As the COVID-19 pandemic swept the world earlier this year, the world as we know it came to an abrupt halt. The outdoor world was shunned, stores closed their doors, and small businesses collapsed. Months passed by under lockdown, and most of us received the unwelcome news of our favorite restaurants, brands, and even e-commerce platforms shutting down forever. As the world struggles to revive its economy, we are reminded that it is more important now that ever before to support small local businesses.
“You’re never ‘just another customer’ to a small business; by purchasing their products or services, you’re investing in their dream,” says Maxine Youlten, founder of the Small Business Collective UAE – an open platform designed to promote small local businesses. “When you own a small business, all your investment goes into simply breaking even. I’ve committed to offering my platform to small businesses to talk about their story, passions, and products or services at no cost. There is huge value in social media if used correctly, and if I can help generate some type of excitement around their brand, then I’m happy,” she adds.
In an exclusive interview with Savoir Flair, Youlten discusses her motivations behind the platform and why small businesses are vital for the health of local communities.
What motivated you to launch the platform ‘Small Business Collective’?
In 2012, someone very dear to me started a small business. It didn’t come with big promises and high expectations or massive budgets and huge audiences; it was always built on a humble foundation of, ‘Why not? Let’s just try’. Over the years, I was able to watch in awe as this ‘little business that could’ found its identity, shared special moments, was discovered over and over again, and cherished by both the owner and those who got to be a part of it. I witnessed the struggles that came with it and really, truly appreciated the effort that it took for everyday dreamers like yourself or myself to create something all on our own. It was made even more inspiring because I was able to watch someone turn a dream into reality, create it in their likeness, and use it as a place to manifest all their passions.
Unfortunately, with COVID-19 and the harsh summer months ahead, this little hidden gem closed its doors and that journey was completely over. I’d witnessed the inception and overnight closure of a small business, and I knew that there were others out there just starting that journey, and in the current climate, only just holding on. I’ve lived in the UAE for over 10 years, and I felt that it was only right to build a collective that could help small business owners. It was the least I felt I could do.
When you buy from a small business, an actual person does a happy dance!
What was the biggest challenge you faced while setting up the platform?
I committed the Small Business Collective (SBC) to being entirely about other businesses. I myself am not a business owner, so there are no profits from what I do. I would say the only ‘challenge’ is juggling my own full-time job while making sure I do justice to the small businesses that trust me with their stories. I would honestly say time management is the only challenge, as I have been welcomed into this community with so much enthusiasm from small business owners, engaging people who are excited to learn more and help each other.
Can you describe your process of discovering new businesses for the platform?
Initially, the SBC began with me reaching out to small businesses and asking them to answer a few questions, which I would turn into well laid-out Instagram posts. They [the small businesses] put a huge amount of trust in me, and my main goal was to treat their business with the same love and care as they do. Lately, however, small businesses reach out to me and ask how to be involved in the collective. I do rather enjoy this evolution, as it leaves room for those who need that extra help to ask for it.
Throughout the week, I create ‘Up Close With’ sessions which ask a few short questions designed to let my audience get to know the business. These questions range from ‘What is the story behind your business?’ to ‘What inspires you?’, and my favorite question is ‘Do you have any favorite small businesses in the UAE?’. This question is great for allowing me and my readers to discover other small businesses.
I also receive many requests from consumers looking for specific products from small businesses. I will make use of my page, and ask for suggestions. It really is amazing how many small businesses reach out to help support other small businesses! Another element of the SBC is the Collective Members. We are built on a philosophy of ‘Community Over Competition’, and our collective members are small businesses that have stepped up and started using their platform to direct their audience to the Collective. By doing this, they’re supporting all the other small businesses in the collective, with the only incentive being to help others.
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What criteria (if any) do the businesses have to meet in order to qualify for your platform?
I’m always incredibly impressed by the sheer amount of talent in the UAE. The number of small businesses from so many different industries is incredible. What is more incredible is how pronounced our women’s community is. Because of this, I have no criteria for what kind of businesses I would promote. Everyone’s dreams look different, and they all deserve to shine.
Everyone’s dreams look different, and they all deserve to shine.
That being said, to comply with UAE law, all small businesses are requested to provide their trade licenses/business permits to ensure they are legitimate businesses. The effort that business owners must go through to have legal ownership is high, and to promote someone who has skipped this step doesn’t seem fair. Further to this, we only promote businesses with less than 50 employees and no more than two franchises (if a physical store).
Going forward, what is your vision for the platform?
Ultimately, the SBC is a passion project for me, and I want it to grow organically. The response I’ve had has completely surprised me, and I need to always make sure I’m staying true to my promise: that the SBC is and always will be about the small businesses. I’d love to graduate the ‘Up Close With’ Sessions into interviews, create a farmers’ market (once COVID-19 is over), and I think it would be great to have an app that centralizes all the businesses into one place. But these are all future plans, and for now, I think we’ve achieved something really great in just two months.
I’ve already learned so much, and I feel there is a lot more to learn before I can decide on what the future will look like, but I do hope that I will be able to incorporate consultancy into the collective, as I am often contacted by people hoping to start a business but who aren’t sure where to begin. Giving them that ‘first step’ would be an exciting element of the collective.
Can you please share your tips on how to support small businesses?
Quite simply: “Look before you buy” and “Make some noise”!
There are so many small businesses in the UAE – more than you realize, and I guarantee 90% of the time you will find a small business that provides exactly what you’re looking for. Before you head to the large retailers, reach out to me at the Small Business Collective and I can help you find a small business that has what you need.
When you do get your hands on something special from a small business, talk about it! Tell your friends, write a review, share some photos. All these things are completely free and mean so much to a small business, so help create their hype! I guarantee that not one small business takes a single order, inquiry, cup of coffee, or purchase for granted. As they say, “When you buy from a small business, an actual person does a happy dance!”