What I know about starting up in Dubai: Will Hutson
Originally from Florida, Will Hutson was first introduced to the Middle East while working on one of Disney’s initial global social media campaigns. While planning social outreach for Disney’s ‘Tron: Legacy’, he was shocked at the consumption of social media in the country.
From Disney he headed activation for a New York based digital agency, eventually partnering with its CEO to start a joint venture in Dubai. That venture dissolved but Hutson stayed to start his own full-stack creative digital agency, LMTD, in 2012.
LMTD is short for a physics equation - log mean temperature difference. The equation is used to determine the temperature for heat transfer between two systems. For Hutson, that’s the perfect analogy to the kind of connection LMTD builds between brands and their audience for clients like Etihad Airways, Careem and ADNOC.
A long-time mentor at Wamda’s Mix’n’Mentor, Hutson believes it is important to “level the playing field and create opportunities” in the MENA region so that entrepreneurs here can also get a shot at growing their business. Having spent five years setting up his own business in a competitive market, Hutson talked to us about the essentials of starting up in Dubai, and he answers the most common questions he gets from early and mid stage entrepreneurs.
Target brands who want to go global. You cannot compete with agencies here unless you have a value proposition that stands out in the region. Ours was that we offered UAE based brands a global reach while being based in the region. We could not compete with agencies who have already established themselves here. You have to compete on strategy and creative. Find the gap in the market.
Travel the region. You need to visit the markets where you want to impact. With that you not only understand your audience, but also start to realize and appreciate the opportunities you have.
The product should be repeatable. If you have built a product and have successfully sold it to one person, ask yourself if you can sell to 10 more. Make sure your business is scaleable before setting up offices here.
Test your product and don’t lie to yourself. Many entrepreneurs throw in anecdotes at mentoring sessions about the ideal audience for their product. But sometimes that ideal audience might not be the right audience. You could want a management level profession to use your product, but maybe your real audience is the college going student. Don’t make assumptions - test out your theory.
Funding isn’t everything. There is a glamorization in the ecosystem about funding. There are covers of trade magazines, with a young smiling face talking about how the entrepreneur secured $5 million in funding to launch their dream idea. But, is your goal to only launch your dream idea? Your goal should be to scale your business to be successful.
Raise what you need. You might have a business that scales wildly and raises a lot of money, which is great. It is not about raising, but about how you prove your idea. So when you raise, you are raising for the right things, spending on the right things and making sure you don’t over-raise. You should not be in a situation where your market size isn’t big enough to justify your raise and then have your hands tied to a VC or investor.
Dubai is a cost prohibitive market. The opportunity in Dubai is second to none with many entrepreneurs in the region wanting to move to Dubai with their team. When I tell them I sell out $250,000 only in overheads every month, their jaws drop. The real estate is also expensive here. The moment your team members get here, they are going to start looking around and say, “Oh, that’s the type of life I want.” Do you have a business that can keep your team here? If not, taking your team there is going to be a very expensive relocation process because you’re not just going to lose time and money, you could lose team members.
Recruit for attitude and not for role. Hiring for the role might work in a trade based business. In a highly subjective business, you need someone that can bring a lot more to the table and work with a team of other creative and ambitious people. If someone clocks in and clocks out, it doesn’t really add value to the culture. Or, they’ll just leave you for more money… in a market like the UAE, the conversation is always about money.
Don’t be afraid of consultants. Hiring senior, experienced people as consultants is a great way to show your team what’s possible and work directly with them. The team with the right attitude will learn everything from their senior colleagues and incorporate those lessons in their daily life. That will help you grow your business.
Hire a lawyer. Finding a local partner is scary, and there are a lot of businesses that make a ton of money just by walking you through that. Some even use dubious tactics to freak you out. You don’t need the most expensive lawyer, but just one who specializes in incorporating onshore businesses. And ask for references to make sure the lawyers are really strong in doing onshore and not outsourcing to other lawyers.
Find advisors and build an internal partnership structure. I don’t think enough startups take the time to get good advisers to help them build a good partnership structure. They need to be prepared for what happens if one of the partner’s life changes, like he/she leaves and they are not stuck with one person owning 25 percent of the company who worked for six months and is no longer in the business, and vice versa. Having a flexible structure in these relationships, and in ways to work together, is crucial for every member of the founding team. Taking the time to take that advice and get mentored is super important.
It’s easier to go international from the UAE than anywhere else. You can give a visa to anybody in the world and bring them to the UAE. I don't see any startup taking advantage of that. Look at Emirates - they hired people from around the world to build a global flight crew, which means they can land in any destination and have people that speak the local language. The opportunity to build those kinds of soft services is much higher here than in any other major city.