Riding High: Duplays and Nook Co-Founder Ravi Bhusari
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If there were a secret to breaking into the sports industry, it might be too naïve to think that organizing a pick-up game of ultimate frisbee could lead to a business boasting upward of 130,000 registered members, raising more than US$1.2 million of outside investment, alongside expansions into other markets and business verticals. However, this statement sums up a decade for Ravi Bhusari, who co-founded his Dubai-based sports league business, Duplays, with Davinder Derv Rao in 2007.
Founded as a community for expats by expats, Duplays has grown its customer base by offering affordable and organized amateur sports opportunities, while shouldering the burden of registration, communication, and scheduling. Its strong market traction did not pass unnoticed by regional investors -namely Wamda Capital and BECO Capital, but Bhusari notes that he and his co-founder were keen on not stopping at just that. Duplays is currently going through a transition stage by moving away from a pay-to-play sports services (events management) model, to a platform model that will help empower others to actualize their sports interest. “This means continuing to build our technology offering to make playing sports easier, but rather than just connecting the community to play in our own managed sports leagues, we want to make it easier for people to book sports facilities via our app and website,” Bhusari adds. “We are trying to build Booking.com for sport, focusing initially on our home market of the UAE, and the growth market of KSA.” According to Bhusari, Duplays is currently servicing only a fraction of their membership base with its weekly leagues, which has opened an opportunity for future growth, by connecting their users with more sports facilities. In this, Bhusari adds, lies the company’s unique propositionbuilding a true platform to connect sports enthusiasts (demand side), with access to third party and internally developed sports facilities (supply side), thereby providing a seamless user experience.
Last year, Duplays made headlines by forming a joint venture with its local partner and Saudi Arabia-based developer, Al Hokair Group, to build community sports facilities in the Kingdom at scale using air-supported dome technology, for an undisclosed amount. The first in a series of new privatelyowned football sports complexes has now been built in Jeddah, and should become operational by October 2018. With wins like these in the bag, Bhusari is definitely someone other entrepreneurs can learn from- and he’s happy to offer advice for others wanting to secure success for their startup ventures. “Firstly, don’t take the first ‘no’ for an answer,” Bhusari says. “If you believe in what you are doing, treat objections as opportunities, and figure out a way to get to a ‘yes.’ Entrepreneurs are designed to challenge the status quo, and if you believe in your business mission, then follow it through. Secondly, entrust your team to make decisions. I’m a big believer in hiring people better than yourself that complement your key skill sets. And lastly, be amenable to change. The phrase ‘the only constant is change’ definitely rings true. Ten years on, the conversion of Duplays from Dubai’s only de facto adult sport and social club, to now becoming a developer of community sports facilities and central platform for sport, can only happen with an openness and willingness to accept change, and the buy-in of your team to help you drive your evolving company mission.”
This year has seen Bhusari and Rao take a step further with their business by partnering with Dubai Multi Commodities Centre (DMCC) to establish nook by Duplays, dubbed as the region’s first sports and wellness coworking space. The concept behind nook is to provide all the necessary tools for aspiring entrepreneurs to seize opportunities presented by the UAE’s growing sports, fitness, and wellness industry. Bhusari sees nook as a natural evolution of Duplays’ business strategy. He adds, “The sports, fitness and wellness markets are underserved in the region. At nook, our vision is to pioneer an industry specific platform for the development of these sectors of the economy. We want to provide the best possible service and solutions for the industry, to help foster its long-term development and success.”
Nook’s 10,000 sq. ft. workspace at One JLT in Dubai’s Jumeriah Lakes Towers neighborhood offers monthly workspace rental plans ranging from AED2,500 for a shared space, to AED3,000 for a fixed desk, to AED4,450 for private offices- not inclusive of the yearly AED11,000 DMCC-subsidized trade license, and the monthly nook membership fees and company registration starting at AED499. For industry professionals and companies not requiring physical office space, nook also offers a flexible Mobile Startup package that includes a number of time-saving features and services. Flexible payment terms are also available as an additional launch support service for startups getting their businesses off the ground. “We currently have the capacity to offer 200 professional licenses covering 35+ industry activities,” Bhusari says. “nook secured more than 10% of its license allocation in the first three weeks of its prelaunch phase, and expects to achieve full membership within the first 12 months of operation. Expansion of the nook concept into other locations and markets is expected within the next 18 months, and will mirror Duplays’ expansion across the region. Priority markets include Saudi Arabia, followed by other GCC countries.”
When asked about the main lessons he has grasped from three most critical moments in Duplays’ growth –i.e. raising capital from outside investors, focusing on the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) as a growth market, and being amenable to change- Bhusari’s replies make it clear that he has taken the time to reflect on all of his entrepreneurial pursuits so far. “On the investment front, most entrepreneurs aspire to achieve a certain level of success or market traction in order to scale their business, and investment is key for that to happen,” Bhusari says. “We have been fortunate to have supportive and patient investors who have championed us. For entrepreneurs, the key lesson to consider is not to rush to accept the first investors who express an interest in your business. What is important is to build a relationship with these people, and they will be with you for the long haul.” “On the KSA expansion side, the key lesson is patience,” he continues. “Tapping into this market is not something you can do from the comfort of your Dubai office. Business is always relationship driven, but even more so in KSA. KSA is a unique, fascinating market and you have to put in the time on the ground to assess the opportunities and build relationships with key partners- the Dubai experience does not easily translate into Saudi.” And as for being open to change? “On the change side, business in this region is much faster paced than other markets,” Bhusari notes. “Be open to change, and adapt as conditions alter. Do not be set in your ways, and pivot where possible if your product-market fit isn’t working. Don’t be overly in love with your idea, if your customers are not."
‘TREP TALK: Ravi Bhusari, co-founder, Duplays and nook, shares his five tips for entrepreneurs
1. Build your tribe
“Surround yourself ASAP with good people, whether that’s co-founder(s) or key first hires.”
2. Focus on your finances
“Be laser focused on cash flow- it is the lifeblood of your organization; if you have a business model that has a longer or variable sales cycles, ensure you have adequate capital to get you through the rough patches- everyone will eventually face them.”
3. Look for smart money
“Find supportive investors who provide not just capital but active mentorship; be open to advice.”
4. Be kind to yourself
“Protect your personal free time and invest in yourself; you are no good to your business or your employees if you are not of sound body and mind.”
5. Give back whenever you can
“Don’t forget to thank the people who have helped you along your way.”