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It’s easy to see that one of the attributes that got Plan b founder and Chairman Harmeek Singh to his current position of business success is his almost relentless desire to make sure he and his enterprise always stand out- the entrepreneur is all about differentiating his brand and always staying ahead of the game. “Turning heads- that’s what it’s all about,” Singh explains. “And that’s how we managed to hyper grow Plan b in a short amount of time.” Hyper growth is a good way to refer to Plan b’s evolution over the years. After trying his hand at a slew of businesses back home in India, Singh arrived in Dubai in 2003 with his first job here being at a media sales company. He moved on from the role after 10 months, but Singh found that his regular clients were willing to follow him to whatever he set out to do next. “This gave me a small platform to build and grow a sustainable freelance business, earning around AED150,000 per month to AED200,000 per month at the time, which gave me again the capital to plunge into entrepreneurship,” he remembers.
Officially launching Plan b Advertising in 2004, he admits that it was a Herculean task to operate every aspect of his business by himself at the beginning, and found himself wearing “multiple hats” for almost a year before he was able to hire a small team. But those tough times have since paid off- Plan b has today cemented its place as one of the UAE’s most well-known marketing and events companies, offering a variety of services including marketing campaigns, experiential events management, branding services, activations and launches, visual merchandising, and other projects. Headquartered in Dubai, with offices in Abu Dhabi, India, and London, the Plan b umbrella today covers eight companies -Plan b Advertising (creative and printing), Plan b Events (marketing, public events, exhibitions and in-house production), SiO2 Events (a boutique events agency), bSocial (the group’s PR and social media wing), bMovies (digital media, application and technology), bCreative (a boutique creative agency), Next Door (sports management) and bDecor (interior design)- and boasts of a team of more than 350 experienced multidisciplinary professionals.
Given the bustling business, social and cultural events space in the UAE, and its position of a Middle East trade hub, while it’s true that event management and advertising enterprises have always been recipients of robust growth, only a few have managed to carve a niche for themselves- and Plan b seems to be one such company in this space. “Our main edge is the fact that we are in control of every aspect of even the most complex 360 degree campaign, owing to our in-house capabilities through the eight group companies,” notes Singh. “This acts as a major advantage in a very demanding service industry, and allows us to offer faster turnaround times to our customers. Also, due to the nature of our industry, which is very talent-driven, we make sure to keep on investing in top talent and embrace diversity. We have a very diverse workforce, which creates a very stimulating environment, setting the tone of our company culture.”
This strategy of having in-house expertise along a number of different verticals also makes sound business sense, Singh reveals. “Plan b operates a group of companies, so our diversification is balanced upon individual business units that are responsible for their own bottom lines. The benefit of having the expertise across the group gives us in-house capability for a lot of product development and R&D, which keeps us up to speed with the rapidly moving trends and technology, and gives our customers the benefit of cost-effectiveness, as we have minimal layers of markups with everything falling supposedly in-house.” As for the road ahead for the industry at large, Singh believes experiential campaigns are the way forward, and from his enterprise’s perspective, Plan b has addressed this early on by investing in its own development and technology wing.
It’s important to note here that Plan b has been an entirely self-funded enterprise so far, with Singh not having used any external capital to build the business. “I personally feel that sourcing capital invites loss of control, and hence chose to pace my growth based on my capacity at all times, rather than raising funds,” Singh notes. He adds that despite this decision, the group today is an entity that “in fact funds and acquires successful businesses and IPs [Intellectual Property].” Coming from a person who started right at the bottom, and bootstrapped his way to the top in this way, aspiring entrepreneurs should take to heart the dictum that Singh considers as key to his turnaround story: “Strong foundations and staying grounded, both are the key to everything. While it may sound metaphorical, it is very hard to fall when you have your feet firm on the ground,” says Singh. “As you may excel, move, and elevate into bigger and better things just make sure you keep yourself grounded and close to what you are about.”
As for Plan b itself, Singh has already laid out a roadmap for the enterprise that he hopes to realize in the years to come. “Strengthening of our individual verticals, bringing in a strategy of consistent improvement and development across our offerings, and expansion of our footprint are our three main long-term objectives,” he says. “Based upon the pace of our growth, we have received a lot of interest from entities abroad in a franchise model, which is something under consideration at the moment.”
Today, with a large part of an entrepreneur’s time being spent on attempting to influence and communicate enterprise vision to stakeholders (be it investors or customers or employees), one can’t escape learning how to sell. As a person who started his career in sales, it’s no wonder then that Singh has a head start in this aspect, and I ask him about how significant is the ability to sell vis-à-vis the product/ idea focus, when it comes to a startup. Surprisingly, despite his own professional background, Singh believes that while “sales are the lifeline of any business,” the absence of a “product desire and service excellence” can cost the business a lot. “Successful businesses subscribe to the 80:20 rule where you make 80% of your sales through 20% of your customers. And that is only possible once you become your customer’s ‘need’ as opposed to ‘want’, and that in turn comes with exceptional product grade and unmatched service quality.”
Singh also walks the talk, and Plan b has in fact had a pulse on customers’ fingers, and plotted its growth strategies accordingly. “[In the creative business], you need to be able to make your customers understand the type of value you can add, and cater the needs your competitors won’t. We invest a lot of time in getting to know and understand our customers to develop a long-term relationship, and build their trust by acting on our commitments and over deliver on expectations.” The importance Singh places on caring for his customers is reflected in his attitude towards his employees as well- here is an entrepreneur who believes the right work culture plays an integral role in an enterprise’s success. This is clearly evident from Singh’s response to my question about his personal leadership strategy for his organization. “I have nurtured a family, rather than employees, at Plan b,” Singh says. “Keeping your employees happy takes more than just a paycheck; you need to create a positive culture to inspire your staff. We try to provide each individual with the drive they need to perform, by empowering them, welcoming change, fresh ideas, and by celebrating personal milestones together as a family. Our ‘event veterans’ still look forward to come to work every day, and motivate new staff to perform at their best. Our company culture is a reflection of our brand values- and [it] transfers in our client’s organizations.”
Harmeek Singh, Founder and Chairman, Plan b
What would you count among the region’s biggest challenges for entrepreneurs?
“Well… real entrepreneurs don’t let any challenges stop them…but if I had to choose it would be competition… UAE is a very dynamic and competitive market especially in the lead-up to EXPO 2020, exceedingly it would be considered one of the main challenging factors and should be recognized.”
What are your views on the current tough business conditions for SMEs in the region? What would be your advice to them to get through the conditions?
“Macroeconomic conditions are something everyone has to sail through, and since 2008, tidal changes have become a mainstay of general markets across the world. My advice to SMEs and upcoming businesses would be to hold on to their market share…while we may not be in control of the economy on the macro level, we should be in control of our own product and service. Downturns can serve as an opportunity if you look at the right places. Just ensure that you’re safeguarding and maintaining your service levels and delivery expectations, and ride the wave in a steady manner. Soon enough you will see yourself riding high out of the low.”
What are your top tips for an entrepreneur to start and grow a business here in the MENA region?
“Remain patient, nothing comes easy, and it takes hard work and determination to achieve a sustainable business organization. Shrug off disappointment, believe in your brand and make sure you’re making a difference to something…everyday.”