What is it that inspires people to become entrepreneurs – and how old do you have to be to have a go at setting up your own business? These four millennial go-getters have one thing in common – they all started young.
Briton Sanuj Kohli, 30, group executive director at Laser & Electronics Middle East Group (Leme)
Mr Kohli has built an empire during the past decade spanning five companies and 18 countries, with 75 employees. He set up his very first business at 16 – a car wash and patio cleaning business in his summer holidays in Berkshire, England, making Dh32,000 from 50 clients.
Then in his last term at university, he persuaded a German business to make him their exclusive distributor for the region, selling circuit board machinery for the electronics industry. With that contract in hand, he set up Leme Group in 2006 with his father, who gave him a loan of Dh160,000. The business was running at a loss for the first two years before a government company gave him his “first break” and invested in a set of machines. It has now sold 100 machines in 14 countries.
In 2009, he cofounded the WaterWise waterless car wash with his brother Rishi; in 2011, he launched the lighting company Leme Lighting, Leme Signage in 2013 and, last year, Leme Media, manufacturing digital LED screens. The group now has offices in China, Hong Kong, Kenya, the UK and UAE, with a turnover of $3.5 million.
“Young entrepreneurs can make mistakes and still start over, which can be difficult when you are older and have more responsibilities. You tend to be more resilient, optimistic and determined. We are also more in tune with the latest technology and ideas,” he says.
However, he says young entrepreneurs sometimes believe their ideas are the best and ignore feedback. “This can hurt the business,” he says.
Mr Kohli says at times he wanted to give up but his father encouraged him to keep at it. “Success only comes from hard work,” he says. “I used to work seven days a week.”
German Julian Straube, 30, is working on his fourth business, a barber shop in Dubai Marina
Mr Straube is already the man behind Algebra Real Estate, Algebra Contracting and Algebra Safety Training in Dubai – all launched in the past six years.
However, his first business was breeding fish and selling them to pet shops, at the age of 10.
“Young entrepreneurs have fewer commitments in life and can focus a lot of their time on business,” he says. “A lot of the mistakes I made had to do with trust – being confident in promises and making handshake agreements that later backfired. All my businesses were self-funded so I was always limited by investment, which slowed down progress – but this was a personal choice. We could have grown much faster with more investment.”
Mr Straube advises would-be entrepreneurs to stick to what you know. “I had been working in real estate before setting up my estate agency so I knew exactly what I was doing.”
Brazilian Bel Pesce, 28, is a serial entrepreneur who visited the UAE recently to speak to the Sharjah Business Women Council
Since studying at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Ms Pesce has become the author of three books, a Ted speaker and the founder of Fazinova school in São Paulo, which offers courses on entrepreneurship and innovation. About 30 million people have used her courses, talks or books and her goal is to reach 1 billion.
It all started at six years old, when she was making and selling jewellery; she moved on to building computers and websites by 10. She also came up with the concept of Water Africa, to distribute water to the continent through solar-powered pipes, at college.
“Age doesn’t matter, what matters is finding the true reason you want to do something in life,” she says. “When you are younger, you can put up with more mistakes and risk – and it’s seen as cute w hen you ask lots of questions. People talk about mistakes as if they’re something horrible. The worst mistake you can make is to do nothing. You don’t need to go to university – education is the way you see the world – but, if you can work and go to university, try to do both and don’t drop out.”
Bilal Ballout, 31, is the chief innovation officer at BMB Group (soon to be rebranded as Building More Bridges)
Having grown up in the UAE, he was home for the summer from university in Newcastle, England, working in the family roastery shop, in 2007, when he came up with the idea for a company trading bakery and chocolate ingredients across the Middle East. Over the next two years his brother Mohamad and a friend came on board and they pivoted the business to also make Arabic sweets and chocolate. BMB now employs 1,000 staff in Jebel Ali, Doha and Riyadh, and is looking to expand into the US and Europe.
“There is an advantage to starting young but passion is key to success, no matter what age you are,” he says.
His advice to others is to put their plan in writing to ensure you don’t accept opportunities that do not fit.
“We did not have a focused vision in our business plan and only learnt that later on.”
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