How the pandemic helped aspiring entrepreneurs to take the self-employment plunge

Covid-19 has driven many to re-think their career paths and launch lean businesses

Dubai, United Arab Emirates - December 10, 2020: Hannah Bradley (R) and Lisa Lazarus are founders of online fashion boutique Hi Maintenance. They are contributing to a Money/Business feature about companies that have launched during the pandemic. Thursday, December 10th, 2020 in Dubai. Chris Whiteoak / The National
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Amid the global turmoil brought about by the largest health crisis in a generation, many people crystallised their entrepreneurial ambitions in 2020 and launched businesses.

Whether prompted by job uncertainty or an urge to re-wire career destiny, plenty of people in the UAE steered a course through the pandemic towards self-employment.

For friends Lisa Lazarus and Hannah Bradley, the retail disruption of Covid-19 presented the ideal timing to raid savings and finally unfurl their business dream.

The Dubai-based Britons had been laying the groundwork for their online fashion boutique Hi Maintenance for two years.

But the pandemic additionally motivated the business partners, who first met in London, to launch their platform last summer as trends towards e-commerce ramped up.

“A pandemic doesn’t mean business stops,” says Ms Lazarus, a former Miss Great Britain and aesthetic practitioner from Wales.

“We consider ourselves lucky that we had already been working on Hi Maintenance and were finally ready to launch in July [last year].

“In addition to building a concept and business with long-term strategy, we knew that during this pandemic, many people are working from home and online more.”

Ms Bradley, a human resources global director with a private equity and real estate firm, acknowledges starting a new business carries risks, even at the best of times.

“We tailored our launch and marketing strategy to be sensitive to the global pandemic, and to ensure we are in a prime position to offer the best service to our customers as we emerge out of unprecedented times, hopefully stronger, wiser and more appreciative.

“We are confident exciting times are ahead for e-commerce.”

Hi Maintenance was inspired by a shared love of fashion and entrepreneurial appetite, the women say. And frustration with waiting times to receive online shopping orders in Dubai.

“We knew our friends were experiencing the same,” Ms Bradley says.

We tailored our launch and marketing strategy to be sensitive to the global pandemic

“We also identified a gap in the UAE market for stylish, yet affordable, high-quality, luxurious evening wear, which could be delivered as quickly as same/next day, and just as easily returned.

“Having spent many years in the UAE, we understand the love of glamour and style and the wide array of social activities and events, which drives the constant need for that perfect outfit.”

The duo also wanted women of all shapes and sizes to look and feel their best, so made body positivity and inclusion prominent in their business model and garment range.

Thus far, the friends have self-funded Hi Maintenance, but say they’re open to discussions with investors who “share our values, vision and enthusiasm” in order to grow the business.

“Online shopping is the future,” says Ms Lazarus, who previously ran a modelling agency.

“We are proud we have come so far without outside investment … and are refining our strategy for 2021 in light of the ‘new normal’ we are now living in.

“We are taking time to engage with customers on a deeper level and build brand awareness so as the global economic situation improves we are at the forefront of online boutiques in the UAE.”

CyrusAlavi is the co-founder of NuWater, a sustainable water business aimed atreducing plastic use. He is part of a feature on Covid-era start-ups. Grace Guino for The National

Cyrus Alavi and two childhood friends also dipped into savings to bootstrap their sustainable, re-sealable canned water business.

So keeping NÜWATER lean during uncertain times was key. Among efforts to tether costs was managing digital marketing in-house.

The beverage disruptor launched in October last year and has enjoyed “a great start” as it swiftly found other environmentally conscious mindsets.

But former Apple engineer Mr Alavi, 30, says the process of introducing any new F&B brand to market comes with challenges, regardless of a pandemic.

“Launching a mineral water product in the UAE requires special regulatory approval to ensure the highest standards and quality,” he says. “The process took longer than we had anticipated.”

Mr Alavi, also previously part of Australian aerospace electric engines disruptor magniX, says Covid-19 prompted NÜWATER to initially delay launching until late 2020 “given that we were in the height of the pandemic in March”.

But the business catalyst – to reduce reliance on single-use plastic – remained paramount. Coming a year after Mr Alavi and his co-founders began planning how to combat plastic bottle use, they felt an increasing urgency to launch their sustainable alternative.

“More than eight million tonnes of plastic are dumped into oceans every year,” Mr Alavi says. “We wanted to create a product that had all the convenience of plastic bottles without the detrimental impact.

A lot of contacts for logistics, e-commerce and marketing have come from conversations with local start-ups sharing knowledge

“We knew the issue around the growing number of bottles would not diminish, so we decided to push ahead to help drive sustainability in our community without [further] delay.”

Central to the brand is an innovative lid that allows consumers to re-seal NÜWATER cans after opening.

The pandemic meant in addition to wholesale and Horeca (hotel, restaurants, catering) channels, the company also launched direct-to-consumer (DTC) as it saw growing numbers shopping online.

Although, Mr Alavi admits, one of the biggest challenges was around the education of sustainability and “why an infinity recyclable beverage container, such as aluminium, was a better option for the environment and consumer”.

Like the Hi Maintenance founders, who called on like-minded entrepreneurs and “women supporting women” through female-run UAE groups such as That Dubai Girl and Female Fusion, NÜWATER also found early support from fellow recent start-up Hopi, an online contact lens provider.

“They introduced us to a community of DTC start-ups in the region so we could share experiences and support each other with challenges we faced,” Mr Alavi adds.

“A lot of contacts for logistics, e-commerce and marketing have come from conversations with local start-ups sharing knowledge.”

Ashraf Atia, chief operating officer, and Ramy Assaf, co-founder and chief executive of Zbooni, say the Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated the trend for digital adoption among UAE enterprises. Photo: Courtesy Zbooni

And plenty more have identified opportunity within Covid-19’s economic clouds to realise entrepreneurial aspirations, according to Dubai-based payment solution Zbooni.

Chief operating officer Ashraf Atia says the platform had already witnessed strong pre-pandemic growth, but the crisis accelerated the trend for digital adoption among UAE enterprises.

“The challenges of 2020 refocused the strategies of businesses and the career goals of individuals,” he says.

“We’ve seen some amazing ideas flourish, from those pivoting to the opportunity of the situation to others who have finally taken the plunge with business ideas they long dreamed of.”

The challenges of 2020 refocused the strategies of businesses and the career goals of individuals

Zbooni, which has a range of digital tools to assist companies to interact, transact and engage with customers, reveals 2020 brought 600 per cent growth in business volume across its platform.

Co-founder and chief executive Ramy Assaf says this “stems from the unstoppable rise of Mena region’s entrepreneurs”.

“While 2020 was a tough year for many companies, businesses have risen to the challenge, with a seismic acceleration of SMEs going digital.”

That said, launching a new lifestyle membership programme amid pandemic restrictions was always going to present hurdles.

Designed initially as a cost-effective way of offering lifestyle benefits to SME employees, adv+ (advantage plus programme) was soft-launched in January 2020.

Dubai, United Arab Emirates - December 06, 2020: Feature on Covid-era start-ups. Viktoria Camp is project executive director of lifestyle app adv+ Advantage Plus Programme. December 6th, 2020 in Dubai. Chris Whiteoak / The National

Like thousands of operations around the world, it was brought to an abrupt halt in early March, says lead project manager Viktoria Camp.

“While we did pause operations during the lockdown as all our partner venues closed, we were also able to spend time securing new partners who add value for adv+ and its members.

“We had to pivot our focus from corporate benefits to direct-to-consumers to adapt to the changing needs of the market.”

Ms Camp continues: “Pre-pandemic, our main target was to help businesses offer the same benefits as the largest employers in the region, however, soon after the lockdown ended, we have seen an incredible influx of individual inquiries.”

The pandemic has undoubtedly been a trial and a wake-up call for most of us

With software developed in-house, adv+ could control costs and react quickly to client and partner needs.

Ms Camp cites the membership card’s main focus as driving healthy living and relaxing family time. She says it is still in the process of building consumer trust, but can also drive business to merchants.

“It takes time and effort to ensure people believe in our brand and our product, especially while many businesses are still closing down,” Ms Camp adds.

“The pandemic has undoubtedly been a trial and a wake-up call for most of us.

“The downtime gave us a chance to get a better perspective on the business itself … it has created a unique opportunity to work with businesses and help them get back up and running.”

Certainly, adv+ could be in good company if Zbooni’s forecast of continued momentum for cloud kitchens, wellness and self-improvement, and more “at home services” are correct.

"Overall, many consumers are looking for homegrown products and services and we have witnessed momentum towards supporting local businesses rather than big multinational corporations," Mr Assaf adds.

“More than ever before, businesses in Mena are geared towards a digital future, and we are confident 2021 has the potential to be a great year for SMEs across the region.”