KARACHI: Syed Hassan Abbas is finally what he always wanted to be: his own boss. Based in Dubai, he runs two companies, while pursuing a passion for music. But this wasn’t always the case - his dream of running his own venture only became a reality two years ago. For 23 years before it, he was a banker (most of his years were spent at Citi), comfortable in the knowledge that he would get a steady pay cheque each month.
In fact, he goes as far as to say giving up the reliance on that pay cheque is harder than quitting smoking.
“I was asked years ago what is the strongest addiction in the world and my answer was smoking,” he told Business Recorder. “But now I realise it’s the monthly pay cheque that makes you risk averse and is definitely the worst addiction that I can think of now and experienced in the recent past.
“The temptation to start my own business was always there but I managed it for over 23 years. I always wanted to be my own boss but never had the courage to take the big step.”
One reason was that when he graduated from the Karachi’s Institute of Business Administration in 1997 “there was not much of a culture of setting up your own business or startup … the safest and easiest route to the practical world was to get a decent, stable job.”
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But his work was not intellectually stimulating or fulfilling his creative aspirations, and he eventually decided to take the plunge.
“Luckily some friends encouraged me and joined hands to try out my own venture and that made me start my own company.”
Currently, Abbas is the CEO of Conformity Compliance Solution, a fintech firm he established out of the Dubai International Financial Centre (DIFC), providing digital compliance solutions to banks.
“Compliance is extremely important, there are very heavy penalties around the globe. A rough estimate would be financial penalties worth $322 billion imposed by regulators over the last 10-15 years,” said Abbas, despite the fact that financial firms spend upwards of $200 billion on compliance.
“We felt there is a lot of opportunity, especially considering active participation of the Financial Action Task Force in the markets in which we operate.
“With my experience with top-of-the-line foreign banks and looking after multiple jurisdictions, I decided to create a platform with senior bankers as partners to help banks and financial institutions develop stronger controls in the area of compliances risk management in line with regulatory expectations.”
He also has another totally different and smaller venture called NRP Virtual Home Connect, also DIFC-registered, which helps Pakistanis living abroad with issues like property management and filing taxes and even taking care of parents – “all the things I myself needed when I moved out of the country”.
“It’s an initiative close to my heart serving the needs of non-resident Pakistanis”.
Advice for someone who want to start their own business
Abbas warned that the decision to go down this route is a difficult task that should not be taken lightly. It requires careful planning, feasibility checks and taking advice from seniors and mentors. But more important is deciding whether you want to go solo or work with partners. In case of the latter, finding the right person is crucial – “even if you know someone for ages, when it comes to money matters they can react differently, and act in a different manner altogether”.
And there is no set magic formula for success, said Abbas. It all depends on the business, the market, and the person you are.
The first step is to identify your own strengths “and where can you transform your age-old experience to get some continuity as well as competitive strength”.
“I was a banker all my life and I started a business related to my experience. I knew the market, the industry and the requirements. There was ease of comfort to start off with. “It’s also important to have savings set aside,” he said. “You need to be careful about expenses. Do smaller stuff yourself initially, don’t expand your team too big. Ask yourself important questions such as: do I need to raise debt and equity?”
Abbas moved to Dubai in May 2005 when his bank transferred him to the Gulf city. At the time, he had no intention of settling down there permanently but slowly and gradually became comfortable.
He believes Dubai is a fantastic place for any expat in terms of the quality of life, education and medical facilities. Plus there is little taxation, and it’s close to home.
“You get the best of both east and west … you have religious values and western lifestyle also. It’s phenomenal in that way.”
From a work perspective too, he believes there is no place quite like Dubai and he has often advised Pakistani friends with great business ideas to bring them to the city.
“In Pakistan right now I’ve got a lot of old colleagues, friends and I know a lot of new businesses coming up. They have fantastic ideas, they have brilliant value proposition, they have excellent tech platforms. But some business which is not half as good as these guys are would get great mileage from Dubai just because of the kind of exposure that they are getting. Just because of the kind of platform, the kind of audience, the kind of investor’s interest that is there in Dubai that is phenomenal compared to Pakistan.”
He added that ride-hailing and delivery app Careem “is an interesting case study where our local talent really flourished when exposed to a bigger landscape”.
What’s more, he said, Dubai has a number of free zones, business friendly regulations and licensing options available.
The DIFC, from where Abbas operates, is one such free zone, offering key benefits such as a relaxed tax regime on business income and profits, 100% foreign ownership, and no restrictions on foreign exchange or capital/profit repatriation. It’s founded on business-friendly laws, said Abbas. Its robust yet business friendly legal framework provides a safe environment for tech newcomers. Another benefit for fintechs in particular is the zone’s licencing options, including subsidies, accelerator programs, women leadership programs and a testing license introduced to allow for greater experimentation.
Speaking of future plans, Abbas said: “you do get that temptation of getting back to the corporate world at times as it offers a lot more security and stability but for now, I am enjoying the ride, trying new things, following my passion for music and giving it my best shot in all areas.”
Copyright Business Recorder, 2022