When Hamish Macmillan Adam arrived at a newly established Dubai Media City to sign off on his own business, ‘unprepared’ best describes his state of mind – his words, not ours.
No Post-It-laden binder with business plan tucked neatly under his suited arm; no mobile telephone loaded with client numbers and email addresses; not even a name above the door.
“I was called up and asked to provide the company name and I just froze,” recalls Adam, managing director of Macmillan Adam, a Dubai-based media production company. “My name was about the most permanent thing I could come up with on the spot. It was an odd occasion and one I won’t forget in a hurry.”
Today, 13 years later, Macmillan Adam produces video shorts for some of the most influential businesses in the Gulf.
However, the entrepreneur says it’s been a bumpy ride and one that isn’t looking smoother just because there’s cash in the bank.
“That euphoric moment when you and the rest of the world realize you’ve made it just hasn’t happened yet for us,” says Adam, 60.
“I think it’s going to happen any day now,” he jokes. “We’ve never had an absolute windfall and I’m not sure that truly constitutes success.”
Adam, originally from the UK, believes success can be measured by a love of what you do and by a contented team. “If by success you mean make money, then by no means do you have to like, love or even care about what you do,” he stresses. “But if success is making money and being happy coming to work – then you have to have passion.”
A conversation with Adam is inspiring. Global giants including Emirates, Dubai Duty Free, Dubai Airports and Abu Dhabi’s Tourism Development & Investment Company fill the columns of the accounting books and come to seek his company’s advice and expertise, yet somehow he retains a humble outlook.
“My opinions are often wrong. It’s better to consult people and find solutions,” he says. “Often the people around me have much better ideas than me.”
A frustrated writer and producer, Adam was working in Dubai for seven years before he took the plunge to start Macmillan Adam. “I’d always wanted to start my own company but I’d always chickened out,” he says.
The launch of Dubai Media City, a UAE free zone, gave foreigners the opportunity to own 100% of their own media company in the region. “I knew that if there was a time, then this was it. I went for it.”
Having grown up in the film industry – Adam’s father worked for industry favorite MGM – and experience running a similar business in London for five years prior to his move to the Middle East, Adam felt confident.
“It was a very organic process. It started with me at a freelance desk in an office on the second floor of this building,” he says admiring the dark wood of the warmly decorated post-production studio. “Then I got a trade license, then a serviced office and finally started to build what you see here.”
But as the start-up cash started to dwindle and the clients didn’t call, Adam admits the darker moments weren’t easy. Sacrifices and errors were made.
Hindsight is a wonderful thing, according to him.
“It was just me,” he says. “I had never had bottom line responsibility therefore I made some horrendous errors very early on. With the benefit of hindsight I could have done a much better job early on. I always showed up for work. I always kept office hours come what may, even if I was just sitting here doing nothing.”
And he was just sitting doing nothing – waiting for the phone to ring – for a long time.
Eventually, as early jobs paid off, an office manager came on board, a driver, then a video editor.
“It took a very long time. Most of the time, we were teetering on the brink of insolvency. But never quite went over,” says Adam. “Banks wouldn’t help us. Everything had to be funded from cash flow. We made a point of paying salaries on time. To this day we’ve never missed a salary cycle,” he says proudly.
“I always thought I could take a fair bit of punishment, but there were moments when I thought I can’t take any more of this. It always seemed to magically come good. There were times – about half way through some months – when I had no idea how I was going to pay salaries. But I always managed it.”
Adam didn’t take a salary repeatedly in favor of paying his staff. “I didn’t go on a holiday for a very long time. My wife and I lived pretty frugally.”
Not afraid to admit his mistakes – and there were a lot of them – Adam says one thing he got right was a decision to plough all the money back into the business when a profit was made. “Sometimes we made handsome profits. Sometimes we were flush,” he says.
“In 2007 and 2008 we had huge amounts of cash sitting in the bank, which was just as well because by the end of the 2008, everything crashed and our revenues for 2008/09 fell by 80%.”
Years of running a frugal business in the early days had finally paid off and “good old Scottish thrift” came into its own, laughs Adam. “I’d learnt the hard way. I think I was possibly on the verge of buying a fleet of Ferraris, but I never actually got around to doing it. That was a lesson well done. Instead, that cash saw us through about 14 months of hardly any income. We kept as many people on the payroll.”
In 13 years, Macmillan Adam has gone from four staff to 24. Revenue has increased by 10 times from year two to 13, with year one written off as “a car crash”.
KEEP A ‘HAPPY CULTURE’
“The biggest challenge was juggling,” says Adam. “It was juggling being a writer, a producer, running a post-production business, doing the sales and marketing and also attending to some of the engineering aspects of the business. It was difficult and I often felt very torn. I would get trapped down a six-week blind alley of technical matters, trying to get the hardware sorted and doing no sales.”
Adam’s advice to new SMEs is to grow as quickly as the cash allows. “It’s a brave move but it helps get to a stage where you’ve got someone to look after all the aspects before you burn out.”
Other tips include keeping paperwork to a minimum and avoiding accountants like the plague.
“Try and keep things informal. Don’t fall into an email culture. I’m very much a believer in no paperwork and meetings instead. We keep office hours and we all sit together and we discuss things – again and again and again and again.
“It’s more important to have a happy culture than it is to be making money. If you go after money alone, chasing the dollar can often lead to a very acid type of atmosphere, which clients feel as well,” he adds.
But after a tough start, Adam believes cash flow is key. “Everything else I understand. Cash flow is a foreign jurisdiction. Don’t be blindsided by accountants, who tend to be unhelpful. Develop your own little excel program for money in and out and do it yourself. See the figures and be realistic.”
Ironically Adam says his “rocky start” gives him the confidence to succeed today.
“I feel very assured about what I’m doing. Deep down I know I can do. If everything else falls apart, I know I can do it. It gives me the confidence to be able to advocate to others.”