Aurora Magazine

Promoting excellence in advertising

Published in Mar-Apr 2016

Starting up in Dubai

Dubai is certainly the place to be for start-ups, but aligning the steps and resources is key.
Illustration by Creative Unit.
Illustration by Creative Unit.

Omar uses his phone to order clothes from namshi.com. He has his laundry picked up using the washmen app and orders a Careem to go with his friends to Fillie’s café. The common thread combining these businesses is entrepreneurship in Dubai. Whether it is a Rocket Internet venture funded firm which is localising successful ideas from the first world, or someone walking out of corporate life to live their dream, the values remain the same. Resilience, fail fast and often and networking (or what is called Wasta in Dubai).

Where you are doesn’t matter, it is how you adapt that makes the difference.

According to a survey by Bayt.com (November 2015), given a choice, 66% of the respondents in the UAE prefer to run their own business. The World Bank ranks the UAE at 60 for ease of doing business. It takes about a week to 10 days to set up a new business and the government is supporting entrepreneurship initiatives. They are building a Design District, improving public transportation and making the documentation processes easier and more accessible via mobile apps. With Sheikh Mohammed’s vision of a 24/7, seven-star service at all government centres, working for oneself will become easier.

The reason why an entrepreneur will succeed (or fail to succeed later) is the ecosystem around them. Watching from the sidelines for the past few years has given me a vantage point to judge how this ecosystem has evolved and how some entrepreneurs are leveraging the opportunities Dubai offers.

Money is one of the top concerns for entrepreneurs. Looking towards a post oil economy, the idea that a start-up may generate a higher return is gaining traction and hence there is an adequate listing of venture capitalists and angel investors who could fund the next Careem or Fetchr.

Names like the Khalifa Fund, Seed Startup or BECO come up when you start searching for venture capitalists. They provide sufficient mentorship and money to push any idea into a full-fledged business, provided it meets their investment criteria. Recently, Careem raised about $60 million in its third round of funding with Abraaj Capital as the lead investor. Although this may pale in comparison to the multibillion dollar valuation of Uber, it is a good indication of how local start-ups with strong teams can find the right funding to grow.

Rocket Internet sees great potential and have started a lot of start-ups (FoodPanda, Lamudi, Namshi) in the region. Keeping the balance of the investment, these firms also help investors to make the right decisions when choosing entrepreneurs – WOMENA, for example, helps local women make their own investments. There are also crowdfunding websites like Eureeca.com and Beehive.ae to help SMEs find funding among their peers.


Although Dubai is a very good indicator of how the world will react to a new product or service, it has small growth potential. The population is heavily dependent on the economy.


Another way to get the idea in front of an investor is to use incubators and coworking spaces. They are instrumental in setting up entrepreneurs for their pitches with venture capitalists and angel firms. Incubators, such as Honey Bee Tech Ventures and VentureSouq support start-ups with more than funding, by helping them with operational insights from successful entrepreneurs. The coworking community assists by connecting them to the right people to help not only with investments but in adding synergies to the business. Spaces like D-Tec (supported by Dubai Silicon Oasis) help set up businesses by providing visas; they also say they are the biggest coworking space in MENA.

According to JLT, Astrolabs, which is partnered by Google, is the networking place of choice for start-ups these days. Their community feel is one of the best and they provide the best value for money, offering a range of services while keeping fees at the lower end. They start from a moonlighter package worth AED 750 a month to a AED 3,500 a month fully licensed package. Being affiliated with Google allows Astrolabs’ entrepreneurs access to about 20 ‘Google for Tech’ hubs globally as well as mentorship from Google’s office in Dubai (among other benefits). It even has a coding cave, where developers can retreat if they want to code away and a device lab to test apps designed with Google. Being extremely accessible via public transport also makes them become a convenient place to work from.

Although Dubai is a very good indicator of how the world will react to a new product or service, it has small growth potential. The population is heavily dependent on the economy. The 2008 recession significantly impacted growth plans for many start-ups. To gain scale, entrepreneurs need to reach out to neighbouring countries like Saudi Arabia and Egypt – and even Pakistan is a worthwhile place to invest. With a transient population it is difficult to build long lasting relationships unless you are spread globally. This is a drawback which entrepreneurs can overcome by reducing their cost of customer acquisition.

Finally, you need to connect to customers. More often than not, they will dial your toll free number to talk to you. Getting customer service right will make all the difference. From answering phone calls, the website or app experience, to the efficient delivery of the product or service. Manpower services like Cupola can help you scale up quickly during the holidays or a server crash. Arabic Twitter is a popular way to connect with customers, while some ventures, like washmen, reach out via emails to create a sense of personalisation and use services like Mailchimp to automate mass mailing.

Dubai is growing at a fast pace, but the majority of the population is reluctant to use their credit card and want their orders shipped as quickly as possible. Careem handled COD in its early days by sending drivers to collect the payments and return them in the shape of Careem credits. Namshi and Souq offer COD. Another problem is the lack of addresses in the region. Although Dubai’s Makani initiative are giving every location a Makani number, this still has to be incorporated in the delivery routes.

Dubai is not the next Silicon Valley. However, there is enough activity to help you build and launch a start-up. As an entrepreneur you don’t need much to start your business, (except maybe your willpower) but having a stable political environment, the backing of venture capitalists, engaged customers and access to technology will definitely make the uphill climb easier. If nothing works, pivot your idea.

Sooban Moin is a Dubai-based strategy consultant. sooban1@gmail.com