Entrepreneur rides scooter to success

Entrepreneur rides scooter to success


02/21/2007 09:33 PM | By Dr Rod Monger, Special to Gulf News

Two years ago, Michael Duckworth reached his limit with Dubai parking hassles. The solution, he decided, was Vespa.

For six decades, Italy’s Piaggio has manufactured this sleek, stylish and easy-to-operate scooter, long popular with European fashionistas. But Vespa was not sold in Dubai. Until then, Duckworth says, "I thought entrepreneurs needed two things – business acumen and a good idea. I lacked an idea."

Now Duckworth had his idea. Dubai needed Vespa. So the 35-year-old began his transition from life-long "salaryman" to entrepreneur. Along the way, he learned some lessons.

Lesson one: Market research

Instinct told Duckworth that Dubai and Vespa were made for each other. Dubai has more months of splendid weather compared to three in Europe where Vespa is very popular.

Vespa is also seen as cool, very svelte, says Duckworth, which fits beautifully with Dubai’s cosmopolitan lifestyle. But he backed up gut feel with market research.

Demographics told Duckworth that European expats who know the Vespa brand were a big share of the Dubai’s population.

Duckworth also thought that scooters would be valuable in business and government. Fast food delivery was the obvious play. But scooters had other applications. Most European postal services use them, for example.

Lesson two: Strong business plan

Duckworth convinced a friend who owns a motorcycle business in Britain to become a partner. This would strengthen the proposal to Piaggio since the friend had experience with sales, service and parts.

A written proposal was forwarded to Piaggio.

Soon after, Duckworth and his partner found themselves in Italy touring the plant and answering questions from executives.

Piaggio executives then visited Dubai "for a sit in the traffic," Duckworth says. "We also took them out in the evening to see the trendy scene here." Duckworth and his partner were soon granted exclusive distribution rights for the GCC region.

Lesson three: Persistence

The initial excitement wore off when Duckworth sought financial backing. He didn’t see how they could miss since their business proposal offered a 40 per cent return.

Lots of people thought the idea was fantastic. But no takers stepped forward. "The Dubai stock market was on a roll at that time," he says, "and investors thought they could double their money in a fortnight."

Duckworth encountered other barriers. Local banks refused to lend to the venture because personal assets that could be pledged against the loans were in Britain. British banks wouldn’t loan money because the business was in Dubai.

But financial sources were found. The deal was finally put together, and in September 2005 he launched his business.

Lesson four: Focus on strengths

Publicity turned out to be Duckworth’s secret sauce. "Vespa is a known brand," he says. Tumi luggage featured Vespa in their advertising. A store window in the Mall of Emirates displayed a Vespa (which a shopper bought). Fashion shoots in Media City used Vespa as a prop. "Vespa is an icon," says Duckworth.

Lesson five: Patience

The commercial sector offered lucrative prospects. But Duckworth found that the sales cycle took much longer than anticipated. DHL, the package delivery giant, will introduce Piaggio scooters soon, but only after a year of sales calls, negotiations and testing.

Duckworth is working up other commercial and government prospects which might find that two wheels are better than four.

Lesson six: Experience

Looking back, Duckworth believes that his experience in business before Vespa helped him most to reach his goal.

He worked in finance for a variety of companies in Britain, Ireland, Holland, Poland and Dubai.

"Working in finance taught me a lot about business – negotiation skills, cash management, how to pay yourself and a lot of other things."

He also believes that his multi-national career has taught him how different people think, and that has helped him tailor his messages based on the interests of his audience.

Communications skills are critical at every level, Duckworth says. That includes one-on-one discussions, telephone and e-mail. And "passion for the product is important," he says, because without it, staying the course is difficult.

The writer is a business professor at the American University in Dubai.

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