By Neil King
Anna Bolton-Riley and Annabelle Fitzsimmons reveal to StartUp how they’re making a big impact on the UAE’s arts and crafts scene
Fate can have a funny way of weaving people into each other’s lives, putting them on parallel paths until the time is right to introduce them.
So it was for Anna Bolton-Riley and Annabelle Fitzsimmons, founders of online arts and crafts marketplace Little Majlis.
The friends and colleagues shared strangely similar backgrounds before launching their business in 2012.
Both arrived in the UAE in 1999 from Australasia (one from Australia, the other New Zealand), and both worked in Dubai’s design and construction industry for more than ten years, crossing paths during that time. Not to mention they both have almost identical forenames.
“We worked together six or seven years ago and just found that we complemented each other,” says Bolton-Riley.
“We didn’t think about it too much back then, but then we both subconsciously became aware of an underground market for crafts and handmade items.”
Investigating the scene further, they realised many people were being stifled by the lack of a legal framework, presenting them with an idea, and an opportunity.
Bolton-Riley continues: “These people couldn’t build a business out of their crafts because it wasn’t legal. The system couldn’t accommodate them.
“It gave us a great opportunity to get creative ourselves, and to help other people with their creative businesses.”
And so, the nucleus of Little Majlis was born.
The partners devised a way to legalise and unify the UAE’s crafts market, establishing a retail website that business owners could sign up to and operate under as ‘shop keepers’, dramatically reducing their start-ups costs, and giving them a recognised platform from which to sell their goods.
“We really wanted to create a place where people could sell their items, and make life a lot easier for them so they could actually focus on their crafts,” says Bolton-Riley.
“The important thing for us was to make sure we had a framework where people could operate their own shops through us. It took time to get that up and running.”
To ensure the company was on the right side of the law, Fitzsimmons and Bolton-Riley continually sought advice and assurances that their concept could legally exist in the UAE, eventually getting a trade licence from Dubai’s Creative Zone on the basis that Little Majlis is an e-commerce business.
Little Majlis’s growing group of individual shop keepers are permitted to sell on the website without having to hold their own trade license, provided they adhered to the website’s terms and conditions.
Bolton-Riley says: “While we were setting up we had to question everything that was presented to us, just to make sure we were doing everything legally, and so we knew we could definitely set up the way we wanted to.
“We actually got a lot of support from other e-commerce platforms that aren’t the same as ours. That was great. The support helped us a lot.”
The shared marketplace model may not have been available in the UAE until Little Majlis launched, but to many expats - particularly from the UK, US, and Australia - the concept is a long-standing part of their consumer activity.
Websites such as etsy.com, bonanza.com, and folksy.com have helped the craft and handmade industry soar in recent years.
At the turn of this decade, the crafting and hobby industry was worth $29bn in the US alone - more than double the $14bn it was worth in 2001.
So it’s no surprise that Little Majlis was met with a lot of enthusiasm.
“There was a positive response straight away,” says Fitzsimmons. “We had a real mixed bag of people - clothes, jewellery, everything.
“When we first opened we only had 12 shops on the website, but we currently have 110, with 1,200 unique items available to customers.
“The fact we give people a quick and easy way to set up is very attractive to them, I think - they can focus on what they do best and what they’re passionate about, rather than worrying about getting a trade license, or opening their own shop somewhere.”
Bolton-Riley adds: “The hard part is actually saying no to people, knowing how passionate they are about their work. It’s not that they’re not good at what they do, but it’s just not possible to have everybody on the website.”
While Fitzsimmons and Bolton-Riley modestly attribute the subsequent rapid growth of Little Majlis to a number of people involved with the concept, they occasionally let slip about the extent of their own hard work.
“Time is often a challenge,” admits Fitzsimmons when discussing the day-to-day running of the business.
“I think we’ve got smart in certain ways - understanding and developing the website, and so on, but a lot of things still take time to get just right.”
It’s not just the technical side of things which have tested the duo’s patience, commitment and business nous. The familiar difficulties of money and payment gateways have also raised their heads along the way.
Bolton-Riley says: “We’re self-funded, so money is always an issue, and it means we have to be clever about the work we do, and how we use our resources.
“Payment gateways is another thing that was a challenge when we were starting out. There just weren’t many choices, which is a problem when it’s such an important part of setting up the website.
“In fact it was possibly the most challenging thing. At least one of them. We wanted a single checkout for the customers, which is better for the buyer, makes everything easier, and gives the sense that the website is a single thing and not all separate. But having specific requirements made finding the right payment gateway harder.
“That was more than 18 months ago though, and things are much better now. And in a year’s time there will be a whole lot more than we have now, so there’s lots to look forward to.”
Now an established presence on the UAE’s e-commerce scene - and with many of their start-up difficulties behind them - the duo are ready to step operations up a notch, confirming they will be making upgrades to the website’s homepage.
“We are starting to realise that we’re not making the most of the opportunity that we could be,” says Bolton-Riley.
“The aesthetics of e-commerce have changed quite dramatically. Things are really very different now, even from when we started.
“We’re also going to be making changes depending on what the shop keepers want and need. We have coffee mornings with them to get feedback, and that gives us important information about what they need. That kind of thing will help us move forward.”
If all goes according to plan, there will also be changes to the geographic spread of shop keepers, without compromising the regional basis of the concept.
As Fitzsimmons explains: “At the moment we’re GCC and we’ll stay that way. We don’t want to take over the world. Most shops are from the UAE, but we’re starting to get more and more people from Muscat, Doha, Kuwait, Bahrain, and so on. That’s the next move - to increase the number of people in those areas.”
Bolton-Riley adds that the increase in shop keepers and customers will also mean an increase in the founders’ dedication to improving the brand.
“Building the brand is really important to us, especially as we grow. We spend a lot of time helping out the shop keepers, showing them how to make the most of their photographs, and that kind of thing. Things that are for the good of the whole Little Majlis community.”
Listening to the friends discuss their business, it’s clear that they enjoy the long hours that come with the entrepreneurial territory. But as Fitzsimmons says: “It doesn’t really feel like work.”
And if they needed any proof that they are part of a fast-growing sector, they need only to remind themselves of one aspect of their website.
“We have a calendar of events, and we just didn’t realise how big a part of Little Majlis this would become,” explains Bolton-Riley.
“We thought it would be more of an extra to the site, but it’s taken on a life of it’s own, and says a lot about what’s going on in the UAE.
“A year ago the market scene was nothing. There was maybe one market every now and again. Now we have times where there are eight markets in one month.
“People are really interested, and it’s becoming more obvious. There’s a growing client base, and a lot of desire for this.
“We’re just really happy to be part of it.”
Little Majlis is a great concept. It provides a fantastic platform for artisans and craftspeople to exhibit and sell their creations and offers their followers the opportunity to buy unique and beautifully crafted items. Anna and Annabelle's personal input and commitment to Little Majlis and its community is very impressive. Expanding into neighbouring countries will be an exciting development.