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DMCC from a start-up to the UAE’s largest Free Zone and the most diverse and largest commodities market

Ahmed bin Sulayem

The executive chairman of DMCC shares his insights on SMEs and start-ups

June 2, 2014 11:39 by



This week I’m writing about a topic that is highly dear to my heart. Leading an organisation like DMCC, with more than 8,600 member companies in what today is the UAE’S largest Free Zone, is exciting and challenging, being part of the concept team, the start-up team, the incubator to accelerator team (when DMCC moved into the Almas Tower in 2008). Our member family ranges from big multinationals to SMEs and Start-ups, and we often see the struggle of entrepreneurs to start their business then to sustain it.

I’d like to start this article with a few broad thoughts. Entrepreneurship, beside the conventional definition of owning and managing a business, in my mind is a cultural migration from ‘having a job’ to ‘ being your own boss’, taking the risk of success or failure, but at the same time accepting the notion that there is no shame in failing, rather, embrace the failure and learn from it how to succeed the next time and how to grow. All enterprises started small and went, no doubt, through failures before they grew into the giants they are today. Excellent recent examples are the tech start-ups in Silicon Valley, who typically started in a garage and have grown into the giants such as Microsoft and Google in less than a generation. In our culture, we take great pride in our work and don’t accept failure, which makes entrepreneurship a risk many of us don’t like taking, although the lure of owning and managing ones business is endless.

So what is a Start-up? In my definition, it is ‘a newly created company that strives to create a reputable and a scalable business model’. The term became so popular with the dotcom era, but the concepts, theories and methodologies are, of course, fluid.

What, then, is the difference between a start-up and an SME. The term SME (Small Medium Enterprise) refers to the size of the enterprise and its operations, while the start-up refers to the notion of a ‘newly created’ organisation. Put in very simple words, not all SMEs are start-ups and vice versa. A start up for me could be an idea, a concept and it is part of a transition to a SME.

Back to the focus of this week’s article and why am I writing about start-ups? Start-ups are associated with an idea of a product or a service that the entrepreneur wants to introduce to a market. Often, that entrepreneur either doesn’t have the experience of starting and running a business, or can’t source funds, or can’t develop the idea into a viable product or  ‎service, or all of the above, making failure a likely outcome. To avoid such a fate, if one approaches the matter in a scientific way that can be learned and mastered, success will become a high probability. Here I’ve to refer to the ‘lean start-up methodology’, a three phase approach to product or service development (Build-Measure-Learn). Employing the simple approach of the ‘Five Whys’, in a sense, asking simple questions to identify the root cause of a problem and by understanding the cause and effect relationship underlying a problem, we solve it.

Start-ups are highly important in today’s business environment, the obvious reason would be that they create jobs, ultimately creating GDP and improving the productivity of the economy, but that’s not the main reason though. In my mind the main reason for their importance is that they bring about innovation, they materialise a new idea into a viable product or service. Which creates a higher and longer term impact on the community; as well as the economy they are built within. For an organisation like DMCC it is very important to attract such Start-ups. As DMCC is not only a Freezone, but we are also responsible for the community working and living in JLT, it becomes a necessity and an opportunity to fetch, support and grow such start-ups.

As a dear friend recently remarked, ‘DMCC is a unique Freezone, one that is highly diversified, creating a great opportunity and a suitable environment to build start-ups community, connecting the ideas and concepts to the physical resources.’

In summary, as I reflect on DMCC’S meteoric growth from a mere idea or a ‘start up’ a just 12 years ago to globally recognised brand ‎and a unique commodities eco-system, I feel humbled and proud at the same time as I reflect on the ideas, the failures, the changes in direction and the numerous successes, all of which I have been an intimate part of since DMCC was a mere germ of an idea. Until the next time….



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