6 tips from a French entrepreneur for launching in the Arab world

by Aline Mayard, July 10, 2013

This piece is part of a new series on expat entrepreneurs.

We've recently discussed how some European entrepreneurs have moved to Morocco or Tunisia to cut costs, work in a more relaxed environment, or gain flexibility. 

Emilie Cousteau is another European entrepreneur who has come to the Arab world, to launch a business that one might not expect, given that she's the granddaughter of famous oceanic explorer Jacques Cousteau. Following the 2008 financial crisis, she left Dubai, then returning to launch a lingerie business in the Emirates. 

Lingerie in the Arab world

While she was working as the purchasing manager at a Saudi lingerie group in 2008, Cousteau came up with the idea to create mid to high-end lingerie, inspired by moments in French history. 

In 2009, after she got laid-off, she opened a styling agency in France and launched her first line, simply called Emilie Cousteau. As she initially predicted, many of her clients came not from France, but actually from abroad, especially from Eastern Europe.

Cousteau also knew how promising the Emirati market was; after working in Dubai, she had seen firsthand that the Arab world is the largest consumer of lingerie worldwide. In 2010, she made the leap to selling there through offline and online local outlets; by 2012, she was earning more monthly revenue from sales in Dubai than from France.

Despite the increase in customers, she faced one major drawback: French investors don’t like to invest in markets they don’t know or understand. Without understanding the fiscal rules or the local culture in the Emirates, they were wary of investing in a business doing the majority of its revenue abroad. 

In 2012, to secure investment, Emilie Cousteau decided to completely relocate her business to Dubai.

“Stop thinking with a European mindset”

By the time Cousteau moved her headquarters to Dubai, she already had a local network and understood how the market worked. Yet, she says, she fell into some of the pitfalls that most expats fall into, as she learned over time how to adjust to the local business climate. Here are her tips for the European entrepreneurs looking to relocate to the Gulf: 

  • Move there. Emails and phone calls alone won’t do, she explains. You have to be on the ground to handle bureaucratic issues like incorporating the business, obtaining a resident visa, and meeting people. Being present in person proved essential when she decided to set up her company outside a free zone and began searching for a sponsor.
  • Build your network or hire a lawyer. If you begin connecting with the local ecosystem, you can usually find someone that knows someone who knows a potential sponsor or could help with a tricky situation, says Cousteau. But if you don’t have a network, build it or hire a lawyer, she advises. A lawyer will help you find a sponsor and finetune your sponsorship contract, although they can be expensive; paying a lot in legal fees is the only element Cousteau regrets.
  • Be patient. It’s not complicated to incorporate your company in Dubai once you have met the right people, but entrepreneurs should expect administrative complications, she says. After spending two months dealing with a sponsor who changed his mind at the last minute, Cousteau had to wait four months for her current sponsor to finalize an issue with a previous company that was preventing him from sponsoring hers. 
  • Stop thinking with a European mindset. Newcomers tend to want to do business by the book, to draw a business plan, do everything legally, and follow the rules they’ve leared. “Here, it’s the Arab world; rules are moving,” explains Cousteau. In Europe, investors want a five-year plan even if they know the young company will not be able to follow it, but here, she says, it’s different: “You’re the one who have to adapt, as it’s not your country.”
  • Design your products with the local needs in mind. When Cousteau started, she was choosing her fabrics based on how they would affect her prices in Euros. After a few months in Dubai, she realized she had to adjust her approach to pricing, because  customers in Dubai would not pay AED 700 in Dubai for the same items that they might pay 150 EUR for in France, although both are worth US $190. Cousteau now thinks, plans, and buys fabric in AED.
  • Be ready to handle pressure. In the UAE, as all residents know, you can’t afford to have a check bounce, as this will land you in jail. And if your company stops working, the government won't be there to help you, she points out. You’re on your own.

Once you get used to the local culture, you can enjoy its flexibility, says Cousteau.

For example, in France, Cousteau is legally required to pay and employ all of her employees, including herself and any regular freelancer, monthly. In Dubai, however, she has a bit more flexibility; she can forgo her own salary for a month or hire freelancers on an intermittent basis. Dubai offers her one of the most important thing to new business she said: being able to iterate.

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Aline is French Editor at Wamda. After having worked as the Online Marketing and Community Manager at French startup Buzzcar, she moved to the Middle East. She writes about traveling and culture in the Middle East on her blog yallabye.euYou can follow her on Twitter  @aline_myd and @yallah_bye, connect with her on LinkedIn, or reach her at aline[at]wamda[dot]com.

 
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