The SME Story
Among this month’s SMEs, we look at diverse Dubai-based startups which deal in AI-driven software development and clean cosmetics as well as a Pilates fitness chain
Interviews with entrepreneurs and insights from experts on how the regional SME ecosystem is evolving
What is D14.AI’s scope of work?
D14.AI is a Dubai-based tech company providing an AI-driven software platform for healthcare clinics, gyms and logistics companies to optimise their workforce and manage business operations in a secure and affordable way. Our technology is flexible, easy to integrate and intelligent enough to evaluate millions of combinations within minutes. We will continue to add other sectors such as hospitality. We’re a self-funded startup and have already reached the break-even point within a year.
How did the idea of starting your venture come about?
I’m a self-starter, and I’m passionate about organising the disorganised. Before launching D14.AI in Dubai’s burgeoning tech startup scene, I had set up my first company to offer digital transformation services. I was helping international companies grow revenues through digital solutions. During that time, I saw that there was a massive opportunity for optimisation. It’s the key focus for most of the sectors. I think it will always be the number one priority for companies. Setting up a new business is already an exciting experience and establishing a startup in a new city, especially one as dynamic as Dubai, was more exciting. I think Dubai is a great place to be as an entrepreneur. There are so many opportunities and valuable lessons for entrepreneurs that they can learn and share.
What are some of the challenges you faced when setting up your company?
I think some of the biggest challenges that I see among startup companies are related to setting up the right team, having strong bonds with the clients, acting at a quick pace and staying focused, especially in a crisis. Having a solid plan and maintaining focus is crucial. The plan can be updated and modified when needed, as long as it does not affect the goal. Once there is a mission and vision that guides you, there is no reason not to be successful.
What are some of the new opportunities for tech startups within the AI space?
The AI space is quite extensive. We can count image and natural language processing, robotics, machine learning, neural networks and expert systems as some of the major subfields. There’s always room for innovation. With the pandemic, as we all know, automated systems, personalised healthcare solutions, and image processing became more popular. I believe we’ll see more tech startups that use AI in the future.
What are your expansion plans?
Our first focus is the GCC and then we plan to scale globally. We are investing in making our products easy to deploy so that we can expand all around the world.
What were you doing before you started Real Pilates?
Before creating Real Pilates, I spent over 10 years in the corporate world, including at the regional HQ of a major automotive company whose vision statement was ‘Enriching People’s Lives’. As much as I loved my job, I wanted to really achieve that vision statement. I wanted to enrich people’s lives in a tangible and real way, so I combined that desire with my passion for health and fitness and launched Real Pilates.
What is the scale of your business?
We currently have three studio locations: Jumeirah, JLT and our newly opened Meydan studio. We have 30 team members from 21 different countries. We typically have about 150 new signups per month.
What is the USP of Real Pilates compared to other fitness and wellness centres in Dubai?
The quality of instruction, our customer service and our processes.
Contrary to most studios, our team of instructors is comprised of full-time Stott Pilates-certified instructors who work exclusively at Real Pilates. Stott Pilates is known as the Ivy League of pilates worldwide.
How has Covid-19 impacted your business?
Like all SMEs, our business has been massively hit. Our industry was one of the first to shut down and one of the last to reopen last year. Since reopening, we have been following strict government mandated health and safety guidelines that have significantly reduced our capacities and therefore our turnover.
We have been inspected by Dubai Economy and Dubai Municipality multiple times and have been praised by them for our full-compliance to the guidelines and the fact that we offer a safe environment to our clients to exercise.
What’s the biggest challenge that your business faces at the moment?
Continuity and adaptability. With health and safety rules changing fairly frequently, we have had to develop a very vigilant, agile and adaptable approach to our operations. Class capacities and hygiene procedures can be modified without notice, so we need to be highly reactive and effective in order to continue to operate without interruption while also maintaining high standards of customer service.
What is the most valuable lesson you’ve learnt by way of running your business?
It would have to be the critical importance of having a healthy internal work culture and a workplace that allows a candid communication style at every level of the organisation. Each organisation, no matter how big or small, will face its own learning and growth challenges, but the simple truth is that if we take care of our employees, they will take care of the clients.
What are the expansion plans for Real Pilates?
Our expansion strategy is focused on franchising in the UAE, across the GCC and beyond. We have worked hard on creating a comprehensive franchising kit that will allow those who dream of owning their own health and fitness studio to achieve their goal without the risks associated with starting a new concept from scratch. We support our franchisees with finding the right location, design and fit-out, equipment purchase and installation, staff recruitment and training, marketing support and IT systems.
THE SIMPLE TRUTH IS THAT IF WE TAKE CARE OF OUR EMPLOYEES, THEY WILL TAKE CARE OF THE CLIENTS
What is the core business model of Powder.ae?
We are a direct-to-consumer, content-led e-commerce business focused on retailing clean beauty and skincare in the Middle East. We typically focus on skincare, haircare and makeup with sophisticated formulations. Our current offering includes global clean brands and niche and boutique luxury brands from the US, Australia, South Korea, Canada and beyond.
From the packaging to the brand messaging and quality of ingredients, we consider several different factors when it comes to choosing brands to support.
What gap did you see in the market that necessitated the need for such a company?
We started Powder when we realised that we were both going through a similar situation. We were both struggling to find the guidance we needed to help us solve our skincare problems, and didn’t have access to the exciting niche products that we had been reading about in blogs and following on Instagram locally. This is the reason we set out to create an online clean beauty space where our customer has access to choices which reflect their values. We recognised early on that there is a considerable gap when it comes to quality, in-trend, Arabic, and regional content, and we intend to close this gap.
Does focusing on clean cosmetics make good longterm business sense?
Absolutely. We believe that the clean beauty movement will continue its upward trajectory. Consumers here and abroad are gaining a deeper understanding of what they are applying to their faces and they ultimately will influence the market. For example, the more we make clean, sustainable choices in terms of our spending, the higher the standard becomes for conventional brands as they try to keep up with growing expectations when it comes to sustainable, cruelty-free production and packaging. It’s a win-win for everyone.
What are some of the biggest challenges that you have encountered as an entrepreneur?
For a small but growing startup such as ours, raising awareness in an expensive and crowded digital market is a challenge. Additionally, finding and attracting the right talent on a budget is never easy. The talent is here, but finding someone with skills who is ready to play the long-game takes time. Also, we would like to take on a seasoned executive who is a proven operator and who has scaled up an e-commerce business, while offering substantial ownership. We would welcome another partner to the business who can help us to execute and deliver upon our ambitious vision to be the region’s leading clean beauty destination.
What are your expansion plans?
We are on a growth trajectory and will be introducing several new clean brands over the coming months. We also entered Saudi Arabia late last year and introduced some exciting clean beauty brands including an exclusive partnership with RÓEN Beauty, a cruelty-free and vegan makeup brand from Los Angeles. During the lockdown, we witnessed a surge in sales and demand for our beauty offering. This encouraged us further to go after funds to build on that momentum.
We are launching a $200,000 bridge to round-out our pre-seed round. We staged the round to show traction from early investments and then secure additional capital to double-down on our growth. We started outreach to investors weeks ago and hope to close the round in the coming weeks.
THE MORE WE MAKE CLEAN, SUSTAINABLE CHOICES IN TERMS OF OUR SPENDING, THE HIGHER THE STANDARD BECOMES FOR CONVENTIONAL BRANDS