By Kelly Ann Crane
The advice never to mix business with pleasure is a contradiction in terms for many entrepreneurs.
Given the first rule of running your own company is to be passionate about what you do, the inevitable conclusion is that the business will be based on something that brings pleasure.
Emirati entrepreneur Abeer Al Tamini learned this lesson the hard way. The CEO and founder of Dubai-based children’s play and development centre Kids HQ, she found herself emotionally invested from the start.
Things could have been very different, Al Tamini happily admits.
“For the entire first year my business model did not work,” she says honestly. “I wanted to offer things for free. It didn’t work. I had this vision I’d be a community centre and I’d make children and parents happy because that was my passion. I loved entertaining children and I thought it was as simple as opening the doors and waiting for them to come. It wasn’t.”
The only standalone children’s indoor play facility in Dubai – not attached to a shopping mall or other service provider – Kids HQ was a place parents had to make a conscious decision to physically drive to.
“We ended up just doing a lot of birthday parties. We made a lot of money but it wasn’t what I wanted. It was like people didn’t know what I was trying to achieve. I was so close to my business I lost focus for a time. It was incredibly hard.”
Luckily Al Tamini was unknowingly armed with the business-savvy ability to take a step back and reassess, and Kids HQ soon started to carve a different path. But while she tried to push her emotional energy to the periphery, her inability to completely disconnect began to pay off.
“If you are emotional you can make bad decisions,” she says. “But it also means you will never give up. The one thing I’m teaching my children is to never take no for an answer, there is no such thing as the word can’t, it’s not a word in my vocabulary. I tell them every day the sky is the limit.”
Al Tamini spent every waking minute treading the foam-edged floorboards of Kids HQ chatting to mothers, training her staff and most importantly, playing with the children.
“I’m always here – I talk to the mums,” she says. “I find out what’s happening in their lives, what coffee they drink, how we could make days any easier or more pleasant for them. That’s been such an important part of developing the business.”
Al Tamini inherently believes running a company purely following a structured business model, without connecting to your own ideas or those of other people, will eventually result in failure.
“The facts, figures, finances and strategy are obviously important,” she says. “But ultimately it’s the relationships you nurture which bring success. It’s why having the ability to invest on such an emotional level tripped me up in the beginning but has really helped me in the end. Client retention is key for 90 percent of businesses.”
Born in Boston, Massachusetts, Al Tamini was eight months pregnant when she graduated from university at 22, so knows firsthand what it is like to be a working mother.
Following her studies, she worked in the banking sector, a job which took her to London, England, for a time.
“Banking gave me a buzz,” she says. “But it soon subsided and I was looking for something else.”
Kids HQ was a dream until 2013, when her businessman father took her to a patch of sand on Umm Suqueim Street and asked her what she thought.
“I couldn’t believe he was making my dreams possible,” she says. However, Abeer set herself realistic targets and is religiously paying her father back by way of monthly rent.
Registering under the Mohammed Bin Rashid Establishment for Young Business Leaders, a support structure for young Emirati entrepreneurs, meant Al Tamini was offered help with licensing and funding.
“The challenges in the beginning are constant,” she says. “I had a new build to supervise, contractors, suppliers, late shipments, wrong shipments. It was draining. We were also building in the summer, which we hadn’t thought much about.”
Spending four to five hours per day in the blistering heat would have been impossible for most to endure, but Al Tamini stood strong. “They were amazing challenges. If you have any challenge, you learn so much. When something is thrown at you, you must find a way of taking something good from it,” she insists.
Over the last few years, Abeer has developed a wide network of parents and relationship service providers, from child therapists to emotional intelligence coaches, and has doubled her staff numbers. Financial targets have been surpassed month on month and growth is estimated at around 50 percent each year.
“My dream of becoming a ‘community’ facility has started to become a reality,” she says. “It hasn’t been easy and I’ve learnt so much along the way but that would be my best advice to others – be flexible and be prepared to get it wrong and learn from your own mistakes. It will serve you well in the end.
“Understand your market – know who your clients are. What are their needs? And most importantly, be available for your clients and team. Be true to yourself. If you love something enough it’ll work.”
It turns out starting her own business has bucked the trend for this emotional entrepreneur, and ended up being a real pleasure.