Building an interior design business in the GCC

In this month’s Chatterbox: GCC Entrepreneurs on The Rise, Manar Al Hinai, an award-winning Emirati writer and entrepreneur based in Abu Dhabi, presents Sulaiman Al Thehli and Maryam Al Suwaidi, the husband-and-wife founders of Design Talk, an Abu Dhabi-based interior design studio
By Manar Al Hinai
Tue 19 Jul 2016 03:07 PM

When I travel, I enjoy visiting palaces, and examining the interior and architectural work by the people of the country. You could tell a lot about who they are, their beliefs, their dreams from the space they designed to live in or be surrounded by.

Every design has a story behind it. Sometimes it is happy, ambitious, and other times it is sad. As a writer and marketing consultant, interior design often inspires me when I am thinking of a story line or drafting a marketing strategy.

In this monthly feature, I share different stories from across the GCC to show you how the people behind different start-ups and SMEs are contributing to our economy, and making their mark on the world. A lot of the times, hearing about such stories, helped shape my mentality and inspired me to take a leap of faith. That is exactly why Arabian Business StartUp and I decided to write this feature, so that the stories you read would help inspire you too.

Luckily, we do not have to look abroad for inspirational figures, because our local community is filled with great examples.

This month we did not travel outside the UAE, because in the heart of Abu Dhabi lives an Emirati couple who create spaces and translate brands’ identities to life through their interior design projects. Maryam Al Suwaidi talks to us about their boutique interior design studio, Design Talk, and the interesting projects that her husband and her are working on.

What made you two embark on an interior design business?

Since it is my field of study, Sulaiman and I had a plan that once we are back in the UAE we would set a plan to open our interior design practice. We started working as freelancers to test the market, and when we saw that there was a demand for our services, we took the decision to start up our business.

How long has your business been established?

Almost four years now.

How big is your team?

We are currently a team of six. Sulaiman is the managing director and I am the creative director. We have a team of three technical designers, one project coordinator, and one office assistant.

What is your studio’s area of speciality?

We work on commercial design which include F&B outlets, hospitality, boutiques, corporate and exhibitions, as well as provide creative solutions for special projects.

Did you execute any residential projects?

We used to have a big team, and we operated a residential section for about two years, handling many residential projects. But eight months ago we took a decision to shut down the residential division, although we had a big design demand for that section. We wanted to turn the focus to handling only creative commercial projects, as we saw that we had more passion for it, and it was definitely more interesting to us.

Do you have a full-time job or do you mainly focus on your business?

We considered working in a corporate when we graduated. Sulaiman got a job, and I, on the other hand, found it difficult to find a job that suited me.

We decided to work together as freelancers and took one project at a time, where I was the head designer. Sulaiman used to take care of all the other aspects like suppliers, and materials, and execution.

After about two years, we decided to start up the business. Sulaiman left his job to give the business full-time attention which was needed a lot at the beginning, especially when it came to hiring the right team, managing projects according to schedules, and meeting deadlines.

What sets you apart from different interior design companies in the UAE?

As Emiratis, we connect easily with our local clients and understand their needs better. We were exposed to different cultures when we were studying abroad as well as during our travels, so we are able to find creative interior solutions that embrace our culture and at the same time fit current global trends.

Is it hard to compete in a market with many international companies present?

We do not consider international companies our competition. Many people look for boutique interior design studios as they feel more comfortable working directly with the owners. Moreover, as a boutique studio, we give attention to details on a personal level, and I think this is what sets us apart from intentional companies.

What was the main reason that contributed to your success?

Having clients who are open minded and willing to take chances in design.

Since our success is measured by our portfolio, we tried at the beginning to convince many clients to take a leap of faith and give our ideas a chance. We had to work hard on achieving those ideas and executing them perfectly by finding the right contractor.

So it was not easy at all. It took long hours and hard work to get the design executed as expected.

What did you mainly depend on to market your business?

We depended on word of mouth in the beginning. But after a while, we got more popular on social media, and more people came to us through Instagram so we used it as our main portal to connect with people. Other than that, we have attended exhibitions and events, like the Association of Professional Interior Designers (APID) events, and got to know and connect with other people in the field.

What were the main challenges that you faced as you started?

Our lack of knowledge of materials, which usually people gain with practice and experience. So finding a supplier and contractor that would show us options and ways to execute our design the right way was very crucial. It took us a while until we found the perfect contractors who could execute our design perfectly and understand our vision.

Do you believe that the GCC markets present opportunities for interior designers?

Yes. As the GCC economy is growing there will always be opportunities for interior designers in the market, especially that these days many people are more educated about design and understand the difference between interior designers and architects, so they aim to connect with interior designers for interior design jobs.

What other countries do you execute projects in?

We could provide design services in any country, but until now we have executed projects in the UAE and Oman only.

How different is it to handle projects within different GCC countries and do you execute the project from A-Z or provide only design concepts?

Designing projects outside the UAE means we could only submit a full design without managing or executing it. But to get that opportunity, sometimes we need to build relations with other designers in those countries, like contractors, or branding offices, where our services will come in handy. We believe that having collaborations in other countries is definitely important and is a big plus for our company.

How is it different to have your husband as your business partner?

It is not that different to be honest. When we are home we are a family, but when we are at the studio we are business partners working as a team.

We enjoy being business partners as our minds think almost the same way when it comes to business ideas and making business decisions. Sulaiman is not a designer, but he has a passion for it and he definitely has a great eye when it comes to creativity and beauty.

Where do you see yourself in the next five years?

We see our studio expanding and see ourselves handling bigger projects.

We would love to be at that point of working on projects internationally, as well as managing government projects, like working on projects that would need a great cultural design to be done by Emiratis. Some examples are working on the public library or an important government entity. Moreover, we would also like to see ourselves more involved in humanitarian work and giving back to the community.

What is your favourite project so far?

The  McQueen Abaya Boutique as it has a blend of classic and modern design which we achieved beautifully. Our other favourite would be Sheikha Fatima Bint Mubarak Sports Academy, as it showcases our love for modern and creative office design.

How were you able to juggle your family life and your business?

It is not easy. It needs patience and commitment to balance between your family and business needs. The perks of working at your own company is that you have the flexibility to attend to your family when needed, but at the same time it brings with it a big responsibly of running a company and managing projects and sometimes working nonstop 24/7.

Do you think that the UAE entrepreneurial scene is evolving?

Yes. I see more focus from the government on small and medium businesses and more initiatives are introduced by the authorities to support SMEs.

I think there is a trend towards F&B projects and I do support this trend as we suffered a lack of these businesses in the UAE, especially in Abu Dhabi. I also see a rise in home businesses to escape high rents which is also being permitted with some restrictions.

What do you think are some of the main reasons that are stopping young people from starting their business?

First of all, I think it is the lack of knowledge of how to start a business. Secondly, I think having a secured job is also another reason that discouraged people from starting a business. Lastly, I think the high expenses of starting a business, like high rents and high permit fees, play a big role in this matter.

What advice would you give to interior designers who would like to establish their own business?

Our advice is to find and build good relations with contractors and suppliers, as they will be the backbone of your business. Familiarise yourself with different materials as the success of the projects in the design process and execution will depend on the knowledge and use of materials.

Attend seminars and conferences that relate to interior design. It is a great way to gain knowledge and even a greater way to network and get to know other people in the field and to be known.

Get in touch with Manar Al Hinai:

Do you know a GCC-based start-up that is creating a positive impact in society? I’d love to know more about it. Reach out to me on Twitter: @manar_alhinai / @ArabianBusiness.

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