How to Start a Business in Dubai & Survive as a Nomad Entrepreneur
Get ready for some great advice from a global nomad with 20 years of experience in sales, management, business consultancy, and corporate leadership across the globe — Lorenzo Jooris, the CEO of Creative Zone.
Vuk Zlatarov: You’re the CEO of Creative Zone, and you are very much involved in the startup ecosystem, especially in that area of startups and small companies. Where are we at today?
Lorenzo Jooris: Well, it’s a great industry. Dubai has really positioned itself as one of the main cities where nowadays people are considering to start a new business to relocate, to start their entrepreneurial journey. In the last two to three years, Dubai has really received a lot of entrepreneurs and investors from around the world that wanted to make Dubai their place. And so for us to be at the center of that has been very exciting over the last few years. Creative Zone was established 11 years ago, but the last four or five years has seen exponential growth in terms of the number of ex-pats that are coming and are making Dubai their place.
Vuk Zlatarov: What do you think is behind that?
Lorenzo Jooris: I think it’s been a lot of very good measures and initiatives that were set up by the government and by division of his Highness, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum in positioning Dubai as a very open place, welcoming to foreign investors, to entrepreneurs to come and do business. There are very few cities around the world that make it that easy for any investor to come and start doing business.
Vuk Zlatarov: It’s easy. I’d say we’re still not at the level where it’s completely flawless and super easy. I’ve been doing some work in Singapore. You can literally set up a company in an hour, a chatbot for example, and they’ve been doing this for a while now. Dubai has improved a lot, but are we still completely startup-friendly that someone can just show up and set up a bank account, get all of the advantages or company — or there’s still some more work to be done?
Lorenzo Jooris: There’s definitely room for improvement, quite a bit of work to be done. It’s a good thing that you bring the case of Singapore — Dubai benchmarks itself with Singapore in many of the things that Singapore has done, and how they deal with the startups and the entrepreneurial ecosystem is one of them. You’re very right by saying, Singapore has an incredible model. It’s true that you can set up a company within hours. You do it through an online portal. But for example, recently Dubai has initiated a similar initiative. They started a new portal called Invest in Dubai where you can go there and initiate. But it’s true that the system here is still a little bit more difficult to navigate in the sense that you need to really understand what kind of activity you are looking to do, what jurisdiction is the best one that fits the type of activity that you have.
Dubai has really positioned itself as one of the main cities where nowadays people are considering to start a new business to relocate, to start their entrepreneurial journey.
Vuk Zlatarov: Let’s take an example of technology startups, which is going to be an online platform, for example, and there is a growing amount of these kinds of startups. What is currently the smartest and most seamless way to set up a company in Dubai? What would you say?
Lorenzo Jooris: I would still say that one of the best options to come through us and to do it through Creative Zone, because we’re able to really recommend you the best jurisdiction, the best type of license, the best type of activity. So many times, even if it’s an e-commerce company, you’re able to put in your license, many activities that complement what you do. And you need to understand the do’s and don’ts. So for example, you are able to set up an e-commerce company in one of the free zones, but the limitations with that are that you are not able to deliver the goods that you are selling on your e-commerce platform as a company yourself because it’s not within your remit of what your license allows. So if you want to set up an e-commerce company where your company has your own staff delivering the goods, well, then you need a Dubai, the mainland license. So it’s important for you to speak to somebody that can recommend you different options. But of course, the license is a little bit more expensive than a free zone.
Vuk Zlatarov: I remember when we came here with our original business, CreITive, in 2014, we were a small company coming from Serbia. We ended up spending around 90,000 dirhams just to get us off the ground. 90,000 dirhams is a lot of money for a company coming from a market that is so small. At the moment, what is the minimum that you need in Dubai to set up a company?
Lorenzo Jooris: Well, things have changed since then. So for example, right now we are at Dubai Media City. Dubai Media City, 10 years ago, was the place for any media company to get started. And that’s the thing. Any Dubai media company to get started in the Dubai Media City needed to rent an office, nothing was below a hundred thousand dirhams, including the office space, the rent. Nowadays, different jurisdictions started competing with each other in the sense of offering something that is more cost-effective. So nowadays you can set up a trade license for as little as 5,750 dirhams for a media license that does not include an office and other requirements and your visa, but that’s the license alone. So even if you were to get a One Visa Package that is called, that includes the main investors visa for the founder and the license, it goes for around 15,000, 16,000 dirhams.
Vuk Zlatarov: 15,000, 16,000 dirhams and basically you are ready to get going. Do you need to have the space?
Lorenzo Jooris: No. You can sign up with one of the coworking spaces. It is not required to get an office, to have a license in these free zones.
Vuk Zlatarov: Okay. That’s a significant improvement. Because that’s one of the first roadblocks that the startups face.
Okay. Let’s start a company. You have amazing idea. We’re going to bootstrap the technology. We’re going to build it on our own. And then we need to set up a company a hundred thousand dirhams, who is going to do it.
Lorenzo Jooris: Even now. I mean, teams are all over the world. You got your IT guy sitting in an office in Bali, you got your admin people sitting in the Philippines. You’ve got your partner, maybe in Europe. I mean, the concept of this hard offices is long gone. Now you need flexible solutions to let you operate these companies in a globalized world.
Vuk Zlatarov: It’s interesting to talk about startups. Numbers say that 90% of startups fail, maybe it’s even higher. What are the reasons specifically for Dubai that startups fail? What did you see?
Lorenzo Jooris: That’s a good question. Look, the issue of getting started in the right direction with the right structure in the right jurisdiction, it’s key to get started, but I wouldn’t say that’s the main reason why a lot of the startups fail. I mean, many of them, they get going. They manage to find their ways around the best solution to set up. And nowadays there are quite a few service providers and you have the free zones. You’ve got DED, everybody is a bit more open and out there. So as a startup, there is quite a bit of information for you to get this totally wrong. If you’re getting that wrong already from the beginning, there are big chances that you’re going to fail. So I wouldn’t say, you know, that starting point is the big challenge. Very quickly, you will find a way. So understanding what’s the best structure for your startup. Once you’ve got that clear and you get going, I see two or three things that people fail. And I run my own businesses for 12, 13 years in Dubai. Many people underestimate the size of the UAE.
Many startups have to understand that for them to maintain business and to survive, they need to pull business from the UAE region. Not only from Dubai, Dubai is a small place.
Whatever it is that you do, it will take you two, three weeks to go through the entire profile of people that you’re looking to meet and do business with. And after two, three weeks, you will realize, all right, I need to start calling again, all these lists of people that I wanted to. So very quickly you realize that you need to expand into Saudi Arabia, into Jordan, Oman, Bahrain, Qatar, into Africa. So if you have something that is to be developed regionally, especially into Africa, into the Middle East… because that’s the role that Dubai plays, you are maximizing what Dubai has to give you. That I would say, point number one is people underestimate what is the market that they are trying to address.
Point number two, I would say, I see a lot of people fail on a marketing side of things, how they communicate the benefits and what they do as a startup. Many good entrepreneurs have a great product, but they don’t really cross that line of saying, going out there and making a big noise and communicating through social media. Digital networking is a massive thing. You need to go out and meet hundreds of people and talk about what you do.
Vuk Zlatarov: Well, let’s stick to that point. So for example I’ve been in Dubai since 2014, visited bunch of events with a bunch of networking groups, business clubs, and so on. And out of all of the things that I did over the previous seven years, do you know which one worked the best?
Lorenzo Jooris: Tell me.
Vuk Zlatarov: Podcasts. And it was funny. I mean, I didn’t see that really coming. Dubai is, as you say, a place in the middle, it’s like the center of the Middle East, like the main city and everyone comes here, everyone wants to sell something. And then when you go to these events and networking gatherings, very often you end up with a lot of suits around you, everyone trying to sell each other. And then there is nobody to buy! What’s your tip on scaling relationship building? How do you go out there and market your product?
Lorenzo Jooris: I’m very passionate about this topic. The power of digital and online and these type of platforms, it’s the way forward with anything. The minute that you realize the amount of people that you can reach through these technologies and the traditional ways of doing things like, going to an ATM and walking around and maybe meeting 20, 30 people in a day when you can actually create a web series, or through digital advertising and SEO and writing articles. It’s exponential, the amount of people that you can reach out in a clever way, showing what your product is. So as a company, even in the last year or two, since I joined Creative Zone, we understood this and we started going out a lot. And we said, what is it that we’re offering? And we’re offering Dubai as a place to set up, but traditionally we’re concentrating on the people that are already here and you know, that they needed support in setting up their companies. But through digital is the fastest, cheapest, most efficient way of communicating what you do and reaching out to people.
Vuk Zlatarov: Where did you see the biggest return on investment when it comes to marketing? My issue at some points is I don’t have a marketing budget, right? So how do I go and market myself if I don’t have a marketing budget?
Lorenzo Jooris: Well, if you’re a startup and you started with no marketing budget, you’re going to have a tough time. Very quickly you need to start generating some revenue and start to allocate some of that into marketing. Because if you really want to grow, you have to communicate and tell the world who you are. Google Ads traditionally has been working really well when it comes to our industry. You know, whenever you have somebody typing the words that your business is all about, let’s say podcasts in Dubai and Vuk appears at the top. Well, you’re going to get a lot of traffic from people that are truly interested in this. Now, if you’re showing adverts on people’s Instagram that talk about Vuk’s podcasts, it’s a way of creating awareness and creating an interest in people that were maybe not thinking about this product. So Google Ads to me, it’s still a very strong way of advertising. SEO has been growing tremendously. Anybody in any field, you have to create content. You need to create articles. You need to, because Google will rank you high. And you’re going to start appearing on topics that are of interest in that industry that you’re involved in.
Vuk Zlatarov: But that’s a long-term game. And what most are missing is being patient with getting the results back. But then as one of my close partners said, the best time for us to start doing SEO was 10 years ago. The next best time is now.
Lorenzo Jooris: Yeah. But it’s never too late. You need to get going.
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Vuk Zlatarov: A lot of things has changed over the previous year or so. And we’re all so used to having the masks on our elbows, you know, and on our nose when we go out. Pandemic exchanged a lot. A lot of industries suffered. There is a lot of new opportunities out there and other industries that are growing. What did you see from your angle? You know, 2021 latest trends, where do you see the biggest opportunities?
Lorenzo Jooris: Indeed the whole world has gone digital. Nowadays, when you analyze, there’s been a lot of sectors that have had to adapt a lot into the ways that they were doing things. You walk around some of the malls in Dubai, and it’s not what it used to be 5, 6, 7 years ago when you had this mall boom. You can see that a lot of the transactions now are happening online. I mean, in my own home, I open the door every day and my wife has bought something new every day. I don’t know where the things are coming from. So there is a real trend happening on that. Anything that you are involved in that is not thinking on that direction of digital, e-commerce, you reaching out to your potential clients on a digital way, I think you’re missing out on a big part. So as we’ve seen an upsurge in e-commerce type of companies being set up, a lot of the e-businesses, platforms, all sorts of companies that are web-related, online, e-commerce related, a massive increase.
Vuk Zlatarov: Is there any industry that you would make a bet on?
Lorenzo Jooris: Well, I was very bullish on crypto up until three weeks ago. And I’ve seen that tumbled down quite badly. I don’t know where we stand when it comes to crypto right now. We created as a company recently, a package called Cryptopreneur.
Vuk Zlatarov: Oh, really?
Lorenzo Jooris: Yeah. So, because we’ve seen that the Dubai has been attracting a lot of cryptopreneurs — and that doesn’t necessarily mean people that are involved in building exchanges for trading, but these are people that have their own cryptos, hold their own wallets with cryptos. And they thought that Dubai is a good place for them to come and empty their wallets in Dubai. But for that, they need to become residents of the country and they need to check the laws and the regulations, because everybody is trying to pay the least tax possible for emptying their wallets. And Dubai is a good place for that. You need to either sign out from the country of residency that you are in, let’s say in Europe, so that you can show back to your home country and say, now I’m a Dubai resident. I live here for X amount of days a year, because then it means that you are not allowed to leave 180 days. Let’s say, depending on country to country, the law is different. So you need to find out what are those internal rules so that you can play that properly.
But yes, many people are coming to Dubai. They’re making themselves Dubai residents. They’re choosing Dubai as the next place. Some people have found themselves millionaires overnight and they’re rethinking where they’re treated best when it comes to their financial position. And Dubai is a place that is welcoming those types.
Vuk Zlatarov: Introducing a topic of nomad crypto entrepreneur. You are very passionate about it.
Lorenzo Jooris: True, indeed. You know, going back to the topic of the world becoming this global village and everything has gone online and the way that we operate businesses, that’s exactly how it is. Entrepreneurs nowadays are nomad entrepreneurs, people that are selling services or goods or crypto or whatever that is. People need flexibility nowadays. Today you’re in Dubai. Next week, you need to have meetings in London. You’re going to Singapore, you’re going to Hong Kong. You’re moving to New York. So people are constantly on the move. Although the pandemic has really restricted the way we move, but not restricted the way that we do business and especially the way that we want to operate our businesses. Nowadays, people understand that I can work from home. I can work from anywhere in the world. Well, I can also decide where the best place is for me to set up my company and operate from and Dubai is a great address for you to hold your business. You can have a management consultancy firm. You show that your office and your company is set up in Dubai. You have a Dubai address. You operate globally, you have clients all over the world. Well, it’s a great place.
Why would you be paying 30% tax in some other country that you used to operate in, where you can do it in a country like Dubai?
Entrepreneurs nowadays are nomad entrepreneurs.
Vuk Zlatarov: Yeah, that’s true definitely. On the other side, Dubai is not most famous for being cheap city to live in. Although things are changing due to different reasons, but we’re still not Bali. You know, when you say nomad entrepreneur, most of the people think about Southeast Asia, Thailand, Bali, and then doing business from there. But Dubai is trying to position with new types of visas as a hub for nomad entrepreneurs. At what level do you need to be with your business, so that coming to Dubai makes sense?
Lorenzo Jooris: Yeah, it’s a very good point. I mean, Dubai is not Bali when it comes to the cost of living. I think a lot has changed on that. If you want to live and start operating on a budget in Dubai, rents have dropped a lot, although they’ve increased in the last four or five months after this upswing that we’ve seen that Dubai has been benefiting over what has happened around the world. We’ve seen people from all over the world flocking to Dubai and escaping lockdowns in Europe and other parts of the world. And Dubai has been really growing. But again, I don’t think Dubai is as expensive. If you want to look for more affordable places, you have some areas nowadays where you can rent a studio for not some crazy amounts and very similar to typical European cities. Of course, I still feel Asian countries will be still cheap, but Asian countries will charge you tax. So Bali is not tax-free. So you could be a nomad entrepreneur and live cheaply in Bali, but when you calculate tax that you need to pay for the businesses that you’re doing well, then comparing what you’re saving on tax in Dubai will actually be more beneficial for you to be based in Dubai. And the other point, somebody will always, you’ll need to travel. Dubai will connect you with the rest of the world in direct flights, anything in any city. So that’s another massive plus.
Vuk Zlatarov: The idea of becoming geographically independent is very attractive. And a lot of people, especially now during pandemic, were working remotely. A lot of people thought about maybe moving to Greece and working from Greece or move somewhere else. But most of the company policies are still not designed to recognize something like that, because there are a lot of legal issues. You cannot just be hired by a UAE company and go work from Greece. If you want to become geographically completely independent, probably what you need to do is to become an entrepreneur. How do you make that leap? How do you make the decision to drop what you have and become an entrepreneur?
Lorenzo Jooris: When you’re bringing this question, I’m trying to think how it happened to me and I give this as an advice to any entrepreneur that is looking to start a new business. What I always suggest is — at the beginning, play with your idea, see how far this takes you. And you’re going to reach a point where you will have no other choice, but to get going with that.
So in my case, when my idea of starting a media company started, I said, okay, and I started writing some letters to some TV stations, ABC television, and the BBC. And they were saying, yeah, we will air your TV shows. And I had never aired or produced any TV program in the world, in my life. And I never hold or operated a TV camera. And then I said, okay, let me go and set up a company. And so I opened a BVI company within a few weeks, and then I opened a bank account. I built my website and I still had my job, but I was still doing all those things on the side. And then I remember writing my first letter to the prime minister of Tanzania. I said, I would like to come to Tanzania and shoot an interview with you with my TV program on ABC television. And they said, yes, we’ll be more than happy. And then I had no other choice but to get going with my company.
So that’s what I recommend everybody at the beginning, start playing with your idea, start building everything around it. And the next thing you know, you’re going to find yourself in a place that you have no other choice, but to get going.