Money & Me: 'Real freedom comes when you don’t work for money but your money works for you'

Escape Hunt's Abdulwahab Bahrawi says making money from his business is a step closer to 'true wealth'

DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES. 09 APRIL 2019. Interview with Abdulwahab Bahrawi, director of the Middle East franchise called The Escape Hunt Experience. (Photo: Antonie Robertson/The National) Journalist: David Dunn. Section: National.

Abdulwahab Bahrawi, 32, is director of the Middle East and Turkey franchise of Escape Hunt, an experiential gameplay concept he brought to the region now with five branches including Dubai and Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, where he was born.

Mr Bahrawi worked for PepsiCo as a retail operations manager before launching his business in Galleria Mall in 2016. He lives in Jumeirah Park in Dubai with his wife, who works for  a gifting e-commerce start-up, and their three-year-old son.

How did your upbringing shape you attitude towards money?

I consider myself lucky; I had a very nice life as a kid. My dad was a doctor and then owned a chain of clinics. He then moved the family to Egypt and started a seaside resort. My parents weren’t strict, but we didn’t have a culture of asking for things in our family. I have two older siblings. We were provided for, but it was not that you got everything you wanted. When I was 13 dad sat me down and asked, ‘how much money do you need in the next two years'? He said ‘these are the categories – weekday spending, weekend spending, clothes, travel, emergency’. He then broke it down and we agreed an amount, around $350 a month. He called it a salary. It wasn’t the amount that mattered, it was the fact you needed to start learning how to budget. It was important for my parents to teach us how to manage money, the value of it. I looked at other kids and they had no clue.

There's a tendency for people to rack up credit card bills and loans; I'm not that person. I'm also not the person that's not going on holiday so I can save.

What did you get paid in your first job?

In my last year of university I worked in Unilever, for a marketing internship in Jeddah earning Dh4,000 a month. I came to Dubai nine years ago. My first job was here, an account executive in an advertising agency in 2010. I came on holiday and a friend introduced me to someone looking to hire fresh graduates. I had just turned 23 and earned Dh10,300; not a bad start. Then I found the opportunity at PepsiCo.

Why did you swap a regular salary to go into business?

I was really happy, doing well, but around my fourth year came to the realisation it was not going to be my long-term. I was travelling three days a week minimum. My wife came home one day and said ‘you need to check out this concept’. I started looking into it (escape rooms) and tried a few when I was travelling. I really liked the idea, dug into the business a little more and realised the capital required wasn’t that big. We agreed a franchise deal with The Escape Hunt, the largest in the world; I offered shares to friends and family first and they covered it. And there was my own personal investment.

This is the flagship in the Middle East. The capital barriers of entry to this industry were very low to start with and the payback quite quick. Spending time with family is important to me and one of the drivers why I left my old job.

So people pay to hunt for clues and escape a room?

For consumers it’s not enough any more to be a spectator. This is a global trend. If you look at experiential entertainment, that’s growing, whether escape games or VR. In the region, the entertainment industry spend is growing. There’s so much potential. We get a lot of corporates; weekdays are primarily filled with team building. When you compare us with other team building activities, the experience is more inclusive and light-hearted - it encourages people to communicate and work together. Our average price per person is a fifth of what companies generally spend for traditional team building experiences.

DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES. 09 APRIL 2019. Interview with Abdulwahab Bahrawi, director of the Middle East franchise called The Escape Hunt Experience. (Photo: Antonie Robertson/The National) Journalist: David Dunn. Section: National.

Are you a spender or a saver?

A bit of both. I don’t hold off spending when it’s needed. Sometimes it’s nice to treat yourself and family, but I don’t spend more than my means. There’s a tendency for people to rack up credit card bills and loans; I’m not that person. I’m also not the person that’s not going on holiday so I can save.

Are you wise with money?

I am. People usually save because of fear of the future. I don’t really have that; at the same time the present is important. I want a good life in the future, but I also want to live a good life now. I’ll look for the best way of spending, something that’s going to facilitate enjoyment. Throwing away money was never okay.

How do you feel about money?

I don’t like giving it too much importance because it can be taken away at any minute. I feel fortunate to have what I have. It is kind of a fuel – when you start making money is a nice feeling; you open a business and it becomes a success, when you’re growing, it drives you. It’s a step closer to what I feel is real freedom; when you don’t work for money is when your money works for you. That’s true wealth. That’s a goal. It’s a nice feeling to say while I’m sitting here this is making enough money to sustain my life.

What do you enjoy spending money on?

Holidays and travel; I got married at a young age and it was a lot of fun travelling with my wife - the many holidays were something I don’t regret spending on. They’re experiences and memories. They are a luxury – at the same it’s nice to reward yourself. I’m definitely happier spending on a holiday than a car. Also, I don’t see anything wrong with splurging when celebrating something or if you’re going to make someone really happy.

Where do you save?

Mainly in real estate funds with my immediate family. Also I’m putting a lot of savings into this (business). I’ll save and invest in other things as well for safety.

What’s been your key financial milestone?

When this business became self-sustainable, positive cash flow, a few years ago. The first three months I was here 16 hours a day, every day, including at reception – I still love the feeling of taking a booking.

Do you prefer paying by cash or credit card?

Credit card; it’s more convenient. I don’t like carrying cash and when you pay cash, nothing is documented. With a credit card, a touch of a button on your phone and you see everything you’ve spent.

Do you plan for the future?

I don’t like to plan ahead that much. You need to stay open to opportunities. If things went to plan all the time everyone would be successful and life would be lovely. You have to be agile, as a business. I like to have a direction – I don’t need a set plan. That said, I do a lot of Excel sheets, even planning for a trip.

Putting money away for education, that’s something we will continue to do. Definitely, my wife and I want another kid.