With just $US30 in his pocket, Peter Sage decided to strike out on his own, dropping out of school at 16, and selling toys for a living. His entrepreneurial journey eventually led him to start more than 20 businesses. By Sage's own admission, some were failures, others successes, and some he doesn't even want to talk about.
"The defining characteristic of an entrepreneur is the ability to handle uncertainty,' Sage tells attendees at the Dubai Tech Nights event in the city's downtown area.
A monthly networking event and talkfest, Dubai Tech Nights brings together IT enthusiasts, aspiring entrepreneurs, and industry mentors in a bid to try and emulate the creative spirit of America's tech center, Silicon Valley. Nestled in beanbags, attendees listen to stories of how entrepreneurs eke out a living from their passion. They are there to learn how to avoid the pitfalls of launching a start-up, running a company or just exploring the idea of being an entrepreneur.
Sage recounts how almost every venture he launched had an uncertain future, from health clubs to property investments. His latest project, Space Energy, is an attempt to commercialize space-based solar power.
He is driven a by passion for ideas and turning them into businesses. And attendees at the Dubai Tech Nights are looking for inspiration and leads on how create a viable business from an idea, how to recruit the right people, and how to manage risk, among other things.
Sage says he learned how to deal with risks by learning to skydive. After some hours of training on the basics of jumping out of a plane, a spot had opened up in a group that was planning to skydive. Up at 12,000 feet, Sage saw how a fellow student was planning to make his first jump ever. The student hesitated and stayed inside the plane with a frozen look of fear on his face. So the instructor had to nudge him out. After watching the student fumble, Sage's turn came. He stood near the edge and just jumped. "The second I stepped out of the plane, the fear was gone because I was in the moment and I was already committed,' Sage says.
The main speaker of the night, Tariq al-Asiri, general manager of Dubai-based financial news services firm Argaam, focused on his struggles to set up a business from scratch some five years ago. "You need to distinguish yourself,' Al-Asiri says. "Do something that is not just copy and paste.'
He explains the challenges facing an individual trying to set up an online business: Talent shortages, lack of corporate support in the region, and technological issues.
As a budding entrepreneur, Al-Asiri had to make decisions regarding hiring staff to build up his business. Looking for proficient IT specialists and making choices on technologies to use determined the outcome of the work that was going to come out in the end.
"Whatever decisions made in these years from the technical point of view, it will determine the success or failure of the company in the coming years,' Al-Asiri notes. "It is important to decide upfront the resources available around you in the Middle East in order to go forward.'
For the co-founders of startup company Pricefinder.ae, David Cook and Michael Andersen, starting a business wasn't easy. The website, which provides comparison of insurance rates in the UAE, faced some technical challenges such as online credit card payment, which is not prevalent in the UAE as in other developed markets. "One of the major issues is technology in the Middle East,' Andersen says. "It seems quite far behind the Western World.'
But some entrepreneurs want to do more than just build a successful business. For Habib Al-Assaad, having a sales career at companies including ORACLE, GM and Motorola wasn't enough. So he became a co-founder of The HUB UAE, a startup support platform that connects entrepreneurs and provides them with resources to marry their business ideas with a social agenda, in a bid to tackle global issues such as climate change, poverty, and education.
The HUB UAE, which will officially launch this year, joins other branches of the platform that exists around the world from Amsterdam to Sao Paolo. Many entrepreneurs focus on building a business and selling it later for a profit. But many question if that's all to their work, according to Al-Assaad. "There are a lot of people who are beginning to ask themselves, 'Why am in it for the exit?' Al-Assaad says.
Going the social entrepreneurship road wasn't initially on Al-Assaad's mind. Although all his family worked for the United Nations, he was focused on making money. "But no matter what I did, the social angle kept chasing me,' Al-Assaad says. "After eight years of a corporate career, I found this was my passion.'
Social entrepreneurship is not charity or giving money, he says, it is starting a business that is successful and also of benefit to society. One example is the realm of microfinance, he notes. It allows businesspeople to make profit from lending money to individuals to help them earn living. In Al-Assaad's opinion, microfinance works better than just simple donations. "It is unsustainable to continue fundraising. We see how corrupt the sector is,' Al-Assaad says. "It is ultimately throwing money at a problem and not tackling the root cause.'
A final lesson Sage imparts to attendees is that keeping a commitment to a venture helps an entrepreneur establish their self-worth versus worrying about net worth. Incurring losses leads some to abandon their startups, he notes. But often, he says, going through a venture for the experience is more important than the actual outcome, and learning from mistakes is important.
Sage had one last message to aspiring entrepreneurs: "I invite you to jump off the plane.'