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In Conversation with Claire Sumner

Meet the woman behind Dubai’s leading studio.

Can women have it all?

As we (unsuccessfully) attempt to answer this million-dollar question, the fact remains that female entrepreneurs deserve to be celebrated, and Claire Sumner is one such example. Not only is she the Co-Founder of Goldfish – a leading studio that offers everything from videography services to portrait photography, wedding photography, maternity photography, and more – but she’s also a mother, a wife, and a fount of knowledge for budding entrepreneurs. Here, she shares her insights.

Q

Can you tell us a little about how Goldfish came about?

A

I flew to Dubai in 2007 with my sister on a one-way ticket from Manchester with AED 750 in my pocket. I worked for another studio in Dubai for almost five years, which is where I met my husband Paul, who is an incredibly talented photographer. Goldfish was launched in 2012, so we are approaching our 10-year mark and, to be honest, I cannot believe it has been so long. I head up the business side of things, whilst Paul is much more creative. I have always been an independent female with a burning desire to run my own business, although I never anticipated how difficult it would be. That’s what makes it all worthwhile, I guess! 

I still remember the initial shoots that we did to build our portfolio because when you work for another studio, you cannot take the content with you. It was hard work, with no weekends or days off, no holidays, no salary. We were literally running off the we-cannot-fail adrenaline of pushing forward. I spent all of my time making new connections, looking for fresh collaborations, and approaching companies that would exchange our services for advertising, magazine or online content, exhibition space – anything that would get the Goldfish name out there. In fact, we still work with some of those early connections. That makes me very proud.

Q

How do you feel about the term ‘female entrepreneur’ – offensive or empowering?

A

I find it very empowering. It’s not easy starting something from scratch and making it in an industry where women are sometimes not taken seriously as business owners. While the UAE has opened so many doors for me as a female entrepreneur, it has also presented its challenges. Business owners are often placed in uncomfortable situations, but how you handle them is how you learn and grow. I did not know many female entrepreneurs back when we started, and not everyone understands the commitment it takes to start your own business. You have to give up weekends away and cancel dates due to last-minute work commitments – and that’s hard. Now, I am very proud to say that I know of so many incredible women successfully running their own empires, and I salute each and every one.

Q

Is there a particular area that you especially enjoy or feel creatively challenged by?

A

Not many people realise this, but I am not a photographer nor a videographer. I am everything to everyone since I manage all areas of our business from client relations and project management to operations, finance, and more. We have an incredibly talented team that creates our amazing content. They specialise in different areas, so they get to do what they enjoy, whilst also experiencing new challenges. 

My husband absolutely loves to photograph events because they’re usually fast-paced and exciting – he enjoys that. We have a female team that is focused on female weddings and family portraits. Being based here in the UAE, it’s so important to have an in-house female team, and that is something we’ve always offered to our clients. We never turn away a brief as we like to push the boundaries and challenge ourselves. Goldfish is diverse in its services and that’s what makes us different.

Q

What does your average day look like?

A

Every day is different, and I like it that way. I usually reach the office by 8am after dropping my little boy at school and take the first two hours of the day to focus on e-mails and calls. I can then have up to three or four physical meetings or Zoom calls in a day. I may have a meeting with the team to catch up on deadlines and see what is happening with everyone. I will often leave to collect my son early in the afternoon and then head back to the office or a meeting. Then there’s sending out proposals, managing daily operations, checking new creatives if we are running an offer, monitoring social media content with the team, exploring new ideas for collaborations, and managing finances. I often work late into the evening – my brain works best at night, and I’m always trying to come up with new ideas and connections to keep things moving.

Q

How did Goldfish ride out the pandemic storm?

A

Honestly, it has been the most difficult 17 months for us. We lost a lot of business very quickly back in March 2020 when all of this started, and it just snowballed – event after event, wedding after wedding. The diary went from full to completely empty pretty much overnight. We forecasted how long we could survive financially with what we had in order to take care of our staff who, of course, were our priority since they also have families to support. 

I immediately began to research alternative revenue streams. We introduced animation to our list of services around two weeks after we realised that this may be something that will not blow over as fast as we all initially thought. We connected with our existing clients, friends, and acquaintances in the industry to see how we could help each other. We also spent a lot of time activating the ideas that we had been trying to put in place for months, but just never had the time. We managed to keep our team busy for the most part and survived without losing any of our team members. This is something we are most proud of. 

Q

What’s the biggest lesson you learned in the process of simply surviving?

A

Do not give up! I’ve learnt that there is no room for negative thoughts. You have to fight for survival with every part of you. You have to focus. I cannot process failure – I am not someone who gives up. I fix things, I find solutions. I have always been a firm believer that nothing is impossible. There’s a way around everything, and if you can’t see the way around it? Find it and make it happen!

Q

Some suffered creative blocks, while others thrived. What was your experience?

A

In our industry, we have to be physically present to carry out our work and, of course, that was not possible until very recently. I know that some of the team members struggled to get back into the swing of things as being in lockdown can really take its toll on you mentally, especially when you are used to seeing different places and being around new people. Human interaction is a huge part of what we do, so I do think we all were affected in terms of productivity to some extent. There was only so much I could do from behind a computer, but that did not stop me from trying.

Q

Men are from Mars, women are more observant. As the founder of a studio that captures special occasions, what are your thoughts on this statement?

A

That’s an interesting question, especially because of the important role that gender plays in our industry here in the UAE. We are a mixed team, but have always made sure that we have strong females onboard to capture women-only events. Our female team – myself included – often get emotional at events such as weddings and engagements as they are such a special part of people’s lives. And it’s lovely to be able to watch and document that. Maybe this helps us to capture moments differently and more from a female perspective?

Q

What insights can you offer to someone looking to launch a business in Dubai?

A

Starting back in 2012 certainly wasn’t easy, but that has changed as there are many different options in terms of licensing and advice from numerous sources. To any budding entrepreneur, I would say:
– Go into it with a can-do attitude armed with as much information as possible.
– Know that things will go wrong and you will make mistakes, but how you pick yourself up and learn from those mistakes will give you the ability to survive.
– Delegate, delegate, delegate – being a control freak, this is something that took me a long time to do, but it really does make life easier if you can find people who you can rely on.
– Try to make connections before you launch and build on them because they’ll be key to your survival when things get tough.
– Do your research and know your target audience, be confident in your own skin, and believe in yourself.
– Start small and don’t rush to become bigger until you feel ready.
– Have a contingency plan – if the pandemic has taught us anything, it is to be prepared for the worst-case scenario and have funds set aside for a rainy day.

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