Devi Kamath, 9, and her sister Meera, 6, are the co-founders of Dubai-based BobRockz Cookies, which won the Spinneys Incubator Programme in 2021 that helps fast-track food and beverage start-up products into its stores.
The programme aims to identify and nurture entrepreneurial talent within the fast-moving consumer goods sector in the UAE.
The business has its origins when Devi was tested positive for food intolerances as a one-year-old in Singapore.
“My husband, Raj, and I changed our lifestyle and revamped our kitchen with free-range products,” says their mother, Anupa Kamath, who worked in the medical equipment sector before taking a break in 2020.
“When I started looking in the market, I found no allergen-free products for babies or toddlers.
“That’s when I started exploring at home and began coming up with clean and nutritious recipes. I decided to make cookies with such ingredients where having one cookie would be equal to having a nutritious meal.”
After moving to Dubai seven years ago, Devi started baking cookies with her mum and gave them to her friends and teachers.
“However, we realised that it’s not easy to raise a child with intolerances. It was especially hard when she attended parties where other kids were being given colourful treats that had sugar and gluten, and it’s hard to say no to your child,” Mrs Kamath recalls.
“So, my husband and I decided it was a great opportunity to develop Devi in a way where she takes pride in her lifestyle.”
BobRockz Cookies are vegan and free of gluten, nuts and refined sugar.
When they initially set up a stall at a winter market in Devi’s school when she was four, the family only wanted their daughter to accept her lifestyle.
When Devi was in Grade one, she experienced bullying. The family decided to start selling BobRockz Cookies at Ripe Market during the spring break in 2021 to help restore her confidence.
“Communicating with people about her cookies rebuilt her confidence and Devi went back to school a different child. People then suggested that we join the Spinneys Incubator Programme,” says Mrs Kamath.
After becoming one of the 15 finalists, preparing for the final round was a fun activity for the family as they watched programmes like Shark Tank and Dragon’s Den.
The children won the programme at the end of 2021 and signed the contract in 2022. That’s when their mum started getting involved full-time in the project.
The incubator programme makes it easy for a business to get on the shelf and there are no product listing fees, rentals or returns involved, says Mrs Kamath.
“On a regular basis, if you go as a vendor and your product is not sold, they return the product. That doesn’t happen in our case,” she says.
“For a small business like ours, this is a huge opportunity and increases our credibility in the market. All these benefits are valid for a year.
“Once a business meets all the parameters, Spinneys offers all support needed, including on social media marketing and they appoint a category manager who will be a single point of contact to guide and mentor the team through the entire process,” explains Mrs Kamath.
After a soft launch in March, BobRockz Cookies was on Spinneys' shelves in May.
“Initially, I wanted my girls to learn life skills through this business. I wanted to teach them that you can have a business idea realised with no major investment,” says Mrs Kamath.
So far, the family has only invested Dh5,750 ($1,565) in the venture to obtain the licence through the Women’s Entrepreneurship Programme.
“We recovered the licence fees from the Ripe Market sales. Also, the business has a self-sustainable model and does not require an upfront investment. We receive money from Spinneys, that gets paid to our vendors and whatever is left is ours,” says Mrs Kamath.
However, the family's life took an unexpected, sad turn in September when Raj, Mrs Kamath's husband, passed away.
"Our life changed overnight and things have not been the same since. I realised that I had to take charge since he was not there anymore. I can't sit crying over it, but pick myself up and get going," Mrs Kamath says.
"BobRockz is the only thing my girls and I have now to look forward to and go ahead with. The business will now help me raise my girls and provide them a future."
When you lose a person you love, that love can either end up being your biggest strength or trauma, according to Mrs Kamath.
"I chose him to be my strength. The girls are my inspiration and supporting me. The community help is helping us heal and eventually move on with life," she says.
Mrs Kamath wasn’t drawing a salary from the business until now. But she got full fledged into the business within 20 days after her husband passed away and the family is now looking for investment.
“We managed to get an investment pitch deck ready. I’m talking to investors to see whether we can scale this business and turn it into a revenue-generating business for my family.”
While participating in Ripe Market, the children would use some of the sales proceeds to buy LOL Surprise dolls.
Devi and Meera also used the money to sponsor a staycation for their parents and bought themselves a dollhouse when they visited Perth, Australia, during summer break this year.
When the family does not have surplus funds, they come up with creative ways to get things done.
For instance, Mrs Kamath approached her niece for help with the design and branding of the cookie packaging.
“The kids see how we save money and these lessons are very valuable, no matter they get into business or employment,” the mother says.
“They have learnt life skills from the business, such as going to a bank, having a chequebook and a bank account, what is profit and loss, and the meaning of cost price and retail price. Kids are not really taught about all this at a young age.”
Mrs Kamath says BobRockz Cookies is now at a stage where the product is already on shelves without any debt or raising investment, while the family has recovered their seed money.
But for a lot of other companies to reach this stage, there will usually be investors on board. This entire process has been a big learning curve for the girls, she adds.
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“Never give up, have patience and always believe in yourself,” says Devi, chief executive of BobRockz Cookies.
“Always work hard. The best part of being an entrepreneur is I get to experience things I love,” says Meera, who is the company's chief operating officer.
Meanwhile, Heather Henyon, founding partner of Mindshift Capital, a venture fund based in Dubai that invests in early stage women-led technology companies in the Middle East and globally, says one of the mistakes entrepreneurs make is waiting until they are fund-raising to reach out to investors.
It is important for entrepreneurs to build relationships with investors before fund-raising, she says.
“We like to get to know founders over time and see them in a few different contexts – for example, one-on-one, pitching and speaking – before investing,” says Ms Henyon.
“As early-stage investors, our relationship is bound to outlast many marriages, and, therefore, it’s important that we have a foundation on which to build.”
Start-ups in the UAE raised $371 million in the first nine months of 2023, according to a report from start-up data platform Magnitt.
More than 82 per cent of round sizes in the UAE were below $5 million and the average valuation of UAE start-ups in seed funding rounds rose by 25 per cent from the previous year, according to a Magnitt report last month.
Kshiraj Mahtani and his friend Gregorio Grasselli, both 18, co-founded Cculo, a monthly underwear subscription programme. They were classmates at Gems World Academy in Dubai.
The duo conceptualised the business idea when they went on a holiday with friends to Greece in July.
“We launched our business in September. It provides a monthly membership for Dh35 to receive a pair of underwear in varying colours as per customers’ dimensions,” says Mr Mahtani, who is studying computer science at McGill University, in Montreal, Canada.
“We are working to offer a six-month and three-month membership at discounted prices.”
The entrepreneurs also plan to launch a women’s line in the future.
They have invested $10,000 into the business so far and sourced the money from micro investors, friends and personal savings.
“We wanted to avoid getting funds from our family as we wanted this venture to be completely funded by us,” says Mr Grasselli, who is studying economics at Erasmus University Rotterdam in the Netherlands.
“We wanted to figure out everything as that would be the best way to build our experience.”
They plan to reinvest 100 per cent of profits generated back into the business.
Scaling is most important for the business now, says Mr Grasselli.
It’s important to keep the pedal on the metal during the initial stages of the business and continue expanding as much as possible, he says.
The two co-founders have built seven businesses since 2019. These include ventures in custom candles, mini perfumes and a digital learning platform.
“Through this, we have been able to gather a lot of wisdom and understanding on how to launch and run a business,” says Mr Mahtani.
They spend around 15 hours a week on Cculo, which has a target audience ranging from the age of 10 to the late 20s.
“The biggest advantage as a teen getting into business would be the relatability we provide through our marketing and approach,” says Mr Grasselli.
“Given our age, we thought this age group was the perfect target market for us to understand what they are looking for and how we can tailor our marketing strategies to make it entertaining and informative for them.”
The entrepreneurs suggest having a highly detailed and concise business plan before launch to determine how to distribute funds.
The most important departments to focus on during the launch phase are marketing and finance, Mr Mahtani recommends.