World Entrepreneurs’ Day: Why the UAE is worth investing in
The UAE has evolved to become an incredibly attractive destination for entrepreneurs from all over the world due to its progressive economy, efficient digital infrastructure, close proximity to the rest of the world, and tax-friendly structures, entrepreneurs have said.
Speaking to Khaleej Times ahead of World Entrepreneurs’ Day – which is celebrated every year on August 21 to create awareness for entrepreneurship, innovation and leadership throughout the world – several entrepreneurs highlighted their journey in launching their business ideas, how they had tackled the challenges of the Covid-19 pandemic, and their plans for the future of their startups.
Many spoke about the UAE and how it is today renowned as one of the leading hubs in the world for business, investment and innovation, and as a key driver of entrepreneurial activity in the Middle East.
No better place than the UAE for a business idea
Deyan Dimitrov, CEO of Laundryheap, said that, through its efforts to transition from an oil-based economy to a knowledge-based one, the UAE, and in particular Dubai, have become synonymous as a global hub for innovation and growth, especially for expat entrepreneurs.
“The emergence in recent years of VCs, which are focused specifically on the startup space, is helping to fuel the growth of the sector across the region,” he said. “And, it is very much a two-way street, as larger businesses see the benefits of partnering with startups as a way to access fresh, innovative ideas. The country’s agile legal framework also allows it to constantly evolve to meet, or exceed, international standards, making it one of the most appealing places in the world to invest.”
Dimitrov also highlighted various future-focused digital strategies launched by the UAE's visionary leadership, such as Vision 2040 and Smart Dubai 2021, which continue to revolutionise the business and economic landscape. “As it continues embracing new technologies and promoting public-private partnerships, the country will continue to unlock more opportunities for investors and ambitious entrepreneurs.”
Similarly, Shehzeen Jamil, managing partner of Sippy, said that the future of the entrepreneurial space looks very promising. Initiatives such as Dubai Next, launched by Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Crown Prince of Dubai and Chairman of The Executive Council, provides the impetus for youth innovators and entrepreneurs to garner financial support, she noted.
“Various platforms are now available that encourage and promote entrepreneurship in the country through mentorship programmes, networking events and talks by leaders in the industry,” she said. “Personally, Dubai doesn’t just accept women entrepreneurs, but in fact celebrates them. Big corporates also have internal programmes that encourage us women to take that leap and bring our visions to life. The world is in dire need of people who have the resilience, the power, and the ideas to combat and overcome what’s happened in the past two years and the UAE is well equipped to support us.”
Meeting the challenges of a global pandemic head-on
Jamil noted that the entrepreneurial ecosystem in Dubai has been on an upward trajectory for several years now. Startups across the length and breadth of the business landscape have received backing that will continue to contribute to the country's diversified economy.
“The challenges due to Covid-19 have increased, but the support initiatives have increased by just as much too, so the number of challenges stay the same, but the nature of them has changed,” she said. “As it stood, startups were already meant to disrupt industries, but this pandemic added a new level of disruption within us that we had to fight and overcome. The number of controlled variables had gone down significantly, and it was hard to tell whether the success or failure of a startup was due to Covid-19 or due to the actual concept.”
That level of uncertainty, she explained, surely trickled onto investors as well and the whole startup landscape suffered as a result. “Overall the pandemic, albeit tragic in absolute terms, did instill a robust level of skills in us. The idea of being adaptable and dynamic was put to the test and lots of opportunities have come about because consumer behaviour has changed and essentially evolved. Traditional PR and marketing activations are no longer viable and so the level of innovation also has been elevated.”
Like Jamil, Zaid Mohsin Kidwai, CEO and co-founder of STRABL, formerly known as BorrowBlob, said that there is “always a flipside for each situation” and that some startups have actually gained quite a lot of momentum during the pandemic.
“As a startup, being resilient should always be a top characteristic throughout their journey,” he said. “Some startups have pivoted from the original idea, some have realigned their goals, some have had to restructure and change strategies, most others just had to tweak their business models. But, that being said, startups are supposed to be far more agile and dynamic than legacy or traditional businesses, so all that stuff should be built-in and accounted for, from the beginning itself.”
Looking back at the birth of an idea but planning for the future
Kidwai shared how BorrowBlob started in 2019 as a short-term item rental marketplace, solving the issue of people or businesses having to buy everything they need, even if it is only for a day, and then getting stuck with an item they rarely use.
“Think drill machines or a nice dress for the evening,” he said. “A natural extension to that, was people being able to convert their rentals to purchases, hence, our new addition, ‘Try Before You Buy’. While working on this, we realised another set of problems that the concept solves, which is not trusting online shopping, and committing to something they were unsure of to begin with. That is how we started to innovate, rebrand, and grow our business. Our plans include fundraising, partnering with brands & businesses in different categories, helping SMB's establish better trust rating online and making this a staple way to shop online.”
Sippy, on the other hand, started off as a regional specialty café discovery tool. It was designed as a directory to discover new spots, filter based on location and/or roaster, and save with each cup.
“The response in the first year was phenomenal and we were prepping to go global,” says Jamil. “At the same time, we were dabbling with the idea of creating a marketplace for coffee beans. Then it was March and everything shut down; our café app was rendered useless and we had to make a hard pivot towards the Sippy Beans marketplace. We were far from ready to scale at the level that it did the first few months. The demand was incredible, and we ran it all out of my apartment. It was tough, but gave us the resilience to tackle everything since. Our plans for Sippy are to bring back the café discovery map and make us the ultimate one stop shop for all things specialty in the GCC and Europe.”
Dimitrov says he founded Laundryheap in 2014, with the vision of filling in the technological and innovative gaps in the dry-cleaning industry, which often made it challenging for people to get their clothes cleaned while on business trips.
“Crisp shirts and clean suits are essential for any business trip, but more often than not, the hotel accommodations did not provide a laundry service or charged too much for it, and finding an independent dry cleaning service in a foreign country was a hassle,” he said. “Ultimately, I realised that laundry is an essential service, but the supply chain is inefficient and fragmented. Our aim at Laundryheap is to digitalise the service to increase the efficiency of existing businesses as well as offering a unique 24/7 solution to people’s laundry needs.”
“In 2018, the UAE became the third country we expanded into globally after Ireland and the first regionally,” he added. “Since then, we have expanded to other locations in the UAE including Sharjah and Abu Dhabi, and we also operating in Bahrain, Kuwait, and Qatar, with further plans for expansion in the coming year. We will also be introducing our new B2B offering, Laundryheap Linen, into the region imminently.”
Kidwai says that the UAE is “definitely a great launchpad”, with the general public warming up to innovative ideas, and with a healthy rate of adoption. “This may as well be a proving ground for startups. Nonetheless, barriers to entry still need to be worked upon for those budding entrepreneurs with a business idea. This can be by having better launchpads, and the involvement of entrepreneurs, who themselves are at different stages, to be more actively involved in helping improve the ecosystem and providing much needed tips on going about building the next unicorn!”
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