Emirati entrepreneurs tell success stories at forum

Start-up firms showcase winning strategies on the last day of Celebration of Entrepreneurship event in Dubai, which is hoped to inspire more Emiratis to launch their own businesses.

DUBAI // Murshed Mohammed Ahmed was tucking into dinner with friends when his business idea struck him - but there was one hitch.

Surely to be a good wedding planner, he needed a woman on board?

"The first thought I had was that this was a great idea, but it had to be a woman and it had to be someone with a lot of free time," he said. "Then I realised, why not collate all the information online and open an internet business?"

Several months later, Mr Ahmed, 29, had found his woman - his younger sister Mareyah - and the pair opened Yebab.com, the first online wedding directory for the UAE.

After starting out in October 2008, with 30 shops and just a few visitors, they now clock up 220,000 page views a month and have 6,000 members.

The pair talked about their success yesterday on the final day of the Celebration of Entrepreneurship 2010 event in Madinat Jumeirah. They were among several successful Emiratis who made presentations at the two-day forum.

Ahmed and Rashid bin Shabib spoke about the establishment of their community space, The Shelter, while brothers Mohamed and Peyman Parham described what went into their shawarma restaurant, Wild Peeta.

Mr Ahmed, a former petroleum engineer from Dubai, said he hoped other Emiratis would be inspired by stories such as theirs.

"We all need self start-ups in the East or the West," he said. "But the UAE is lagging behind on this front, we need to catch up."

Yebab.com, a name derived from the loud celebratory whistle that Arab women typically make at weddings, includes listings for all wedding-related products from caterers to dressmakers, artists, photographers and traditional musicians. It is offered solely in Arabic and caters specifically to Arab weddings.

It has been a profitable venture from the outset, Mr Ahmed said.

"We started making money from day one," he said. "This is how the internet works. It provides flexibility, requires little overhead and you can start making income before you spend anything. It is the future of business."

Mr Ahmed said he has grown confident with his success, although starting out he was not so sure.

"Even two years ago, if someone wanted to start a business online he was alone, but now more and more people are heading that way," he said, adding, "I think maybe I was one of the first in the UAE to start using the web professionally."

The Ahmeds charge businesses an annual membership fee to have a full page on Yebab.com.

With more than 100 listed shops and professional services, this makes them a profit. They also gain income from direct advertising and, if a customer makes a purchase directly through the website, they take commission as well as offering the customer a better deal.

This is only a small part of their business but it is growing, Ms Ahmed said. In August, one of the leading internet holding companies in the Middle East, National Net Ventures, invested in Yebab.com.

Next year the company will open portals in Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

"Usually in the wedding business people look online for ideas but they still shop offline," she said. "It is still like that because e-commerce is not well established yet. But it is coming slowly. We are starting to use social networking and we are always expanding or adding."

David Moleshead, the co-chairman of Envestors, which manages a network of private individuals looking to invest in early stage, high-growth companies in the region, said Mr Ahmed's business model was an indication of the future of business in the region.

"Demographically it is a young population here and technology is playing a big role," he said. "This is not a new idea, it is the replication of businesses in other countries, but put into the Arabic language. Therefore there is no reason it should fail."