The case for accelerators in the UAE

Image courtesy of Co-Working PopUp

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Shahzad Bhatti is the founder and owner of the Co-Working PopUp, a community-driven coworking space and incubator for startups and small businesses.

Dubai has always been entrepreneurial. Time and time again, it exemplifies the statement that ‘anything is possible’ and because of that, it attracts some of the best and brightest minds, all hoping to realise their dreams. But every dream needs to not only to evolve before it can become a viable business idea, it also needs support - this is where accelerators come in.  Firstly, it should be noted however that not all accelerators are created equal or tailored to the same type of startup. For us, as The Co-Working PopUp, we saw a specific gap within the retail space as many of the accelerators out there focus solely on technology which is why we launched a retail accelerator programme which so far, has supported startups ranging from fashion to food, beauty to even the flower industry. Unlike, incubation, accelerator programmes usually last for a shorter, more defined period of time. A market that has a wide variety of accelerators, focusing on various sectors, help shape and grow a diverse small to medium-sized enterprise (SME) community and culture by supporting the growth of startups in a number of ways:

Licensing and Set-Up: While Dubai and many other markets in the region are supportive of SMEs and startups, challenges still exist at a very foundational level for entrepreneurs.   Most of the time, retail brands specifically kick-off as a side project for a lot of entrepreneurs but once they decide to invest more time into it or make it their full-time job, it becomes a significant undertaking. Accelerators can be beneficial in navigating through and setting up the foundations - trade licences, visas, workspace permits etc. Just getting a payment gateway sorted in Dubai for example requires a registered office and trade licence, so solo founders and first-time entrepreneurs really do value the experience and expertise an accelerator can bring to the table in guiding them through the process. Our programme for example offers startups access to a trade licence for them to legally trade while developing, testing and launching their concept.

Mentorship and Knowledge Exchange:  Mentorship and knowledge exchange is perhaps the most valuable thing that accelerators offer. Last year, we took six aspiring fashion designers to London Fashion Week to provide them with international brand exposure, sales opportunities and at the same time, it gave them a window into the industry in a well-established international market like London. We are doing something similar this year by taking 10 Dubai entrepreneurs to our branch in London to give them the opportunity to connect with London-based SME owners and exchange best practices with them. Exercises like these are invaluable. The knowledge startups gain from experiences like these, and the connections we help foster, help them fast-track their progress and launch in new markets. For the startup founder, it is also an opportunity for testing and education. Beyond special programmes, accelerators also offer ongoing mentorship through their individual networks.

Growth Growth Growth: Accelerators can expedite growth, which in this day and age often means investment. When we work with a startup, we are not passive observers. We take a deep dive and give personalised feedback. Our experience predominantly has been with retail startups, and unlike tech startups, new retail brands in Dubai have a tougher time finding financing. Our job is to be first set of eyes to review the business plans and five-year growth projections with a fine-toothed comb and to use our network to connect them to prospective investors. At the end of the day, having had a third-party review and also the support of a wider network -  including mentorship – available through an accelerator, puts them in good standing with angel investors and venure capital (VC) firms, who appreciate oversight on initial planning and financing.

Every startup that graduates from its set-up stage and kick-starts growth, can benefit from an expert hand to ensure that it is meeting targets, setting new goals and mapping out a path towards achieving those goals. That’s where accelerators can step in as guide, mentor, educator and connector.  When we see SMEs prosper, we see innovation, growth and a better-off business environment for all.


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