Starting your own business is always a daunting process, and even more so if you’re an expat in a foreign land. With that in mind, here are a few tips for those thinking of taking the entrepreneurial plunge in the Emirates.

UAE-based entrepreneur David Haddad is co-founder of start-up PressPass – an online directory service created  to put journalists in touch with contacts. He has seven steps to help you get from light-bulb moment to booming business.

Once you have an idea for your business, you have to ensure that there is a demand for what you plan to offer. If you are planning to start a yoga studio, you need to find out if people want another yoga studio or, more importantly, if they want your yoga studio. What makes it different? There are many ways to do this but, with the prevalence of social media, it has never been easier or cheaper.

A good place to start is with a simple Twitter search. You can go on Twitter and search for ‘hey, I’m looking for X, Y or Z’. People tell you about their needs every day on social media.

Google, meanwhile, offers targeted advertising at relatively low rates, providing the ideal way to gauge interest in your concept. You can put out an ad that points to an empty page. Make sure the copy explains the service you plan to offer.

In our case, with PressPass, an ad could have read: ‘Looking to be in the press? Click here to be quoted as a source in an article.’ Even though there is no functional site at the end of it, I can see how many times the ad has been clicked. If that number is high enough, there is demand. Spending a couple of hundred dollars on ads before you even build your product can save you tens of thousands later on. 

Every problem has a number of solutions. Now that you know a problem exists, how do you know that your solution is a good one? I would advise you to prepare something on paper, an iPad, or whatever, that outlines your concept – the service you plan to offer. Find a café, go around to people, buy them coffee and show them your concept. Ask them what they think. Everything you learn early on will save you money down the road. You will be surprised by how many people are willing to talk.

Typically at this stage many people would jump right in and start building their business, but instead I would be looking to build partnerships. If the biggest issue when starting a business is validating that your concept works, the second biggest is finding a way to entice customers. Many products fail, not because the products suck but because there’s no distribution. When you’re finished building your product, you don’t want to be sitting around waiting for customers to come to you. It’s too late then – you need to go to them. So think about how to create a customer base early on. Can I use brochures? Can I partner with a store or café and leave flyers for their customers (cross promotion)? Can I work with Groupon? It’s a loss leader (you will lose money) but it generates a lot of awareness.

Distribution is something you can think about and start developing in parallel with the previous steps. In fact, sometimes it’s easier to sort out distribution before you build your product. Like a baby, a product rarely looks its best on its first day. A vision doesn’t have bugs, so it might be easier to get partners to commit early on in the process.

Now you need to consider what skills are going to be needed to execute your idea, to set up your business, whether it is on or offline. What skills do I have? What skills do I need? I’m a yoga teacher, but I need somebody to help with the branding so my business doesn’t come across as just another yoga studio. I’m a programmer, but I need somebody to help find customers. If you can, think globally. There are many websites that will help you recruit from a large talent pool, for example, and (Odesk is the best). Alternatively, ask friends and friends of friends on your Facebook page and your friends’ Facebook pages. There are many ways of finding the people you need.

This part is pretty simple, you need to set a timetable for the creation of your website, your product, your service, or whatever your particular business is. What do you want to achieve in the first three months? Where do you want to be at the end of the year?

By this point, you’re not worrying about whether anyone wants your service or how you are going to bring your idea to fruition. Now it’s just a matter of taking the steps you are going to need to take to build your particular business. This depends entirely on the type of business you are setting up. If it’s a physical business, it might be finding a location or hiring contractors. If it’s online, it could be designing and building your website.

It’s cheaper to bring a customer back than to find a new customer
Customer service: people come back to you when you make them feel good.
Loyalty programmes: online this could be credit points for each log-in. Offline, it could be stamp cards.
Upselling: what else are your customers looking for? They bought a yoga membership, now what? Can you offer them one-on-one training?
Thoughtful gestures: if a regular client takes a date to your restaurant, and you take a complimentary drink to the table, they are more likely to remain loyal.

If you’re looking to start a business in Dubai, try one of these three set-up options

Virtuzone ( Set up in 2009, Virtuzone, in collaboration with Fujairah’s Creative City Free Zone, claims to be able to assist you in setting up your business in just ten days. Visit the Virtuzone office for a consultation, fill in the relevant paperwork, make a payment – Dhs30,000 for a one-visa Supersaver package and Dhs38,500 for a six-visa Classic package – and receive your business licence.

Jumeirah Lakes Towers Free Zone ( JLT Free Zone will provide you with your own ‘executive’ to guide you through the process of setting up your business. A basic set-up should take a week, and you can lease or buy freehold property at the 200-hectare free zone. Charges include an annual licence fee of Dhs20,010, a one-time registration fee of Dhs10,010 and a one-time MOA charge of Dhs2,010, as well as visa charges.

RAK Free Zone ( you set up your business in the RAK Free Zone, you can still do business across the UAE. A number of licences are available from RFZ, including Flexi Desks and Flexi Offices, ideal for start-ups, with full business centre support. Warehouses and permanent offices are also available. A general trading licence is Dhs15,000 per year, the one-off registration fee is Dhs7,000 and there is an annual service fee of Dhs1,200.

 This article first appeared in What’s On in December 2012