Tours and tribulations

Arva Ahmed of Frying Pan Adventures reveals the business-threatening problems she encountered while trying to set up her company.
Arva Ahmed, founder and CEO of Frying Pan Adventures.
By Neil King
Tue 25 Jun 2013 02:40 PM

As most small business owners will tell you, the course of true entrepreneurship never did run smooth.

It doesn’t matter how experienced you are, how extensive your network or how high-profile your contacts book, there will always be challenges along the way.

Even without issues to iron out, setting up, starting, and maintaining a business is difficult enough. So any flies in the ointment understandably put incredible strain on time, money and emotional wellbeing.

One woman who went through the roller coaster ride of start-up stresses is Arva Ahmed, founder and CEO of Frying Pan Adventures.

With dreams of starting a food tourism business, Ahmed set forth into entrepreneurialism with good intentions, plenty of positivity and solid support from friends and family.

But her story serves as a warning note, not only highlighting common problems facing start-ups in the UAE, but also exposing just how fragile the existence of a new business really is.

“Every place has its own issues,” she says. “If I’d started a business in India God knows how many bribes I would have needed to give. Dubai comes with its own problems.”

To look at her business, you would be forgiven for thinking Ahmed didn’t actually come into contact with any of the issues she alludes to.

Aimed at uncovering and sharing Dubai’s authentic culinary experiences, customers are treated to a tour of the emirate’s foodie hotspots, from the Gulf, Asia, Europe and Africa. Visiting local markets, hidden gems and cultural epicenters, expect to find Moroccan tagines, Iraqi fire-grilled carp, and plates of Nepalese dumplings among other treats, plus information about their history and tradition along the way.

Mouthwatering it may be, but Ahmed’s journey from idea to launch was no picnic.

“I decided I was going to quit my job with my dad and set up my own company last January, and at the time I knew I wanted to do a food tours concept. But I didn’t know what it would take to start it.

“So I went to various websites and government departments to find out more details. It seemed licensing was a main topic, and there was some information online but it was more important to have somebody to talk to. That’s something that became clear across the board. It’s much better to talk face to face if possible as you’re going to get more information that way.

“That was the first problem, right at the very beginning. I had so many questions to ask, mainly about licensing, but I always got directed to somebody else. Nothing happens on the phone. I didn’t know who to ask these questions to, and nobody was really helping too much.”

Ahmed had to enroll on a course in order to find answers to her questions, but even then information was not entirely transparent, and she nearly missed the vital details she was looking for.

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“I had previously found a website that said I could get a licence to offer tours, but I needed to know whether I could do it as a freelancer on my own.

“I joined the course In July, just before Ramadan, and was there with some veterans of the tourism world. I remember listening to the professor, and I heard him say something in passing about fines. I nearly missed it, but it turned out I couldn’t function alone – as a freelancer I had to work under another company’s umbrella.

“So I had to get a company licence, which was going to be a lot harder.

“This was when things really started. Somebody connected to the Department of Tourism saw what I’d written online about the need to get a company licence and invited me into talk about it. But it became evident that there was nothing for entrepreneurs – no framework to help them.

“We need to get creative about it because that’s the only way creative ideas will come though. We need a framework to help small ideas become reality, because it’s not there right now.

“I realised I had to just go ahead and try to get my company licence. But then there was another problem. To get your licence you need to have three years as a tour guide company. I clearly didn’t have that so needed another option.

“That option was to set up an LLC (Limited Liability Company), and for that I would need a manager with three years’ experience, a AED100,000 bank deposit, office space of minimum 300-350 square foot, tourism insurance coverage, and all my certificates.”

Initially overwhelmed, Ahmed enjoyed a large slice of luck thanks to her sister having three years’ tourism experience. Agreeing to be involved, the next question became that of office space.

“It was a real deal breaker,” she says. “I hunted high and low, but there were no small spaces. And everything we came across was way too expensive, or I had no idea where the areas were.”

When she finally did find an office she thought was suitable, so began a sequence of events which threatened the existence of her business. And while what happened may not be commonplace, it raises serious issues which entrepreneurs can face in the region.

“I rang the number that was advertised for viewings, and the guy on the phone said that he had nothing left in this building, but that he had something on Sheikh Zayed Road.

“I just thought ‘no way. It was AED60k, and my budget was 30k, max 40k. He suggested I see it, put in a bid and then we could take it from there.

“The office was very good. The guy we saw there said there was a bid on it already, so we put in a counter bid and put down a security deposit. The next day we got a call saying it had gone through. It was unbelievable – I really could not believe it. It went through and so I went to sign the papers.

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“We spoke to the broker who said that somebody was breaking the lease and had agreed to let me come in and that he would take the financial hit on it. But my friend who is very intuitive said he didn’t like this man – that there was something about him – and it turned out that he was right.”

When Ahmed put down the payment on the day of signing, the landlord refused to take a personal cheque. Desperate not to let such a good property go, she took out cash and met with the broker to make the payment, sign the papers and get the stamp.

But when she didn’t get an expected call about Ejari, she started to worry.

“I called everybody I could call to try to get hold of the broker. It seemed that he was out of the office because he was sick. Then it seemed he was away on leave. It didn’t seem quite right. I kept calling but nobody was ready to talk to me, I was constantly left on hold.

“I called them in Deira and was on hold all the way to their offices on Sheikh Zayed Road. I waited and waited but got no answers. I spoke to one broker, and nothing happened. Then I spoke to another broker who said ‘but we’re not allowed to accept cash’.

“My heart just stopped. I suddenly realised what was going on.

“All the papers had letter heads, the company stamp and so on, but they were all fake. All that money I had paid was gone. It was so much money – especially for an entrepreneur. It’s everything. I remember breaking down – I couldn’t move.

“A friend came to get me, and my Arab partner, but still nobody would properly talk to us until we finally located the head office. We found out the broker had stolen the stamps from reception – It was just the worst feeling imaginable.

“I knew we had a case to take court, but I also knew that I had to move on and start again. I had to let the case continue in the background, and somehow get the business back together.”

Burned by the experience, Ahmed was extra careful when she was finally able to find a new office. But still factors outside of her control made the process difficult.

“When the time to get Ejari, again nothing happened. This was one of the biggest real estate companies out here, so we thought we’d be on safe ground.

“It turns out they had sold me the space before it had been changed from residential to commercial. They were still waiting for some government approval for the transfer to be complete. On top of that, the bank was stalling on giving back a letter than I needed, so things were taking far too long.

“Finally, after a lot of screaming, the real estate company got its act together and I got the Ejari. I got the right paperwork for my licence approval, took all the papers to the department of tourism, and needed to go to the department of economic development to approve it all.

“Things are just not straightforward – there are so many hurdles put in front of you that make the whole process difficult.

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“I was sitting there, and handed the papers to the guy sitting at the desk, who was going through them all one by one – and there are a lot to go through. Inevitably, he found something that was wrong.

“So I had to go back to the courts to get some typing done and get something attested. By this point I had already had the document amended three times. What’s more I had to get it back to the department by 2pm, otherwise I’d have to deal with a different person and go through the whole process again the next day.”

Despite the rush, the stress, and the frustration, Ahmed got the Ejari.

As an aside, Ahmed had actually landed her a job within the department of tourism in the meantime, which she says was a huge help, giving her access to experts every day. Even so, the process had taken from August to the middle of January, and she was still not eligible to start operations until completing another course.

Now, looking back, she laments the framework which many people have to battle against in order to start a company.

“If you’re an entrepreneur, starting something totally new, who do you speak to? Food tourism doesn’t even exist in the region – I had to explain it to everybody but then they thought I had to have a restaurant.

“If you have small but innovative ideas that need time to work out, then there needs to be a different framework. Hopefully Dubai can figure out what this framework is. Otherwise you’ll always have the same ideas and the same people doing them.

“The people at the department of tourism are so smart and so willing to help, and so receptive to ideas, but the framework is so restrictive.”

Now that her business is up and running, she has been overwhelmed but the amount of support she has received from customers.

“It’s going way better than I thought it would,” she explains. “When I built the business plan, I decided each tour can have ten people. I just assumed we’d have no more than six to eight people on each one.

“Now we’re sold out on most tours and in some cases we’ve had to push past the numbers we’re meant to have. It’s been going very, very strong.”

Ahmed’s experience shows that perseverance is vital for an entrepreneur. But also important is mental strength.

With so many potential pitfalls for start-up businesses, the ability to stay strong and continue through the bureaucracy, the headaches, and the potential catastrophes is a must. If you have it, your business – like Ahmed’s – can really cook up a storm.

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