Expat Entrepreneur: Lisa Irwin

Founder & Director of Music Monkeys

Lisa Irwin | Founder & Director of Music Monkeys | Expat Entrepreneurs | OurGlobetrotters.NetLisa along with her husband Chris and four sons have lived in Abu Dhabi for over six years.  Her name is now synonymous with children’s entertainment in Abu Dhabi through her fabulous children’s music classes, Music Monkeys.

I first met Lisa only a few months after I moved to Abu Dhabi.  She lived in the same community as us and posted on a group Facebook page that she was thinking of running a small music group in her front room – well the response was overwhelming!  From babies banging on drums in her living room to running a licensed children’s entertainment business, here is Lisa’s story.

BG: Where did the idea of running music classes originally come from?

LI: I really only set out initially to find something for me and my third son (then 2 years old) to do.   My older two had started at school and I found myself at home for the first time not working. Finding a suitable class though, particular “off-island” where we lived proved difficult, so my husband encouraged me to set up my own. I had trained as a primary teacher in the UK and had some experience nursery teaching in Abu Dhabi.

The initial response was excellent and in the first term I ran four classes per week from home. I found a company in the UK that supplied the instruments and the payments for the classes just covered the cost of my initial purchases.

BG: What did you do when business started to grow?

Expat Entrepreneur Lisa Irwin - Music Monkeys | OurGlobetrotters.NetLI: I certainly didn’t set out with a mission to make money from it, really just something to do.  I offered more classes in the second term, increasing to 9 classes a week but I was starting to get a waiting list and simply couldn’t keep up with demand.  I found I wasn’t getting any time to myself, or to be with Noah which was why I started the classes!

After two terms on my own, I had to look to expand and legitimize the groups as a business.  I knew a friend who was running a bar and had an entertainment and events license, as well as a spare room available, so I became his employee and started paying him a percentage of my profits as a fee.

I moved the main classes to Zayed Sports City, and also started to take on more teachers to handle the work load.  Sara was our first new teacher, she started running classes in Khalifa B for our off-island families, then Laura joined us, using space in Mosaic Nursery on Reem Island.

It was around this time I moved as well and met my lovely new neighbor Beth.  Her singing voice was amazing and she initially came on as a teacher, then as the business was taking up more and more of my time and becoming a full time job, I offered Beth to come on board as a Director.

BG: Talk us through some of the legalities of running a children’s entertainment business

Music Monkeys | Expat Entrepreneurs | OurGlobetrotters.NetLI: Sadly my friend’s license was not renewed at ZSC, so we needed to form a new legal structure.  A relative of my husband’s boss offered to provide us with local sponsorship which you need for setting up a business in Abu Dhabi.  The Emirati partner takes a 51% stake in your business and gets paid a management fee.  He has been incredibly helpful assisting us through the long process of getting registered.

We needed to register a company name (you have to submit 8!), get a bank account and get a license to trade. We have been able to continue running the business during this set up phase on a temporary license.  Getting the bank account opened has proven challenging, however, as all new business applications need to go via the Bank’s board for approval.

To operate from third party premises we need to hold our own insurance.  Getting insurance has also proven difficult as insurance companies here really don’t get small businesses. We have finally been able to secure insurance through a brokerage firm.

Our teachers are now all employees, so we need to pay labour card costs as well as wages.  All our teachers need to be on spousal visas and husbands must sign a “No Objection Consent” – giving authority for their wife to work (This can seem quite an unusual concept if you come from a country where women are automatically granted such liberties but is a fact of life in Islamic countries -BG)

As with most small businesses, it does not come with paid leave. Lisa has just had her fourth son and while cutting back her teaching hours, she is still really busy behind the scenes.

Lisa Irwin - Music Monkeys | Expat Entrepreneurs | OurGlobetrotters.NetLI: While no longer teaching, I still do a lot of work on the admin side of the business and social media.  I still want to work for myself and have some fun.  We would make more money if it weren’t for all the expenses we now incur as a business, but they are essential for peace of mind.  I make enough money from it to pay for all my kid’s extracurricular activities and it certainly keep my days busy.

We ran classes all through the summer this year which was great to be able to offer, this well help us pay for advertising next term in the Yalla family directory magazine here in Abu Dhabi, which will be the first time we’ve looked at paid advertising.

This term we will be offering 32 classes including one in Arabic. As well as the mum and child classes, we also run classes in nurseries – for these sessions we only use nursery trained staff.  Another new edition this year has been the children’s birthday parties which are a huge hit.

BG: What advice would you give to like-minded mums looking to start a small business?

LI: Decide whether you are doing it for the money or not.  Going through the official channels costs but brings peace of mind.  There are loads of small businesses that do run in Abu Dhabi but they need to trade through marketing and event companies to be legitimate. To trade in your own right, you really do need to become friendly with a local and make connections, get yourself set up properly.  Reputation is so important as not only could you get fined if something goes wrong, it can effect your husband’s employment as well

Lisa Irwin - Music Monkeys | Expat ENtrepreneur | OurGlobetrotters.Net

A big thanks to Lisa for sparing her time to talk to Our Globetrotters, between nursing her gorgeous new son and the school pick up, I truly admire how much Lisa has achieved and her contributions to the community as a whole in Abu Dhabi.  Her talents and involvement do not just end with music classes, you will see her on the weekends cheering on and coaching her kids at various sports, as well as annually organizing one of the biggest Breast Cancer Awareness fundraisers in town.

We for one are big fans of Music Monkeys, our Master L has attended since he was 6 months old and his baby brother is now following suit.  Its businesses like these that make expat life all that more enjoyable and provide opportunities to connect with other parents and children.

Lisa Irwin - Music Monkeys | Expat Entrepreneur | OurGlobetrotters.Net

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