The Hustle Is Real: Lessons Learnt Through The Course Of A Three-Year-Long Entrepreneurial Journey

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January 2023 marked the third anniversary of Nested VFX, the post-production and visual effects studio that I founded with my two partners, Deena Bibi-Lee and Anthony Geara in the UAE. What started as a dream in Lebanon in early 2018 (if we even allowed ourselves to consider it as such in those early days) has turned into a household name with offices in Dubai and Riyadh, as well as expansion plans across multiple cities around the globe.

Now, if all you have is cash sitting on the side, and you’re eager to invest in a high-return startup or business, this article is not for you. I consider myself to be the least qualified to give investment and financial advice, and you’ll be way better off reading more authoritative voices in the field and following their advice. That said, there is one thing I pride myself on, and that’s being passion-driven. Not to say that it always played to my benefit, but when I have my mindset on a goal, no matter how much the odds are against me, I always take a nosedive, and work tirelessly to change them.

Truth be told, it is very likely that your lifelong project is not one of these trendy ideas that will have investors pouring their money into it. If you are one of those only left with a great idea that only makes sense to them (and a minimal cash resource), what I share here can perhaps serve you as an inspiring guide on how to make it work. A warning before I start though- this is by no means the winning recipe, and, in most cases, the journey will leave you disappointed if not devastated. So, consider those points carefully before following in our footsteps!

1) The hustle is real
At the start of our entrepreneurial journey, when we got tired of being let down by prospective investors, and then decided to finally take a leap and take matters in our own hands, the stars were not lined up for us, to say the least.

For starters, I had all my savings blocked overnight in Beirut, and I had to painfully watch their value spiral down when the economic crisis hit Lebanon in late 2019. However, my partner and I had already decided on a plan of action by then. We had set our sights on moving our base to Dubai, and we were determined not to let anything stand in our way. As such, we literally scraped whatever cash we could gather, and that’s how we ended up getting an office in the heart of Dubai Studio City.

Having next to no knowledge back then of the technicalities and legalities surrounding starting a new business, we were overwhelmed -but still not dismayed- by the amounts unaccounted for costs, as well as the mountains of paperwork needed. And that brings me to my first piece of advice for entrepreneurs: no matter how much you have researched, research more.

Ask people that walked through this path before you about their experiences and hurdles. Invest in legal, insurance, and, most importantly, accounting advice, primarily when registering for taxes, and opening a bank account- which is the hardest of them all! Plus, always account for fitting, network cabling, electricity wiring, and the procedures for moving furniture in, especially if you are opting for a shell and core office in a managed business community. Also, don’t overspend, but don’t also cheap out on your foundations, since any amount you save initially can come back to haunt you down the line.

Our hurdles did not stop there, however. By then, we had reached the beginning of 2020, and little did we know that the world was on the verge of a life-altering pandemic. And, sure enough, a week after we were handed the keys to our newly finished and fitted office, we were heading for a complete lockdown thanks to the advent of the COVID-19 crisis. Back then, giving up on our dreams was not only justifiable, but, by all accounts, perhaps the only sane thing to do. But thankfully, we didn’t.

2) Choose your base carefully
I believe that Dubai (and the United Arab Emirates) was hands down the best place across the globe to manage the coronavirus pandemic; if we were in any other city, I doubt I would be here telling this tale. Indeed, we were lucky to be back at the office in May 2020 with clients attending live editing sessions, while most of the world was still in lockdown. It is essential to know what any city you are opting to start in has to offer. Although the film and series industry is still modest across the region, Dubai is the hub for TV and online commercials, with every worldwide advertising agency and brand having branches here. And, since the media and advertising industry was -and still is- our main target, starting in Dubai was the most reasonable course of action.

3) Choose your business partners wisely
Those long hours you will put in before your business can stand on its own feet can seem very long and never-ending if you don’t have a partner along the ride. Looking back, I know I would not have been able to make it. Choose your partners wisely, though. Don’t go in with someone only suitable for the time being. I have seen far too many ventures fail, because the partners broke up early in the game. Instead, go with someone that you trust that they will stand by your side, not only now but for the years to come. You will undoubtedly face difficulties, disagreements, and different management styles. You will fight, and even go to war against each other at times, but you should always have faith in one another, and know that no matter how significant the troubles and obstacles are, you will always have each other’s back.

4) Know your target market
Every industry has its own modus operandi, and knowing your industry’s one is a must. To be successful, you need always to put yourself in your client’s shoes, and understand what they want- and remember that what they want might be different from your ideal scenario for running your business. You need to be patient, and not force your way- at least not at first. You should not only know what your clients want, but also know what they want but don’t know that they want. Be one step ahead of them in your offerings, and, bit by bit, show them that the way you do business, although different, is more beneficial for them. Also, remember that you’re a business owner now, ready to go full-length to win a contract. Still, the decision-maker in front of you is usually an employee by the end of the day, and the less headache and work you throw their way, the more they will appreciate working with you. Be respectful of everyone and of everyone’s time, no matter how low in the pay scale they are. In our fast-moving world, there is a big chance in six or seven years, that same intern sitting on the side taking notes will be a general manager or CEO with whom you’ll be eager to have a couple of minutes of their time to give them your elevator pitch- true story, by the way!

Most importantly, don’t shoot yourself in the foot. When you’re in an entangled industry like the one my company is in, never offer services that might portray you as a competitor to your clients. Even remotely taking one project that might have otherwise come their way is enough to get you blacklisted. Doing this will narrow down your pool of clients significantly. That said, make sure you also diversify your clients. Try not to have any client bring in more than 15% of your revenue. Otherwise, you will transform yourself and your business into a glorified employee.

5) Keep your clients close and your competitors closer
f knowing your clients’ modus operandi is essential, knowing your competitors’ is paramount. Identify your competitors, and differentiate yourself. They might have a lead in the market over you, but you have your innovation, passion, and enthusiasm, and that’s the kind of magnet that is enough to shift market polarities. If you’re an underdog, brace yourself as one, and be the disruption your industry so desperately needs. Don’t be afraid to think outside the box. And, whatever you do, do not compromise on the quality of your product and services. Always respect the deadlines you agreed on. Even if your client may not eventually honor them on their part, do your job, and deliver every milestone on time.

6) Be fair to your staff (and to yourself)
When you’re in the trenches fighting to win your first big contract, always be mindful of your team; without them, you cannot deliver. If you don’t take heed of them, you will find yourself quickly carried away, and committing to unrealistic deadlines and budgets that will leave your team tired, resentful, worn out, and looking elsewhere. Don’t drain your team, and don’t drain yourself as well. You need to stay sharp, focused, and with enough energy to win the next project, and the next one, and the next. Learn how to delegate, and trust who you hire. Put any ego aside (you’re the boss, you already won), and hire staff that can do things better and differently than you. Also, do offer competitive prices, but don’t cheapen yourself. Once you are portrayed as the cheap solution in your clients’ eyes, they will be reluctant to pay you more down the line. Also, you will be automatically dismissed from the more prestigious projects. Remember, a street-made shawarma sandwich might be tastier than any grilled salmon for some, but you will only see salmon and caviar served in Michelin-star restaurants. Be that salmon and caviar.

7) Don’t lay down your arms along the journey
After this three-year run with my business, sitting and resting to admire the achievements we’ve had so far is a well-earned blessing. However, my partners and I know too well that while we rest, others are still in the race. And so, we always stand up, and continue the run– and so should you. Keep the run going, and always surround yourself with new blood ready to push further with you. I have seen many companies with my own eyes that, after losing their stamina, quickly shrink and lose ground even after 20 years in the business. In the end, always remember your initial goal, and never lose the spark that made you start in the first place.

Related: Entrepreneur Middle East’s Achieving Women 2022: Desiree Vlekken, Founder And CEO, 4get-Me-Not

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