Dubai Entrepreneurs Debate Startup Challenges at Shelter's New Entrepreneurs Roundtable

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In celebration of Global Entrepreneurship Week in Dubai two weeks ago, Shelter invited up-and-coming entrepreneurs to share their experiences with a crowd of their peers.  

The New Entrepreneur Roundtable was a highly interactive meeting ground for entrepreneurs at all stages of business development. Some panelists were still building the beta versions of their websites, and some audience members were locally-based angel investors.  

A spirit of openness sharing defined the event, starting with the back-and-forth of questions during the panel and continuing through the crowd-sourced pizza party that closed the evening. 

The audience fired questions at Karim Helal, co-founder of B2B service exchange and tendering platform Monaqasat, Pankaj Chaddah, co-founder of the Dubai branch of the restaurant review site Zomato, Loulou Khazen Baz, co-founder of skills exchange platform Nabbesh, and Subhi Farah, co-founder of apartment review site FlatChat.ae, as David Haddad, founder of PressPass as well as Dubai social group Startup Circle, moderated.

While most of the panelists had founded internet-based businesses, the entrepreneurs in the audience were a diverse crowd, engaged in pursuits ranging from personal shopping to organic food delivery. 

What was said: 

Regardless of background, the flow of ideas, stories and tips centered on the challenges faced by all entrepreneurs: getting money, partners and customers.

Raising funds

Starting a business, especially in the UAE, requires a significant amount of money. Most entrepreneurs raise that money by “bootstrapping,” or investing their own money (as well as often that of friends and family), and then growing the business by investing revenues back into development. 

About half of the audience members are currently bootstrapping their businesses, according to a show of hands. 

Usually businesses need investment at some point, in order to scale, but it is important not to rush to investors, advised Subhi Farah. 

“Seeking out investors early on is not a good idea,” he said. “You spend all of your time preparing pitches and taking meetings, not developing your product. You are spending more time building nets than going fishing.”

Another option is to build your business around the customer from the beginning. 

“We didn’t launch until we had a big customer,” said Karim Helal. “We had a customer in a leadership role in the industry, one who could move the system.”

Regardless of how you fund your business, it will cost more than you expect.

“Take however much you estimate your start-up costs will be, and then multiply it by three,” said Loulou Khazen Baz. 

Co-Founding

Nearly all entrepreneurs will eventually need help: many seek this support in the form of a co-founder, a partner who has equity in the business and who is willing and able to help in the earliest stages of development. 

“If you find that you are missing certain skills, find a co-founder who can compliment your skill set,” said Pankaj Chaddah.

“Generally, it is not good to have more than two co-founders,” Farah said. “However, if you need three, be sure that everyone has equal equity in the company.”

Finding and keeping co-founders can also be a challenge.

“Use events such as Startup Weekend to find or practice finding co-founders,” Helal advised. “If you cannot convince someone to join your team, your business will not survive.”

When you approach a potential co-founder, you are asking that person to take a major risk, especially in Dubai. Under UAE law, a person cannot work for two companies at the same time, a practice that is common among entrepreneurs in other countries. The invitation to co-found means not only quitting a job, but also potentially losing your visa if the company doesn't succeed.

Nabbesh’s founding partner was already employed when Khazen Baz approached her about a partnership. Despite of the risks, “she was ready to go,” Khazen Baz said. “And I gave her equity.”

Customers

Finding and keeping customers is at the crux of all business. There are a variety of reasons why a customer will choose to use your product and services, but however they find their way to you, you want to make the exchange as beneficial as possible for them.

For many internet based companies, customers are also asked to provide a service. For example, the success of FlatChat is dependent on customers sharing apartment reviews.

Zomato, which is built on the same principle, decided to incentivize customers to generate reviews. “We reward our top reviewers with restaurant coupons,” Chaddah explained.  

Companies globally are using similar exchanges to entice customers. “One American company ... awards customers with a free vacation,” Farah said. 

As information flowed between a variety of topics, one final theme emerged: a demand for more roundtable events.

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