Lessons from an entrepreneur: Harmeek Singh
Plan b has come a long way since its beginnings in 2004. With offices in Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Delhi and London, today it’s regarded as one of the UAE’s finest marketing companies, delivering complex events and original concepts, especially for government and semi-government entities. Esquire met its founder, Harmeek Singh, at his company HQ in Al Quoz to talk about those beginnings and get him to explain how, unlike most businesses, he’s using the economic slowdown as an opportunity to grow his market share.
Tell us how this journey began
I came from an affluent background in India, but our family business was in electronics and by the mid-’90s the market was suffering from Chinese competition. This was around the time I was supposed to start working, so I began looking around for what else we could do. I started a small business that grew into warehousing and cold storage. We tapped into Asia’s biggest wholesalers in commodities and did very well, but then came a series of slumps. That’s when I came to Dubai in 2003, with not much more than hope, but I was amazed by what I found. I’m a gut person and my gut told me things were about to happen here. I knew I had to explore these opportunities and exploration doesn’t always come with a plan. But if you have grit, then logic can come later.
How did you get started over here?
It wasn’t a cakewalk. I got rejected in 10 interviews and then walked out of the last one, saying that these were all just the same questions as I’d been hearing before, so why would my answers get me selected? And this response actually got me the job, because the interviewer admired my passion. This was digital printing sales and although it was a start, it still wasn’t easy because sales is about knowing people and I didn’t know anyone. But I got a visa, a salary of Dhs2,700 per month and the promise of commission, which never came. So after 10 months I resigned, having earned 10 years of experience. I’d worked from the bottom up and learned about the market. I’m thankful that they didn’t pay me well or fulfil their promises because it forced me to make a change.
"Exploration doesn’t always come with a plan. But if you have grit then logic can come later"
So what came next?
I worked in a media sales company for another 10 months. The company folded but my clients followed me because of the service I had given them, so I now had a small platform to build on, and it was time to do some hardcore freelancing. I worked 18 hours a day, earning Dhs150,00-Dhs200,000 per month, which gave me the funds to start my own business. And by now I was itching it for it. “Once an entrepreneur, always an entrepreneur” as they say. Taking orders had been a little difficult for me, but habits change according to requirements. It was a reality check that taught me that I am not the Prince of Persia and that I need to be as grounded as anyone else, and I still carry that ethos.
And then you launched Plan b
Yes, I started the business in 2004, initially on my own and then with a small team, most of whom have stuck with me. We shared a dream of being a top company and we all grew together. We’re still living that dream. We operate in areas where we don’t have competition and we’re expanding even now.
How are you doing this when everyone else is seemingly struggling at the moment?
Market tonalities do not change our direction. And that is mainly because we don’t follow what others do. When markets are weak it’s the easiest time to expand. We can get more value in a downturn. If no one is moving then it makes it easier for me to move, and I am going to be more visible as a result. People might call us stupid but stupidity works right now.
What makes Plan b different?
Service. That’s very important because it makes people willing to retain you, and repeat business is always a compliment. I was fishing for that from the beginning and I still fish for it now. My objectives have always been very clear: we have clients for the long-term, we get married, we don’t have affairs.
Also, our modus operandi is to stretch the dollar. Give me $100 and I’ll give you $120 back in value. You should never compromise on quality or commitments. These cannot just be verbal commitments. You have to act on them.
How do you keep your costs down to provide this kind of value?
You cannot keep your costs down and maintain standards, so I haven’t gone down that route. If you want to save money then make more sales. You cannot plug the hole. You have to get more water.
Tell us how this service operates in practice
It’s a 24-hour service and we have turnaround times that are much faster than anyone else. We have great teams, great connectivity between those teams and support systems where we are proactive toward challenges. Also, most of our projects have not been done before. We don’t do what others do. I’m not a normal entrepreneur. I’m not like other chairmen. I’m not going to follow what other people do or follow norms. I want to go beyond that.
"My objectives have always been very clear: we have clients for the long-term, we get married, we don’t have affairs"
Do you spend time with other entrepreneurs or business leaders?
We want to know what is happening in the market, so we can do things differently. How can we adapt it? How can we do it better? How can we find the X-factor? You need to be informed, but not so you can follow. Networking is part of the game, of course, but we don't follow trends.
Give us some examples of your innovative projects
The 3D hoardings that you see along Sheikh Zayed Road are something we started with the Adidas shoe campaign. We’ve taken Emaar to 180 destinations globally to reach investors. We’re on a partner level where we think together about strategy. We also did a property launch with them over the summer at Harrods. His Highness, Sheikh Mohammed [bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister Of The UAE, and Ruler Of Dubai] was there and everyone was very happy. The point of these ideas it that we think about where investors are coming from. Last year, Dubai firms weren’t able to participate at Cityscape in Saudi Arabia, and the Saudis are the biggest funders over here. Where do you find those Saudis over the summer? In London. So we worked with Meydan Sobha to unveil the Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum City at the Dorchester Hotel in London. And it led to sales. Now we’re planning a few more things that we can’t talk about yet but we’re very excited about them.
What’s your overall vision?
You know those puzzles where you find your way out of the maze from the centre? People start from the start, whereas I start from the end and work backwards. The plan is to have a global footprint. We have just taken over a company in London, because the UK is a big new market for us. We want to create a network and join those dots. We’re also exploring a franchise model where we’ll create a win-win outcome for all parties. The only global language that I know that is a successful common language is business. It’s spoken and it is heard well.
Was this UK move planned before or after Brexit?
It was on the cards but Brexit helped, because there are a lot of gaps to fill. The UK needs to come out of its comfort zone and we see a lot of things that can work over there. We can help facilitate two-way traffic. We’re working with the UAE embassy over there to celebrate 45th National Day in London’s National Gallery with 700 guests. So we’re trying to make some ripples over there.
Where do your ideas and energy come from?
The big ingredient is passion. If you don’t have passion you’re just a computer, but if you have it then you drive yourself and put your heart into what you’re doing. And for me this passion comes from many things, including my team. They inspire me and I inspire them. We all work together for a common cause, which is to be number one. And that sets the tone and makes us believe and act as the number one. It helps to have a positive mindset. How you feel, and the way that you act as a result, is what you get back from the universe.
Tell us about your daily habits to foster this mindset?
I meet my team every day to discuss ideas. But also I might get a spark of an idea from the tea boy. It’s how you pick up new things or new ways of thinking, which is very important today. Fifteen years back everyone would automatically follow the senior person in a business or the head of the family. But it’s changed. The most junior person in your house is learning things that you need to follow. The social media invasion is a classic example. If you want to talk to a youthful audience you have to learn from young people how things are moving. And this is not a bad thing, actually.
As the company head, does this require a more humble approach?
I am not the boss. I am a leader and I work with my team towards a shared goal. That’s an important distinction.
Tell us about a leader that you admire
I admire, and avidly follow our ruler, His Highness Sheikh Mohammed. I’ve worked very closely with the government so I’ve seen what he does and how he’s doing it. When the chips are down it’s not easy but that’s where character comes in. You stand up, you show courage. He’s a complete bundle of inspiration. I also admire his loyalty. And in turn we owe our loyalty to this country because it has given us a lot of opportunities.
Do you sometimes find your journey mind-boggling?
Well, often you are so busy that you don’t notice it. But occasionally you do. We’ve always operated from three concepts: honesty, humility and hard work. And because of this we have come a long way. And much more should come our way because of this. We know we have what it takes to be leaders in the market.