Thriving, not just surviving: How savvy UAE entrepreneurs used social media to get ahead in a pandemic

Using a fusion of persistence and creative thinking, these three home-grown businesses have expanded their outlook amid the disruption of 2020

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This could well be described as the year that brought entire industries to a halt. Established brands and conglomerates aside, many small and independent business owners are feeling the pinch as people eschew services that require them to head outdoors over the prolonged pandemic.

The obvious solution lays in the parallel, but crowded, universe that is the World Wide Web. Even as some brands struggle to make ends meet – by offering doorstep delivery and digital workout sessions, say – some tech-savvy entrepreneurs are not only surviving the pandemic, but have actually emerged stronger.

Here are some of their success stories.

Project Chaiwala: brewing business with social media

Ahmad Kazim, left, and Justin Joseph, centre, founded Project Chaiwala in 2017

For many tea drinkers, a cup of chai is synonymous with unwinding after a long day. It’s also what led Justin Joseph and Ahmed Kazim, former financial consultants from Dubai, to start Project Chaiwala three years ago. The pair often wrapped up their workdays with a cuppa, and felt that a cafe that specialised in the piping-hot drink was in sync with their respective Indian and Emirati backgrounds. The brand began growing steadily year on year, and launched three locations in three years across Dubai.

More branches were in the works when the pandemic hit. Construction came to a halt, but Joseph says this was "a blessing in disguise."

“Most of our sales used to take place through our retail outlets, but now 80 per cent happens through online channels,” he says, meaning had they gone ahead or already opened the branches, the loss incurred would have been larger.

"Covid-19 gave us a chance to re-evaluate our model. Our key learning is that people's spending doesn't stop – it changes."

Acquiring 80 per cent sales from online sources seems rather remarkable for a shop that specialises in chai – a drink that can be whipped up at home with about four ingredients. Even when Project Chaiwala launched, it was all about bringing the physical Indian street-side experience to the UAE, complete with staff pouring the steaming liquid between two cups, with a flourish – "cutting" the chai.

It turns out, creativity is king, even when it comes to tea. In a bid to switch the focus on expanding delivery, the founders joined Facebook’s #LoveLocal campaign. This gave them free access to the SMB Training Hub and its webinars to help them learn more about growing their business digitally.

Project Chaiwala's founders signed up for Facebook's #LoveLocal campaign for strategies to improve business through social media

Next they started using online advertisements, which led to a 300 per cent increase in sales in May, compared to February and March, before coronavirus restrictions were put in place, with 50 per cent of that coming from Facebook and Instagram advertising. Then they used Instagram stickers and call-to-action buttons to engage with customers. They also brought on a specialist to help them with their digital platforms, and joined aggregators such as Talabat and Chatfood.

These combined efforts have allowed Joseph and Kazim to keep all 25 of their employees, grow their website and package their own tea to sell alongside other merchandise, thus diversifying sales. “The key is not to replicate what other brands are doing and find to your own niche,” says Joseph.

Ravishing Beauty: converting followers into footfall

Because of safety regulations, beauty salons in the UAE were closed for more than a month – and even when they reopened, many people were apprehensive about venturing into them unless absolutely essential. With no source of income and regular operating costs, Rinkel Jamani decided to “get aggressive with social media campaigning”.

Rinkel Jamani and her mother, Soni Jamani, opened the salon in 2016

The founder of Ravishing Ladies Salon in Karama, says: “Since people couldn’t come to us, we decided to go to them. We launched DIY kits for everything from manicures and pedicures to waxing, and started selling them online so that people could get their treatments done at home.”

The salon started posting these kits on social media as well as uploading to-do content to go alongside. It also started connecting with other beauty and fashion communities on Facebook. Jamani says not only did the salon's followers on Instagram and Facebook grow by 35 per cent during the pandemic, but the sales of its kits also covered roughly 20 per cent of operating costs. Moreover, all those "likes" and "follows" translated into footfall when the salon reopened, to such a volume that Jamani needed to hire four more employees.

The salon started selling DIY kits during the height of the pandemic

Having worked in the corporate sector for a decade before launching the salon in 2016, Jamani believes that marketing forms the backbone of any company, and she credits social media platforms for 70 per cent of her salon's revenue at the moment. "Business has not yet returned to what is was pre-pandemic, but we can't complain, either."

Her advice to other business owners who are going down the social media route is to be aggressive without being too in your face. “You need to strike the right balance and be relevant to the times, or people will get bored. Scope out the market so you can cater to what people really need, and then get creative about it.”

Rush-A-Way: zipping around the world over Zoom

Neha Gaggar founded Rush-A-Way five years ago, as the UAE's answer to The Amazing Race TV show. Part fitness challenge, part treasure hunt, the company's events take the form of on-the-ground races and scavenger hunts, organised for individuals and companies. Some of its past activities included archery, paddleboarding, cycling with eggs, reading maps and even a taste test.

Rush-A-Way organises team-building races and scavenger hunts

Gaggar's aim is to help participants form stronger bonds through team-building activities and exercise. This year was poised to be Rush-A-Way's most ambitious, in terms of number of events and variety of challenges, but then came the coronavirus. "In February, we got our first postponement. By mid-March, all our activities were postponed or cancelled," says Gaggar.

Since the format was purely physical in nature, Gaggar had to go back to the drawing board to figure out a way to change her business model. She spent the next few months looking for ways to move scavenger hunts and challenges online. “We realised that now, more than ever, people need team-building exercises,” she says. “We started creating online challenges, testing them out on friends and family to see if they worked, made amendments and figured out how to put that together on an interface.”

Today, Rush-A-Way hosts online-only events, and has catered to between 30 and 300 participants, all via Zoom. Teams compete to complete escape-room-style games, quizzes and puzzles, and even do physical activities such as dance moves or squats, all on video call.

Rush-A-Way now hosts up to three digital corporate challenges a day

Not only has this shift helped to sustain business, but Rush-A-Way has expanded in a way Gaggar never anticipated. "Going digital has helped us go international," she says. "Team building is no longer just a service for the UAE. Companies have reached out from Turkey, India and parts of Africa. Even better, people from all over the world can participate in the same team-building exercise." Online events are also shorter than physical ones, don't require licensing and are relatively free of the clean-up that follows. Consequently, Rush-A-Way has gone from doing one event a day to three.

Gaggar’s advice to fellow entrepreneurs is to stay one step ahead of the game. “People are obviously a lot more open to moving online now, but they didn’t think about it until they had to,” she says.

"If a team-building challenge can go virtual, anything can. The trick is to constantly look for new technologies and platforms to fall back on when things fall apart."