Meet the UAE's E-Commerce Queens

03 Jun 2013

Ever imagined creating your dream business without even leaving the house? We talk to a trio of online whizzes who have done just that…

Gwenaelle de Bizemont, 45, the woman behind Gulf Gifts, is now turning her golden touch to a new e-venture, Deco Avenue…
“At times I feel I should have my Blackberry surgically implanted into my arm for quick access at all times!” exclaims long-term expat Gwenaelle in her glorious French accent. That, she admits, is the biggest pitfall to owning an online enterprise. The upside? Realising her design dreams. “From a crashed Porsche Cayenne V8 engine turned into a coffee table, to genuine XVII century French antiques, to a life-sized stuffed reindeer from Montana, we’ve had a few interesting unique items pop up on our website – and a few good laughs!”

That website – Deco Avenue – could be likened to a Dubizzle or Ebay, though with its sole focus on high-end yet pre-loved furniture, it is very much aimed at design-lovers loathe to fork out full price. “There was definitely a ‘ta-dah!’ moment,” Gwenaelle says of the concept, which struck her while she moved house in Dubai. Six months on and everyone from hotels “contacting us when re-modelling” to “Europeans looking to buy nice items for their holiday pads in Dubai” have started logging on to the chic site regularly. 

Certainly, it seems Gwenaelle has an e-commerce knack – she’s successfully run VIP gift site Gulf Gifts for seven years, with her study, kitchen table or sofa serving as her workspace. So, what is her secret to a productive day? “I find it is important to get dressed in the morning as if you were going to a meeting in DIFC! Firstly, it helps you to take yourself and your business seriously. Secondly, those unexpected meetings do happen and at least you are always ready!”

While Gwenaelle’s enviable job perks are “flexibility” and “not being far from my loved-ones, dog included”, how does she ensure it’s also profitable? “Well, we are not with Deco Avenue quite yet,” she admits. “The pressure is off because my business partner Estelle and myself already each have another mainstream stable revenue. However, as we are both single mums who decided we did not want to depend on a husband, we also did not want to depend on a single business to bring in those revenues. So, we are quite driven to make this work!”

For other women, her advice is simple: “Do it now – this is a largely underdeveloped sector in the GCC and the move is more and more towards online shopping. It’s inevitable, so occupy your territory now!”

Palestinian Dina Abdulhadi Daryani, 33,  applied her passion for fashion to Aura B, an online boutique of regional talent
 “Aura B started from my office at my apartment in Downtown Dubai, a very tiny room where I had a desk and a laptop,” reveals Dina. That was in 2009. Nowadays, Aura B – which Dina describes as “more than an online boutique” – operates with a trendy team from an office-with-a-view in JLT. It’s a far cry from the one-woman band it started with.

“Aura B is a hub for trendsetters, for people to get exposed to special and unique items from international and regional designers,” explains Dina of her now-thriving site. “It's aimed at young, style-conscious women and men who are always on the lookout for something new, unique and different.”

The concept’s catalyst was Dina’s own individual sense of style. “I started taking fashion more seriously at college… but I was never really one to follow the trends”. Having become increasingly dedicated in her search for off-the-radar brands, Dina eventually decided to turn her fabulous style into a fully-fledged online enterprise. “My initial idea was to open an actual store where people could go to find unique things that are not necessarily available in shopping malls across the UAE,” she says. “The idea slowly turned into an e-commerce site given that, at the time in 2009, online stores barely existed in the region. Having an online platform was the ideal way to bridge the gap between the unique talents of local, regional and international designers and worldwide customers at a click of a mouse!”

Eight months of hard graft later, the site went live – though the process wasn’t without its challenges. “At the time, most people advised me not to open an e-commerce site as they thought the region was not ready for it. Plus I had few companies to learn from in the region, as I was one of the first to start such a thing. As such, I definitely faced a few technical delays and there were quite a few hurdles that I had to overcome. But all of the challenges I came across provided valuable lessons going forward.”

It’s this ‘go get ‘em’ attitude that Dina says is key to her success. “If you have an idea you believe in, go for it and never give up, no matter what people tell you,” she beams. “It is important to conduct market research and have a good business plan so you are prepared. Then enjoy your work and believe that something great is about to happen!”

Mum-of-three Tanja Peters, 39, turned motherhood into a business with the launch of her online babywear firm, Coochy Coo
“My blackberry is my best friend since I had my third baby,” laughs German-born Tanja, who came up with the idea for Coochy Coo while pregnant with her first child. “I dreamt about a baby and kids label that would reflect the happiness I felt inside and the pride that new parents feel,” she says. “For a new mum, the build-up of nervous energy born out of constant apprehension and extreme sleep deprivation just begged for a creative outlet!”

The result was her range of  “hand-made and personalised” clothes, accessories, furniture and home textiles, created from pure cotton and linen and defying Dubai’s trademark glitz. “We noticed that while the parents here looked cool, the kids and their rooms all looked the same – nothing individual, nothing new. I felt there was a gap for edgy and cheeky handmade items, so we began to design baby clothes.”

It took two years before Coochy Coo was up and running, during which time Tanja sold prototypes at art festivals, travelled across Europe to gauge the competition and watched the online sector begin to boom in the UAE before finally registering her business. When the time came to launch, she chose to do so at Dubai’s biggest baby and child fair – and she’s never looked back.

“We started as a pure online store six years ago, but Coochy Coo is now being sold in over 25 selected outlets in six countries in the Middle East and in Germany.” 

It’s impressive stuff, but, she warns, don’t be fooled into thinking it’s as easy as ABC. “Every new mum seems to think that an online baby shop is the best idea in the world, only to discover later that it is actually rather hard to reach the threshold of respectable net-sales, which lead into economies of scale, hence profit.” Her advice? “Be different. Come up with something unique. Don’t try to be the 20th online baby store selling the same items under a different virtual roof.”

To hit the jackpot, you’ll need to be prepared to put in the hours too (even if it is while in your pyjamas at home). “Working from home gives you flexibility and you do choose the hours you want to work – but at the moment, for me, it is until 1am! I am always online and, honestly, sometimes the flexibility is not as easy to find as you might think.”

If you’re not put off, Tanja’s top tip is to read reliable advice, create a solid business plan and remain persistent. “Don’t let failures defeat you,” she says, all the while juggling Milo, Kenu and 7-month-old Numa Lou. “When you learn from your mistakes, you use the lessons to succeed the next time.”