An Interview with Colife Dubai CEO Ilnara Muzafyarova

An Interview with Colife Dubai CEO Ilnara Muzafyarova. “There are no failures, only experiences to reflect on.”

Dubai needs a flat-sharing solution and Ilnara Muzafiarova, CEO of Colife Dubai has the solution. Colife is a service to rent furnished apartments in Dubai, Moscow, and Istanbul. With a growing roster of over 425 apartments available, 1500 people already living in their properties, and 90K+ followers on social media, Colife is changing the co-living model in big cities around the globe. 

Ilnara Muzafiarova is an accomplished female CEO whose journey has encompassed a transition from teaching about antiquities to the real estate world. With Colife, she’s growing a global rental service offering spaces for inspiration and comfort, and 24/7 concierge assistance, helping creative young people thrive in different countries with community support.

We can’t wait to learn more about you and Colife! Please tell us more about yourself and how you got to where you are today.

Hi! I’m Ilnara Muzafyarova, the CEO of Colife Global, an international rental service that offers stylish temporary housing for young professionals in Dubai, Istanbul, and Hong Kong.

I joined Colife right after graduation, at that point it was still just an idea and the project wasn’t even launched yet.  The founder believed that renting apartments using the European co-living model is a promising concept that could be implemented in new markets. Just like that, three people sitting in a bar late at night decided that they would take on the lease of old and undesirable apartments, style them, and rent individual rooms to residents, along with branded services and special events.

These days room-sharing doesn’t really raise eyebrows, but five years ago working with the co-living concept was way off the radar. People had visions of hostels and thought sharing a flat with strangers was a major downgrade and as sketchy as a wink in a massage parlor. Because of this, renting our first apartment to kickstart our MVP was no walk in the park.

The first year for Colife was the toughest. What freaked me out the most was the slim profit margins: we rented an apartment for $1,000, poured another $4,000 into it, and at the end of the month, we were pulling in just 1,200 bucks. It felt like we had a big budget gap instead of a business. Of course, later I found out that in the real business world, getting a return on investment within less than two years is only a dream. 

Colife is no exception, our company really started to change rapidly around the second year. That’s when we realized the need for a shake. We focused on providing beautiful interior designs, high-quality service, and a community for tenants; this paid off for us big time as we became a recognized brand in the market. Our stylish, standardized design and free events became a serious competitive edge.

What are 3 websites or podcasts you can’t imagine your day without? Why those three?

I personally check the Colife website every day to make sure everything is clear, looks good and the information is up-to-date.

LinkedIn — for professional networking and promoting products. It’s a cool place where you can find anyone, send them a message, and get advice or recommendations. On LinkedIn, I realize that almost everyone likes to help.

As for podcasts, I can recommend The Rachel Hollis Podcast — it’s a motivational boost from an amazing author. Besides the vibrant content, you can find many interesting interviews with entrepreneurs and influencers.

What are your top 3 apps that help you stay organized and on top of your game?

Notion, Telegram, and Instagram take up most of the screen time on my phone.

What social media platform is the best for business growth and why?

Every business niche has its own unique characteristics.

For example, we rent out stylish rooms with services and a community for tenants. So on Instagram, we showcase how beautiful it is at our places, and on Telegram we talk about the atmosphere. There’s also a platform for hybrid posting — Facebook.

I should mention that Meta, besides having a massive user base, also has great analytics where companies can track various parameters: followers or advertising costs, for example. This makes business manageable.

Telegram is also not just for workflows. Here you can also analyze, launch ads and organically promote your brand through channels with helpful and entertaining posts. Fun fact the founder of Telegram, Pavel Durov, also lives in Dubai.

I would like to tell you that we’re currently working on a podcast about our tenants and expat life in Dubai for YouTube.

We all face challenges, but looking back, what have been some of the biggest challenges and pitfalls you’ve had to navigate?

When you launch projects, you always have to be in problem-solving mode. I no longer expect things to go smoothly with work. I’m always prepared for the worst, but not in a pessimistic way. I know all obstacles can be overcome and pitfalls crossed but it requires hard work and innovation. 

One of the most memorable challenges for me was the opening of Colife Istanbul.

Turkey is home to incredibly open-minded and friendly people. But when it came to renting apartments, everyone suddenly started calling us “yabancı” and refused to explain why. As it turns out, this is a term for foreigners. Property owners in Istanbul are from an older generation, and they simply don’t trust “outsiders” and paid no attention to the fact that we were a large international company that would renovate their apartments for free.

To them, we were just “yabancı”. So in Turkey, we had to change our strategy. Instead of gaining trust through our company’s reputation, we started introducing property owners to our people. The team took friendly photos, recorded welcome videos, and signed brochures and this worked. So, we gradually started breaking the ice of distrust with each owner and after our Turkish team member joined us, all of these problems disappeared.

Now, we’ve come to open Colife in Singapore and a new set of challenges already awaits us. We know — you just have to put in a lot of effort, look for unique solutions and everything will work out.

Can you share some of the most important lessons you’ve learned from your successes and failures in business?

The main lesson I’ve learned is that there are no failures, only experiences to reflect on. That way you can always say, like I do: “We don’t make mistakes. We increase the company’s capital because now we know exactly what not to do”.

Throughout my career, I’ve also realized that in this complex world, a positive attitude wins the day.

And here’s one more thing I can share: when you want to take a risky step, always weigh potential losses against profits. The potential profits should always significantly outweigh the risks. If the consequences of your decision could outweigh all the positives, then it’s not the right time to take that step.

As our company and team continue to grow, I find myself more focused on risk prevention.  Don’t skimp on lawyers. It’s like with doctors who give you a complex diagnosis, you should get at least 10 consultations. Especially in the UAE, where it seems like they don’t fully understand their own laws.

What routines do you follow each day?

Reading for at least 20 minutes a day, or you might turn into a heartless robot. Personally, I really enjoy Japanese authors, like Kazuo Ishiguro.

Pilates and stretching. For me, it’s not just about physical exercises. As CEO, of course, I have limited time so I work out with online instructors and I always invite my favorite women to join me – my grandma and aunt. This way I can spend time not only productively but also with my family.

To avoid burning out, I keep a wish list and try to accomplish one or two points almost every day. It helps me introduce not only professional achievements but also small joys into my life. Right now my list of little things that make my life happier has a variety of things on it: from simple wishes like having a cup of matcha and playing paddleball, to bigger goals like buying a villa and visiting Paris. This wish list, for me, is a source of inspiration on its own.

What initiatives or actions do you believe are crucial to fostering a more supportive and inclusive business environment for women? 

  • We need to level women’s and men’s salaries in the same positions without exceptions.
  • We should get rid of fears and stereotypes that women are only meant to be mothers and have no time for work.
  • We must work on corporate culture —there’s no room for sexism, ageism, nationalism, and so on.

Which female leader do you admire, and why?

All women and the female community are my biggest sources of inspiration. I’m really glad to live in the 21st century because now women are leaders of large companies, prominent political figures, Nobel Prize winners, the main characters and creators of my favorite movies, and activists who are changing the world for the better and raising a new generation without prejudice.

Can you share any specific examples of how you have successfully built and maintained strategic partnerships or collaborations?

We always build all our partnerships and collaborations on three pillars:

  • Consistency and 100% fulfillment of all stated commitments;
  • Kindness (there’s already enough negativity in the world) and eco-friendly communication;
  • Being experts and working with experts.

The last point is crucial. When you’re an expert in your niche, partners, and clients are drawn to you because knowledge and experience build trust.

This is how we structure all our co-operations and maintain long-term partnerships with almost all of our property owners and investors.

How do you set your business apart from others in your industry?

I genuinely consider Colife a unique company. Perhaps because I nurtured this project like my own child but objectively, I can say that:

  1. Colife was founded long before co-livings gained popularity and by the time this trend started, we already had significant experience. That’s why Colife not only survived the Covid-19 pandemic but also grew rapidly after the lockdown.
  2. We seamlessly integrated into the digital space. Nowadays companies invest a lot in creating content, meanwhile, we are the space where people create content. Colife is a part of many real-life stories: our tenants develop their own projects, grow up, get married, and simply live in our motivating and user-oriented stylish spaces. As a result, our audience promotes us on their own, creating live content.
  3. We don’t create new needs for people. We address the existing ones: living and working in stylish, secure spaces at an affordable price and without everyday hassles. Our product and its benefits are tangible.

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