and additional responsibilities with my father’s meagre salary of Dh2,000 at that time. As a practice my parents used to write the expense heads on currency notes and categorise them using rubber bands,” Sumar recollected.
“There was no concept of borrowing. We had to manage expenses within the set budget. This budgeting exercise not only gave us a view of what the month would look like but also instilled long-term money management values in my siblings and me. We are fortunate to be raised by parents who never shied away from money related conversations. Money was tight but they taught us to not be afraid of little resources, rather learn to manage it well. Little resources didn’t impact our quality of life.”
Seeing her “knack for numbers” and interest despite “little” resources, Sumar’s father encouraged her to start trading at the age of 13 - investing an initial sum of $5,000 (Dh18,365) from his savings.
“Not only did he invest his hard-earned savings, in the initial months he would study with me to understand the principles of trading. At that time, even internet connection was quite expensive, so we had to manage with limited internet hours. I’d first trade on a demo account and then with actual money. Once I started doing well, my father invested more money and encouraged me to learn more and get better at trading. Whenever I lost money, he would encourage me to look at it as investment into education. This was a life changing experience for me, a form of self-education unlike any other,” Sumar shared.
Lesson #1 - Basic financial literacy should begin early: According to a study conducted by the United Nations, between the age of five and seven years, a child starts building money habits and values usually mirroring those of parents that tend to stick. That’s why children should be included in open and practical money related conversations. After all, home is the first money school for a child.
I lost money in my first venture
When she was barely a teenager, Sumar had decided to study accounting and finance in the US and work with one of the big four accounting firms globally, which she did. Sumar is one of the first few female CFAs (Chartered Financial Analyst) in the UAE, a domain where only 18 per cent are women. However, eventually she decided to leave a cushy job and start her own business.
“I had a well-paying job and a successful career in corporate finance, but a regular career choice wasn’t fulfilling me. I quit my job and started a food technology business called Keza with $320,000 (Dh 1.2 million) from personal savings, some money borrowed from my father, coupled with a $10,000 (Dh36,730) grant from the Sharjah Entrepreneurship Center. Within five years (2013-18) it went from ideation to exiting for a loss,” Sumar shares.
“The concept was slightly ahead of its time. If I had the resources to sustain it until now, it would be a revenue generating business. But I didn’t have the necessary financial resources for the business to scale up. I had to repay debts with all the money I got by offloading the business.”
Lesson #2 - Determine the right time to exit: Technology start-ups tend to be money-intensive in the beginning. After a minimum viable product (MVP) is developed, some form of investment is required within 24 months to extend the runway. On the other hand, if a non-tech regular business is not able to generate decent revenue within the first 8 to 10 months, a health check is necessary by the end of 12 months. Regarding the right time to exit, a lot depends on the available financial resources to sustain the cash burn. Hence, it is different from one business to another and from one entrepreneur to another.
I launched my second venture by bootstrapping
Five years ago, Sumar launched a supper club concept in the UAE called ‘The Table Project’. “It started with a dinner party that I hosted for my close network of friends from the food industry. I borrowed groceries from my mother, refurbished leftover decorations from my sister’s wedding, cooked the food on my own and served them at our dining table. I started my second business by leveraging my cooking skills and with the support of a trusted network. Even today the business is operationally lean.”
The first couple of tables served as proof of concept. Word spread quickly and soon Sumar started hosting regular supper tables. Over the past five years she has spent roughly Dh200,000-250,000 into the business, to purchase equipment, authentic Pakistani tableware and serve-ware, license, website creation and even organised a community kitchen during the Covid-19 lockdown, earning roughly Dh800,000 during this period.
Lesson #3 - Don’t let failure be a deterrent: Entrepreneurship is a long road and is bound to be ridden with ups and down, successes and failures. While it may hurt, don’t let failure become a deterrent. By the third year of my second venture, I had received five offers from investors without looking for it, all of which I turned down as they didn’t align with my vision.
Supporting one business on the back of another
Sumar’s second business supports her third venture called ‘60-Day Start-ups’. Founded towards the end of 2020 it’s a UAE-based not-for-profit, community-driven business accelerator programme for first-time female founders, and trains fellows aspiring for corporate careers.
Funding her third venture from a self-sustaining second business, Sumar shares three tips for anyone considering a similar option. “Being cash flow positive is pivotal if an entrepreneur is keen to build a business on the back of another. The timing of cash in and cash out must be spot on. Second, he or she must know the exact cost breakdown of a product/service by the hour/minute, dirham/fil to determine profit margins. Third, create a pricing strategy duly factoring in human cost, as this will determine profitability and whether the business proposition is sustainable. Once the profit margin is healthy and cash flow is positive, the entrepreneur can reinvest in another business, in the money market or something else.”
Going forward, Sumar is keen to make her third venture financially sustainable through a multi-pronged strategy. “We are contemplating launching a low-cost membership programme for founders from the previous cohorts offering them access to mentors and a wide industry network. We are also considering corporate sponsorships aligned with our principles. While we have received interest from investors as well, it’s crucial to evaluate every opportunity carefully ensuring our collective vision is aligned.”
Money matters: 5 messages for first-time founders
• Plan for your personal expenses for at least 12 months and know when your business might need cash influx. Don’t put all your money in one basket.
• Don’t under-price your product or service. Benchmark against cost, market value and other factors relevant to your business.
• When getting into partnerships based on your business model, set clear goals and make payments only once the goals are achieved.
• Don’t put finance in the backburner as it is the backbone of your business. Find a finance mentor, if you must, who has a good hold on numbers, will have your best interest in mind and guide you.
• You don’t have to quit your job to embark on your entrepreneurial journey. Keep the job at least until the proof of concept. The journey might be harder and require more discipline but it’s possible.