Day in the life: Sotheby's regional chairman has eye for all things precious

Edward Gibbs is the chairman for Sotheby’s Middle East and India division, joining the auction house in 2003. The Briton has had a few incarnations in his career, most of which have been associated with art and the Islamic world. After studying western art, he had an epiphany following a visit to the Great Mosque of Cordoba in Spain and left his graduate trainee job at an auction house to learn more about the Muslim world. He went on to lecture at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London and participated in the mapping of the coastline of Abu Dhabi in the early to late 1990s. Based at Sotheby’s head office on New Bond Street, the 52-year-old currently visits the UAE three or four times a year, but that will increase with the opening of a permanent Sotheby’s base in Dubai International Financial Centre this year. The decision was made on the strength of metrics: clients from the Mena region have doubled over the past five years, with the value of what they spend tripling.

6.30am

My morning ritual is the most regular part of the day. If I’m at home in Highgate, I open the door on to our balcony, step outside and fill up my bird feeder. I have breakfast with my wife and two daughters, who are 17 and 14; they go off to school and I head off to the office.

9am

In the office, I turn on my computer and check my paper post.

9.30am

I might have breakfast with a client. Sotheby’s has a celebrated cafe restaurant which serves a wonderful truffled scrambled egg breakfast and very fine coffee. I often meet clients there for breakfast. If we have property in the department, objects or paintings to show, I then bring the client up to the department and show them what’s coming up for sale to whet their appetite. Some days I am out on a valuation, so I might be out of the office all day. I am not at my desk much actually. Much of my time is spent with clients.

1pm

Two or three times a week I meet a client for lunch and we will eat either in the Sotheby’s cafe or in one of the restaurants nearby. If I don’t have a lunch appointment, I will skip lunch. I sort of forget to eat. I am just so busy. There is a constant flurry of emails and telephone calls.

3pm

It’s more of the same: calls from clients, messages. “So and so called, can you call them back?” “There is a meeting at 3pm, can you come to it?” Objects come in and I have to look at them and research them. If someone comes to the counter (the public can receive valuations for their pieces from Sotheby’s specialists) one of my colleagues goes down, brings it up and shows me and I give them my opinion. One occasion that stands out came just after I joined Sotheby’s. A gentleman brought something into the counter. He said “I have a small knife I would like to show you.” It was a little pocket-sized knife, like a letter opener. I could see immediately it was very special. It had a handle made of lapis lazuli, that very intense ultramarine blue colour and flecked with silver and a little ruby at the end in a gold setting. The blade was also precious and decorated. He said: “It has been in my family. I took it to one of the dealers in the West End and they had offered me a few thousand pounds for it. I was tempted to accept that but I thought maybe I should bring it to Sotheby’s first”. I said: “I am so glad that you did because I think this is a very important early Ottoman dagger.” I think we had the estimate at about £80,000 (Dh358,100) to £120,000. It sold for £1 million.

7pm

One of the team will order pizza or Middle Eastern food. We work late, until 9pm or 10pm, and sometimes have dinner in the office if we are cataloguing. If for whatever reason I leave early, say I have a parent’s evening and I leave at 5pm or 6pm, I feel terribly guilty.

10pm

I arrive home. I get to see my teenage daughters who are doing their homework. We have an ongoing struggle to get them to bed. I typically go and stand on my balcony again. My wife and I have adopted a fox and her cubs who come regularly to our garden and they will join us for dinner. They get free range chicken. They have separate plates now because they were squabbling when they had one plate.

11.30pm

I try and be in bed. I might catch the news or watch Newsnight. But I normally regret watching television before I go to bed. I don’t sleep as well if I do.

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Day in the life: Sotheby's regional chairman has eye for all things precious

Edward Gibbs is the chairman for Sotheby’s Middle East and India division, joining the auction house in 2003. The Briton has had a few incarnations in his career, most of which have been associated with art and the Islamic world. After studying western art, he had an epiphany following a visit to the Great Mosque of Cordoba in Spain and left his graduate trainee job at an auction house to learn more about the Muslim world. He went on to lecture at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London and participated in the mapping of the coastline of Abu Dhabi in the early to late 1990s. Based at Sotheby’s head office on New Bond Street, the 52-year-old currently visits the UAE three or four times a year, but that will increase with the opening of a permanent Sotheby’s base in Dubai International Financial Centre this year. The decision was made on the strength of metrics: clients from the Mena region have doubled over the past five years, with the value of what they spend tripling.

6.30am

My morning ritual is the most regular part of the day. If I’m at home in Highgate, I open the door on to our balcony, step outside and fill up my bird feeder. I have breakfast with my wife and two daughters, who are 17 and 14; they go off to school and I head off to the office.

9am

In the office, I turn on my computer and check my paper post.

9.30am

I might have breakfast with a client. Sotheby’s has a celebrated cafe restaurant which serves a wonderful truffled scrambled egg breakfast and very fine coffee. I often meet clients there for breakfast. If we have property in the department, objects or paintings to show, I then bring the client up to the department and show them what’s coming up for sale to whet their appetite. Some days I am out on a valuation, so I might be out of the office all day. I am not at my desk much actually. Much of my time is spent with clients.

1pm

Two or three times a week I meet a client for lunch and we will eat either in the Sotheby’s cafe or in one of the restaurants nearby. If I don’t have a lunch appointment, I will skip lunch. I sort of forget to eat. I am just so busy. There is a constant flurry of emails and telephone calls.

3pm

It’s more of the same: calls from clients, messages. “So and so called, can you call them back?” “There is a meeting at 3pm, can you come to it?” Objects come in and I have to look at them and research them. If someone comes to the counter (the public can receive valuations for their pieces from Sotheby’s specialists) one of my colleagues goes down, brings it up and shows me and I give them my opinion. One occasion that stands out came just after I joined Sotheby’s. A gentleman brought something into the counter. He said “I have a small knife I would like to show you.” It was a little pocket-sized knife, like a letter opener. I could see immediately it was very special. It had a handle made of lapis lazuli, that very intense ultramarine blue colour and flecked with silver and a little ruby at the end in a gold setting. The blade was also precious and decorated. He said: “It has been in my family. I took it to one of the dealers in the West End and they had offered me a few thousand pounds for it. I was tempted to accept that but I thought maybe I should bring it to Sotheby’s first”. I said: “I am so glad that you did because I think this is a very important early Ottoman dagger.” I think we had the estimate at about £80,000 (Dh358,100) to £120,000. It sold for £1 million.

7pm

One of the team will order pizza or Middle Eastern food. We work late, until 9pm or 10pm, and sometimes have dinner in the office if we are cataloguing. If for whatever reason I leave early, say I have a parent’s evening and I leave at 5pm or 6pm, I feel terribly guilty.

10pm

I arrive home. I get to see my teenage daughters who are doing their homework. We have an ongoing struggle to get them to bed. I typically go and stand on my balcony again. My wife and I have adopted a fox and her cubs who come regularly to our garden and they will join us for dinner. They get free range chicken. They have separate plates now because they were squabbling when they had one plate.

11.30pm

I try and be in bed. I might catch the news or watch Newsnight. But I normally regret watching television before I go to bed. I don’t sleep as well if I do.

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If millennials have been getting it all wrong, then what should they be doing with their money?

The first thing, according to Julian Vydelingum, a chartered financial planner at AES International in Dubai, is to not lose sight of their longer-term goals.

If you are saving to buy property and you need the cash in the next two or three years, building up cash is the right thing to do he says. To invest in equity markets you need a five-year timeline to ride out any market upheaval.

“If you are prepared to ride out the volatility and your goal is to stay for five years, then the equity markets is a way to do that. Obviously dripping money into it, rather than piling money in one lump sum, you do smooth out some of those ups and downs,” Mr Vydelingum says.

The property market can also be volatile and the investment subject to service fees.

“There are additional costs that might eat into your yield and you don’t know who will be renting your apartment. You might have a good tenant or you might have a bad tenant. You might not be able to get a tenant so you might have an asset not earning you anything,” he adds.

Gold and other commodities also play a part in a diversified portfolio. “The difficulty with gold is it reacts to any bit of market news and you need to think about whether you are buying gold to store it somewhere. You need to factor in the purchase costs and the selling costs. It was more expensive in the 1970s than it is now. But it is a useful diversifier if you have a big enough portfolio,” adds Mr Vydelingum.

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Training company helps Emirati employees become perfectly suited for the job

Frank, blunt or straight-talking. They could all be used to describe Omaira Farooq Al Olama’s approach.

As an Emirati who trains fellow UAE nationals, she admits she is able to say it like it is.

“Once they understand that I am from the same community, I am able to look them in the eye and say: ‘do you know what? Today you are not ready to be a manager’,” says Ms Al Olama, 35, from Dubai. “But let us train you. Let us be there with you. And that is a promise we give companies as well. We are going to train them and we are going to make them as perfect at their job as you want them to be. We are going to get them to that level.”

Ms Al Olama’s company, Advance Learning Formulas Administration (Alf), aims to make the Emiratis it works with – either graduates, those with high school qualifications or those between jobs – more employable. It works exclusively with Emiratis and only employs Emiratis.

She discovered a gap in the market for her “by and for” Emirati training company in 2010. Before that she was working for various entities using her expertise in fraud and risk having studied criminology at bachelor’s and master’s level in the United States.

She now trains hundreds of Emiratis each year and has helped many companies fix issues with retention.

Focusing on soft skills like time management and cultural awareness, Alf runs a range of programmes developed in-house that are designed to get either the individual or the company to think differently.

One of the biggest challenges, she says, involves expats understanding how cultural differences affect aspects such as timekeeping.

“As an expat, timing is important; for example, your boss says work starts at 8am and ‘I want you to be there at 7.45am.’ Now the problem is making the Emirati understand that is lost in translation,” she says.

“For Emirati culture, it is not about time it is about how much quality of work they put in. It is about flexibility and understanding the people you are working with.”

She stresses the importance of timekeeping to the people she trains. But she expects workplaces to be fair in return.

“We challenge human resources a lot and say if you want this Emirati to stay with you and we are promising him we are going to train him and coach him, then you need to put into writing that after he is completed all this you will then stand by our target and give this person either a raise or a new job title, or whatever it is,” she adds.

And the companies listen because she gets results.

Emirates NBD’s attrition rate for Emirati employees fell from 50 per cent to just 10 per cent after working with Alf.

“Not only have they reduced the number of attrition of our nationals, they have developed a long and continuous relationship with them that often exceeds everyone’s expectations,” says Husam Al Sayed, head of human resources at Emirates NBD.

Developing and nurturing talent is all the more important as the Emirati jobs market is now extremely competitive, according to an Emirati executive search firm.

Hamza Zaouali, managing director of Iris Executives, a headhunting firm solely specialised in the placement of Emiratis, says at one time companies may have struggled to find Emiratis with master degrees but it is now common, which means nationals must know how to sell themselves.

“Being an Emirati is no longer enough to get the job, because we are no longer in a time where companies just want to hit quotas,” says Mr Zaouali.

“Employers want their company to succeed. And especially after the crisis, they realised they have had a lot of the wrong hires who were not turning up to work etc, so we have seen a shift with our clients; they were much more demanding when it came to profiles and their selection process. So the interview process is a bit longer. They go through psychometrics. In fact there is not a single difference between what you would expect from a non-Emirati and an Emirati.”

That increased competition has another effect. It means that many must now accept lower positions at the outset of their career, something Ms Al Olama knows all about.

“[I tell them] when I first came here I had a master’s degree and I took a job which made me get coffee, do photocopying, what you would normally do as a 21-year-old or a 22 year-old,” she says.

“They are like ‘how come you didn’t demand a manager’s position?’ I said ‘if I had demanded that, today I wouldn’t be able to run my company because I would have burnt out by 25 thinking I knew everything and I would have never progressed. There is no shame in taking a low-paying job when you are a fresh graduate. Don’t expect something too big because you are not there yet.’”

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Murder and money mysteries equals great Dubai corporate teambuilding

What do murder and money have to do with corporate teambuilding? A lot, it seems.

HintHut, an escape game in Dubai for small groups, says corporate bookings have soared in recent months as companies look to get to know their employees better.

Players, limited to between three and five per room, must work together to solve a mystery to escape within 60 minutes to win the game. There are two scenarios – a 1940s British office where a murder has occurred, and a Japanese room where money has been stolen.

Staff of more than 60 companies have played the game in the past three months alone, with annual bookings up about 50 per cent.

One team came from American Hospital Clinic in Dubai Media City. Dr Jamie Abdennadher, family doctor and medical director of the clinic, wanted a teambuilding exercise for his staff to help them gel more effectively.

“It probably happens in a lot of different workplaces. You find that certain people who are in a certain team or work at a certain time, they are the ones who have lunch together or who work together. The idea was to force people into working and team-building with people they perhaps wouldn’t ordinarily [spend time with],” he says.

So he divided up the 25 staff – from the cleaners to porters, nurses, doctors and administration staff – into five teams, splitting up people who knew each other well. Dr Abdennadher says this helped them work together and recognise the natural leaders among them.

“HintHut watches each of the teams. They commented on their style; was there somebody who stood back? Or someone who made the whole group come together or spilt them up?” he says. “So we were able to work out a little bit about our leadership style.”

But the game also helped the group learn more about each other.

“One of my porters is an expert at sudoku and that was a huge element to solving the problem. It built a little bit more respect between people,” adds Dr Abdennadher.

q&a qualities in evidence

Gillian Duncan finds out why the team-building game HintHut is gaining in popularity:

Where did the game come from?

It is a franchise of a UK concept. Lina El Saheb, managing partner of HintHut in the UAE, says she spotted it while travelling in the UK on holiday and loved the idea. “I saw its ratings on TripAdvisor and that’s what attracted my attention. It was No 1 over there, so I was like oh, OK, that sounds interesting,” she says. After playing it with her family, she brought the concept over here, opening the branch in Dubai in Times Square in June 2014.

Who are HintHut’s main customers?

According to Ms El Saheb, it is corporates because of its team-building qualities. “There is no choice but to work as a team in the room,” she explains, adding that companies often use the process to analyse who their leaders are, with some chief executives monitoring how their staff perform in the game – assessing who the natural leader is, the follower or the delegator.

Do concepts like this really have an effect?

“I think it’s fantastic,” says Tim Garrett, the founder of Corporate Wellness Company, who commends the fact that the activity does not involve gaming or apps and gets people working together in a physical environment. However, he acknowledges that some staff members may not shine in that type of setting.

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UAE-based ecommerce companies have secured more than US$13 million in their latest funding rounds as venture capitalists continue to clamour to invest in businesses which operate online.

The Luxury Closet, MoveSouq.com and Compareit4me all announced this week that they have successfully concluded investment rounds, raising $7.8m, $3m and $2.4m, respectively.

“It has been a trend for a couple of years now but larger and larger cheques are being deployed in ecommerce and marketplace companies,” says Fares Ghandour, partner at Wamda Capital, which co-led The Luxury Closet financing round with Middle East Venture Partners, and also invested in the Compareit4me funding round.

“The reason for that is investors like to chase success stories. They see successful companies like Souq.com, which is a so-called unicorn, which means it is a private company valued over $1 billion. And Souq only scratches the surface in terms of the opportunity at large associated with ecommerce and marketplaces.”

The Luxury Closet, an online marketplace for pre-owned luxury goods, which successfully raised funding in two previous rounds before the latest deal was concluded, will use the money to expand its team and reach.

“In the past few years we have been really busy trying to fine-tune the concept, build the technology behind it and fine-tune the model so it is scalable,” says Kunal Kapoor, the founder and chief executive of The Luxury Closet.

“Now we can step on the gas and take it to other countries. So for example in Q4 we will expand to Saudi Arabia.”

The company operates in one of the fastest growing industries in the country. Online retail in the UAE is estimated to be worth more than Dh6.6bn this year, up 89 per cent from 2015, according to Euromonitor International.

“Venture capitalist firms are tending to capitalise on the fast growing ecommerce channels in the Mena region,” says Rabia Yasmeen, research analyst at Euromonitor International.

“These ecommerce ventures are mostly entrepreneurial startups that tend to explore non-traditional product mixes and channels, but external financing can help them grow beyond means and tap unexplored markets.”

MoveSouq chief executive Bana Shomali said the company, the largest online home services marketplace in the UAE, plans to use its investment to expand to different cities regionally and add more services, while Jon Richards, chief executive at compareit4me.com said the financial products comparison website will use the finance to publicise its recently launched insurance platform.

All three companies have successfully completed previous rounds, in Compareit4me’s case with some of the same investors.

More than half of the $2.4m the company secured came from Wamda Capital, STC Ventures and Dubai Silicon Oasis Authority, which comes less than a year after the trio invested $3m in the company’s first significant round.

“There is a great deal of confidence that new investors take from the investor panel that you have. I think having STC Ventures, Wamda Capital and DSO Authority, when other investors see this they are obviously excited,” says Mr Richards.

“They like the fact that big venture capitals are involved. But also the big statement is these guys taking part again, putting more money in. You don’t put good money after bad.”

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Entrepreneur unboxes 'Snapchat for video reviews' in Dubai

Chances are you haven’t heard of Paul Warren yet.

But if everything goes to plan and his idea becomes the next big thing, he could one day join the likes of Mark Zuckerberg, Jack Dorsey and Kevin Systrom as a founder of one of the world’s most successful tech companies.

And the best bit for the UAE is that his app, Unboxd – a sort of a Snapchat for video reviews – started out here.

Unboxd, which was incubated in Dubai at the tech coworking space Astrolabs but is now based in New York, allows users to make a 16-second video review of anything and map it to a product or place.

“So for example if you really love your toaster you make a little 16-second thing saying so, then you do a little search and map the product to it and anybody who then watches your toaster video can then buy it,” says Mr Warren, 28, from the United States, the cofounder and chief executive of the company. His cofounder is Erik Duindam, from the Netherlands – the company’s chief technology officer and a former lead developer of large start-ups in Europe and the Middle East.

“Similarly, if you were to go to a restaurant and make a short video of your food and recommend your favourite thing, you map the restaurant to it and then people can watch your video and book the restaurant or go there directly,” says Mr Warren. “It is sort of interactivity through video play.”

There is nothing like it in the UAE or anywhere else, says Mr Warren, who is also the chief executive of Unboxd’s parent Nuntio Technologies, adding that from a practical perspective it is “sort of a leader in the mobile shoppable video space”. Shoppable video is marketing content, which is lifestyle related while also placing emphasis on the product or service – something consumers prefer to watch rather than video ads.

Mr Warren came up with the idea for Unboxd when he lived in Dubai while working for a boutique consultancy that was helping the government of Azerbaijan transition to a tech economy. But he moved the business late last year to New York to be closer to content creators in the US. The app is currently still in testing, and he is still deciding where best to launch it.

“The goal with the product generally on that side is to look for where people like to use it most. And then follow these sort of trends in content or location as we push it forward,” says Mr Warren.

It is gathering traction among users in New York as well as here in the UAE, in the same way his company Nuntio’s GoSnaps app did.

GoSnaps uses the same technology as Unboxd, allowing users to watch videos people are uploading to explore an interactive map. The app, an offshoot of the popular Pokemon Go, was a success all over the world, topping the charts in some countries, including Japan, but engagement was much higher in the Middle East. Users in Saudi Arabia and the UAE spent on average twice as much time in the app in terms of activity than anywhere else, says Mr Warren.

That should come as no surprise given the widespread use of smartphones in this region. The UAE has one of the highest smartphone penetrations in the world.

Ahmed Bakr, a research analyst at Euromonitor International, says consumers here are well aware and ready to acquire new innovations and services that will meet their needs and make their life easier. And Unboxd, he adds, is targeting a very promising gap in the market.

“Providing live reviews for anything, and getting rewards for that is an eye catching idea. Currently, the UAE app market is not as populated as it is in developed regions, which gives huge potential for stronger and faster growth,” says Mr Bakr.

“We have witnessed apps such as Careem that successfully established a very solid reputation and built a huge consumer base in very little time. Unboxd might face some challenges from existing platforms that provide consumers the opportunity to review products or services. However, the challenge comes along with great potential, as on one side, the market is not yet saturated, and on another side, consumers are willing to try and acquire new innovations and services.”

That said, the way Unboxd enters the market is important, he says. For apps in the UAE, the go-to market stage is critical.

Mr Warren says the app can be localised, and having worked here and watched the way people use apps, he knows his audience. And that is all that matters when it comes to plugging a new product.

“Crossing your first mile and building your awareness bridge will ease the rest of your growth journey,” says Mr Bakr. “Whether it will be done through local partnerships with products, restaurants, or services, or through massive digital presence and definite targeting, strategies vary, and consumers remain the only judge.”

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A debtor whose monthly repayments are more than his entire salary has failed in his latest attempt to reschedule his debts.

The National has been following Marcus’s story since he approached the paper for help earlier this year. He had debts with three banks, totalling Dh284,600. His repayments amount to about Dh11,112 a month. He earns Dh9,283.

Marcus, from the Philippines, who did not want to reveal his full name, took out four loans with annual rates ranging between 28 per cent and 33.36 per cent – two with Dubai Islamic Bank (DIB), one with FGB and one with Dunia Finance.

He borrowed the money to help finance the rebuilding of a family home that was destroyed in a typhoon, and to cover his mother’s medical bills.

Both FGB and Dunia Finance agreed to reduce his repayments, but DIB, to which Marcus pays Dh4,836 each month – almost half of his monthly salary – has now refused following a review. A spokeswoman said: “As soon as we became aware of [Marcus’s] situation, both our service quality and collections teams were closely involved in working with him to find alternative solutions.

“We have thoroughly reviewed his case and due to his financial history, we are constrained by Central Bank regulations and consequently unable to provide any further financial assistance. Dubai Islamic Bank is committed to upholding the highest levels of integrity, compliance with regulations and working with all of its customers to ensure they have a plan in place to effectively manage their finances.”

Marcus now has one last hope. Gaurav Bhalla, of new debt advisory company Lotus Loans and Rescheduling Services, has agreed to look into his case and negotiate with DIB on his behalf. But because of his circumstances it will be difficult, he says.

“There is a remote possibility of arriving at a solution on this case as there are multiple cheque returns as a consequence of which fresh facilities are ruled out,” says Mr Bhalla.

“Nonetheless, not all hope is lost. I have requested for some clarification from Marcus on the basis of which I will then try to take this up. Usually, such cases take about three months to bring the credit history back to normality.”

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Good samaritans stepping up to help UAE debtors

For a mechanical engineer, Michael Routledge knows an awful lot about the price of avocados. And fish. Even pushchairs, for that matter.

In fact, he makes it his business to research everything he buys to see if he can save his family some money. But he has not always been so frugal.

The 35-year-old learnt to be careful with money the hard way after amassing a large debt that took 10 years to pay off. And now he wants to help others get themselves out of trouble through his recently launched website, savememoney.ae.

The site is one of a number of initiatives springing up to help UAE residents resolve their financial woes following The National’s extensive coverage of spiralling liabilities in the country through a series of articles on the issue and the launch of The Debt Panel, a weekly column tackling debt issues.

For Mr Routledge, his problems began on his 18th birthday, when he became eligible for a credit card in his home country, the UK.

“I got a credit card from HSBC for 500 quid and one week later it was gone,” he says.

Fast forward five short years and Mr Routledge had amassed £50,000 (Dh239,473) of debt after consolidating his cards into a loan and then spending on them again and again. His annual salary was less than a third of that at the time.

“At the worst point on a Friday, I would finish work and go home. I would pull over at the ATM and put multiple cards in just to see if I could get 20 quid off this one, 10 quid off this one,” he says.

“Over the weekend I would just ignore it. I would see friends and go out, bury my head in the sand. Sunday night was hell. I would lie in bed with work tomorrow and everything would be going through my head. That was before I really started to recover from it,” adds Mr Routledge, who still works full-time in his job as a mechanical engineer in Dubai.

The tipping point came when his debts became so high and his credit record so bad that no UK bank would lend to him any more. He agreed on payment plans with his creditors and settled one debt at a time, slowly. It took him a decade, but around two-and-a-half years ago, he paid the last of it off.

Mr Routledge, who moved to the UAE in 2010 while still paying off the debt, is now using his website to help others. The advice site provides a platform for those with liabilities to support each other as they try to get themselves back on the right track.

But the site is not the only new initiative looking to help personal debtors solve their woes.

Lotus Loans and Rescheduling Services, a consulting company which advises clients who cannot afford to service their debts, launched four months ago with the aim to help debtors agree to better repayment terms on their liabilities by negotiating on their behalf. While such organisations are commonplace in more developed financial markets, the company is among a handful of organisations of its kind in the UAE.

The brainchild of Gaurav Bhalla, who worked as head of collections at a UAE bank for 11 years, he says he can help to make three-quarters of his company’s clients debt-free in five years.

“We basically approach banks and convince them that someone is trying to come out of a debt trap and they need help,” he explains. “We build a proposal for the bank and show them all the evidence, convince them with facts and figures, ie this is the status of a client and here is the documentary evidence. This then convinces the bank to agree on a settlement plan which is beneficial both for the bank and for the client.”

The agreements either extend the tenure of the loans or consolidate the existing loan and credit card debt into one personal loan, reducing the interest rate and therefore the monthly payments.

“By restructuring their liabilities at a lower rate of interest, we are able to give them savings they couldn’t even think of. So typically a credit card debt would keep mounting because the rate of interest is about 40 per cent on an annualised basis. So we are able to give them solutions by moving all the high interest debts to about 5 or 6 per cent. That is a clear-cut 30 per cent or 35 per cent saved on a monthly basis, which totals to a massive amount.”

But Mr Bhalla, from India, who has been in the UAE since 2005, charges his clients to cover his costs. He says he has to because he receives no government funding and has a family to support – but he keeps the costs as low as he can, basing the charge on the number of hours he takes to resolve a case. The money is typically paid after the case has been settled.

For cases with three debts totalling about Dh100,000, he spends around five hours dealing with the banks, charging his client between Dh2,000 and Dh2,500. If the debts are on the higher side it might rise to Dh5,000, he says.

But the maximum it would reach, no matter how much the debt is or how long he spends on it, is between Dh7,500 and Dh10,000 for individuals.

For small to medium enterprises (SMEs), who he also assists, it can go up to about Dh20,000.

In the past four months he has been able to settle 57 cases successfully, 17 of which were SMEs. But he has not been able to help everyone.

Sometimes the credit score is just too bad or the record too poor for the bank to budge. He does not charge a client if he cannot help them.

“There are instances and that is typically with the SME sector because most of the SMEs do not have any audited financials, so it becomes very difficult for us to convince a bank that now the business volumes are going down, they require a restructuring of an SME loan,” he says.

However, SMEs now have some wiggle room thanks to the new bankruptcy law, a draft of which was approved this month by the Cabinet, that will help struggling business owners restructure debt. This, however, does not apply to individuals in debt.

Experts in the industry have welcomed Mr Bhalla’s company, particularly the comparison websites which struggle to help many of the people who get in touch with them.

“There is a need for more and more of these guys out there because there are a lot of people who need help,” says Ambareen Musa of the financial comparison site Souqalmal.com.

However, while she expects more companies of this nature to pop up in the future, she says their success will depend on how the first few sustain themselves financially.

Preeti Bhambri, the founder and managing director of comparison site MoneyCamel.com, also welcomes debt management consultants but says there is still a gap in the market for companies specifically designed to take over people’s loans and restructure their debt.

“As the credit bureau has now fully kicked in, this kind of funding could be available from existing financial institutions, or new ones, hopefully soon,” she adds.

Mr Routledge knows all too well what it feels like to be drowning in debt.

When no UK bank would offer him a consolidation loan, he did it the hard way by learning to live within his means and paying down the debt.

Which is why he set up his website savememoney.ae to share with others how he achieved it.

He says sites similar to his, but based in the UK, were a great help to him while he was going through the process.

While the site acts more as a shoulder for debtors to lean on for now, he hopes to one day be able to negotiate with the banks on his members’ behalf.

For the time being he is happy doing something to help in any way he can.

“I don’t need it to be massive tomorrow. It’s a pastime,” says Mr Routledge.

“I have spent a lot of time on the project but it doesn’t make me any money. I would like it to tick over. If the population on the site slowly increases over time, then that’s fine.”

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Tip for entrepreneurs: Farm out the legwork to speed up growth of your business

Tarig El Sheikh is both a father and a serial entrepreneur, so he speaks from experience when he says starting a company is literally like having a new-born.

“There are three hellish months which take up 20 hours a day,” says the former Lehman Brothers employee. He has started several businesses, the latest of which, Beneple, was acquired by a financial services group last year for US$15 million.

“Being a solo founder is literally like being a single mum or a single dad. It’s mental. It’s doable but it is very, very difficult.”

For each of companies, which also includes Istashir, a corporate finance and management consultancy, which he exited in 2013, and Knot Standard, an e-commerce custom clothing company, which he also sold, he has had partners.

But that is not to say it made the process easy. He says he still had to do a lot of the legwork in the beginning before the businesses could afford to take on more staff, taking on take multiple roles himself and learning how to prioritise.

But he is not alone.

In the beginning entrepreneurs often assume the role of five or six people, says Aya Sadder, lead organiser for Startup Weekend Fashion Dubai and Startup Weekend Fintech Abu Dhabi, which is running at GlassQube on Reem Island in December.

“They would be HR, they would be admin, they would be finance, they would be sponsorship manager, they would be social media. They would be all these different positions all at once, so their time becomes very tough,” she says, adding that the effect of having to wear so many hats can effectively slow down the growth of the business.

So what is the solution?

Warsha Joshi, founder and managing director of Platinum VA, argues it lies in hiring a virtual assistant. They do anything from managing a client’s calendar, to filtering emails, conducting research, tracking projects, managing expenses and raising invoices.

Virtual assistance companies provide fully trained experienced executive assistants who work remotely, which Ms Joshi claims can save up to 30 to 40 per cent of a client’s time, increasing an entrepreneur’s productivity and relieving their stress.

“It’s a bit shocking, but studies show that 67 per cent of business owners struggle to focus on the primary purpose of their business due to the administrative burden,” she says.

By saving a client or executive’s time by helping them concentrate on key tasks, companies can speed up their business’s growth faster and make sure that their team members are motivated and happy, says Ms Joshi.

“While employees want to concentrate on their priority tasks they can spend up to 41 per cent of their time on paperwork, admin tasks, travel planning and other daily activities,” she adds.

“Time is money, and when so many hours are wasted, especially in a corporate world, companies start looking at ways how to keep non-core costs to a minimum. Virtual solutions give businesses the freedom to pay only for what they need and avoid hassle with hiring full-time staff, buying additional software or investing in training.”

Mr El Sheikh says that while there is a place for it, a virtual assistance service should be considered a short-term solution to a long-term problem. Instead, he says entrepreneurs should learn to manage their time.

“You really have to ask yourself, what is the best use of my time?” he asks. “That is the most critical thing. And you don’t just apply it to yourself, you apply it to the team as well. It’s all about time. You need to add as much value as quickly as possible.”

He places his tasks into quadrants: important and non-important and urgent and non-urgent. Anything that is very important and urgent he does immediately. Anything important but not urgent he tries to outsource to an employee.

“The early days are all on you. You have to be super-ruthless with your time. You have got to really be good at prioritising and knowing what is upfront, what adds value and what needs to get done now or can wait a week, a month or a year,” says Mr El Sheikh.

“The early days are all about testing [but] a lot of people tend to spend the early days with admin and setting up the company.”

Ms Sadder suggests one option to relive the initial burden is to work with incubators such as Astrolabs in Dubai, which does not take any equity, or GlassQube in Abu Dhabi, which offers similar support.

Bernard Lee, co-founder and chief executive at GlassQube, says incubators help start-ups through offering affordable workspace and support services such as IT and secretarial assistance. Prices for a co-working desk at GlassQube, for example, start at Dh950. “Additionally and less formally, incubators aggregate a community of similarly positioned entrepreneurs thus creating an ecosystem for knowledge transfer and networking,” says Mr Lee.

But whatever an entrepreneurs decides to do, they should seek help.

“Entrepreneurs shouldn’t be alone in the beginning because sitting alone with your thoughts could potentially destroy you,” adds Ms Sader.

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