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Sat 30 Mar 2013 11:48 AM

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The voice of experience

The Arabian Business StartUp Academy continued at pace with two entrepreneurs giving attendees the benefit of their experience. Alex Andarakis of Andarakis Advisory Services and Shant Oknayan of GlamBox gave the audience an insight into what it takes to start a successful business

The voice of experience

Experience is a vital thing in business, so hearing from people who have been there and done that is a huge benefit to start-ups and SMEs.

At the second Arabian Business StartUp Academy attendees were treated to presentations by two men who, while being at different stages of their entrepreneurial journeys, have both been through the trials and tribulations of starting a new business.

Shant Oknayan gave the audience the inside track on GlamBox, and the ups and downs he encountered while setting up the business. You can read more about his experiences on pages 32 to 37 of this edition of StartUp, in an interview during which he pinpoints how he overcame the hurdles placed in front of him.

While Oknayan is at the beginning of his adventure, the Academy’s other speaker, Alex Andarakis, has several years of success in various fields behind him.

The founder and managing director of management consultancy firm, Andarakis Advisory Services had a 24-year professional career at some of the region’s biggest companies before taking the leap into entrepreneurship and starting his own private business.

With job titles such as CEO, managing director and executive director at companies including Emaar Properties, Unilever, Aujan Industries and Al Islami Foods on his CV, Andarakis was well placed to explain to the audience how he made the transition from successful career to owner of a start-up.

Starting at the beginning, Andarakis spoke of his upbringing and underlined his experience: “I’m an Australian living in the Middle East. I’m working in Dubai but have worked in Jeddah, Alexandria, and just about every Arab market in the past 20 years.”

Having graduated in marketing and law, he went into real estate, where he says he “learnt a bit about entrepreneurship.” Something that prepared him for his own step into the unknown.

Using other entrepreneurs’ philosophies, Andarakis spoke about what you need to think about upfront.

“Richard Branson’s philosophy is ‘no regrets’. Sheikh Mohammed’s is ‘build it and they will come’. Steve Jobs says you can’t look back, you have to look forwards. I worked with Alabaar at Emaar – he had a dream. Tony Soprano – he’s an entrepreneur, and so is Tiger Woods.

“What can we learn from them? You’ve got to have passion and determination. Winning is more important than taking part in the competition. You’ve got to have a belief system, you’ve got to create followers.”

Pointing out some fundamentals of entrepreneurship, he added: “It’s a lot of hard work and commitment. You’re going to go through a lot of frustration. A client will call you and say ‘I want to see you at eight in the morning – how can you turn around my business. Give me a proposal tomorrow morning’. Then, if you manage it, it suddenly goes dark. Your client won’t answer the phone for a long time, and then all of a sudden he’ll call and say ‘we’re going to start today’. There is frustration at the core of every entrepreneur.”

During his professional career, Andarakis was responsible for the $3.5bn Lipton brand, had eighteen years with Unilever, was CEO of Aujan Industries, executive director at Emaar Properties, managing director at Omniyat Properties and CEO of Al Islami Foods.

But as he admits, “I was burnt out.

“I had no life, and I really value my life and my time playing golf and with my kids.

“One day three years ago I thought ‘I can’t do this any more’. So I took six months off and then I started my own business.

“I didn’t have lack of options – I had offers to stay on with Unilever and Emaar. I was financially secure, so why take the plunge into private business?

“In truth it had left a gap in my personal growth. My ambition was still strong by my goals had changed. Boredom had taken over. All my life I had wanted to be a CEO but when I got there I very quickly got bored. My motivation to run to work had diminished. At my last job I was driving my car 20kph because I didn’t want to get to work.”

And so he set to work looking at how to start his own business. Freely admitting that age was against him and that he felt like he was “becoming a dinosaur,” he says he had to retrain himself and become familiar with social media and other important aspects of business which define the modern era.

“At 46 it was now or never,” says Andarakis. “It’s an old age to start a private business. I could afford for it not to be that successful. I was prepared to invest a lot of money, and I decided that only I would be in the business, nobody else.

“I would literally do it all myself – the books, the IT, everything. I had to focus on leveraging my network. I also had to have strong discipline. Working from home wasn’t an option for me. I had to get up early, put on a suit and go to work. I had to reinvent myself and private business was the best way for me to do this.”

Understanding where he was, and where he needed to be was key to Andarakis and his fledgling business, and he knew he had to undertake a wealth of groundwork in order to put down strong foundations from which to build.

“I had to decide where to pitch myself, and why I had a right to be successful with my business.

“I asked myself what preparation I needed to do? Who is my target audience? How can I capture people’s imagination? How can I capture value? What structure do I need in order to develop?

“I also had to work out how I would create awareness, and whether I was prepared for potential struggles and challenges. Was I prepared to do this over the long-run?”

An important thing for Andarakis to do was create his brand, or establish the company’s “brand DNA”. Taking inspiration from Roger Federa, Arabian stallions, luxury sports cars and precision watches among other things, he was able to establish what his new company would look and feel like, and the quality of service it would offer.

Then, he says, he had to look at recruiting clients. Looking at  all the possible targets available to the company, he narrowed them down to ‘strategic targets’ and then narrowed them down further to ‘prime prospects’, leaving him with “those with the highest growth potential for building sales, leasing, and brand equity momentum.”

He was left with real estate developers, fast moving consumer goods, retail malls, and hotels and hospitality.

Explaining the process to find his target audience struck a chord with the Academy’s attendees, showing how he looked at each possible target, and gave them a ranking of one to five in a series of categories including ‘right to win’, ‘attractive need’, ‘attractive scope’, and ‘attractive fees’ among others. Those with the highest overall scores became his key targets.

And the results spoke for themselves.

“We got 42 account wins in 34 months, and 90 individual assignments,” says Andarakis.

“We also outperformed our revenue targets every year. By 2011 we had already beaten our 2014 target.”

Imparting some final words of wisdom, he listed the top ten lessons he and his company had learned since deciding to start-up a business.

1) Business development lead time

2) Clients lost trust in ad agencies

3) Clients lost intimacy in major consulting groups

4) Advance payment critical to gauge client commitment

5) Business model needs to evolve continuously

6) Reputation is paramount so delivery is key

7) Partner networks need careful screening for FIT

8) Pricing is secondary if relationship is established

9) Customer care – 24hr turnaround come what may

10) Be careful not to dilute your brand for short term opportunities

Explaining the risks each lesson posed, he also explained their mitigation options and how Andarakis Advisory Services overcame each issue.

This valuable insight into the inner workings of a successful start-up gave the Academy audience an important first-hand example of the challenges facing new businesses, but also the encouragement to forge ahead with their plans, safe in the knowledge that the right kind of planning can lead to the best results.