Claire Ferris-Lay talks opportunities with brothers Ahmed and Rashid Bin Shabib, the founders of Shelter, Dubai's home for creative minds.
It's all happening at Shelter. The glass door at one of Dubai's most creative new hot spots has just been flung open by a gust of wind, shattering into pieces as it lands face down on the manicured lawn during one of Dubai's freak thunder storms.
In true Dubai-style, as quickly as it fell off, the hole it leaves behind is boarded up and work resumes. But that is about as ‘Dubai' as Shelter gets. Inside the Al Quoz-based warehouse you'll find sleek, minimal décor, a spiral staircase leading to dozens of capsule workspaces, vast orange sofas and modern, raw walls and flooring, flanked by a long café countertop running almost the entire length of the building.
Founded by 26-year old Emirati twins, Ahmed and Rashid Bin Shabib, Shelter, which opened in March, is designed to "incubate creativity". Offering a 40,000 square foot workspace for budding entrepreneurs - from journalists to architects and designers to bloggers and interior designers - Shelter provides 24/7 office facilities in a creative environment for a fraction of the cost of ordinary office space in Dubai.
"We have created a platform where ideas can be shared," explains Rashid. "We understood the need for a place like this for young entrepreneurs, individuals with different characters... all of these different people who are all over the place, who have not yet made it or are just in between.
"It is a space that inspires you to compete, complement and engage in the new economy of the Middle East," he adds.
In addition to workspace, Shelter also houses a mini-cinema, storage facilities and large areas for groups from across Dubai to meet and exchange ideas. Local café, More also provides a subsidised, onsite eatery.
Sipping on one of the café's "killer smoothies" Ahmed explains the concept behind Shelter's design. "We could have easily rented a floor or a building, charged a premium [rate] and got a better location - we would have made more money. But choosing to do it in a warehouse gives you a raw feeling when you are working here.
"It gives you the sense that things are actually being done. At the end of the day you can go to Starbucks and it might be a little more refined; you can work there and have access to coffee, but it's not a working environment, it's a meeting environment. Shelter has three elements - good coffee, good food and good lighting."
While coffee and cakes are provided by More, Dubai-based telecommunications firm, Du provides the 24/7 broadband facilities and, most importantly, half of the financial backing required for Shelter's own multimillion dirham start-up. "Du met us half way - morally, financially and intellectually - so when a person comes in and is able to rent a desk it's almost facilitated," says Rashid.
Du's sponsorship has also enabled the brothers to keep the cost of becoming a member at Shelter affordable - often one of the most expensive layouts a new company will have to make when setting up.
According to CB Richard Ellis, Dubai Media City charges around AED1,400-2,300 ($380-$625) per square metre for its office space, while rents in Dubai's financial hub, Dubai International Financial Centre can fetch as much as AED4,845 ($1,318) per square metre. Becoming a member at Shelter is, however, more affordable.
While day membership is charged at AED30 ($8.16) per day, a full-time subscription, which includes an exclusive desk with internet and phone line, 24 hour access and secretarial services costs AED2,800 ($762) per month, and a standard membership, which gives you access to the venue, the library and internet use, will set you back AED2,600 ($707) annually.
"I highly doubt there is anywhere else in the world that you can have a combination of a café, desk [for $800]," says Rashid proudly.
Providing budding entrepreneurs with what they need in order to survive the first few months and years is what Ahmed and Rashid do best, having already established two of their own very successful Dubai ventures, brownbook and brownbag.ae.
The brothers founded Brownbook, a Middle East lifestyle, design, travel and agenda driven magazine with just AED30,000 ($8,160), provided by the Mohammed Bin Rashid Establishment for Young Business Leaders. Today Brownbook has a circulation of 15,000 and is distributed across the Middle East. Major advertisers include Nakheel and Du. Following brownbook's success they launched brownbag.ae, an online shopping experience, which aims to deliver food, electronics, books and magazines to your door anywhere in an hour, in 2006.
"Brownbook's mandate was to export something far greater than conflict, economics, buildings and things without substance - made in the Middle East for the Middle East," says Rashid, also the magazine's editor-in-chief.
"We're [currently] talking to photographers and journalists about skiing in Tehran, we're talking about trips from Syria to Jordan by bus, surfing in Yemen... we are talking about all of these rogue, independent subjects which people don't [associate] with the Middle East."
"It's not about taking the beaten path," adds Ahmed. "It's about creating your own path and trying to figure out what the essence of the content is."
It is the brother's partnership with the Mohammed Bin Rashid Establishment for Young Business Leaders, which provides support and financial backing for young Emirati entrepreneurs, as well as their own experiences in establishing their own companies in the region that gave Ahmed and Rashid the critical understanding into the importance of support for start-ups.
Research has proven that companies established in incubation environments, such as the one Shelter provides, are more likely to survive than companies without such facilities. According to a report written in collaboration with Bordeaux Productic, a similar incubating service based in France, 80 percent of businesses set up in incubated environments will survive while 72 percent will survive for five years or longer and 55 percent will last beyond ten years.
Rashid likens Shelter's support network to that of a university. "When you are in school you are part of this exclusive university; you are very communal whether you are attending class or not. You almost feel guarded from a very broad and generic world. [But] when you leave university, you are out there and it's very challenging. What we are saying at Shelter is yes you have left school and you are trying to make it, so if you want a sense of belonging or a communal area, then come to Shelter."
Although it is only a few months old, Shelter has already generated a huge amount of interest. Today it has around 200 members while 80 percent of the 37 desks available have already sold to a range of clients including ABC News, the local magazine, Bedouin as well as students.
But Shelter doesn't just provide business support. It is also provides meeting areas for groups and individuals. Last month it was the venue for the official launch of Thinking Clouds, an anthology of essays discussing arts in the UAE by cultural leaders and Emirati artists.
"It's about networking too," says Saadia Zahid, Shelter's curator. "Members aren't isolated from each other, they'll talk to each other and that's exactly the kind of dialogue we want to promote. It's almost breaking down the physical barriers of communication," she adds.
"The space is not going to define the residents, it is the residents that are going to define the space," adds Ahmed. "What we have done is build a space within the space for people to use. You don't know who is going to use the cinema, you don't know if it's going to be independent filmmakers or people who are curating or classes. The whole idea of Shelter is that next year it will be a completely different thing."
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