‘No man is an island’, reads the famous phrase by the poet John Donne. And the same can be said for SMEs.
It might only take an individual to develop a good idea, but without the support of mentors, experts or peers, their chances of success are dramatically reduced.
One network group offering such support is Fit For Business - an organisation established to provide corporates with guidance, community and networking opportunities, built on the best practices of sport and the military.
The private members business club was founded by Dubai-based businessman Liam Mooney, the man who is also behind prominent legal recruitment company Blue Pencil, as well as the Dubai Rugby Business Network.
It was the rugby connection which led Mooney to explore the possibility of setting up a network for the UAE’s SME community.
He explains: “I could see that the common theme from this group was that SMEs needed support and guidance by consensus. I wanted to do something to help the SME forum, and hence formed Fit For Business.
“There was a lot of camaraderie between people in the group, and a real passion for support, and I felt there was more that could be done.
“We already had contacts with Blue Pencil to start up a network, but that was only in the legal industry. Fit for business was for the whole SME sector, so it was a bit more of a challenge.”
Aimed at getting corporates fit by using the best practices of sport and the military, Mooney explains the organisation serves as a support function, with members signing up to take advantage of its benefits.
“When you become part of the network and part of the website, your details go online and you can see each other and what everybody can offer everybody else,” he says.
“People have questions such as ‘who is a good website developer?’ and ‘how do you get a bank loan’, and there are people in the network who can help with practical advice. Every single member is vetted and can only come on board if they are of value to the group.”
The support system doesn’t stop at connecting individuals. There are also regular talks on relevant topics to the SME sector, as well as networking events where members can share contacts, businesses ideas, and areas in which they need support.
There is also a business concierge service, and a series of modules run by industry leaders, on areas such as legal advice, social media, recruitment, and management.
Fit For Business also has an array of global ambassadors, including Welsh rugby star Dafydd James, former CEO and COO of Rangers Football Club, Craig Mather, and Mark Ormrod - the former Royal Marine Commando who lost three limbs while serving in Afghanistan in 2007, and has completed a number of charity runs in the US and UK, despite being told he would never walk again.
“We wanted to get inspirational figures on board,” says Mooney. “People that SMEs can really learn something from.
“Fit For Business is completely non-profit - we just want to offer support, recommendations, inspiration, and share ideas. There’s real value in connecting people, and that’s at the core of what we do.”
Having been part of the SME landscape since arriving in the UAE with Blue Pencil in 2005, Mooney has seen the highs and lows of business in the Emirates.
His experiences have given him a clear understanding of the challenges SMEs face not only when that are set up, but also as they look to survive and grow.
“I have fifteen years of experience as an SME, and about eight years experience of the UAE, and I believe that the SME sector really suffers from lack of information. Certainly a lack of correct information and knowledge.
“There are so many mixed messages coming out from people that we want to unify the messages and provide more clarity and support. We feel there is an element of exploitation of SMEs and many good ideas are being killed before they get off the ground.
“There isn’t much in the way of support and you can end up chasing your tail for simple things.
“Banks have a major role in this. It’s so difficult for an SME to open an account here. Why do they have minimum turnover levels, for example? It’s not like corporates are asking for a loan.
“Banks need to be more supportive and one of our aims is to put more collective pressure on them to see the huge opportunity they are missing.”
Mooney reveals that the “biggest headaches” Fit For Business hears about from its members are connected to recruitment and management.
“Both of these areas can learn from the sporting world,” he says. “I.e. how do the best teams recruit successfully and how do their leaders motivate the people within the team.
“Leadership is very poor in this part of the world. To be honest it’s not just the GCC, it’s a global thing.
“Good management requires vision, good decision making, clarity in terms of development, respect and empathy towards the team, and creating the best environment - all set within clear and transparent boundaries so if any member falls outside these rules there is a discipline mechanism.
“Ideally it should be the goal of every company to create an environment where no one wants to leave you and everyone wants to join. Staff turnover is a very common complaint in the UAE and in my opinion that’s because the management of staff falls well short of the standards we should see.
“A happy, healthy motivated team is a very productive and profitable one!”
In terms of recruitment, Mooney draws on his own experience with Blue Pencil.
“We are like anyone else in the network and seek support, contacts and people that want to utilise our services. If you get recruitment wrong it has been shown statistically that the average overall cost is more than $50,000.”
With so many entrepreneurial initiatives across the UAE, Mooney believes the government does a good job in trying to offer support, but maintains that there is a lack of leadership for the sector.
“The government tries to take responsibility, but there’s no real leadership there,” he says. “At least not enough.
“If they took it on a bit more, it would really benefit them. People don’t just need advice - they need practical advice and guidance. They need to be linked up to people with experience. It’s not cheap setting up a company in the UAE and you could lose a lot of money if you’re not talking to the right people.
“That’s the gap that we’re trying to bridge. We’re trying to give people these things and build a stronger, more informed sector.”
While Mooney can identify the numerous issues and challenges facing SMEs in the UAE, he is adamant that their position in the economy will get stronger and stronger.
“The future for SMEs is really bright,” he says. “There are huge opportunities, and more people should take the leap and start an SME, however scared they might be to do it.
“SMEs are the future of the UAE economy. They have the freedom to thing, can move a lot more quickly on an idea, and can take decisions more quickly.
“It’s the nature of SMEs to look at where the opportunities are and move on them. Huge companies don’t have the ability to do this so quickly.”
His own experience with Blue Pencil confirms his assertion that smaller businesses can maneuver more swiftly at crucial times, having successfully guided it through the worst years of the recession.
He continues: “It happened to us in recruitment. Look at Hayes. They are a huge company, and they got hit really hard by the recession. They are a big company and couldn’t steer the ship out of troubled waters very quickly.
“We could turn around and get ourselves sorted in just a few months. We had the ability to move quickly, which was a massive advantage.”
More than anything else, Mooney believes SMEs will give the UAE the edge it’s looking for in years to come.
He adds: “SMEs contributes more than 60 percent of the UAE’s economy. It’s huge. To maintain its comparative advantage it’s important that the UAE continues to improve through education, innovation, research and high level service.
“This drive will come from the SME sector.”
A UK qualified solicitor, Cambridge University graduate and former professional rugby player, representing London Irish, Exeter, Cambridge University, Ireland A and the Barbarians, Mooney is no stranger to high achievement and providing value.
Entering the business world in 2001, he has founded not only Fit For Business and Blue Pencil, but is also owner or part-owner of education consultancy Tamesis, and Anglo-Chinese politics and business consultancy CBI Portae, which is heavily involved with the new Shanghai Free Zone.
It sounds like a difficult balancing act, but Mooney certainly doesn’t see it that way.
“I always played sport to a relatively high level while continuing my education, and could always prioritise. I love business and making new connects, so I don’t really see what I do as a job, or juggling.
“Every day I wake up feeling excited about what the day can bring, so there’s no juggling at all.
“I like being busy, and if I can do something to help others, then I’m happy. Money doesn’t motivate me at all really - I just want to contribute in a way that gives people value.”
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