10 Lessons From 10 Years Of Running A Business In The Middle East
Entrepreneur's New Year’s Guide
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My company, Innerspace, is best known as the team who host Hacker Kitchens, Hulsta Furniture and Rolf-Benz in the region, and we’ve just reached a major business milestoneten years of operations in the Middle East. We opened our Hacker Kitchens showroom on Sheikh Zayed Road in 2010, and with a vision of bringing excellence to the interiors market, in terms of design and customer experience, we quickly grew in both size and reputation. I’m proud to say we now have a robust team of 35 people working across design and installation, working with the region’s most renowned architects, interior designers and consumers. Here are 10 lessons that I’ve learned from a decade of running a successful business in the UAE:
1/ AUTHENTICITY MATTERS
Innerspace is built on values such as quality, honesty, and authenticity. Building trust through authenticity has always been crucial: from the outset, we were committed to creating a long-term, lifelong relationship with the brands we represent, with the region, and with our consumers. Think about how we feel when someone breaks a promise, or we are told a lie, and we know just how highly we all regard truth, honesty, integrity, and transparency. Truth is an absolutely fundamental principle to be valued and protected at all costs. Put simply, an authentic attitude is truth in action. Authenticity is doing what we say, and saying what we do, but the important piece of the puzzle is we must do it with consistency. You really gain trust when you deliver on your promises day in and day out. Ten years of consistently delivering on promises to our team and clients has really made us a trusted brand.
2/ SHARE A CLEAR VISION
First and foremost, a clear vision for the business is crucial- and it has to resonate with your team, it’s our compass for this enterprise. We quickly outgrew our initial vision, which was to be the market leaderso then what? It sounds cliché, but start with the why- what positive impact do you want to make on your family, your wider family or organization, the community, the industry, the world? This wider, growing vision gave us the depth we need to keep growing and getting through challenges too.
Our vision is to shape creative spaces with timeless designs, and most importantly, enrich people’s lives through excellent interior design. When it comes to profit, we reframed it as benefits- we want to maximize the benefits for our team and clients alike. This is when it really becomes fulfilling as a business owner, you see how you are making a positive impact on people’s lives, whether it’s creating more security for staff, or an inspiring environment for clients to cook, enjoy, reflect, and entertain in. When we break it down like this, we find a common thread that drives us all in the same direction. I see profit as what good we’re all getting out of it.
3/ VALUE INTUITION, AND TUNE IN
When it comes to decision making, if you are clear on your highest values, your deepest desires, and in tune with your vision, then you can make fast, accurate, and courageous decisions aligned with your purpose. When we were conceptualizing Innerspace in 2008 during the international financial crisis, we were warned against taking such a huge risk in seemingly uncertain times. We saw this as a fantastic opportunity, a no-brainer: during a financial crisis, clients are more discerning with their money, their expectations are much higher. In uncertainty, values become an even stronger compass and more important to clientsthey want to know who is behind the brand, and what they stand for, in order to get that connection. We were focused on the opportunity, and the appetite for an excellent quality product and genuine service- nothing could deter us. Our clients are very intuitive, and they can just sense when a company genuinely caresthis is key when entrusting a designer to create such a personal space like their home.
4/ FOCUS YOUR ENERGY ON A SINGLE POINT
As I’ve stripped away the non-essentials in my life, the things that don’t serve me, I see the business flourish. We eschewed flamboyance, embraced humility, and pared down our office space. This dispassion for distractions meant we are completely focused on making our clients’ experience better. For example, at face value, we have a beautiful kitchen showroom; however, every detail, every cabinet, each square metre of space has a function that demonstrates ergonomics, comfort, safety, aesthetics, and usability, so that clients can make informed decisions about their bespoke designs.
It fits in line with our design ethos, that form must follow function; after all, design is the allure of function. On another level, the mind by its nature is fickle, and it’s important to have the discipline to keep it aligned with our purpose and vision. We collectively do our best to create a work environment that helps us focus every bit of energy and attention to the task at hand, making our organization a better place to work and enriching people’s lives through excellent design. We have a passionate dispassion for distractions.
5/ CHECK YOUR EGO AND YOUR EMPATHY
The old African proverb comes to mind: “If you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together.” The power of the team and a collaborative mindset has been a key factor for success in our journey. When we work together, share strengths, and blend ideas, the level of creativity and efficiency sky rockets. Our team comes from so many different backgrounds, religions, nationalities, experiences, all with different perspectives. If egos get in the way, it can be incredibly limiting and stressful, but empathy, the ability to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes, unlocks an efficient, harmonious, and stress-free path to success in any endeavor, for you and everyone else involved. Our strength is in the unity of our diversity.
6./ BUILD RESILIENCE
The enterprising spirit of the UAE can be traced back to its origins as an international trading hub, and this filters through to business today. It reminds me of the tough Arctic explorers and mountain climbers from the days of yore. When I arrived in Dubai 15 years ago, I was impressed with the pace of growth and the visionary leadership- there is an adventurous, ambitious, and pioneering mindset that permeates day to day life. It makes an entrepreneur feel right at home. As the story of the UAE will show you, it's your attitude when you meet with challenges that will enable you to succeed. History has proven time and time again, your team needs the mental stamina to endure the journey with equanimity, courage, and a smile. This fortitude is contagious.
7/ PRACTICE EQUANIMITY, POISE, AND STAYING COOL
All enterprises face challenges, and we’ve had our fair share over the last ten years. The outcomes of these challenges are all based on how you choose to respond to them. When it’s a technical issue, a calm mind is most efficient at problem-solving. Many problems are caused by miscommunication. When we approach those situations from a place of empathy, by listening to understand, and treating everyone with dignity, we can make good decisions and restore peace of mind. Words and actions coming from a place of fear or clouded judgement can land us in hot water, which is why we embrace a cool, calm approach at Innerspace.
8/ EMBRACE FREEDOM
It used to be so frustrating for me when things don’t go to plan. Frustration comes from a fear of loss and our outcomes being out of sync with our expectations. Instead, focus on excellent work in the here and now; don’t allow yourself to think “what if.” If you let go of selfish attachment to an outcome and let things grow and develop at their natural pace, you will end up on the correct trajectory. Real freedom lies beyond the mental shackles of self limiting beliefs and barriers we create in our minds. This is when we can let our creativity blossom whether it’s planning, designing, or problem-solving. It’s a liberating feeling to work from freedom, rather than working for freedom.
9/ BELIEVE IN SELF-MASTERY AND INTELLIGENCE
We’re always fine-tuning our business, and it’s equally important to fine-tune ourselves. Rigorous self-observation and analysis are crucial parts of self mastery– learn to manage yourself so you can effectively manage others. The importance of emotional intelligence is well-known, and going beyond that is an awareness of our social intelligence– demonstrated by our power of connecting, influencing, and inspiring. It’s determined by our level of empathy and skill in interaction with people, and it shows in how comfortable we make our team and clients feel when we interact. The greater our social intelligence, the greater our sphere of influence and impact. It simply starts by listening (really listening!), genuinely caring, and acknowledging. When thoughts, emotions, words, and actions align first, then we connect with people- that’s when the magic happens.
10/ NURTURE MENTORS AND POSITIVE PEERS
I quickly learned that good mentors and peers are not to be confused with cool looking entrepreneurs with a pile of money and blinding charisma. When I scratched beneath the surface of many successful business people, I found that the apparent success was achieved at the cost of their health, reputation, friends, family, community, and exploitation. That just didn’t make sense to me- that didn’t sound like true success. The most effective and genuine mentors are time-tested, have impeccable reputations, have nothing to gain from you, want nothing in return, and give seemingly infinite wisdom to help you live a full life of purpose, progress, and peace of mind. This attitude to mentorship and learning works within your team too, and will enable you to flourish as a leader and teacher.