Two months ago I moved our startup from Kuwait to Dubai (we also have another office in Malaga, Spain which is still running). But making the final decision to move wasn’t at all easy.
Many startups are going through the same decision-making process; we all hear that Dubai is probably the best location to build a business in the region, but incidentally it’s also the most expensive. So why did we ultimately decide to make the move to Dubai while keeping our costs low? Here’s how.
Our fishing boat charter startup, Fishfishme, turned 1 this June. Though our website has been live since last October, we have constantly tested and improved our platform, trying to follow the Lean Startup model very closely, and later launched our new website this past February. Immediately we saw a boost in business with more and more bookings and clicks on the site. The majority of our bookings continued to come from Kuwait, where I started the company, as we spent most of our marketing efforts there. Things continued to move forward in Kuwait and we quickly met and surpassed our projections.
But one day I had a conversation with our mentor Omar Koudsi, the co-founder of Jeeran, and he gave us a piece of advice that changed how we approached our business. “Kuwait is a great place, but its such a small and unique market that doesn’t really represent other markets around the world,” he said. “You need a big city with a bigger and more competitive market. If you win in this market, then you can take what you’ve learned, repeat it, and win in every market. I think you should move to Dubai.” He ended his advice saying honestly, “Moving to Dubai will either be great for your business or a great learning experience. Either way you win.”
Omar’s advice really hit me. I realized that Kuwait is a great place to test our idea, but not the best place to put our focus if we eventually want to grow to be a global company. When I went back to review our numbers, everything indicated that Dubai could actually be a much better market for us; there are five times more charter boats, a much bigger market with 10 million tourists each year and with the charters we already had available there, our margins were regularly are 4 times better than Kuwait. It was a no brainer.
Some may say that we don’t really need to be in Dubai because our business is based online. Indeed we are, but not every online startup can be run from anywhere. For some heavy tech startups, location may be irrelevant (such as Google, Facebook), but for a marketplace startup such as ours, we need to be on the ground, especially in the early days. Another one of our mentors, Mohammad Alzubi, explained clearly to us that we need to be located in the heart of our target market: “if you want to focus in Dubai you’ll need to be in Dubai. You need to be close to your boat partners and your customers. You need to be there to gain their trust, to hear their feedback and to better understand the market. Being a tech-startup doesn’t mean that you need to be behind the laptop, it’s still a business and you need to be with your customers most of the time.”
His advice confirmed reinforced the decision for us, so we moved to Dubai.
Now that I’ve settled in Dubai, the biggest hurdle is figuring out our new operations and logistics arrangements. Besides having to convince my parents that this is a good idea, which wasn’t easy by the way, I first had to find a place to live and work, and find transportation. Check out this post on my blog detailing some of my expenses so far.
On top of living expenses, my biggest headache so far has been was the costs associated with establishing the company in Dubai and renting office space. But luckily, new incubator In5 came to the rescue.
Created by Dubai Internet City, In5 provides pretty affordable office space (AED 1,000 per month or US $272) and a huge discount for everything related to government costs (such as company registration fees, visas for employees, and the like). In5 chooses ten startups to incubate every three months offering their facilities and support without asking for anything in return, even equity. So far, joining In5 has been great for Fishfishme, not only because it saves us money, but also because it is a great way to plug in with the community. Check out my full blog post about the experience here.
After two months living in Dubai, our team can already feel the benefits of moving here. It changes the way you think about your startup, pushes you to think bigger and really prepares you to become a more global startup. Each day we get to meet interesting people that open our eyes to new opportunities and we continue to get new exposure from media and are already working with new partners to grow the business. Though only time will tell if we made the right move, much of our recent growth wouldn’t have happened if I stayed in Kuwait.
In short, I think every company should try to operate closer to their customers, suppliers or skilled labor force; for us Dubai has all three. Let us know if the comments section below if you are considering moving your startup to Dubai or, if you have, let us know how the experience has been.