Big Start for aspiring fashion entrepreneur

Dubai-based venture capitalist Al Tamimi Investments will help this student pursue his dream of starting his own retail fashion outlet.

United Arab Emirates - Dubai - Jun 22 - 2010 : Yahya Stapic, from the American University of Sharjah, is the winner of the Big Start contest at the Capital Club of the Dubai International financial centre. ( Jaime Puebla / The National )
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Yahya Stapic's face is etched with shock and disbelief as the life-changing announcement is made. The 21-year-old Bosnian, who had long dreamed of starting a retail fashion outlet, has just been named winner of The Big Start competition during a press conference in Dubai. Some nine months earlier, he never envisaged winning when signing up for an initiative launched by the Dubai-based venture capitalist Al Tamimi Investments.

The marketing and advertising graduate simply hoped a competition giving a final-year UAE university student the chance to launch and become chief executive of their own company would teach him how to start a business. "I never expected to win," he says moments after giving a tearful acceptance speech that paid tribute to his family and late mother. "I have seven brothers and sisters and my mother passed away, so I only have them. We live in one house in Sharjah and it's me and my father who care and look after them - we are the breadwinners, so I won this for them."

With nearly 200 final-year university students from 34 of the UAE's higher-education institutes applying online for the competition last year, the odds of winning were stacked against Mr Stapic. At the start of the process, he and the other contestants had to submit their business ideas online at The Big Start website between September and December last year. Successful candidates who made it through the first round attended workshops arranged by Al Tamimi on how to develop a financial and marketing plan. The entrants then submitted an extensive business proposal in late December and waited until January this year to see whether they had progressed to the next stage.

Those that made it through were invited to a workshop in April on developing their business plan further. Two months later, they were called to the offices of Al Tamimi in Dubai to present their proposals to a panel of the company's executives, including its chairman Essam Al Tamimi. After that, the final four contestants were chosen to attend a press conference in June where the winner was announced. That person was Mr Stapic, who will now receive the Dh500,000 to Dh1 million he requested in his business plan, along with support from Al Tamimi to launch and run his own venture.

In return, Al Tamimi will own an undisclosed stake in the business. "[Yahya] will have the full assistance of our team, so he will be working with my marketing manager, finance director and design department throughout the business launch period," says Rachael Wunsch, the general manager of Al Tamimi Investments. "The business is his baby, so he will be taking the lead and will have as much support as he needs. If he says he's struggling in a particular area, then we will help.

"We will be a shareholder in the business, but the reason why we went into this enterprise was really the vision of the chairman Essam. He was born here and is a successful businessman who has had a lot of opportunities. He wanted to give something back to the community and provide long-term opportunities for the local students, which is how we came up with The Big Start." Mr Stapic's winning proposal was The United House of Fashion, a retail outlet for UAE-based fashion designers and artists who are either still at university or have recently finished higher-education courses. The idea is to promote and sell young people's creative work to individual buyers or businesses, such as bars and restaurants that require pictures and photography to spice up their decor.

"I have many friends in advertising agencies or studying fashion at university who are trying to create and promote their brands on Facebook [the social networking website] and selling and marketing them, but they don't have the appropriate platform. They have talent but lack visibility," he says. "The designers and artists will bring their work to our retail outlet once it opens and we will sell it for them. That's the main thing you need here in the UAE, visibility, so we provide that platform for them to communicate, sell their designs and achieve great heights. This could involve freelance fashion designers, photographers, artists or whoever - as long as they have talent, drive and passion they can come in."

The company will start small, opening a retail outlet in Dubai before expanding to other channels such as online. No launch date has been set, although with a business plan already in place following nine months of planning, Mr Stapic envisages the company will launch soon. Looking physically and emotionally drained after being named winner of The Big Start, Mr Stapic reveals he almost missed his chance to enter. To promote the initiative, the organisers set up booths at several universities across the UAE, but missed out on some institutions such as The American University of Sharjah, where Mr Stapic studied.

"If a friend had not come to me and told me about the competition I would never have entered," he says. After applying for the competition, Mr Stapic says the nine-month process from start to finish was excruciating. But he believes his past experience of writing and presenting business plans helped to settle his nerves while giving him an edge over other contestants. "I have had a couple of sessions at university where I learned how to write business plans and that's why I did so well," he says. "I took entrepreneur and international marketing courses, which help with formulating a business plan and financials, so I knew how to articulate the business and write it down."

He also credits his family and friends for helping him deal with the pressures of battling to turn his business start-up dream into reality. "I was very nervous throughout, but my family and friends helped," he says. "I tried to live a normal life and go out on the weekends as this was the only way to succeed." Similarly, Big Start finalist Samaneh Sanatnama is familiar with the heavy demands of competing in a life-changing competition. The 26-year-old IT graduate from the University of Wollongong in Dubai reached the final after developing a solid business plan and pitch for her clothing business. The concept involved developing jumpsuits for children aged between zero and two that allowed them to dress up as their favourite animals, such as teddy bears or bees.

Had she won the competition, Ms Sanatnama would have opened several small kiosks located in walkways throughout UAE malls. But despite losing out to Mr Stapic, she still harbours a burning desire to get this or another business off the ground. "It would definitely take more time without an investor, but the whole experience taught us how to present to investors so I might be able to pitch to someone in future who could be interested in one of my ideas," she says.

"I would either do this with an investor or on my own. I could get a loan and it wouldn't be a huge investment to launch the company without employees as the manufacturing would be done here in the UAE. There are ways of doing this with a lower budget." While Ms Sanatnama and the other two losing finalists were edged out in the final round, Al Tamimi's Ms Wunsch said that picking the winner was a close call. But following much deliberation, the judges eventually chose Mr Stapic for his tenacity and steely determination to succeed.

"We were looking at the individuals just as much as their business ideas," she says. "It is about what makes or breaks the business and what the driving force behind that venture is. We were really looking for that chemistry and right fit in an individual who had what it took in terms of the initial concept and drive to turn it into reality." Ms Wunsch adds that the competition will return in this year's third quarter for a second run following its successful launch. And she remains confident that The Big Start will unearth more talented graduates with the passion to start their own ventures.

"It's been a really successful competition and we've discovered that the entrepreneurial spirit is alive and well in the UAE, so we hope The Big Start will help more people realise their business dreams and aspirations," she says.