By Ziana Qaiser, Womens Feature Service
“It was just a matter of timing.” This is how Paula Harrington, 37, describes her foray into starting an online kids boutique in Dubai. For many women, starting a family often means rethinking their career goals. Paula’s story is no different. Dissatisfied with the attitude towards maternity leave at her workplace, she left a decade-long career in Human Resources to stay at home and care for her infant son.
A chance meeting with a fellow expat who was leaving Dubai and selling the stock from her online clothing store uncovered a business opportunity for Harrington and her friend Kirsten Fairfield. “The seller was so generous in sharing her knowledge about setting up a website and introducing us to brands that we decided to set up a small business of our own,” says Harrington. In June last year they launched Bubs Boutique (www.bubsboutique.com), a website selling a carefully chosen collection of clothes and accessories for children.
Web-based businesses run by stay-at-home mothers is a growing trend in Dubai, with the development of technology allowing women entrepreneurs the initial convenience of working from home, relatively low start-up costs and a more flexible work-life balance. In a city where 45 days of official maternity leave is less than what most new mothers desire, working from home is turning out to be an appealing alternative.
“The main attraction of setting up a web-based business from home is by far the flexibility that it allows,” says Kirsten Fairfield, 29, co-owner of Bubs Boutique, who quit a full-time position in Public Relations to stay home and raise her daughter. “The day time hours are a bonus, allowing us to enjoy activities together and to let our work revolve around the kids.”
Petra Sander, 42, who moved to Dubai in 1995 with twin toddlers, agrees about the convenience of running a web-based business. “It’s great,” she says. “You’re your own boss and you can work from anywhere.” Sander, a former investment banker, runs the popular Dubai Kidz website (www.dubaikidz.biz) that lists information about schools and kids activities for parents living in Dubai. Unable to find a local online resource for such information when she was in need of it, Sander initially created the website to help other parents like herself, and pursued updating it as a hobby. “I never imagined it would develop into a small business of my own,” says Sander, adding that DubaiKidz has grown so much in the last year that she is now working with a partner to expand and launch the website as a franchise.
The lack of a particular product in the local market is also what prompted mom of two, Susan Joseph, 35, to launch an online business. It was when she became pregnant with her first child that Joseph found she had little choice but to quit her full time job in retail leasing, due to unsatisfactory maternity leave options. While decorating her son’s nursery, she noticed there was hardly any choice of decorative wall decals for interior spaces. By the time her son was three months old she had started thinking more seriously about designing, creating and selling wall decals through a website. She launched Wall Cravings (www.wallcravings.com) earlier this year and is happy to report that the business has taken off on a promising note.
“I feel very lucky to be able to do this,” says Joseph. “Wall Cravings allows me to spend more time with my family, decide when and where to work, and I definitely have no regrets about not going back to work full time.”
As straightforward as it may sound, starting a web-based business is not without its challenges. “There is a lack of clarity about how to go about setting up and registering a small business here in Dubai,” says Harrington, adding that they had to run around in circles to get the legal work done. Joseph’s experience was similar. “There is a big grey area when it comes to setting up an online business here, and that was definitely very frustrating,” she explains.
Then there are also the challenges of marketing and selling products in a city where a famously burgeoning shopping mall culture makes people think twice before making online purchases and divulging their credit card details. Joseph finds many potential customers hesitate to shop online and sometimes even expect to meet her in person to make their purchases. “Online shopping is still a relatively new concept here,” she says.
Harrington’s dream is to one day have a brick and mortar store for Bubs Boutique. “One of the downsides of having an online business selling tangible items is that it’s difficult to convince people about the quality,” she says. These are obstacles they are trying to overcome by creating websites that stand out in terms of appearance and functionality, along with close attention to customer service.
Juggling the roles of a stay-at-home mom and a small business owner requires a support system, and as the majority of mompreneurs in Dubai are expats, it’s rare to have extended family around. In that sense Harrington and Fairfield are grateful for supportive husbands, especially since starting Bubs Boutique required them to invest their own savings.
Sander and Joseph also acknowledge that growing their business would have been impossible without understanding spouses. “My husband is aware of the effort and work that goes into running the website and he’s been very encouraging,” says Sander. Joseph often takes her husband’s advice when making business decisions. “He puts in ideas in how to run the company and assists in the financial and sales side,” she says.
While there is undoubtedly the convenience of being in control of your work schedule, a drawback of owning a business that is so easily accessible from home is the temptation of working all the time. “You never really let go when you have your own business,” says Fairfield. “People tend to think that having your own business is easy – it isn’t. You always want to be working on it as soon as you get a free moment and tend to become obsessed with it.”
Harrington also finds it difficult to switch off. “Sometimes being a stay-at-home mom and running Bubs Boutique feels like more than a full time job, but I definitely don’t feel the stress that I did when I worked in corporate,” she says. “I love what I do.”