Leith Matthews interview: Making it happen

How did one Australian expat turn his dream of being his own boss into reality in Dubai?
By Claire Valdini
Mon 01 Oct 2012 09:58 PM

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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Funding for the project eventually came in the form of three separate sources; Matthews’ savings, an executive of a local holding company and an Emirati partner. Together Matthews describes the three as a “triangle of parties” that each play their own vital role in Make’s operations.

Although Matthews’ financial contribution towards the project was less than his other two partners, he felt it was important to be involved financially. “I had some money, which I put in and I think is important as I wanted my investors to see it was more than just an idea. I put effectively my life savings in, which was a smaller portion of the investment, but I wanted them to see that I had some real skin in the game,” he explains.

All of Make’s marketing has centered on social media such as Facebook, Twitter and local blogs, which is not only the most cost-effective way of promoting the café but it also the best way to market to the type of clientele Make appeals to most.

“Essentially social media is the most cost-effective and instantaneous way to get people through the door. Customers in this region respond well to that type of market, especially for concepts like Make, who it markets to and who its clients are; these people are online — that’s where they spend most of their time. For me it’s just as exciting to get something online as it is getting something in print or television,” says Matthews.

Six months after its launch, Make is already breaking even on a day-to-day basis and is expected to post its first profit towards the end of the year/the first quarter of 2013. Given the majority of the café’s revenues come from its food and beverage offering, Matthews says he will focus his future growth plans on encouraging clientele to spend longer in the café and therefore spend more money.

Events such as the regular Thursday film nights, Seedstartup demo days and other evening events all help boost footfall. “The events are part of my business model and they work because they bring footfall back into the venue,” he explains.

“We don’t charge for the events but if people are coming back then they could be buying coffee so that works for me as a business and it also works to grow the Make community. All of the events are designed to inspire people into entrepreneurship or build capabilities so whether it’s a workshop or a speaker, they are all designed to help people and add credibility,” he adds.

Make’s attraction isn’t simply that it provides food and beverages in an affordable space for the emirate’s freelance and SME community; it is also the provision of a working environment that allows its customers to share ideas, exchange skills and benefit from impromptu meetings at the espresso bar.

Matthews says he is currently working on plans to introduce a membership system, which would not only make the process of introduction in Make easier but would also boost revenues looking ahead. The digital platform system would enable Make members to see a virtual CV of other members working from Make at the same time.

“At the moment meetings at Make are all organic; the tables are communal and quite often the person you sit next to will spark up a conversation or people meet through me because I know someone and I can connect them. But there are ways this can become smoother and people can make more efficient connections,” he says.

He does, however, rule out a de facto Make membership on the grounds that “anything like would result in a closed group and that is only exciting until you get everyone in the group”, he explains. “I think it’s much more interesting to have a change of scene on an almost daily basis.”

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