How Dan Furlong brought ice cream vans to Dubai

A visit to Dubai in 2007 prompted Dan Furlong to set up the emirate’s first ice cream van company. He tells StartUp how Desert Chill came into being, and the challenges his business faces as he looks to grow the concept.
By Neil King
Wed 31 Jul 2013 01:27 PM

For many expats the migration to a warmer climate brings with it numerous opportunities. Cultural differences can mean that businesses expats saw as normal in their home countries all of a sudden became unique in their new surroundings.

Migrations have long been responsible for introducing new products and services to specific parts of the world. Cross-cultural exchanges have been a part of the human experience for millennia, with ancient trade routes taking textiles, precious metals, spices and scientific developments from one corner of the globe to the other. Communities have enhanced each others’ experiences from the vital to the menial, leaving gaps in the market for those with a keen eye to exploit.

So it was with Desert Chill.

When Dan Furlong visited the UAE in 2007, he was amazed to discover there were no ice cream vans offering cold sweet treats despite the long and consistent sunny days.

“I remember the day very well,” he says. “I was visiting my parents as my father was working here, and we went to the Rugby 7s. I sat and asked where the ice cream vans were, and everybody told me there weren’t any. So I did what every good entrepreneur does and went home to research it.”

Desert Chill, set up by Furlong and his brother Nathen, became Dubai’s first ice cream van company when it launched in 2008. The business brings the traditional ice cream vans – seen with great regularity on the streets of the UK – to the UAE. Initially setting out on routes around Dubai, the vans can now also be seen around Abu Dhabi and Al Ain, with plans to expand even further.

Not being acquainted with the business side of ice cream delivery, however, meant that Furlong had to embark on a mission of learning before bringing the concept to life.

“I didn’t have any prior knowledge of how to run an ice cream van – just memories of  when we were young, running after the van,” he says.

“They were the great memories that came along when we thought of starting an ice cream van company. But from the business side of things we had to learn everything from scratch, first hand.

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“I’ve always been in sales in the past and I was tired of making other companies a lot of money. I always had an entrepreneurial streak in me, so I really wanted to make this idea work. When I had the vision to set up the business, I got into the development phase but I knew I didn’t have the full skills set to do the business by myself. I hate operations, so I needed to get somebody in to do that part of the business.”

Furlong brought his brother, Nathen, in to head up operations, and the duo quickly learnt about the industry and the region, and how best to brand and market the concept.

Looking back at the early days of the business, Furlong recalls the learning process, and why he was willing to take the risk.

“We were starting a business we knew nothing about. It was a massive learning process, and what’s more we wanted it to be a culturally sensitive business. We didn’t want to just create an ice cream van from London and put it in Dubai – and I’m glad we didn’t do it that way. We wanted a brand that was culturally sensitive. So we got the vans designed locally, though we had only been living in the UAE for six months, so it was a bit of a risk.

“The whole business was a risk really, but if there’s one thing about born entrepreneurs, it’s that we don’t mind taking risks.

“We didn’t have too many things to worry about – no children or anything like that – so we felt like we could go for it. If we were a bit older and had families of our own then maybe it would have been a different story.”

Starting out in a new environment, a new culture and a new legal set-up meant that Furlong and his brother had to spend a lot of time working with government departments, especially as the concept was new to the area.

He says: “It was something new for the region and we had to work very hard to get it introduced. We had to work closely with the authorities and together work out how to start up.

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“Every meeting I’ve been in with the government, they have been really supportive. They have been great in helping us find ways to introduce the business to the market. It’s an ongoing process, but we’ve worked well with the government and it’s really helped us.”

In a strange twist that brought the concept full circle, Desert Chill’s first day of business was back at the Dubai Rugby 7s tournament in 2008, a year on from when Furlong had the idea for the business.

“Imagine that as your first day of your business,” he says. “It was crazy! It was good and bad in different ways. On the one hand it was quite risky because it was our first ever day of trading and we didn’t know for sure about how much stock we needed, or anything like that. But it was great exposure. In the end we got stuck in and did really well.”

Getting stuck in seems to be a theme for Furlong, whose hands-on attitude has helped build his company’s reputation and success.

He recalls the fact that he and his brother decided to drive two of the three original ice cream vans themselves so that they could learn everything first hand, claiming: “It was the best decision we ever made.”

“If we didn’t get stuck in like that, we wouldn’t have met our customers, known what’s required of our staff, or get half the opportunities that came purely from being in the vans ourselves,” he adds.

Desert Chill entered the market during an exceptionally profitable time for Dubai. The boom of 2006 to 2008 saw the emirate’s gross domestic product soar to $82.11bn – almost double what the economy was valued at two years previously.

But when the bust came, it left Furlong’s fledgling business battling for survival, providing a serious test of its credentials as a desirable product.

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“In 2008 Dubai was booming and then the financial crisis hit for our first year of business,” Furlong says.

“But what we found was that we had a high comfort product for a low price. This really worked in our favour because people felt like they could treat themselves without forking out loads of money.”

As a result, the reaction towards them was positive across the board.

“We were blown away by the reaction,” he continues. “Especially from the local community, which was a pleasant surprise. We thought it would be popular with the expat community who are familiar with the concept, and we thought we might have to convince the local people a bit more.

“But the reaction from the Emirati community and Asian community was the same reaction we had when we were young and saw the ice cream van.”

The business also took no time in attracting corporate interest, leading the brothers to cater for team-building events, as well as national day celebrations, and the more traditional children’s birthdays.

“That’s my favourite part of the business,” says Furlong. “The look on the kids’ faces when they see the vans is just brilliant. It makes their day, which makes our day. The vans even play the happy birthday music, which is great.”

The almost instantaneous exposure the company received was due in no small part to the design of the vans themselves. Immediately recognisable in terms of colour and branding, they have become a regular feature in many parts of Dubai and have meant the company has saved a lot of money on advertising.

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Furlong says: “We’re so lucky that the vans themselves are mobile billboards. People see and hear us wherever we go, and know what we’re about.

“For the first three years or so, the marketing was really taken out of our hands – the brand did its own marketing.

“That’s something that touches on a really important question for SMEs: Do I spend money on marketing and hope for a return or do I hang on to the money and use it to develop the business itself? Thankfully that question wasn’t as pressing for us as it is for some people.”

Another aspect of advertising and marketing that Furlong was quick to embrace was social media – something he is keen to develop further as a way to help grow the business and improve its service.

He says: “Social media is very helpful for us and we’re trying to find unique ways to use it. We’ve got a very good lady who does our social media. She was actually a customer who loved the business and wanted to get involved. It’s a massive part of the business and it’s really cool – we can do loads with it.

“We’ve just introduced an App for smartphones. You’re able to basically order the vans. It’s a push and pull App similar to BlackBerry Messenger. When the driver is in your area the App will tell you he’s there and then the van can be requested to go to wherever you are. You can ping the driver and be in touch with him, which adds a new dimension to the service.

“We’ve actually been using BlackBerry Messenger itself, and we’re now an ambassador for the BlackBerry brand. Loads of local people here have a BlackBerry, so we set up an account for Desert Chill, got the contact details of as many customers as we could, and we send them messages to say where the van is.”

While life seems to be sweet for the ice cream entrepreneurs, Furlong explains challenges still remain when it comes to growth.

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“The question that’s been keeping me up at night is how to take Desert Chill from a small to medium sized business,” he says.

“It’s a problem for a lot of entrepreneurs in the UAE – we have great businesses, but there’s a limit to how big we can get without help. That help isn’t always easy to find. We need a better framework for growth.

“We need help identifying potential investors, learning new markets, building models for Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Bahrain. How do we learn these things without help?”

Funding in particular is an issue Furlong believes must be addressed. He explains that investors need to be made more accessible for small businesses, and that banks need to find ways to help more start-ups.

“To be honest, if I was a bank I wouldn’t want to loan to start-ups and SMEs either because the way things are set up at the moment, it’s too risky. But that’s no good for businesses. There needs to be a middle ground, and a way for businesses to access bank loans.

“I think each case needs to be reviewed individually, without the rules being so strict. Anything that can be used as a deposit should be allowed, and then the application can move on from there.

“That said, banks’ SME offerings are improving, so there’s definitely progress.”

Another improving area, according to Furlong, is education, which he sees as vital for encouraging entrepreneurs of the future.

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“I’m so pleased to see that universities are teaching entrepreneur courses. That’s really great,” he says.

“I visit local high schools and universities to give presentations on the topic, and the response of the students is really encouraging.

“There’s more cooperation now between schools, universities, institutions and businesses, and this is the same for forums and workshops. There are many more taking place now – more events for entrepreneurs and SMEs, and people seem to be working together.”

Furlong himself takes part in numerous events, recently joining a forum held by Du, and another in TECOM, both of which attracted about 100 entrepreneurs.

He says: “They were great. Not just for networking, but problem solving too. Everybody was bouncing ideas off each other. Entrepreneurs like to find answers to questions, and when you have so many good minds around the table, you’re going to make progress pretty quickly.”

As for the future, Furlong says he plans to concentrate on Desert Chill in the UAE, but would not rule out branching out into other parts of the world.

“Never say never. If we have a franchise enquiry from somewhere else in the world then we’d definitely take a look at it. The brand is powerful – people in the US and UK follow us and we’ve had enquiries already from Africa.

“We would certainly consider what’s brought to us, but for the time being we’re concentrating on expansion in the UAE and GCC in general.

“We want to grow Desert Chill as much as we can, but in the future we might look for other projects. Something I’m interested in is helping other SME owner on issues regarding running their business, taking on the challenges they face, and so on.

“It’s something for the future, but I think it would be good to do and I think people need it. I wish we’d had something like that when we were starting out!”

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