London Business School Interview on Female Entrepreneur Leaders

London Business School Interview on Female Entrepreneur Leaders

Introduce yourself and your business

Hi everyone, my name is Denise. Im from Holland, which you probably can hear form my very Dutch accent. And, like most stories, my background and studies are different than the path and passion I have chosen to follow: Art.

I have a legal background, with a masters in Intellectual Property Law. After my studies I started working in an international recruitment company, because I wanted to interact more with people. I got the opportunity to train people, in the form of my role as Learning and Development manager.  When I moved to Dubai, I felt that the world was my oyster. I could start all over again if I wanted. And that’s what I did. I broke with all the expectations what I had of myself and started doing what I love most. Art. And helping people. Let them feel like an artist.

Over the years I have created 3 products that I offer:

  1. 8-week course, culminating in your own Exhibition Night
  2. Paint and Grape nights, where people reproduce one of the many classics of art history.
  3. Corporate Events, we host painting events with a fun twist for people who want to get to know their clients or colleagues better in a relaxed environment.

There is one quote that inspired me most in what I wanted to achieve: “Art is the only way to run away, without leaving home”. Let people forget about everything else in their world and enjoy Creation.

Even though I am in art, my previous background in law, L&D and even as a model, has helped me a lot in setting up and running my business.

How did you happen to get into the business? How did you start, how did you make it happen? Creative people generally don’t know the business side of things. How did you make your passion into business.

We Love Art started as a passion project and grew a lot since then. My legal background has helped me, as well as an incredible book: the $100 start up.

In 2013 I left The Netherlands, for me a very inspiring place art wise, and moved to a complete new place – Dubai. First, I was overwhelmed by all the excitement the city had to offer, but after a few months I felt I was missing something. Creativity. Since I was a little girl I was always drawing, painting and creating things. So when I moved to Dubai I missed that feeling of creation. The counter side of this feeling, was the beautiful opportunity to set something up myself. In the exact way I would have loved to get my own art classes.  I wanted to create a friendly community where you can relax, socialize, and forget about daily life, while creating art you’re truly proud of.

In the months leading to opening my first session in 2014, I bought a book which helped me a lot. The $100 start up.  So, as they advised, start small and increase from there.  As the book says, with only 100dollars as investment capital people have built incredible successful multi million dollar businesses. So this is literally how I started, with a couple of 100 dollars. I didn’t have much money, so I just bought enough to cover my first cycle of people. And the bigger We Love Art grew, the more equipment I bought. And I still do it that way.

What were your lowest and highest points along the process?

My highest points are so many. I have learnt once a lesson from an entrepreneur, who regretted he didn’t do it: celebrate your successes. Often enough we are so caught up in work, that we don’t reflect on the achievements we have made so far.

My husband is very supportive and always congratulates me with every event I have. And he’s right; we should give ourselves the occasional High Five!

Probably all my major successes are all my “firsts”:

  1. The first time I hosted my 8-week course and therefore the first time I introduced WeLoveArt to people. I felt so proud that from nothing I had suddenly 15 people in my class for the next 8 weeks!
  2. The first time I hosted a big Paint and Grape session. Recently I almost felt like a pop star. The whole space was full with 100 easels, 100 very exciting people, all eager to paint the next 3 hours with me. This felt amazingly good!
  3. Then the first time I had my Corporate Event, for Chanel. They approached me and I had butterflies in my stomach. I loved it!

How is the art scene different in Dubai. What’s unique about it and did you capitalize on any of its uniqueness?

The beauty of the art scene in Dubai is, that its still relatively new.  This in itself gives an incredible opportunity for people like me, to set up a business here. Especially in comparison with Europe, where most of the market is very saturated with cultural and creative activities.

Also because we live in Dubai with many nationalities, it gives a wonderful mix in the creation of art. People in my classes are from all over the world and this is shown in the work they do.

Is there anything that keeps you awake at night (any struggles)? Challenges?

Always make sure you have a plan B.

This year I was pregnant of my second baby. With the first one, Oscar, everything went well and I worked for We Love Art until I delivered. I planned to do the same with this baby. After my Valentines Event, suddenly my water broke. I was only 17 weeks pregnant. In order to give the babies life the best chance to succeed, I was from one second to the other, in a wheelchair. In bed. My husband needed to carry me up and down the stairs. That day completely changed my life.  Apart from the emotional side, also from a business perspective, everything changed.  I was the only one running the We Love Art classes. I had assistants, but they had never done a lesson alone. I was already sold out with all my events for the coming 3 months. And I physically couldn’t move.  And I had no plan B.

The beauty of this story is that from different, unexpected corners, people offered their help. People who had done previously my course, were willing to teach the course. My art assistants dared to take a jump and teach the lessons.   I needed to let go of all control. Something which is very difficult for any entrepreneur, but I had no coice. In that period I learnt how to delegate, how to let go of some of my control, but above all, how to be very grateful with the people around me.  If they believe in you, if they believe in your business, if  they want you to succeed, people are so loyal. Above anything I couldn’t be more happy with my team and the unexpected help around me. They literally saved me and my business.

So the moral of this story is I guess twofold:

  1. Always have plan B
  2. Treat people around you, who work with you, or who are your clients, with all your love, respect and honesty, and in moments when you need things most, they are there to help you.

However, my beautiful baby, Beauden James Colwell, passed away on 1 April 2017, 6 months ago, after being born through an emergency C-section. He lived for 18.5 hours. Im grateful for every second I was on bedrest, Im grateful the moments I felt him kicking in my belly and Im grateful for the hours he lived and taught me life lessons I wouldn’t have learnt otherwise.

He inspired me to host Beaujour; an evening for parents who had gone through a loss (miscarriage, child loss or the loss of not being able to conceive). The evening was last Thursday and it was a magical evening. In his name and the other little souls around us, I will continue hosting yearly evenings. So, as always in life, people all go through peaks and lows. And it is what you do with this, what can make you unique.

Any advice for other entrepreneurs?

The best advise I can give is fourfold:

  1. Hocus Pocus Focus
  2. Just do It
  3. People invest in the person, not in the product
  4. Determination

1. My brother told me once the most annoying words: hocus, pocus, focus. He runs a multimillion dollar company and gave me this advice. As a young entrepreneur I was distracted left, right and center.  Every day, I found a new idea and wanted to do everything all at once. He brought my head back from the clouds, into reality.  Focus on your core product. Realise this first. Make sure its up and running on the market. Then 1 by 1 implement all your other ideas.

2. The problem is that it can be daunting the become an entrepreneur. Sometimes its safer to dream and sketch out all your ideas.  Therefore, you delay the moment you want to access the market. The one thing I got out from the amazing book “100$ startup”, was that you just need to do it. Just do it. Don’t overthink it. Don’t over plan. Just do it. Once you launch, collect the feedback and shape your product accordingly.

3. If youre looking for investment, know one thing:  people invest in the person behind the product, not the product itself. This is what I learnt from a successful investor, who believed in me after pitching my company part of an INSEAD bootcamp. If you have an amazing product, but the person behind it lacks drive and motivation, the product is doomed to fail. Vice versa, if you have an idea with some loopholes, but a person with serious drive and motivation, he will redefine as long as he needs to succeed.

4.Very cliché advice, but therefore not a less true advise: be persistent. Have determination. You will have tons of set backs. In your early days, but definitely also when you are growing and find yourself in better circumstances. You will always be thrown back. The question is, and that’s not only for business, its in general in life: how will you handle this? If you can turn a set back into a strength, you are walking a successful path.

Long term plans? Geographical expansion? Investors? Or self funding?

We Love Art will expand both horizontally and vertically over the next years.

All the growth for me has always happened organically. If there was a demand, I naturally try to respond on that. This is how eventually my business and all the expansions of my business started.

Horizontally, there will be some major expansions. For the last 4 years, all my lessons are only focused on adults. Often I get the question, when I will open the doors for kids, as the parents want to give their kids a positive, uplifting experience with art. The planning  is that beginning 2018, my first kids classes will be launched.

Another concept Im planning, is online tutorials. I have already sent multiple pre-sketched canvasses, with handouts to Europe and America.  I feel there is a growing demand and would like to see if we can approach the other markets who cant be there physically during my sessions, but still would like to pick up some of the positive vibes!

Vertically,  there will be a couple of new logical expansions. Recently I have expanded my business, by covering all the major areas in Dubai, so each person, wherever they live, can join a nearby session. In 2018, I want to approach RAK, AD and Al Ain, as I believe there will be a demand there as well.

Preferably I like to grow my business organically. Which also means that I want to fund everything myself. Everything what I earn, will be put back in the business to realize further growth.


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