Exclusive Interview with Sahar Hashemi: Co-Founder Coffee Republic
Sahar Hashemi founded Coffee Republic, the UK’s first US style coffee bar chain with her brother and built it into one of the UK’s most recognised high street brands with 110 bars
In 2005 Hashemi founded Skinny Candy, a brand of sugar free sweets which was sold to confectionery conglomerate Glisten in 2007.
Sahar Hashemi is currently co-chair of the Government Scale Up Taskforce and is actively involved in the roll-out of Change Please, a social enterprise that trains and hires homeless people to run coffee carts. She is finishing her third book, Start Up Forever, 10 ways to behave like a start-up when you’re not a start-up, based on her experiences of business.
Do you believe there are any specific qualities or characteristics that entrepreneurs all have in common?
No, I don’t believe there are any specific qualities in common. My first book about entrepreneurship is titled ‘Anyone Can Do It’ and I do mean that.
Entrepreneurs come in all different shapes and sizes with very different personalities and interests. The only thing they have in common is the journey from having an idea to making it a reality.
You’ve built two successful businesses, what are some of the biggest barriers and challenges you’ve had to overcome that you hadn’t planned for?
Whenever you have a new idea, I think there is a myth that people love new ideas, however, I think it’s exactly the reverse. Everything great we see in the world has once had a big stamp of rejection on it. The knee jerk reaction of everyone is to reject new ideas. We prefer the comfort of ‘old’ and familiar ideas and can be intimidated by new ones. Therefore, the biggest barrier is getting people to trust in the idea that you have fallen in love with, this takes a lot of resilience and persistence.
Do you think that today is a risky time to pursue a new business venture given the current economic climate of the UK?
I think we are in exceptional times however sometimes there are no good or bad times. Gaps in the market are always happening, and you will find that change and chaos create bigger gaps so therefore if you’ve got a good idea just got to go for it. Some great businesses have started in a recession, some great businesses have started in a boom, there’s no black and white and right or wrong to it.
How easy do you think it is to start a business today compared to when you started Coffee Republic?
I think it is very different starting a business now with Google at your disposal. I can’t believe that when I started, Google didn’t exist. When I fell in love with the idea of American style coffee bars there was no way I could see what they looked like. I had to physically buy a ticket to New York and go to take a picture of a coffee bar. When I think about it now, in 2 seconds I could have seen every little detail in one quick google search. Of course, modern technology has transformed business but at the then of the day the consumers are still the same humans they were when I started and if you can give them a new experience in whatever shape or form, whether digital or bricks and mortar then there’s always opportunity.
You have a new book out titled ‘Start-up Forever, How to Build a Start-up Culture in a Big Company’. What are some of the main messages you hope that your readers will take away from the book?
The main take away from Start-up Forever is the mistake I made when I thought a start-up is just about that, ‘starting up’, that it’s got a special energy and when it gets bigger, by definition that will naturally leave. I believed that the price you had to pay was your magic and agility. But what I’ve seen is that you don’t need to lose your start-up mentality and in fact, you must hold onto it dearly. My book comes from the approximately 500 big companies that I’ve worked with and the issues around culture that they face. The common notion is that a startup is out of its comfort zone and a big company is very much in its comfort zone. However, in today’s environment, that’s completely shifted, and a big company is as much out of its comfort zone as a start-up. The fast-changing consumer expectations and uncertainty mean that all organisations must act like a start-up. A true start-up mindset is not about superficial stuff, it’s going back to why you’re in business, and who your competitors are, everything else flows from that.
How important is it for all employees to adopt an entrepreneurial mindset and not just senior management?
Oh, I think the entrepreneurial mindset should be adopted by everyone. It should start with the senior management encouraging it, as I always hear employees in big companies saying ‘oh they won’t allow us’. When you’ve got a manager saying ‘you need to be entrepreneurial’, this automatically removes some barriers. By the senior management removing some of the bureaucracy, your employees will have more freedom to express themselves, experiment and challenge the norm. Once it is enforced from the top down, it will seep into every nook and cranny of the business eventually.
Finally, what’s the best piece of entrepreneurial advice you’ve been given throughout your career?
I think the best advice I’ve been given is just to think of the customer and work backward. This is true for both large and small companies. It’s so easy to lose touch with your end recipient as we can all become too consumed with the day-to-day and forget who we’re serving. They are the true purpose of the business and should be at the heart of it. I don’t think purpose is the grandstanding stuff, it’s when you know that you’re making a difference to someone’s life, and that should give deep meaning to what you do.
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