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Five skills every Dubai startup founder needs to develop

Oct 17, 2016 | Business and Leadership Skills

Note this article also appeared in Entrepreneur Middle East and can be viewed here.

Dubai is a global hot-spot for startups, buzzing with business activity of every kind. Everything is working to support the entrepreneur in this vibrant city. It is tax free, has world-class infrastructure, and is ideally positioned for international trade. What’s more, economic growth is going to significantly pick up in the next four years in part due to the World Expo 2020 being hosted in Dubai, according to a report by the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

So you would be hard-pressed to find a better city that can offer so many opportunities and advantages to get ahead, whichever sector you specialise in.

There is a price when you set up shop in a place full of opportunities – you can be sure there will be some competition for those golden deals. Where there is money, where there is rapid expansion of industries, there are always clusters of businesses looking to secure their stake in the prize. So you need to be savvy in your dealings to get a march on business rivals and shove your foot in the proverbial door.

Where there is money, where there is rapid expansion of industries, there are always clusters of businesses looking to secure their stake in the prize.

To succeed, you need to work hard, have a better offering than the rest, and understand the dynamics of doing business deals in the city. Dubai has its own distinct flavour of trading and there are certain behaviours and skills that will really count when deals are done.

So here are five must-have skills that will ensure you get those contracts signed and that cash flow kick-started. 

1. Be the one who initiates contact:

Rule number one in business: In most cases, sales don’t come to you, you go out to grab them. You need to be proactive. In his book ‘The Power of Relentless’, author Wayne Root stresses that promoting yourself and your business should not be looked down upon – in fact, relentless sales and promotion are ‘as essential to success as breathing is to living’. So it’s a case of attitude from the outset.

To succeed, you can’t sit there staring at the phone hoping it will ring. Opportunities happen because you have helped create them, so be sure to reach out as a daily exercise. Focus on honing those essential rituals: For example, make phone calls to five people in your relevant business community every day. They can be people you know or new contacts, the key is to strengthen and expand your network.


Introductions are key. Get to know people you want to be in business with – don’t be shy, riches will never come from hiding your brilliant business away behind office walls. Those calls do not need to be hard sell cold calling, and in fact the hard sell approach does not always go down well in Dubai. But they do need to make you stand out as a business person and they do need to communicate your service. People remember voice or face-to-face contact – it’s easier to forget and ignore an email.

The point is, Dubai is a busy business environment and where you fail to make contact or check in with someone, there may be someone else who does and gets that hot tip for a deal or even calls just at the right time when a service is required. Ice hockey legend Wayne Gretzky summed this sentiment up brilliantly when he said: ‘You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.’ 

2. Trust your gut feeling for the client’s price comfort zone:

Customers who come back are the most valuable customers. They can give you the backbone of your revenue and if someone likes you and what you do, you can become their go-to service or product provider.

However, you need to understand the importance of getting a price point that will remain sustainable for the long term. In Dubai, perhaps more so than other places, a potential long-term business relationship can crumble if the price is too high. Being too greedy on your price point may eventually undo a perfectly good client relationship.

When the client is even the slightest bit uncomfortable with the price they committed to, it won’t be long before that thorn in their side must be pulled out, meaning they will scrap the contract they have with you. So make sure to develop a very fine awareness for each client’s ‘price comfort zone.’

And we’re talking not just about price in relation to purchasing. A study entitled ‘Pricing and the psychology of consumption’ published in the Harvard Business Review acknowledged that while executives generally understand how pricing influences the demand for their product, fewer realise how it can affect the consumption of that product. Why is this important? Research demonstrates that the relationship between pricing and consumption is key – the degree to which the customer uses your product during a particular time period is a vital factor in whether they will purchase the product again. 

3. Develop a cross-cultural communication mindset and approach:

The idea of cultural sensitivity is generally assumed to be of importance yet there isn’t a great deal of study around the subject. This was addressed by researchers at Northeastern State University who defined cultural sensitivity as an ability to monitor a new environment and make sense of it from the inside, rather than remaining outsiders. To put it another way: To stop seeing things from your ‘foreign’ perspective by comparing behaviour against what you know from back home, and instead understanding it within the context of where it exists. They found foreign entrepreneurs go through several significant stages when doing business with a culture that is alien – from the romance of it all being very new, right through to being a true partner. This transformation is slow and takes a great deal of commitment. Ultimately, they concluded that ‘higher levels of cultural sensitivity provide the Western entrepreneurs with more meaningful and intimate levels of trust.’

To show how significant cross cultural knowledge is – the population of the UAE is estimated to be approximately 9-1 in terms of expats compared to Emirati nationals – that’s around 7.8 million expats to 1.4 million Emiratis. Most of the expats live in Dubai and Abu Dhabi and are predominantly Indian, Pakistani, Filipino, Bangladeshi, Sri Lankan, Russian, Iranian, South African, Nepalese, Malaysian and European – so a real melting pot of cultures. There is a significant variation in how different cultures view challenges, financial issues, workloads, punctuality and quality, so understanding this will mean you are properly prepared.

To show how significant cross cultural knowledge is – the population of the UAE is estimated to be approximately 9-1 in terms of expats compared to Emirati nationals – that’s around 7.8 million expats to 1.4 million Emiratis.

While speaking Arabic would obviously be a very welcome quality for conducting business in Dubai, it’s not strictly necessary. What is necessary is that you have a good command of English, which is the second language in Dubai and the language commonly used for business.

It is also important to be articulate in what you are proposing. Communication is often judged by the finer detail, so a well-rounded proposition with correct spelling and grammar may set you apart as a serious business prospect for a client.

Different cultures have different ways of presenting themselves in business meetings too, so research if you are unsure of a particular cultural etiquette. For instance, in Dubai, it is customary to greet the most senior person first and if you are offered a drink of tea or coffee in the office, it can be discourteous to refuse. The difference between knowing and not knowing these little cultural preferences can make a disproportionate difference to your chances of success – in Dubai people like to do deals with those who they like and respect. It’s not all about the numbers. 

4. Have the ability to move fast:

Fast is the default business speed in Dubai. Its ultra-rapid development proves that to be true, yet there are still plenty of gaps in markets – sectors just emerging that first movers can capitalise on.

The first-mover advantage is defined by having the ability to dominate large market segments that are untapped. In a study published in the Strategic Management Journal, first-mover advantages were put into three key sections: Technological leadership – having proprietary tech makes it harder for the competition; pre-emption of assets – low prices for first movers since the market is not yet established; and finally buyer switching costs – making it difficult for customers to go elsewhere without incurring costs.


While there are certainly disadvantages as well (not least your original ideas built upon by competitors or simply being stolen), ultimately the study concluded that where first-mover opportunities arise, ‘managers must decide whether the firm should pursue it, and if so, how best to enhance its value.’ 

5. Know how to stay focused:

A major flaw in some entrepreneurs’ approach is that they can’t stick to one idea and get it done. They jump from one idea to the next, move the goal posts or drift in a way that makes them redefine their original idea beyond recognition. This could well be termed ‘Dubai second rate business disease’.

David Rock in his book ‘Your Brain at Work’ spoke to neuroscientists about what is happening to the brain while we are switching tasks. Essentially, every time we change focus we have decreased our productive thinking abilities – the more we switch, the worse it gets. And this means poorer decision making. We could apply this in our day-to-day working life or while juggling ideas over a period of weeks.

So it takes steady determination, focus and perseverance to make a business successful. If you jump about trying to start, restart and reinvent your business every other day you will never get momentum to build or complete a single proposition.

If you jump about trying to start, restart and reinvent your business every other day you will never get momentum to build or complete a single proposition.

It’s important to define your offer and build your business – an idea takes seconds, but a business may take years of care to come to fruition. Jack Welsh, former CEO of General Motors said, ‘Good business leaders create a vision, articulate the vision, passionately own the vision, and relentlessly drive it to completion.’

Keep focused and don’t get distracted easily as many business people do in Dubai when they find themselves tripping over the bewildering array of opportunities – right up until they fall over.


Dubai is the best place in the world to start a company – with a business environment stacked in your favour from day one. But it takes developing a strong yet flexible mindset to navigate this unique cultural backdrop.

Be proactive, connect with people every day, study your clients’ needs, be respectful, and build your business confidently with a strategy. If you do these things, you have every chance to become a leader in your market.

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