By Neil King
Dubai serial entrepreneur on why the emirate is still the perfect place for people looking to start up again and again
Vishal Mahtani is definitely no stranger to starting up.
Since 2012 the serial entrepreneur has been incredibly active, launching no fewer than six businesses within three years, with several plans to do more in the coming months and years.
Through his conglomerate company, Price Global Group, the seasoned businessman has reached into sectors as diverse as retail, care hire, events, and media, centring his efforts on Dubai, with dealings in India and Africa as well as the UAE.
Mahtani arrived in Dubai in 2007, following some time in Ghana where he ran a successful electronics business. Between 2007 and 2009 he worked in real estate where, he admits, he was “not doing anything particularly productive, but still making a lot of money”.
But when the effects of the global financial crisis started to bite, he knew he needed to do something more.
“I realised I needed to start doing something more positive with my life,” he says.
“That’s when I started my first company, which is now called Office Direct.
“The whole idea behind this company was to be able to meet the demand of the numerous new businesses here, and create convenience for them. So we started doing all the office supplies at their doorstep, and we brought it in as an online concept.
“We were the first to do this in the UAE, and it really caught on. Currently we have over 1,000 customers, and we’re probably the most successful in the online stationery business.”
After an ill-fated foray into retail stores, Mahtani made a move which set him on a path trodden by his business idol, Richard Branson: serial entrepreneurship.
“From 2012 I started figuring out that just doing one thing was not enough,” he explains.
“One mentor who I follow very strongly is Richard Branson, and I looked exactly at the model he took. He started companies and handed them over to somebody else, and then moved onto the next venture.
“So that was the model I decided to follow. I handed Office Direct over to the team that was handling it at that point of time, and became a serial entrepreneur. Now we have six different companies all being handled by six different heads. I only oversee them.”
As well as Office Direct, Mahtani has launched a rent-a-car business, a conference and events centre, a media company, a legal consultancy, and a trading company. All within the space of three years.
The entrepreneur says that it’s not just about finding a run-of-the-mill business opportunity; there needs to be something different for each one to stand out in the market.
As he explains: “With the rent-a-car business the difference is that we offer only singular pick-up and drop-offs with a driver. It’s a flat AED100 charge from any point in Dubai to any point in Dubai, unlike others who have a metered service.
“So, if for example you were to land at the airport and want to go home, you just give us a call or you go online and book it. A driver will take you from the airport and drop you home. Our focus is airport to hotels, hotels to airport at this point in time.”
With the conference and events centre, Mahtani says: “A lot of hotels have conference and events centres in them, but this is the first stand-alone centre of its type in Dubai. We have eight meeting rooms, and they range from capacity for eight to 80 people.
“The media company is called Younoh Media and it handles social media, websites, design – everything in digital media from end to end, and we have a legal consultancy too, called Second Chance.
“As the name suggests it gives people in trouble a second chance. At that point of time Dubai had a lot of people who had issues with real estate and they were in jail for bounced cheques, unpaid bank loans and things like that. So the idea with that company was to find a way to get them out so they could get their lives back again and get a second chance.
“That’s still the principle of the company. We now operate as a full-fledged debt recovery and criminal law firm.
“Finally, we have a trading business, we bring in fresh fruits, from Africa to the markets here. So a lot of the fresh pineapples you may be eating, or mangos, or avocados, will probably be something brought in by us. The unique thing here is that the focus is not on bulk. We’re only doing 100 cartons a week, but doing the absolute best product.”
With each venture returning a profit, Mahtani clearly has a knack for finding gaps in the market and exploiting them.
So how does he manage to stay ahead of the market and engineer these opportunities?
“It’s daily learning,” he explains. “That’s really it.
“How it usually works is that once I find a good opening, I will fund the venture, set it up, train somebody, make them the CEO, and I will back off. I’ll give them the targets, a good working environment, and the things they need to make it profitable.
“That’s a thrill of being a serial entrepreneur – finding the idea and right person who shares my vision of where the company needs to go.”
The life of a serial entrepreneur, however, is not always a smooth one. Challenges can multiply quickly.
Whether it’s convincing customers to buy stationery online, trying to secure payments on time, diverting people away from hotels towards conference centres, finding a target market for car pick-ups, or even just competing in a crowded marketplace, there are hurdles to overcome at every turn.
But Mahtani prefers to see the positive side of things. He believes Dubai is still the perfect place to be an entrepreneur and start a new business.
“First of all, Dubai being a tax-free state makes things so much easier,” he says.
“In any other country in the world, just maintaining taxes and accounts for this many companies would drive me insane. And also in Dubai, if all the companies are under one owner, we can have all our offices in one place, which is harder in other countries because each licence would need to be individually operated.
“Another positive thing is that when you set up businesses repeatedly, you understand the systems with the economic department, the chamber of commerce, and so on. Regulations are so standardised that it makes life very easy. The basic policies never really change. The government is stable, and it’s the safest city in the world.
“All of this makes a big difference.”
Now an experienced serial entrepreneur in his own right, Mahtani traces his success back to his family, who he says have always been in business.
“We’ve never been employed,” he says. “We’ve always been on the other side of the fence and owned businesses, whether it was my dad or my uncles. So I guess that’s been ingrained in me.
“The difference is that they have been very conservative whereas I am very forward thinking. I can’t blame them – their era was a very conservative era. Our era is very risk-taking era. Not every risk has paid off, but it’s always been a learning experience, and one thing I do is that I always take the learnings forward.
“Before I start doing anything I ask ‘what’s the worst that can happen if this went wrong?’ And if I can answer that and be ok with it, I run with it.”
The businessman is fairly direct when he considers how to build a customer base. For him, it is all about solving a client’s need, and educations.
“What I ask my target market is what would it take to get you on board to work with me? Who are you working with right now and what is it you’re not happy with?
“If I can handle that, figure out what you’re not happy with, and then turn around and make you happy, then at least I know I’ve got my first client on board. And that’s when it starts growing.
“A lot of these conversations are about me educating myself about the business as well. So for example when we talk about media, about technology, I could be sitting with the client and I’m asking him ‘what are you not getting’? If he says ‘I’m not getting this or that feature’ and I don’t know what he’s talking about, I’m obviously going to go and learn what he’s talking about. Then I’ll go away and educate myself on how we can give it to him.
“So I am probably educating myself every single day. It’s impossible to know everything, but I’ll work hard to know everything my client needs me to know.“
It’s a system that has served him well so far, and given him sufficient amounts of expertise across a wide breadth of business.
And in Mahtani’s opinion, it’s put him in a strong position with most of his ventures. Success does not necessarily mean his is looking to expand, though in some cases he admits that growth is vital.
He explains: “With the rent-a-car business, we have 10 cars. I do not plan to expand beyond 10 cars at this point.
“When I go by a revenue model, these 10 cars are making me enough money. If I go beyond this, my marketing effort has to go to a new target market. That costs me so much more and the revenue per car goes down. To me this is the optimal. I don’t plan to expand it any further.”
Some of his other businesses, however, offer a completely different picture altogether.
“On the other hand, the media company needs to expand to maybe 20 times what it already is because there’s no optimal revenue on that. With the conferences and events, the optimal is eight rooms – I cannot go beyond that. A the point when the centre is completely full and going at 80-100 percent occupancy, that’s when I’m going to think of centres number two or three.
“Each model runs differently. Some of them I’m not going to expand any further, some of them the sky is the limit. Like the office supplies. We’re at 1,000 customers, but Dubai has 250,000 businesses. I’m not even a drop in the ocean. I’m not even a percentage.
“So the future looks very different for each one of the business. And then of course there are extra businesses that might be launched soon, as well. That’s always the plan – to set up new businesses when the time is right.”
Keen to impart the benefits of his entrepreneurial experience to others, Mahtani suggests that one thing budding business owners should hone is their focus.
“What I have seen with a lot of people in Duabi is that they start off their business with this beautiful goal, and the goal is to make money,” he says.
“But somehow, three months down the line they’ve forgotten their goal and they are too busy chasing everything else.
“What I would say is focus on the goal and don’t lose sight of that. It’s very easy to lose track of your goal when things go wrong. A lot of people just got in other directions, and before long they are in a complete mess, with debts, and everything else.
“Focus is key. Keep focus, and you can keep your business on track.”
Sage advice from a man whose own focus continues to bring him numerous rewards as he treads the sometimes chaotic path of serial entrepreneurship.
Great article ,Vishal, although I always get nervous when I hear "serial entrepreneur".We all know it takes tremendous time, effort, and attention for any start-up.Finding a niche and a need is paramount, no matter how good of a delegator or manager. Congrats!