Opinion: Redemption day?

Forget top-down – how about a new bottom-up loyalty scheme for Dubai’s entrepreneurs?

Entrepreneurs are a force both generative and disruptive. They disrupt existing business models through new ideas that are hyper-local and therefore enormously sensitive to the community’s requirements. They are generative not just in the straightforward sense of contributing jobs and stimulating economic activity, but also in the more ephemeral way of being a focal point for the development of cultures and sub-cultures. They mould the urban landscape in subtle ways.

Trade has long been a part of the UAE’s development. Entrepreneurship, particularly in non-traditional sectors, is a relatively new phenomenon, for much of the UAE’s development to date has been top-down. The country’s ruling families have developed and implemented meta-narratives of planned growth. Many measures have worked brilliantly, while others have achieved only an approximation of their intended results. Whatever the outcome, there is no denying the inherent dynamism and ambition in the intention.

‘While frequent travel and mass shopping maybe worthy goals, it can be argued that encouraging entrepreneurial and creative activity is even more pertinent to our collective future’

Now, a new conversation is taking place among Dubai’s ruling classes. It is borne of an understanding that the next stage of the emirate’s development must involve entrepreneurs. This poses an interesting challenge in that the focus must now shift from the grandiose to the minuscule through the creation of an environment that is conducive to small businesses. The necessary framework has been pushed into place; it is now time to populate it with entrepreneurs.

The fact is, overt regulation, perhaps necessary for running urban sprawls where a plethora of large firms operate on internationally sourced expertise, is also inadvertently stepping on entrepreneurial toes. This is not to say there has been no desire to facilitate business. Dubai started the UAE’s experiment with free zones – somewhat laissez-faire arrangements that allow businesses to operate without battling through the rolls of red tape typically associated with starting up a new venture. Other emirates, in the hope of attracting investment, have followed suit. Starting a business is becoming cheaper, and easier.

The government may be doing what it can, but that shouldn’t stop private enterprises from banding together. Over the past few months, I have, through a series of meetings and discussions, realised there is tremendous goodwill among entrepreneurs towards helping others progress down the same road. This may be counterintuitive – new businesses mean competition, after all. But there are two main issues at play here. First, entrepreneurs see themselves as a minority, struggling to better the system despite the system. This breeds a sense of solidarity and of improving the odds. Having run the gauntlet themselves, they consider it a point of pride to extend advice to others. Secondly, there are currently more market opportunities than small businesses, meaning that as things stand, there is room for everyone.

At this juncture, it is perhaps interesting to hypothesise a creative thought experiment that could grease the wheels of entrepreneurial progress. Imagine, for a moment, the possibility of a loyalty scheme of sorts for entrepreneurs and creative content producers: a scheme whereby entrepreneurial activity would be rewarded in ways that could be redeemed to further business and creative goals.

Imagine one’s activities could earn a form of creative currency. For the sake of expediency, one could term them EPs or Entrepreneurial Points. Imagine too that these EPs could be earned through a wide range of activity. Eventually, these EPs could become a supplemental currency earned through entrepreneurial, creative and community activities. In a previous iteration of this idea, I had imagined these EPs being redeemed by government departments for cheaper rents, visas for workers and other services. But such a scheme, it seems, is better suited as a private sector development: a way of structuring and formalising the support that business-owners already offer one another.

Any new start-up needs a few basic services – legal, marketing, branding, copywriting and perhaps logistical advice. If firms offering these services were to agree to redeem EPs against service provision, it would mean new companies could find support based on a currency that rewards entrepreneurship.

This still leaves the question of how one could earn these EPs. In a utopian world, I would imagine a scenario where any new start-up would be given a cache of redeemable points as encouragement. A board of business owners already subscribed to the EP scheme could be responsible for vetting. Supplementary EPs could, of course, be earned by offering services or products to other registered firms.

Loyalty points are not unheard of. In fact, they are extraordinarily common. From air miles that encourage frequent travel to credit card points that offer incentives to shop more, loyalty schemes have proved workable, reliable and effective. While frequent travel and mass shopping may be worthy goals, it can be argued that encouraging entrepreneurial and creative activity is even more pertinent to our collective future.