"Bet on yourself if you want to take financial risks. And take financial risks if you're given a chance while young and have less to ", says Brian Habibi, 35 years old, this Palestinian-American expat's parents had instilled these lessons in him from a young age.
He has been living in Dubai since 1992 from age 5, apart from his time at university in the US. "I grew up in a business-minded family. My dad was an entrepreneur, and my mother was an economics professor.
"At a young age, I began to understand the importance of being willing to bet on yourself and financial literacy. Since my father was an entrepreneur himself, and from a business perspective, entrepreneurship might be the hardest thing you do. Still, I learned that it has the potential to be the most rewarding on both a personal and financial level.
"I was fortunate to grow up in a safe city, observing it transform into a significant global player. Living here, I received an excellent education, had the chance to play several competitive school sports and built a strong network of friends worldwide."
Habibi was passionate about business from his high school days.
From an early age, he decided and wanted to study business. "In high school, I took economics, accounting and business studies. These subjects helped me form a base to understand better the implementation of marketing strategies, demand and supply, pricing and identify business opportunities. Also, they gave me a strong foundation for the business courses I studied at university."
He graduated from Saint Mary's College, California, in 2008 with a degree in business administration and began to work in 2009 in the marketing department at an FMCG food brand. "I became the marketing department's head and oversaw all online and offline marketing initiatives.
"Here, I spearheaded the development of a revised brand strategy to keep pace with the evolving landscape of Arab women in the GCC and to ensure brand relevancy and affinity with consumers. I developed and managed the marketing budget, utilised marketing, sales and technology know-how to spearhead the development and launch of a fully customised ERP solution (software that organisations use to manage day-to-day business activities such as accounting, project management, risk management, etc.) and leveraged the brand's digital presence to launch many online initiatives.
"The experience taught me that every endeavour must be tied to specific objectives and identify the financial costs and potential rewards to allow for a proper post outcome analysis."
When Habibi was 27 years, he, along with Talal Bayaa, also 27 years at that time, co-founded and launched Bayzat in 2014. Bayzat started as a financial comparison site and evolved into a company software used to automate the firm’s HR, payroll and insurance processes.
The business essentially enables employers to grant their teams unprecedented access to work, finance, and medical benefits, while also giving employees access (via their smartphone app) to over 200 deals and offers across F&B, lifestyle and fitness and entertainment outlets in the UAE.
The platform is hosted in data centres based in the UAE and is delivered via the Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) model to customers. (It allows users to connect to and use cloud-based apps over the Internet. Common examples are email, calendaring, and office tools.)
How did you choose this business and expand your services?
Bayzat was launched when the founders observed and understood the need for a platform that provided better transparency and online visibility to consumers searching for banking and insurance products.
"And when the UAE made it mandatory for companies to insure their employees, we decided to pivot the business in 2015. The website was well optimised across banking and insurance lines; therefore, we started receiving many inquiries for group medical insurance, predominantly within the SME (small and medium-sized enterprises) sector.
"While engaging with an increasing number of UAE based companies, we saw a clear opportunity to develop technology to improve how businesses bought and used their medical insurance policies. There were also fundamental issues with how companies were managing their HR or human resources, insurance and payroll processes, with over 70 per cent of UAE businesses relying on excel and other outdated methods."
So, how did you fund your business?
Habibi said that during the early days, the founders self-funded the company by continuing to work at their full-time jobs while working the business during nights and weekends.
"Once we could show proof of concept, we raised our first few million dollars from family, friends and other individual investors. Today, the business raised over Dh132.2 million ($36 million) from a mix of individual investors, family offices and a variety of regional and international Venture Capitalists, such as BECO Capital, Mubadala and P72 Ventures."
Two entrepreneurship lessons Habibi shares from his experiences
Lesson #1: Challenges will come daily in the business course but be resilient and willing to embrace change and readjust.
Habibi said that although entrepreneurship is a humbling profession, be prepared to deal with new challenges in your journey.
"When you start fooling yourself into believing everything is running smoothly, a new curveball is thrown your way, forcing you to readjust.
"Each stage of the business and fundraising brought different challenges, but we have moved into hyper growth. COVID-19 has been an accelerator to remote work; hiring and retaining top tier talent is becoming harder than ever, making our offering more relevant now than before.
"There have been countless challenges faced and lessons learned across industries and sectors; something that stood out in my mind was the importance of remaining nimble, resilient and willing to embrace change to survive and thrive in the new 'normal'. These lessons are now embedded in our DNA as we have truly adopted an 'experimental' mind-set throughout the organisation."
Lesson #2: To manage the cash flow well, be proficient at forecasting and setting contingency plans.
He added that as his current business has continued to raise money and generate additional revenue, they have become more proficient at forecasting and setting contingency plans to ensure they manage cash flow effectively. "Being focused on ‘hyper growth’ (rapid expansion where companies experience an annual growth rate of 40 per cent or higher), we have also learnt that it is harder to scale back on expenditures versus identifying the right levers for investment to manage cash flow and achieve our budget (i.e. doubling down in marketing, sales, etc.)."
What money rules or strategies do you follow personally in life?
Money lesson: Don't jump into investment opportunities that sound 'too good to be true'.
Habibi said, "Bayzat is my most significant investment and hopefully will represent the most considerable portion of my future savings. I ensure that all my other investments are well diversified."
He and his wife put aside a specific amount from their monthly incomes for investments and manage their budget based on the remainder.
"We have diversity in our portfolio in equity, fixed income (bonds) and private investments, invest small amounts in high risk-high reward opportunities, and ensure they are amounts we can afford to lose.
"The breakdown of our current investment portfolio is cash – 20 per cent, fixed income – 10 per cent, equity – 50 per cent, private investments – 15 per cent and cryptocurrencies – 5 per cent.
"Given my general outlook and the current economic and political environments, I am planning, very shortly, to reallocate my portfolio as cash - 10 per cent, fixed income – 7.5 per cent, equity– 55 per cent, private investments – 20 per cent and crypto –7.5 per cent."
For his children, he believes the future will hold more challenges; hence their ability to learn and adapt quickly will be crucial for their success.
"Education is one of the greatest gifts you can give your children. My wife and I set aside monthly savings for our two-year-old son's education.
"Ultimately, I believe the best investment I can make for my son's future is being able to instil the importance of hard work, accountability, and honesty. Hopefully, with some luck, he will succeed in whatever he chooses to do."