By Sarah Al Marashi
When talking about his business, Ahmed Ben Chaibeh, founder and CEO of Dubai Aqua Fun, the largest inflatable water park in the Middle East, cannot hide his excitement. The 34-year-old Emirati entrepreneur tells Sarah Al Marashi, co-founder and CEO of Infin8 Ventures, and a Sail Magazine columnist, how he stays motivated every day
How did you come up with this business idea?
About four years ago, I had a back injury that left me unable to walk for over a month, and everything I was previously able to do, I no longer could. So, I could either feel sorry for myself or create a new me. That is when I knew I had to create a business for myself which would work around my physical restrictions at the time.
Having made the decision to embark on an entrepreneurial journey, I started thinking of various business ideas. Then I recalled two events, first of which was a yacht party where I was bored and wished there had been more to do. I imagined how cool it would be to have an inflatable slide and how much fun it would be to slide off the side of the yacht into the seawater.
The second was a conversation I overheard on the beach one day when a parent was talking about how they wish there was some sort of activity that could keep kids safely entertained on the beach so they could enjoy some peace and quiet.
I immediately started researching and looking for companies that built inflatables and could implement the ideas I had. That is where it all started from.
How is the entertainment market in the GCC changing and why?
The GCC is pretty new when it comes to many types of entertainment. Recently, we saw a few more projects being launched, such as theme parks, safaris, and similar. That is great because there is a large population of young families with a strong spending power looking for different entertainment options.
There is also an increase in demand for experience-based entertainment, so we see a shift into that type of business, especially in the UAE. People are moving away from the cinema and malls and want to be more physically active, looking for outdoor experiences and a sense of adventure. In my opinion, this will lead to a lot of innovation and creative ideas coming up in the industry.
For example, Aqua Fun is focused on water activities, and it provides the fun of a water park but in natural surroundings in the sea water and on the beach. Since we launched Aqua Park on September 1, we have managed to attract over 3,000 guests, and we have had over 130 media posts, 28 TV and radio interviews, and loads of organic social media growth.
At a time when every waterpark in Dubai and the UAE is vying for tourists, we have a floating obstacle course that offers a fun physical workout people want to engage in despite the hot temperatures that we have.
We have also broken the Guinness World Record since the park has been built in the shape of Dubai’s official logo – combining the word Dubai in English and Arabic – that is visible from the sky.
Not to mention that we have competitive pricing, which is slightly below market average.
On the basis of this experience, what advice do you have for other start-ups?
It is important for every entrepreneur to know that a journey towards business success is not a smooth ride. They must be prepared for setbacks and rejections. During my first year of working on setting up my business, I had to cope with 61 rejections and people telling me how this wouldn’t work. However, that didn’t stop me from asking further, and it didn’t affect my belief in the idea I had.
Failure is always an option, but it is never a choice. So, as an entrepreneur, one must be prepared to ask. The worst thing that can happen is being told no, and since you already don’t have what you asked for, you really aren’t any worse off.
However, if you don’t ask, you could miss out on some great advice, an opportunity or a good deal, and you need all the help you can get as a start-up.
You never lose, you are always learning - every setback or failure is a lesson and an opportunity for growth. Tiptoeing around and being overly cautious won’t do you or your business any favours. The driving force must be your passion to seize the opportunities that are out there.
Also, I learnt the hard way that everything is negotiable since, for example, dealing with big companies or suppliers doesn’t mean that you can’t reduce the price or get better terms. This has cost me dearly. Knowing this would have saved me a lot of money and time.
In hindsight, I would recommend to every entrepreneur to make sure to have a mentor, an accountant and a lawyer. They will save you from so many future issues you might be unaware of due to the lack of experience. The mistakes I made were not having the right advisors and not seeking legal advice early on. It all ended up with me being contractually bound by agreements that were not favourable to me in the long term, slowing down the growth of the business. Thankfully, with the right advisors on board I have been able to get out of those sticky situations and get the park back on the right track.
What are your views on the challenges facing entrepreneurs in the UAE, GCC and Middle East?
The challenges that most start-ups face in our region are that they are treated as an established company from day one. They are expected and required to, for example, have physical offices or to fulfil licensing regulations, and fork out a lot of money on fees and office rent.
Also, payment terms of tenancy contracts, rental or supply agreements are not always favorable to start-ups. Almost all of them require up-front payment which drives your overhead expenses up, weighing down your business before you have even opened your doors to customers.
This does not give us a chance to showcase our ability to do a great job because we are too busy trying to make ends meet. As I said earlier, a good advisor, an accountant and a lawyer, who can help you to identify what you actually need and to manage your cash flow from the start, are very important because most businesses fail due to cash flow issues.
Also, the funding options available to entrepreneurs are limited in this region. Although more venture capitalists, angel investors, and crowd funding platforms have emerged, they are still neither up to the level required, nor in a position to fulfill the need of many entrepreneurs for a capital injection at favourable terms.
Many times an investor or a VC might require a large equity stake if they like your business idea. So, when you are desperate for cash as a new business, you could end up losing control of your company in exchange for that investment.
What is your morning routine?
I see every day as a new opportunity, a new chance to be better than I was yesterday. The same goes for my business.
My day starts early with a shower, then prayers, and that sets the tone for the day. I drive to work, but I don’t turn the radio on because I just want to take a quiet drive with no noise or distractions to allow myself to be with my thoughts.
I also do a mental review of the action points I need to work on for that day. I usually know what these are from the night before, as I have a chat with my advisor almost every evening when we review our performance trackers and go over all the numbers, revenue, expenses, staff issues, and such.
Tell us some things not many people know about you.
Swimming is a survival thing more than a recreational thing. If I don’t swim, I sink both in my business and metaphorically speaking.
What is your favorite quote?
“If you rest, you rust.”
What advice would you have for yourself?
Take your time
What do you fear?
In the beginning, it was failing, but I have learned it is the key to success because it teaches you and builds you up.
What do you appreciate most in people?
Authenticity, sharing their experience with me, and kindness.