When you see the obvious signs of wealth on display in the UAE, you might be forgiven for thinking that just by launching a business here you’ll be on your way to fame and fortune. Perhaps it’s one of the reasons so many entrepreneurs are setting up shop in the country. Indeed, according to a report by LinkedIn, there has been a 98 percent increase in the number of members who have changed their status to “entrepreneur” in the UAE last year.
But although Dubai in particular is now firmly established as one of the entrepreneurial capitals of the world, and the UAE is without a doubt an amazingly well set up playing field for business owners and aspiring entrepreneurs, succeeding here takes just as much work as succeeding anywhere else.
There’s been a 98% increase in the number of LinkedIn members who have changed their status to “entrepreneur” in the UAE last year.
With that in mind, let us put forth the question: What does it take to make it in business in the UAE? There’s of course no easy answer. There is after all no one “right” or “wrong” way to build a business (here or anywhere). But we can certainly suggest that there are some key things you’ll be needing to give yourself the best shot at succeeding here, and this article lists the “five musts” for any UAE business owner.
1. Do it better
When there’s a cluster of businesses trying to provide the same service, the ones that have a far better chance at success are the ones that stand out from the crowd for offering the best quality offering. This is a business school basic, but it’s hugely relevant to being successful in the UAE and very important to understand in the context of the playing field here.
Where am I going with this? While this is not to be meant as a criticism, there are, quite simply, service sectors in the UAE that are on average not delivering nearly as high a standard as they should be. It’s a young economy in many respects, and people are setting up shop quickly and often “learning as they go”.
What this means is that there is plenty of room for new players to raise the bar and essentially show what a top quality offering in this or that sector looks like. If you know your craft and take time to apply it well and build to excellence, you will effectively outshine most of the competition in your space.
And people will come to know it. Word of mouth spreads very fast in the UAE, and if you become known as the “go to” company in your sector, you’ve got it made.
2. Network with great consistency
This is a place full of people who love to be around other people, so it pays to go out and meet and greet personally. Be a regular at those key events around town (either social or business, as it really is one and the same here). In so doing you will find that very quickly you’re meeting and befriending a lot of decision-makers and people who can support you in your endeavours in some way.
Referrals, introductions and in-roads – these are some of the advantages of building a large network. This is true of anywhere, but especially so in the UAE where business and pleasure mix so naturally and where business advantages of some sort can be found in just about every single relationship you establish.
3. Become a great digital marketer
Like many places in the world, we are hooked to our digital devices here in the UAE. It therefore pays to have digital front and centre when it comes to your overall marketing efforts.
The key with digital marketing is to create informative content that appeals to your target demographic of prospects. This approach is often referred to as “content marketing”, and is essentially where businesses themselves become “publishers” of sorts for their industry.
In other words, don’t only churn out promotional messaging. Rather, share intelligence, and in the process you will create a following of people (many of whom may eventually become customers) who are interested in subject matter relevant to that service of yours.
It pays to have digital front and centre when marketing your services in the UAE.
In our case, at Virtuzone, we create a lot of content focusing on how to achieve startup and entrepreneurial success in the UAE, and we distribute this content across a number of digital channels, including our social media pages, through email, via the press, etc. In turn we get linked to other major influencers with large numbers of followers, people share and engage with our content in many different ways, and the word spreads and spreads.
According to a recent YouGov survey, people in the UAE spend about five hours a day on social media, with Facebook being the most popular. The activity is mainly through mobile devices, so do ensure all your content and various online presences are “mobile friendly.”
4. Present your expertise with a touch of humility
In a place where it may all seem like flash and cash, do not be fooled into thinking that this is a country where blowhards fit in. Quite the opposite, in fact. While clearly Dubai in particular puts a lot of emphasis on image, with opulence and luxury defining lifestyles and attitudes, don’t let that lead you to believe that this is a culture of shallowness. Far from it.
The point here is this: Do not be a know it all. It’s looked down upon and can be seen to be rude. Demonstrate that you know what you are talking about, sure, but don’t do so with even a hint of arrogance or you will turn people off.
The UAE is a very socially aware environment, and the disrespectful, loud, and arrogant individual is more likely to be ignored or sidelined. Good advice is to listen more than you speak here, and when you do speak about your business and expertise, do so in a way that explains the benefits that your “humble” company is bringing to the market and to others, and not in a way that is trying to make you look like the “brains behind it all”.
5. Find your balance or risk burning out fast
The pace of life and of business in the UAE is pretty intense. It’s not necessarily that we are working longer hours than the rest of the world (though many are), but it’s rather that the sheer energy and intensity of this place can be overwhelming.
So pace yourself, manage your time and resources well, find your balance, and plan for the long game.
Because success is far more likely to come to those who can stay the course for many years – whether that is five, 10, 15 or more. Some entrepreneurs in the UAE dive in at the deep end with the mentality that if they give it 500 percent for a year or two they’ll strike it rich.
It may happen. It has happened. But for every one of those stories, you’ll have many more who threw in the towel due to an impatience that was motivated by a desire to get rich quick.
Remember, you don’t get rich by chasing money, you get rich by building. And building takes time. Find your long-term work-life balance, plan well, stay the course, and stay healthy.
Remember, you don’t get rich by chasing money, you get rich by building.
Be a respectful participant
The truth is simple: It’s always beneficial to be sensitive to the business culture you are operating in. The UAE is a proven fertile ground for anyone starting a business with the right attitude, using the right strategy, keen to participate, and who leaves arrogance at the door. So as you move about here, just remember one of the most basic of principles when it comes to moving about anywhere on this planet – respect.
That’s respect for the people around you, respect for the rules, and respect for the unique playing field in which you are operating. After all, the best way to fall on your face anywhere is to think that it is going to be easy. And a great way to fall into that trap is to not take the time to appreciate how things work.
So do it. Master the rules and sensitivities of the environment in which you are building, and learn how things work here. Start with the five essentials listed in this article and you will be off to a good start. And as you move along and find your way, you’ll surely come up with other “essentials” for succeeding in business in the UAE.
Neil Petch; Chairman at Virtugroup
With a history of business successes, Neil Petch is well known in the UAE and beyond as a visionary entrepreneur with a passion for helping others establish and grow their own businesses. Neil founded Virtuzone in 2009 and quickly established it as the region’s leading company formation expert, before launching Virtugroup, a holding company that has a wider mandate of supporting startups from establishment; to successful market entry; and all the way through to exit.