BBC News

Cafe creatives: The hubs tempting Dubai entrepreneurs

By Simon Atkinson
Business reporter, BBC News, Dubai

image captionNot your typical cafe: Make is a trendy hang-out spot for co-workers lured by free desks and wi-fi

Slinging a small backpack onto the desk, Will Hutson says good morning to colleagues and pulls out his laptop.

But before chat about the day's work progresses, somebody suggests ordering coffee - something that has become a bit of a ritual.

And that is because for about six months, instead of using a conventional office, their social media agency, Carrot Creative, has been mainly working out of a cafe.

With floor-to-ceiling windows, fresh white walls dotted with supposedly inspiring quotes ("Don't be afraid to give up the good to go for the great") and a soundtrack of relatively obscure Swedish indie bands - Make is far from the cafe chains found in shopping centres across the emirate.

Instead it is one of a handful of trendy urban hang-outs, labelled "co-working hubs", that have sprung up - something you would expect to find in east London or San Francisco rather than the Middle East.


By mid-morning almost all the table spaces are taken. And while some customers are bankers or lawyers looking for a change of scene and a decent espresso, its main business comes from freelancers, entrepreneurs running start-ups or people already in staff jobs considering going it alone, drawn by the free desks and free wi-fi.

And in a place where 85% of the population is not local - and where the concept of starting your own business is still in its infancy - it is also a chance to meet like-minded people.

"When you've starting a new business you want to feel like you're not the only person out there doing it," says Mr Hutson, who moved to the United Arab Emirates from the United States in January.

"We've got a real sense of culture, a real sense of community here, and something tangible we can come in to each day that reminds us we're not alone on an island in the middle of the ocean."

'Sweet spot'

That sort of loyalty to the venue is welcome news for Make's founder Leith Matthews.

image captionMake founder Leith Matthews says there is a demand for places where entrepreneurs can congregate

Keen to launch something on his own, he had been spending a lot of time in cafes, contemplating business ideas, and saw a gap in the market for more work-friendly places where people like him could go.

He says it is no coincidence that as well as Make, a couple of other similar venues have opened up over the past few months - citing economic conditions that are helping to develop a more entrepreneurial community that needs locations to meet, work or just hang out.

"We've hit the market at the right time. Dubai as a region in the past 10 years has been growing - mainly on the back of the large companies, the large banks, the large agencies," Mr Matthews says.

"The economic slowdown has come along and it's less attractive of an idea to go back and start another job in your home country with a big company. Suddenly starting a business in Dubai is starting to look less of a big risk and more of a measured option.

"Make fits into this as is at it's a micro-ecosystem if you like, where a young company can be working next to a creative freelancer, ideas crossing over, maybe finding a sweet spot where a new project can come out. This is the real exciting thing, much more so than the desks and the wi-fi."

But even businesses set up for entrepreneurs need to turn a profit, and Mr Matthews runs his on a hospitality model, selling meals, snacks and plenty of coffee.

He says this is sustainable and that he is making money - helped by Will and his colleagues who estimate their monthly tab is about 4,500 dirhams ($1,200; £760) per month.

image captionMake pays the bills by selling coffee, meals and snacks to budding entrepreneurs

But across town at another co-working hub, Shelter, they have a different business plan.

A year ago they used to charge people by the day to use desk space. But finding that unsuccessful, there is now sponsorship from a telecoms firms.

And this month the launch of paid-for courses aimed at small companies - from how to use social media effectively to writing business plans - will "help keep the lights on", says educational programmes manager Mary Ames.


Shelter's location, in a corner of an industrial estate beginning to find favour with art galleries and even a live music venue and weekly organic vegetable market, feels in keeping with the underground, entrepreneur scene.

But a few kilometres away at Dubai's first cafe to be labelled as a hub for workers, things are very different.

The Pavilion sits on the glitzy ring road that surrounds the world's tallest building, the Burj Khalifa, and it too has swarms of Macbook-using 20-somethings, gathered around long tables, sipping coffee and occasionally taking a break to look round the venue's art gallery.

This atmosphere is important to nurture a community of small businesses, says Roland Daher of Wamda, an organisation that offers support, and sometimes financial backing, to entrepreneurs in the Middle East.

"At the early stages of setting up a business, you rarely need office space that usually comes with quite a hefty bill, before you even start adding other costs like furniture and telecoms," says Mr Daher.

"So these places offer an acceptable interim solution."

"There's also a growing activity of the community in Dubai - more small events, workshops, and other activities are being organised around these venues and bring together many players of the ecosystem thus increasing awareness about these places themselves."

With just three venues in an emirate of more than a million people, demand is surging as word spreads.

image captionMr Hutson plans to move to a bigger, more private office for his start-up to operate in

"It happens frequently to me that I go to one of the places and can't find a place to sit," says Mr Daher, who would like to see places offering a guaranteed desk or a small office in return for a monthly subscription.

And of course, an open-plan cafe environment is not always the best place to do sensitive business deals or entertain clients.

And that is partly why, after six months of breakfasts, lunches and dinners, Mr Hutson and his team have decided to move on from Make.

"We've grown to the point where now it's not just about doing things on the cheap or finding easy solutions," he says, standing in a stark warehouse that will soon be converted to offices and meeting rooms.

"We've out grown the cafe and this is going to allow us to talk about sensitive issues with clients, talk about intellectual property and upcoming campaigns we don't want other people to hear about.

"But we'll still go back to meet new people, old friends, and have a coffee."