Healthy discontent is the prelude to success. It could also lead to new ideas and ventures. This holds true in the case of Emirati entrepreneurs Aliyah Al Abbar and Hend Al Marri, the founders behind Blah – a talent management and technology start-up in Dubai.
"It was October 2017. I was kind of lost in my own ideas. Things were not falling in place, I was feeling unhappy and did not know from where I should start my own venture," Ms Abbar, 26, tells The National.
Then a casual chat with her friend Ms Marri changed the course of events.
“While speaking over the phone, Hend judged my discontentment and candidly asked me what I wanted to do professionally. After listening to my idea, she immediately offered to make an initial investment and the rest is history,” she adds.
Ms Abbar, who earlier wanted to serve in Dubai police, left her forensic science studies to pursue her entrepreneurial journey.
Founded in early 2018, Blah started with a modest investment of Dh20,000 and the initial clients were the co-founders' close friends.
Blah connects entrepreneurs, start-ups and established companies – from diverse fields such as music, cinema, science, technology, banking, medicine and retail – to fill the talent gap in the region.
“We do not want to make millions of dirhams in a few months of our life cycle and then vanish,” says co-founder Ms Marri, 28, who also works full-time with the Dubai Health Authority.
“We want to stay longer and disrupt the entire start-up ecosystem. Our clients call us facilitators in their business journeys.”
For example, there was an opera singer who did not have funds, says Ms Marri. "We arranged funds for his project, which will be in cinemas soon, and he did a performance in exchange for another client."
Blah's target audience include start-ups or businesses that do not have sufficient funds to run their projects. If a start-up approaches them for a particular service, they either offer it themselves or connect the company with the right talent in the market.
“We are doing talent-by-talent trading. Depending on the final outcome, we get our share of profit,” says Ms Abbar.
Blah runs two companies under its umbrella, Blah Art Productions, focused on media and entertainment, and Mutant Academy, related to projects in the latest technologies such as artificial intelligence, virtual reality, neuroscience and forensic science.
“We are lucky to be in this part of the world where the start-up ecosystem is so dynamic and attracting global attention. For young entrepreneurs like us, there are plenty of opportunities to make a difference and make our presence felt,” says Ms Abbar.
The number of investment deals for start-ups in the Middle East and North Africa climbed to a record 238 transactions in the first half of this year, attracting $471 million (Dh1.73 billion) in funding led by investors from Asia, according to start-up platform Magnitt.
The volume of deals grew 28 per cent year-on-year, while the amount raised surged 66 per cent in the first six months of 2019.
The UAE, the second-biggest Arab economy, remained the most active start-up ecosystem, accounting for 26 per cent of all deals and two-thirds of total funding in the region.
Blah, which has around 40 clients spread across the UAE and the US, became profitable in the first few months of its operations.
“We spent the whole of 2018 in networking … we always met clients personally to ensure there is no communication gap. Gradually we started seeing positive results of our hard work and we became profitable within a few months of inception,” says Ms Abbar.
The company is not yet looking to raise investor funds.
“We are generating enough money to sustain our operations so there is no immediate plan to raise funds from outside,” says Ms Marri.
“We want freedom and we do not want an outside voice to dictate to us and dissolve the very purpose of our business. But if somebody offers us an unconditional offer, we can sit across the table to discuss.”
Blah, which has a workforce of 10 employees, plans to hire more people in 2020 as it expects many new projects. The start-up believes in giving full freedom to its employees and does not mandate them to leave their regular jobs.
"We are one of the most flexible companies in the UAE that always care about employee happiness. We want them to be good managers of time
and transparent with us," says Ms Abaar.
When it comes to expansion, she says Saudi Arabia and
Germany are the “obvious choices” with plans to enter the markets by the middle of next year.
"We are taking small but very firm steps," says Ms Marri. "Gradually we will expand across the Middle East and Europe. We have signed some big deals that will be completed next year."
The year 2020 will be the turning point for the company as a number of ongoing projects will be completed and new ones come on board.
As the company grows, Blah is aiming to offer a full suite of marketing services to its clients in the coming months.
The start-up considers a VR project as its biggest achievement so far. A mix of VR and cinematography allows users to be actors within a virtual film and game.
“This VR project will be a major disruptor,” says Ms Abbar. “It holds potential to impact various industries. Work is still on and we will make major announcements next year”.
To save on costs, Blah does not plan to invest in a physical space.
“Most of the time, we are on the move and operating from client sites. There is no point in paying avoidable rent when we can use that money for some other business goal,” says Ms Abbar.
Q&A: Blah’s co-founders Aliyah Al Abbar and Hend Al Marri
How do you define Blah?
Ms Abbar: We deliberately kept a name that does not mean anything because we wanted our clients to focus more on our work than on our name. I define Blah as a positive change in the society that we are bringing by helping businesses.
Who is your role model?
Ms Abbar: I am so impressed with the personality of Elon Musk. He has been an exceptional entrepreneur who thinks about the future and knows how to make the best use of technology to create a better tomorrow. I also admire Google's co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin. They are the inspiration for entrepreneurs who want to disrupt all segments of society.
How do you define yourself?
Ms Marri: I am an entrepreneur, who cares more about humans and ethics. I believe if you follow the simple rules of life, you will automatically achieve success. I always prefer to do hard work to reach my business goals rather than using some short-cuts.
If you could change one thing in your entrepreneurial journey, what would it be?
Ms Abbar: I made some decisions in a rush during the initial months of my business. Later I realised that I was not dealing with the right people. There was a complete mismatch in our ideologies. They were thinking more about money and less about human values. I am more cautious in choosing new clients now.
Where do you see yourself after 10 years?
Ms Abbar: I don't see that far. We are going with the flow of our business that is growing every month. We are moving project by project. Our only aim is to build a sustainable business that will contribute to the society in a positive way.
What is your mantra to success?
Ms Marri: Always listen to people and take constructive feedback. Even if you make a mistake, admit it and amend things.
Any high-point that you always remember?
Ms Abbar: It's a good feeling when some renowned names from the industry approach you and ask you to work for them. It happened with us many times when some senior government officials approached us after seeing our past projects.