Virtuzone, in partnership with Dubizzle, pitted the brightest and most innovative entrepreneurs against each other in a battle that was played out in the studio of local radio station Dubai Eye. One lucky winner walked away with prizes worth AED 100,000. Ketaki Banga brings you a bird’s eye view.

“Falcons’ Lair”, “Dragons’ Den” – what’s with these investors and their penchant for melodramatic names! But, drama is a given when you ask ambitious entrepreneurs to play off against each other for a prize that could set them well on the way to realising their dreams.

The prize in this case was support worth AED 50,000 from Virtuzone, which included setting up a UAE company for free – with all company incorporation costs for the first year of operations taken care of – and an online advertising package from Dubizzle worth the same amount.

Richard Dean, the radio host who refereed the fight, explains the format of Falcons’ Lair: “Dubizzle and Virtuzone got about 500 entries. They whittled those down to six companies and that’s when the radio station got involved. So we had three heats over the same number of weeks, and the best two played off in the grand finale. There was a panel of judges – a panel of ‘Falcons’ [an awe inspiring title indeed] – who graded each company according to their efficiency, marketing, sales, commercialisation, operations and other crucial factors. The winners were Campus Radio ME, an online radio launched by two students and run by a team of volunteers.”

Sounds great. But what’s the story behind Falcons’ Lair?

Virtuzone’s Chairman, Neil Petch, who was one of the Falcons, elaborates: “Virtuzone is all about helping entrepreneurs and very small companies set up, and we’re trying to demonstrate how we not only facilitate but also support them. We’ve partnered with Dubizzle because we share a lot of brand values and, as advertisers, we found it a great platform to market to the young entrepreneurial audience. So it was appropriate to do this together as it’s not only about brand building, it also allows us to do the right thing.”

The judging panel of Falcons boasted names like Sim Whatley, Managing Partner and co-founder of Dubizzle; Neil Petch from Virtuzone; Mekki Abdulla, the CEO of Fujairah Media; and Geoff Rapp, Director of Boeing.

What sort of businesses applied and what were the Falcons looking for?

Neil talks about how, when you have a hundred companies setting up with you every month, you start to get a feel of the ones that will succeed: “It’s a combination of the actual business plan and also the people because you can have a great idea but, if you get the wrong people, it just doesn’t work! What was really interesting about this show was that there were some fantastic ideas. The opening pitch of the other finalists boasted of a US$ 2 billion idea. It certainly got our attention. But the winners ticked off all the right boxes on our long list.”

Among other things, the Falcons were looking for a company they could add value to. “Virtuzone is co-owned by the Fujairah government and represents media free zones that include TV and radio facilities. So we also saw the potential to assist Campus Radio ME to turn this into more of a mainstream show,” says Neil.  

The founders of Campus Radio ME – Ritesh Jeswani and Muhammed Ali J –  are expat kids who’ve grown up to be entrepreneurs. They look barely out of their teens and I’ve already had the pleasure of listening to their college banter as we shared the elevator on our way up to Dubizzle’s office.

Without wanting to sound like the parent I am, I blurt out, “What were you thinking!”

(L to R) Muhammed Ali J and Ritesh Jeswani, founders of Campus Radio ME; Sim Whatley, Managing Partner and co-founder, Dubizzle; Neil Petch, Chairman, Virtuzone; Richard Dean, the radio host of Falcons’ Lair

Ritesh grins back, his eyes (don’t miss the coloured contacts) twinkling: “Campus Radio is a student online radio platform and what we were looking to achieve a year back was to develop the community for students. There are so many universities in this country but not much of a community feeling. So we wanted to bring them together on one platform and use students as inspiration for students. Eventually, it turned out to be this massive entertainment platform and we just went with the flow. So now we basically juggle between creating that community as well as entertaining that same community and giving them information they wouldn’t normally get – even simple stuff like free food or contests.”

Speaking of contests, they heard about Falcons’ Lair on Twitter and promptly shared it with their listeners before dashing off their own entry.  

Muhammed adds his own perspective: “Both Ritesh and I studied here as well as abroad. When we came back, one of the things we noticed was that university life here is no different from high school because you’re still going home and not really taking care of yourself. That de-motivates students because, firstly, it doesn’t give you the life skills you’d get if you were living by yourself and taking care of your own clothes or bank account and, secondly, because you are sort of expecting the college experience you see on TV.

“We actually walked through Knowledge Village and I can say it’s quite soul sucking. We looked at how things were and how we could make them better.”  

So where do they plan to take this idea, what with their recent support and publicity?

Mohammed talks about how, when they started, they decided to give themselves the first year to – quite literally – mess around with the programming, and see what works: “So after the first few months we discovered our prime slots which are different from contemporary radio, where your prime slots are morning and evening shows when everyone is driving to and from work. Ours were almost always after 9 pm throughout the week because that’s when students come back home, sit down with their assignments and tune in.”

Currently Campus Radio has about 42,000 IPs streaming in every week and this has been steadily increasing. “On the first day we had about seven listeners,” reminisces Ritesh. “These were all friends we’d asked to tune in, so it was a big deal for us. In the sixth month we participated in Pecha Kucha, an event organised by the Third Line, an art gallery in Dubai, where you get a few minutes to talk about your idea. At that time we had 11,000 listeners. Over time, from an operational point of view we are now over 24 people, and almost everybody is working for free or as part-time volunteers – that includes RJs and software designers as we have applications for Android, iPhone, iPad and others.”

Currently Mohammed and Ritesh want Campus Radio to continue to exist online, primarily because most of their target audience is online, but they plan to improve the platform by making it more interactive and adding applications such as those for Facebook and YouTube. “We want to get content from the students so they are an active part of this, rather than just getting messages from us,” explains Ritesh.

They haven’t yet commercialised their idea because they only just got the business license from Virtuzone, but it’s on the cards. Having said that, they’ve already been getting a lot of support. “For instance Red Bull decided to give us equipment for free – and this is expensive equipment – and du gave us free Internet,” beams Ritesh.

Neil, who looks like he is in danger of being out-talked by a couple of kids, takes that as his cue: “When you’re operating from your bedroom – say, if you’re a photographer working from home – and you ask someone for money, they don’t take you seriously from a commercial point of view. If you can’t send invoices, or if you ask for a cash cheque, you don’t get viewed as a professional. People expect ‘mates rates’. This jump to becoming a registered business, which normally has an expense to it, is definitely worth it as an investment.”

How else could Campus Radio maximise the benefits from this competition?

Neil feels they already have a product that is better than a lot of other money-making competitors, so they shouldn’t underestimate the importance of commercialisation. He also advises them to choose wisely. “For instance, good marketing would be a better prioritisation than, say, a swanky office in the first year. Spend money on accounts so that when you approach a bank for a loan for expansion, you are more likely to be reviewed positively,” he advises.  

Neil highlights how Virtuzone tries to provide some of these vital services to their clients at start-up friendly costs: “We target small businesses and a necessary evil of that is a lot of them, particularly in these difficult times, don’t make it past year one. So how can we help them? We’re now representing 1,500 to 1,600 companies so, if we go out and look for the best service providers and then buy in bulk on behalf of hundreds of companies, all our clients get better rates. This is how we support them and make it more likely for them to succeed and then renew their licenses, which is our core business.”

Dubizzle’s Sim Whatley – who hasn’t spoken much up until then, partly because the others don’t seem to need any help – steps up now to calmly advise just how they could use the prize from Dubizzle to market themselves: “Now that you have AED 50,000 to spend, there are a number of ways you can look at targeting different audiences. We have a variety of products from static images, to flash and embedded videos. We’ve got an e-mail database of 200,000 people that can be segmented into demographics, age, nationality, gender, and so on. It’ll just be about sitting down with you guys and understanding the audience you want to reach and then we could recommend the best way forward.”

Sim stresses on the importance of providing such consultation to clients: “It is worthless to us to have clients who are going to spend a large portion of their marketing budget with us and then, if they get no consultation, their results are subpar compared to the other media they are using. It’s definitely worth our time to sit with them, make sure their expectations are realistic, they get what we promise and, at the end of the campaign, are happy and want to push more budgets towards us.”

What else can we look forward to from the Falcons and their protégés?

Ritesh looks back at their interesting journey so far before he answers this: “I am thankful that my parents were so cooperative. Folks were bustling in and out of my bedroom at all times – including sales people who were simply allowed to walk into my room in the middle of shows,” he laughs. “We’ve got to a place where we are now stable; we’ve shifted out of the bedroom and now have our own studio, which is good. We plan to make this transition from being a bedroom radio to a more professional setup.”

Are they eventually looking at moving from volunteers to paid employees?

“We do have two paid employees – our coder who makes our apps and works on our Website, and our designer. We are looking forward to hopefully start paying the RJs and our support staff.”

An amused Sim jokingly warns: “Don’t get rid of your free staff!” To which Muhammed responds: “It’s shocking that they’ve stayed so long. We actually owe this to them that even if it’s not a lot of money, there’s something to keep them going.”

Looks like some of the more established companies could take a page or two from these guys’ management book.

Neil feels that Campus Radio is a very good story for the UAE because of the occasional talk about red tape and bureaucracy. “It’s the tiny companies that find it the most difficult – they don’t have a PRO, they don’t know where to go – so when you see an example like this, you realise that’s how the UAE economy is going to grow,” he’s convinced.

“I think the investment opportunity, speaking as a Falcon, and the real opportunity to affect the economy lies with these small, entrepreneurial companies. It’s encouraging that, right through the difficult times, we were still getting new clients at Virtuzone every month. Sure, some of them were downsizing from a more expensive office, but many were people like them who had an idea and the entrepreneurial spirit, had connections within Dubai and preferred to stay on here rather than go back home. So you’ve reversed the brain drain, which is great.

“We’ve really enjoyed our partnership with Dubizzle. It positioned us well and it’s nice – having achieved some level of success – to be able to give back to the business community. There’s been a lot of interest from the media. Radio has worked really well for us and we’ll continue with it, but we’re also considering a TV programme which requires us to up the whole thing considerably – so get ready for some interesting prizes and announcements,” and like the perfect showman, Neil sums it up with the promise of more to come. Stay tuned.  

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