Leith Matthews interview: Making it happen

How did one Australian expat turn his dream of being his own boss into reality in Dubai?

Leith Matthews wasn’t sure exactly what he wanted to do when he started devising business plans but he did know he wanted to be his own boss. It wasn’t until the Australian expat had spent almost a year coming up with various different ideas that he stumbled across the concept for Make Business Hub.

“My passion has always been food and beverage so most of the things I was working towards were restaurant and bar concepts but at the same time I was also really interested in [reading] magazines like Wired to see if there were any smart ideas that had been thought of already that I could transfer to the region,” he tells StartUp.

“Outside of my proper working hours I would be working on my plans; sitting in cafés and restaurants or anywhere outside of the house. It was at that point I started to feel like I was not the only one and that the coffee shop I was sitting in looked more like an office. There was even a time when I was sitting in a café and Nokia had sponsored it… it was at this point that I started to feel like the [business] opportunity could be me or a person sitting at a computer in a café,” he adds.

Today, Matthews’ concept is one of the busiest cafés along Dubai’s Jumeirah Beach Residence. The modern co-working space in Al Fattan Towers is inhabited by designers, freelancers, writers and web developers, all tapping away on their laptops, holding meetings or tucking into food and drink.

Matthews wanted Make to be a combination of what he liked most about the cafés he used to work in and what it was he actually needed while he was working. So in addition to Make’s food and drink menu, it is also home to defined work areas, individual power points, four and two-seater desks designed to spur collaboration and breakout areas that enable small groups to hold meetings.

“Our business model is built around making money through food and beverage; we don’t charge an hourly rate for using the space or the internet. Doing it that way we have to make sure that our food and beverage is of a good standard and our service levels are always high,” says Matthews.

“There are other ways of making money but it was important for me to do it this way as I didn’t want any barrier to entry. I wanted Make to be a space where you can come in, survey the scene, see who is here [because] those meetings and connections are the real value proposition of a place like this,” he adds.

Matthews’ decision to quit his full time job in 2010 and open the following year proved to be ideal timing. With the onset of the global financial downturn and later the Arab Spring, regional governments, investors and financiers have started to pay more attention to local start-ups and small and medium enterprises (SME) owners, all of which are exactly the type of clientele that Make appeals to. SMEs contributed towards 60 percent of the UAE’s GDP last year, up 100 percent compared to 2011, according to recent figures from the Ministry of Economy.

Matthews describes three groups of people that typically work at Make; those interested in setting up a small business or who have just started; freelancers; and a growing number of people who work for large corporations such as Cisco and Google who have the flexibility to be able to work out of a traditional office environment. “All three [groups] are growing. Entrepreneurship is really exciting and there are more and more people that have talent and want to do things for themselves,” says Matthews.

“A lot more people are also working for themselves in a freelance capacity whether it’s because of the economy or downsizing of larger corporations or they are from forward-thinking companies where teams can be remote. I have come across people working in Media City as part of large companies but they don’t have a desk and if they need to use one, they have to book it but otherwise they hot-desk within their own office.”

Matthews spent nearly a year finding investors, searching for an ideal space and fitting-out Make before opening at the start of this year. But it wasn’t always easy. He admits that he knew little about sourcing funding, which is ironic given that a growing number of investors now approach him to help introduce them to local entrepreneurs. “At the time I didn’t have any sort of clarity or visibility on funding companies or understanding of the venture capital scene in the region,” he says.

“I found it really quite strange that finally after a struggle to launch Make I had people coming to me saying ‘I come from this company or organisation and we have money that we want to invest and we are looking for people that have ideas’. So if other people feel like I did, then Make would be a good place to find out what the options are on the table.”

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