How UAE's savvy small business owners bounced back from the pandemic

Entrepreneurs set about rising to the challenge when Covid-19 struck

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Small business owners in the UAE say they refused to give up on their dreams when the rise of the Covid-19 pandemic threatened their livelihoods.

Stay-home measures and travel restrictions had a far-reaching effect on traders – big and small – all over the globe.

Independent business owners, many of whom invest their savings in their projects, were placed under particular strain by the financial fallout of Covid-19.

The National spoke to four small business owners who got creative to get through difficult times and now see hope on the horizon.

Swimwear brand emerged from troubled waters

Nicola Jayne Augusti, 32, is a British resident of Dubai who quit her corporate job in 2019 to launch a swimwear brand, but three months later, the pandemic hit.

“I was previously a Champion Bikini Fitness competitor and wanted to launch a business that helped women get healthier, feel more confident and comfortable in swimwear,” said Ms Augusti, whose business operates under the name Nicky Bikini on social media.

“When Covid-19 hit, global travel got cancelled, people couldn’t leave their homes and swimwear sales reached zero.

“I was very scared because I had left my corporate job with enough finance for six months to get my business off the ground, but now that no sales were coming in, I knew that money would dwindle fast if I didn’t problem solve.”

Nicola Jayne Augusti speaks on small business owners who overcame challenges during pandemic in the Marina, Dubai on May 3rd, 2021. Chris Whiteoak / The National. 
Reporter: Sarwat Nasir for News

Ms Augusti said she used social media, especially TikTok, to help promote her brand.

“Social media helped in a number of ways,” she said. “It helped keep my finger on the pulse with behaviours of consumers during the lockdown.

“Home workouts became a huge priority. Off the back of this I decided to launch an activewear arm of my business and sales took off in the space of home workout gear.

“I noticed the social media platform TikTok was also rising at this time and I used it to tell the story of how my small business was coping during the pandemic.”

One of Ms Augusti’s videos on the Chinese social media platform gained more than 100,000 views, helping her reach a record number of sales.

In the past month, she sold 28 of her products and said the numbers are increasing every day.

The art of the sale

Anabia Jamshed, from Pakistan, faced similar challenges during the first wave of the pandemic.

The 34-year-old sells embellished household and decor pieces on an online platform that is licensed by Dubai’s Department of Economic Development.

She said sales dropped sharply in the first months of the pandemic.

"We all that know art pieces are known to be extremely slow-selling commodities,” said Ms Jamshed, who earned a master’s degree in interior design to pursue her lifelong passion and set up her business.

“So, financially, it was a huge struggle, where people didn’t want to go out even or connect, let alone spend on things other than the basic necessities.”

Ms Jamshed also used social media to help market her products and created videos to promote her brand.

Now, sales are slowly starting to pick up, with up to eight of her products sold on average each month.

“Each of my creations presents a story in itself,” she said. “It must never be out of any context at all. After all, this is the era of personalising, storytelling and emanating a nostalgic, cosy, snug and homey vibe.”

Teen entrepreneur 'found gap in market'

Nasser Sultan Lootah is a 16-year-old Emirati who sells manga books, clothing and anime merchandise online. The store is licensed under his mother’s name.

Despite his young age, he is quickly building up business experience.

His most recent venture, the Japanese bookstore he launched in August 2020, has been the most successful so far.

“When the pandemic was reaching higher numbers of cases, I was worried about my business failing due to lower sales,” he said.

“It was very hard for me to get my products because I get them shipped from overseas. Thankfully, my business began to grow slowly and sales where increasing, which gave me hope.

“Personally, I am very into manga and anime, but when the virus started many people couldn’t go out and buy these books. It’s then I realised that there were barely any libraries that would sell these books or deliver them, so I found a gap in the market which inspired the idea for my business.”

In the past couple of months, Nasser Sultan has sold 230 books. He charges about Dh40 to Dh45 for each book, while the clothing and anime figures go for about Dh100 each.

Light at the end of the tunnel

Salem Rashed Alnuaimi is another Emirati who overcame challenges during the height of the pandemic to save his online business.

The 24-year-old sells figures of popular characters from anime, video games and movies, which are lit with LED lights.

He said what makes him different from competitors is that his business designs and develops the lights locally.

Mr Alnuaimi’s brand gained exposure when they exhibited at the Middle East’s Film and Comic Con in 2019.

“By the end of March in 2020, we had to stop activity due to not being able to produce the lights locally and not being able to ship them because the courier service we were using stopped operating,” he said.

“It was worrying at first, but I was glad that my products aren’t those that have a shelf life and I didn’t have a store front or any employees.

“I was able to resume operations in August. Using Instagram ads to help gain more exposure really benefited me.”

Mr Alnuaimi said influencers on Instagram and TikTok carried out product reviews for him, which helped sales grow.

“Following a couple of Instagram ads and collaborations with social media influencers, my reach increased greatly and sales skyrocketed,” he said.

The cost for one led light is Dh100. Mr Alnuaimi said there zero sales from April to July last year. Since the pandemic restrictions were lifted, there are 30 to 50 sales a week.

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