Anyone Can Do It: Sahar’s Remarkable Entrepreneurial Journey

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Mark Bidwell [0:38]

Hi, this is Mark. My guest today is Sahar Hashemi OBE, who is best known as the founder of Coffee Republic, as well as a confectionery brand called Skinny Candy. She’s active in the world of entrepreneurialism and charity, and also a an accomplished author having written some wonderful books, which we talk about in the interview, one of which I highly recommend, called “Anyone can do it,” about her journey from being a lawyer to being a founder of a very successful company, which was floated in the stock market, and a more recent book called “Start Up Forever.” We cover all sorts of topics relating to being an entrepreneur, and building a business and what it means from a personal development point of view, some of the skills, some of the mindsets that one needs, and then transition into what does this mean for people in larger organizations and more structured organizations looking to foster a more entrepreneurial mindset? Lovely conversation, I learned a huge amount, not only preparing for the conversation, but having the conversation, and I’m sure that you will find plenty of stuff of interest in this conversation. So without further ado, here is Sahar. 

Mark Bidwell [2:00]

Sahar, very good to have you on the show today, thanks very much. So my first question, how did you become an entrepreneur? 

Sahar Hashemi  [2:10]  

Well, I suppose I’m an accidental entrepreneur, that’s what I call myself. I started my life completely, not even thinking of entrepreneurship as an option. I went off and I qualified to become a lawyer. It was never really in my mind remotely, but somehow events happened. And I was looking for something in my career that I wasn’t getting in my career as a lawyer. And one thing led to the next, the bunch of synchronicities in a way, and maybe a bunch of life events. And next thing you know, I fell into entrepreneurship which was making me think about some events that happen that are beyond our control. And sometimes it’s almost like those events are leading us and we don’t know eventually where you’re going to end up. 

Mark Bidwell  [2:59]  

I think you said in your first book “Anyone Can Do It,” which I absolutely loved, and we can get back to that, you said that the death of your father triggered a paradigm shift. I’m curious as to what happened, what was going through your mind when you decided to give up your career on the fast track as a lawyer and your brother gave up his career as an investment banker? What happened?

Sahar Hashemi  [3:22]  

If I go back, I was a lawyer and I loved my training as a solicitor in a very prestigious law firm. But interestingly, once I qualified, I found that I didn’t enjoy it that much. And by definition, I think if you don’t enjoy something, it’s also obviously not playing to your strengths. Because I think by definition, if you’re somewhere where you’re really aligned with it, and you’re meant to be, you’ll by definition enjoy it, because the pleasure you get out of something I think is always a good indication whether or not you’re in the right place. So once I was a fully-fledged solicitor, I realized, actually, I don’t think I’m doing that well. And I remember, to be really Frank, the appraisals I got as I became a more senior lawyer, I was qualified, I was there for two years as a trainee and three years qualified, I could feel myself not signing the call and others were clearly blossoming but I wasn’t. I knew that I wasn’t in a good place, but you know, I never really questioned that that was my career. I thought maybe I’m just mediocre, I thought I was becoming quite a mediocre lawyer. I was definitely not signing in any way, there wasn’t any synchronicity with what I was doing. And at the same time, where I had this general malaise around my career, the very sudden death of my dad, he was actually very young. He was 62, and really healthy, and he died in front of my own eyes. I was alone with him, and he died of a stroke just just like that. And that was such a shock. I was 25 at the time. That was another catalyst, as you say, a sort of paradigm shift. It was like, gosh, I’m in this job that I feel I’m holding onto because it’s some sort of a comfort zone, and then look at what’s happened there, my dad’s just suddenly died. So you’re questioning what does comfort actually mean? What are you holding onto if life can change quickly overnight, when the rug that you felt was so comfortable can be pulled from underneath you quite so abruptly, then what am I holding on to? And I think it was those combinations, that I then decided I needed some time off. Because it was almost becoming unbearable. Every day when I went to the office, I hated it. As well another event, my law firm that was very prestigious, very boutique was taken over by a bigger city law firm, so that was a culture change where I felt even more alienated. So a bunch of stuff happened that was completely out of your control. And it’s only later I think that you can, as Steve Jobs famously said, connect the dots. The general fact that being a lawyer didn’t suit me, the way that company was changing, the culture of the company I was working for was changing. And then suddenly my dad died. It all came together into this storm, that was on one side incredibly adverse, but little did I know that that was just shifting for me to go into what was really a path that was meant for me. 

Mark Bidwell  [6:29]  

What was interesting about the story, was that you don’t read many stories of sibling founders, you and your brother jointly went off and did this. I racked my brains to think of examples. There’s obviously the German guys behind Rocket Internet, there are three of them that work together, but there are very few examples of that.

Sahar Hashemi  [6:48]  

Yes, yeah.

Mark Bidwell  [6:50]  

And you referred to it as siblings scuffles, but it did seem like quite a smooth journey between the two of you. 

Sahar Hashemi  [6:59]  

My brother and I immigrated from Iran, and he was quite older than me, so he actually went straight to America when it happened, and I was very UK based. He was getting an education in America, and then ended up working in New York. So this idea of me working with my brother, I just would have never even thought of it. The reason I wrote “Anyone Can Do It” was that at that time, there were no entrepreneurial stories. There was no precedent, there was no mentor. I never read an entrepreneurial story, I think ever. I didn’t know about them. We know so much more now. But I had no idea whether or not brothers and sisters work together or anything like that. So none of it was in my mind.

Mark Bidwell  [7:45]  

And it’s a wonderful story, I really did enjoy it as I said to you earlier on, partly because my background is a little bit different. I was an anthropologist, but then I went to law school, and I went to law school for four days, I walked in on a Monday, walked out on a Thursday, and on Friday morning started to work for London’s first home-delivery supermarket, which is a precursor for Web Vans, and all the ones that are out there. The lovely example you gave of buying a day pass to go around the Circle Line and stopping at every single one of the 27 stations and going round and looking within a certain radius to explore what coffee shops exist. It was a very empowering story for me personally, but you mentioned earlier that you really enjoyed telling your story, as well as you’re living the story, and as part of building this business. And we’re going to get to your latest book in a minute. But there are a few things that really struck me. One was, and this is the theme in the book,  how quickly, I had difficulty reconciling the story you told of yourself as a lawyer versus someone who has an image of a lawyer, following protocol and working very hard, but not necessarily demonstrating a level of resourcefulness that you demonstrated in the early hours, days, weeks of founding this business. Did you suddenly just realize that this was what you were meant to do, and just threw yourself into it? Where did you find that energy to really throw yourself so intensely into this project, and to be a Zulu, right? I love that expression.

Sahar Hashemi  [9:28]  

My point about entrepreneurship is, you’re not an entrepreneur before you start. The journey of turning your idea into something makes you an entrepreneur, because you have to tap into parts of yourself that you never needed to tap into. Therefore, you’d say resourcefulness, and I will say I was incredibly resourceful being an entrepreneur, but what I believe is everyone’s got that resourcefulness. Now had I stayed a lawyer for my career, I would probably be kicked out of the good law firm I worked for, and I would have gone to a less exciting law firm. I would have been a lawyer always, I would have never needed to be resourceful, because frankly, you don’t need to be resourceful as a lawyer. I might have been slightly resourceful in the home stuff I do, but it’s not my core living. And so that’s what I believe is, when you put yourself in this position of doing something that’s entrepreneurial life, the beauty of it is that it’s almost like self-discovery, that you discover something about yourself, and you that’s the life lesson. That’s why we should always push ourselves out of our comfort zone. And it’s not necessarily that everyone’s got to go and start the business, but it’s you taking on a bigger project, going and working for something that is really a big, hairy, audacious goal. It’s just the idea of getting ourselves out of our comfort zones that we ended up utilizing all of ourselves. They say we only use 19% of our brains, and there’s so much more for all of us. And that stupid thing that was drummed into us, especially of a certain age, all of us bought up in the 80s, it’s just that safety, security. Unfortunately it doesn’t use that, you’re just flat-lining. And that’s what I learned, it’s almost like taking that leap, constantly taking and having these multiple leaping moments in your life, I think is really important as a journey of self-discovery, and life’s just about that, a fulfilled life.

Mark Bidwell  [11:34]  

There is the statistic, which everyone bands around is that 99% of Start Ups fail, whatever the number is, and that must frighten a lot of people, because to be one in 100, the odds are very clearly stacked against you. But because you’ve been around the Start Up world now for 30 years, the more interesting question for me is what percentage of founders fail because I suspect that number is much, much lower. So you’ve got the vehicle that might fail, but you’ve got the resourcefulness, the new skills that you’ve uncovered as you become an entrepreneur, that you’re able to convert into success. And you have a view on that question.

Sahar Hashemi  [12:20]  

It’s really interesting you say that Mark. Yesterday was very interesting, there was a summit here called Silicon Valley Comes to the UK, and we have someone called Michael Acton Smith. I don’t know if you’ve ever met him. 

Mark Bidwell  [12:33]  

Yes I’ve met him, the founder of Calm.

Sahar Hashemi  [12:36]  

Yeah, the co-founder of Calm. 

Mark Bidwell  [12:38]  

Yeah. And before that, what was it? 

Sahar Hashemi  [12:41]  

Moshi Monsters. 

Mark Bidwell  [12:43]  

Yeah, that’s right. He’s an amazing guy, isn’t he?

Sahar Hashemi  [12:44]  

Yeah, it was really interesting. I was listening to him, and then I just remembered that when we wrote “Anyone Can Do It” back in 2002, we got a letter from him. At that time, he started something called, that you might have bought your gift from, there was this online gift shop with sort of funky gifts on it. He wrote to us, and I actually put the letter on my social media, and said “My God, that the book was amazing. I read every business book I can get my hands on, and the way you told the story, I could really feel the passion.” And I sent it to him. And he was like, “My God, I wrote that 17 years ago, and then look at him, Firebox perhaps wasn’t a success, and then Moshi Monsters, and now he hit the big time with the Calm app, that could have billion users, but it just shows, that exactly answers your question. When you’re looking for something, you eventually find it. So for me, entrepreneurship is a personal journey, and again, not entrepreneurship in terms of starting your own business, but just your career trajectory in terms of constantly having these multiple founding moments, never plateauing, setting yourself a new challenge. You must never give up. What is success? When do you feel you’ve achieved success? You keep going. 

Mark Bidwell  [14:05]  

Yeah. One of the other myths is around the need to have a great idea. What you proved in your book is you took an existing idea from New York, and it was a copy-paste. I mean, it wasn’t quite like that, but there was lots of evidence of what good looks like, and you brought it to the UK and now you had new competitors coming in from the US at the same time, I think one opened just before you opened. And it was a very interesting model. Easy Jet was a copy-paste of Southwest Airlines. Sam Walton, there’s a wonderful quote, which I think you put in the book, “Most everything I’ve done, I’ve copied from somebody else.” 

Sahar Hashemi  [14:52]  

Yeah. I definitely quote Sam Walton, it must have been that. But I think the myth is this idea that you confuse entrepreneurs with inventors, and this idea that you have to do something absolutely life-changing and revolutionary. And it’s actually not, because in entrepreneurship, the whole point is not in the initial idea, because zillions of people had the idea we had, we always have a brilliant business idea. But the idea of wealth is about the implementation of them. That’s what’s critical, is realizing it’s not about the revolutionary idea, or if your ideas are original in any way, it’s about whether or not someone’s done it in your market and whether or not you can make it happen. I definitely think that’s true. 

Mark Bidwell  [15:38]  

The world has gotten a lot smaller since you wrote the book, with digital technology and stuff. Is that still a model that you think is applicable? Are there still opportunities to lift stuff from one market to another?

Sahar Hashemi  [15:50]  

Yeah, it’s interesting. I just had this idea to start a movement. By the time this comes out, I’ll probably have launched it. We always talk about women entrepreneurs in this country. There’s a lot of talk around angel investing and supporting them and giving them grants. But someone did a tweet, and I got the lightbulb idea this week to start a movement where you buy and showcase the product of women entrepreneurs. I did a quick Google search and I realised that in America, there’s a certification called woman-owned, so women business owners can get certified. So then I looked quickly and realized that nothing like it in the UK or Europe. And immediately I’ve got an idea from America and I’m going to copy the idea; probably not call it woman-owned and probably built-by-women. So I’ve actually got the idea for America – brilliant, but we don’t have it in my market. So I’m not going to sit there thinking – was that an original idea or not? I’m not judging myself because this idea, oh my God, someone had it before. Who cares? I’m just gonna do that idea. The ideas are out in the ether. It’s like going through a vineyard, and you got loads of grapes. It just depends on whether you pick up that grape or just leave it there. Getting obsessive and possessive about ideas is absolutely ridiculous. And if I tell you the amount of people who’ve told me that they were in America, and  sometimes they even go ‘Know what? I think I even had the idea before you did.’ But what’s the point? 

Mark Bidwell  [17:28]  

So there might well be people listening to this and thinking ‘I’ve got a really good idea.’ What is your advice to them? Let’s take someone our age, I think we’re a similar age, sitting in a large organization, reasonably comfortable, with a really good idea, who’s rather thinking ‘gosh, I wish I had done what I did 30 years ago.’ What’s your advice to them?

Sahar Hashemi  [18:01]  

As soon as you have an idea, you’ve got to realize the ideas are basically in inertia between your two ears, and it’s the worst place for them to be. And the only way to actually give the idea a momentum is to pick it out of your two ears and into the physical world. And the only way to do that is to make that first phone call, start something to make the idea happen. And the call is not to ask someone whether or not it’s a good idea, because the worst phone call you can make is to try to validate your idea or try to sell your idea. You try to turn the idea in your head into something tangible. People come to me with great ideas, and I’m like ‘get it, go and call the supplier that can make your idea, get a sample of it, try to price it, do something to make the idea tangible.’ I think that’s really important. To give you an example, when I had my Skinny Candy, my candy idea, the first thing I did was, I thought okay, sugar-free sweets. I then went to Cash and Carry and thought actually, how much do bulk sweets cost if I stopped packaging the sweets? Then I went and bought a little bag from Amazon whereby I almost created the little bag I wanted to sell. So it’s almost you make a prototype ASAP of what it is you want. Entrepreneurial stories you read, they all start small. People think ideas start in a business plan. They don’t start in a business plan. They start when you’re trying to make something physical, tangible so that it starts happening. It’s almost like it then takes on the energy of the universe. It’s meant to happen, to get traction. I know it sounds too airy-fairy, but I really believe it. It’s about doing that first draft of the website, just something for people to physically interact with, other than just a mental thing.

Mark Bidwell  [19:55]  

The other point you make is that as you step onto that journey and start generating some results, either good or bad, your conviction builds. 

Sahar Hashemi  [20:05]  

Absolutely. It’s almost like you’ve got a to-do list, and then as you go through the to-do list, your conviction either builds, or it doesn’t build, and there are many parts where your conviction doesn’t build. A couple of years ago, I got a dog, about five years ago, I was really fussing because we were in LA, and I saw that they have these like dog crushes in LA. And I thought brilliant because we’d have a nightmare when travelling, me and my husband, about where the dog goes, is he happy? And I thought, oh my god, I’m gonna open a chain of dog crushes. Brilliant. And immediately, instead of having it as an idea, I just did a to-do list. Find the sites.I remember I called up all these estate agents, all these property agents, and then I just realized every single one of them was like, yeah, we’ve got the sites, but we’ll never give them to somewhere where we’re going to have 40 dogs, because dogs make a mess, dogs are noisy they are outside, people picking them up, and we might prefer to give those sites to a gym or a dentist or something. In my mind, because I’m going through it, I’m like ‘actually, this is gonna be really difficult, they’re right. So we did the real uphill struggle, trying to fit 40 dogs into a basement. And then I gave up on the idea because it just wasn’t gonna work. Maybe I wasn’t the right person for it, but that’s the only way to know. Otherwise, what I mean is that that idea is not a regret in my mind, if I see someone else who’s actually done it, I don’t feel any regrets. I went there, and then I didn’t want to do that when I saw what it takes. It’s almost like escapism, Mark. It’s almost like a fairy tale. Sometimes if I played the lottery, I do go into a bit of a daydream of what happened. I think we mustn’t let it be like that.

Mark Bidwell  [22:03]  

Yeah, it’s interesting. I was listening to someone talking yesterday, and he was on the west coast in LA. And he was saying how everyone is always talking in the future tense; I’m going to do this, I’m discussing this deal, I’ve got this happening, and no one was talking about doing it. They’re all talking about what they are going to do or what they will do, versus what they’re doing at the moment.

Sahar Hashemi  [22:25]  

Yeah, absolutely, and it’s so easy to do that. What ends up happening is you look back on your life, and you’re deeply unhappy on a day to day basis, but somehow that idea just pushes you along, and it’s so wrong.

Mark Bidwell  [22:41]  

You’ve written other books, but then your most recent book is called “Start Up Forever,” which is based on your talking to a lot of large organizations about helping them become entrepreneurial.  I’m curious to know, since I’ve been in LA, I’ve done a little bit of entrepreneurial stuff, but most of my life I served in large organizations. As I finished your first book, actually, I read “Start Up Forever” first, and then I read “Anyone Can Do It.” And there was quite a big disconnect because I was so energized by the origin story, and I get on thinking, okay, well, what does that 27 tube tour actually look like in a large organization where, and let’s characterize it, where they’ve probably been quite successful, maybe it isn’t the burning platform, and they’re not sure whether they need to be doing something, but they can probably still survive for a few more years without actually fundamentally changing, and where many people are incentivized about maintaining the status quo to avoid the fear, to avoid the failure, to avoid upsetting their customers, so that was that disconnect. When you go into a larger organization, we don’t talk specifics here, but a large organization with some of those characteristics, realistically, what can people do, let’s start with the individual, a line manager running a division, they got lots of resources, they’ve got everything in place, they got customers, they got products – what can they actually do to make their organization more entrepreneurial?

Sahar Hashemi  [24:18]  

To answer your question, let me get back to why I wrote it, and when I got the realization. So we were really entrepreneurial, exactly how in “Anyone Can Do It” I said it, it was very much working from home, and then we go to a little office, and everyone’s still entrepreneurial because we’ve got no job titles or anything like that. So we’re still incredibly chaotic and then suddenly, we become a bigger company, we go public, and we hire an MD that comes from the outside and comes with the whole Silicon Valley idea of oh, they’re now becoming a big company, here come the grey suits or the grey hair or whatever you call it, in the effort to professionalize the company. And I just remember very distinctly, just that one moment, when I realized… We took another floor in our office, these people came in from all these big companies. But suddenly, the new purchasing person we hired was giving planning forms to me and going, if you’re interested in these people, I remember the people from InnoCentive came to us, they just invented this movie, this was the year we’re talking about, and it’s like they’ve got to fill in this form because we just got to make sure that there are good supplier and I saw it wasn’t how we used to do anymore. From now on, we’re a big company; we’re a proper company, we have to do things properly. And it was almost a very condescending well done, you started it, but all that sort of monkey business at the beginning, a proper company has got forms, and they’ve got to fill in a five-page form in one of the compartments. And literally in that one moment, something just went off in my head. And I was like, oh my God, these people think totally differently than we do. And I just remember seeing that complete clash, she was so fixated on the only way to get a supplier is to fill in the form. I was thinking of me, and my original founding team, not just me, who were all as clueless as I was, we were like, I quite like the piece of that movie, let’s just get it on the shelves and see if it sells. We would do a quick back of the envelope numbers of how much it costs us, this is how much we’re going to sell, it looks like we’re going to make a profit, let’s just try, because it feels good to me. That was just my catalyst for thinking that they think differently, and I kept seeing this at every single weekly meeting we had. That was really when, and I never talked about it in my first book, but when I went to work with bigger companies about entrepreneurship and talking about entrepreneurship, that’s when it really came to me that it’s just a different way. And then I just thought to myself, what started that? Because the essence for me of being entrepreneurial and the way I was, because I loved Coffee Republic, I loved coffee because I wanted to drink it myself every day, that was why I started the business. That was the only purpose of the business, because I thought it was a bloody great coffee in the morning, there’s nothing else. And then I thought actually, what goes in the way of people feeling that in a large company. And what I’ve got are the habits of “Start Up Forever.” So if you want to get that real entrepreneurial empathy, that almost holy trinity of really feeling through customers, what gets in the way? So number one, bureaucracy, processes, so get rid of processes. And because processes make people too busy, they get stuck in the office, right? So get rid of processes is one, that’s the only way you’re going to get out there to be able to have time to do the Circle Line. Because the Circle Line trip of the 27 stops didn’t take that much time, it was a day, but try telling that to someone in a big company, and they’ll say ‘we’ve got a day job here who’s got time to Circle Line’ and this is not important. So get rid of bureaucracy, so free up your time, but then once you free up your time and you’ve got rid of bureaucracy, and you’re out there on the Circle Line, there’s no point of you being out there with your mind closed. So then we go into my number three, which is be clueless, have an open mind, be curious, don’t be so stuck in a way. That’s another important thing is just opening up your mind into this complete, naive curiosity. But then once you’ve opened up your mind, and you come back to the office with a new idea, my fourth habit is it’s not going to happen through your usual channels, you’ve got to bootstrap, there’s no point doing it on a big scale, just try small, your idea doesn’t have to be perfect. With no money, try out the idea. Then my fifth one is – people are going to say no. You got to expect that they’re not saying no because it’s a bad idea. They’re saying no because people always say no to good ideas. So that’s how I went along, it was what to remove in a large company, because it’s only about removing stuff. Again, I believe everyone’s got all this stuff in them. But these are the obstacles that I find in that kind of thinking, and once you remove all that, you free people up to be themselves. I suppose it’s what Silicon Valley calls the high freedom culture because I believe if you give people freedom, they will perform at their best, and when people are free, they go more with their heart than with that process-minded, very narrow, myopic thinking,

Mark Bidwell  [29:51]  

A few things resonated with me. There’s a great story of the founder of IKEA working on the checkout. Any CEO can do that of course, it’s not difficult, as long as they understand which buttons to press, it’s a bit of technical skill.

Sahar Hashemi  [30:08]  

Do you remember the Back of the Floor Program? Yeah, it’s all back on the floor, exactly. 

Mark Bidwell  [30:12]  

Yeah, but the reality is that most of them won’t, because they don’t have that level of humility, or it’s not done around here, we wouldn’t do that. I’m also interested in the idea of cluelessness. I’m an anthropologist, originally, and I know you touch on anthropology a little bit in terms of the meeting making stuff. But for me anthropologists are clueless by definition, they go into a new culture leaving as much of their thinking in their previous culture behind to really understand and start connecting dots, but you also need a level of curiosity and self-confidence to do that, because no one gets hired in a large organization being clueless. And you certainly don’t get promoted being clueless. What does that mean? Is that the kind of language you use in some of the organizations you work with, and how does that resonate?

Sahar Hashemi  [31:04]  

I really find that if a leader is worth it, and I’ve come across many, many examples, because obviously, the fact that I’m often chosen by the leader of the company, whatever division or company-wide, that wants me to speak, means they’ve obviously bought into this stuff. Any leader worth their while is understanding the power of curiosity. I think that hopefully, old thinking around command and control, which is really helping big companies, people are seeing it’s becoming outdated, because we’re in a world where innovation is a core competency for any business, not only technology now. But still, how do you innovate, how the hell are you going to innovate if you’re stuck in how we do things. Any company that is going to survive is going to be open to agile, innovative thinking. Then I go there, very left field, because that perfectionism, it’s awful, that idea that you’re not going to do something unless it’s perfect. I think I wrote that in the book. I remember hearing the guy from Tesco, Terry Leahy, he even bans eye rolls in meetings, because even an eye-roll is so subtle, but so destructive, so someone’s got an idea and someone can eye-roll. It’s very difficult because that way that I try to encourage, it’s very naive, it’s very vulnerable in a way, because as a leader, you’re meant to have all the answers. You need a lot of courage to open up and say I don’t have all the answers, and realizes that actually, true courage in this world is being able to admit and saying, I haven’t the golden answers, and I’m going to be asking the stupid question. I think, for me, that’s the kind of silver lining because if large companies can adapt more quickly to this kind of thinking, it becomes a much more pleasurable place, because then working in a large company, you’re also using a part of yourself because you’re exploring in the dark, and the reason entrepreneurship is fun is because when you’re in the dark is when you’re forced to go into seeing whatever resource you’ve got and use up everything you’ve got, and that’s the self credibility; it’s the fun, it’s the fulfilment that comes. So once big companies give themselves that challenge, that’s where it’s gonna be fun, that’s what’s gonna be different.

Mark Bidwell  [33:40]  

Yeah. Are there any examples of companies, when you went in, that were characterized in the way I characterized them, and then two years later had actually embraced these mindsets? I’m just curious about how long it takes and what’s your experience of that. So often, as a speaker or as a consultant, you go in, do your stuff and you never quite know what happens reading the newspapers. I just wonder if you’ve been with them on the journey, for instance?

Sahar Hashemi  [34:13]  

What you need to realize is that it’s always going to be a balance, because when you got 10,000 people, you’re not going to have complete chaos and complete kitchen table and innovation, because you got some businesses that you want to keep, because that where money comes from. So you’re not on a constant act of self-destruction, but it’s how do you keep the balance between status quo and what serves you. The companies that are doing well, it’s almost like these opposing forces you’ve got between keeping the status quo, but also breaking it giving people freedom, but also having certain processes and systems whereby it’s not complete anarchy at all times. And how you maintain that balance is I think the only way to see how the company performs. And I’m seeing this everywhere. I’ve gone to the most dry companies you can think of, and it’s happening the whole time because the world’s changing. Technology is taking over our lives and that whole nine to five thing by definition is gone. And yet, I find the culture is still nine to five in a way without us realizing it. So I think it’s happening, and it could happen in a small group. But innovation again, is not ideas. In large companies, it’s not oh my god, they invented this new product, and it just was a game-changer. It’s just a tiny little tweak you can make in the most boring operating procedures, but actually, that keeps you much more in line with what the outside worlds like. It’s not monumental, but it’s just little things that actually keep you in check. 

Mark Bidwell  [35:56]  

I was intrigued by the counterexample, which is one of the world’s most innovative companies Google, and where they went wrong with Google Wave. I’m sure you can put it in better words than me, but that was where they put too much structure and it took their resources too heavily, and it failed.

Sahar Hashemi  [36:19]  

Yes, that’s right. I had a very small lunch with the guy that invented the Google Wave. And the biggest problem they had was that they thought we’ve got a lot of money, let’s throw money at this. And they realized that no amount of money is going to make up for the creativity that bootstrapping, a lack of money brings, which is why you don’t have that scarcity with clarity. And I saw that on my own entrepreneurial journey, it’s when you haven’t got a money mark, and you’ve got to do something really quickly really well, you end up using all the resources you’ve got, and in a way it’s much clearer picture. You can’t throw money at creativity, and I definitely saw that at Coffee Republic. That’s why I always advise businesses when they raise too much money, you;ve just got to grow organically, because when you’ve got too much it just confuses everything. I just remember, at Coffee Republic, my brother and I were sitting there trying to come up with a logo with the sole designer we had. And then when we got bigger and hired a big agency, I just remember sitting in the room with the agency, and they had pictures of people up on the wall, and they were like, this is so and so she’s the archetypal customer. And I’m like what’s the archetypal customer? I felt so disconnected, and I think sometimes pouring all the resources disconnects you, and the other thing it does as well is if you put all the money in you can’t do it small, and the only way you can see how something goes is if you do it more like an experiment and the risk is not so high. That’s why all the stuff I say about trying small experiments in Start Up Forever, it all loops together if you see what I mean, Mark.

Mark Bidwell  [38:03]  

Yeah, absolutely. I often used to joke that in a large organization, if you want to find a really good idea, go as far away from headquarters as possible, where there was no money, where there was no process, where everyone was so focused on the core business. They come up with a new idea in this very resource-constrained world and got some results, and the likelihood is you could actually make it fly across the organization. There’s the inverse relationship between the headquarters and where the real innovation happens.

Sahar Hashemi  [38:32]  

And people should realize that innovations, when they happen, don’t look like amazing innovation, they look shoddy, mediocre, laughable. I have that example in the book of Pixar, when they have films at the beginning of their movies, they called them ugly babies because they say anyone who looked at the movie though this was a really crappy movie, and there have been lots of eye rolls. We have this myth that amazing ideas start, that people think wow, this is a stroke of genius. It never starts off, it starts with something really laughable. New ideas never start off looking like an amazing new idea.

Mark Bidwell  [39:18]  

Yeah, wonderful. I know we need to wrap up in a minute. So before we go to the three questions I sent across, there’s one question I wanted to ask. I know you’ve been talking on Twitter about what’s going on in the London hospitality industry as a result of lockdown and COVID. But if you were a 27-year-old in London today, where would you be looking for opportunities? What would get your juices flowing? 

Sahar Hashemi  [39:48]  

Well, right now, at the moment we live in, the advice I gave to my stepchildren and all the young kids around me, is wherever it will take you right now that you get any kind of experience. I don’t think remotely that anyone’s got a choice of where their juices are flowing, but then again, as I spoke to you, all this happening to us, why is that happening, it will create some changes in the world. None of us want to be strangers, it’s by definition adverse for most people. But if we don’t lose our head during all this, and we don’t give up and give too much into negative thinking, if we hold ourselves and sort of almost stay at the table long enough, eventually, we will come out of this, and there’ll be a new shift, a new opportunity for all of us. That’s how I think gaps happened in the markets. When times are good, the opportunity is really tightly packed together, but when the crisis happens, that chain goes so there are gaps for people. The question is how can we improve ourselves everyday, live day by day? My only advice to anyone right now is don’t make any predictions, and to try to live day by day, just think, have I done my best today? Have I spent four hours on Twitter getting upset about what Boris Johnson is doing, or have I tried to do something? There’s something all of us can do to maximize that day somehow, t to learn a new skill, there’s always an opportunity in the day. But if you look at it long term, I think it’s difficult. This is what I always tell every entrepreneur is don’t look too far ahead. You can’t open a 100 chain store, feed the end product somewhere, but just focus on what you can do through your day, every day, so working through that to-do list.

Mark Bidwell  [42:03]  

You quote Peter Diamandis in the book, “the problems are tremendous opportunities.” That was one of the thoughts behind the question. The other is that a lot of the world’s most successful companies were founded in the depths of depression, from the tech world. 

Sahar Hashemi  [42:23]  

I was also reading about Hyatt Hotels, FedEx, Bremen. There’s always an opportunity for everyone. It’s never the end of the opportunity, as long as we focus on what we can do and not lose our head. 

Mark Bidwell  [42:48]  

Super. So the three questions I sent across to you, the first one was, what have you changed your mind about recently?

Sahar Hashemi  [42:56]  

What have I changed my mind about recently? Oh, God, do I have to answer that? Well I think Boris Johnson is probably one of them. 

Mark Bidwell  [43:07]  

I always try to stay off politics. But I’m curious, because one of the themes of this conversation is around personal development, pushing yourself out there, getting out of your comfort zone. And there is a great quote by Charlie Munger, Warren Buffett’s business partner, saying that, I’m not going to try to quote it exactly because I’ll get it wrong, a year in which you failed to address some of your fundamental beliefs and revisit them is a wasted year. That’s from an investment point of view, for years and years and years they’ve never invested in railroads. And then they finally went very big, they bought Burlington Santa Fe, so they did a U-turn. It was a result of being disciplined about looking at the facts, and are these assumptions still valid? Many of us don’t do that because, as we said in the beginning, we’re conditioned in a certain way and we’re on autopilot. So that’s what’s behind the question. 

Sahar Hashemi  [44:09]  

Something recently for me has been all this video conferencing, I thought it was ridiculous. And then after a while, you surrender and it is the only choice, so you might as well make the best of that, but it’s probably not a great answer, Mark, so you probably can skip that. Do we have to have that question in your session?

Mark Bidwell  [44:32]  

No, of course, you don’t. Another guy I had, you might know him. Brad Feld, he was the founder of TechStars. He’s based in Colorado, he’s also the investor in Fitbit and his answer was very interesting. He’s a very, very prolific angel investor, and he said that for the first time he’d gone from an early investment all the way through to exit without ever having met the team in person, and that this was pre-COVID, this was a couple of years ago that I interviewed him. And it was very interesting how, as you say, many of us we’re forced to change our minds by circumstances, but occasionally are able to change our minds in other areas. But let’s go to the next.

Sahar Hashemi  [45:21]  

The answer I’d give to that is I probably change my mind every day about everything. One thing I’ve learned is just always be learning, so I try not to be fixed into things and just keep evolving. I think that’s why I’m very bad at arguing with someone. So I think keeping myself open at all times and not being too thick. That’s one of the things I’ve learned about life. 

Mark Bidwell  [45:48]  

So that leads very nicely into the next question. Where do you go to get fresh perspectives, especially when you’re facing tough challenges?

Sahar Hashemi  [45:59]  

I’m very strict around meditation practice, I recently learned Transcendental Meditation, last year. I think you have to be very methodical about making sure your mind is open and not stuck. I wake up, I have a real ritual, I work around rituals. The first thing I do is go out to the park, I drive to Hyde Park with my dog, just before the day starts. Never be with anyone else in the park, I can’t be on the phone in the park, it’s just me and my dog going around Hyde Park. The amount of people I see, especially now that we can work from home, that wake up and they’re straight on the computer. I can’t imagine what that does to your brain when you first wake up. I come back from the park, then I do meditation, or I do my 15 minutes journaling, my morning pages.

Mark Bidwell  [46:57]  

What questions are you answering there? Is it free flow?

Sahar Hashemi  [47:01]  

I learned the morning pages of these podcasts, I think it was the guy that wrote the Billions. Did you ever watch the series Billions on Netflix? I remember coming across his podcast, it’s Julia Cameron who wrote the book about creativity, recommends it; basically, you’ve got a notebook, and you’ve got to fill three pages of longhand in the morning pages, whatever comes to your mind. So it’s not even your gratitude list, It’s not what you want to do, it’s whatever is there, it just comes down, I can’t tell you how cleansing that is. I have my soy latte, I fill up these three pages, which I then tear up because you never want to read them again. No one ever sees them either. So if you have a frustrating moment, that stuff comes out. But I find that very cleansing. I’m very strict about the day always ending up with exercise for me before the evening starts. So there’s a real division, especially with everyone working from home, I think dividing your workday, being at home in a different mindset, is really important. It just keeps your mind a bit open, fresh, and not too stuck, so you’re open to receive different things. When I’m always out, I call it almost like having a recording light on, I’ve learned what that is. For example, very much back to your point you said about people in large companies, if I’m in the supermarket, my light is always on. I’m not in the food business, but I’m always like, look at that new product because I’ve learned to look like that. I speak to a lot of people from FMCG products, and they don’t spend that much time in the supermarket. All you’ve got to do is just be the supermarket, putting yourself in a customer’s eyes and seeing what stuff’s there. I’ve learned that way of looking at the world. Curiosity I suppose, just a new way rather than seeing everything as fixed.

Mark Bidwell  [49:00]  

Yeah. Super. And then the final question, what’s been your most significant failure or low? And what have you learned from it, and how have you applied that learning?

Sahar Hashemi  [49:10]  

To be honest with you, leaving Coffee Republic, and then what happened to Coffee Republic. We left in 2001 thinking, ohh, great, we’ve left this great company, it’s got a lot of cash in the bank, and these professionals are going to run it, and I’m always going to be proud of the company. And it just upsets me terribly that the business we’ve started, that we loved so much is just nothing. It’s not on the High Street anymore, it’s very sad for me that even if I go to past the Coffee Republic, and I saw one the other day, I wouldn’t even go in. This has nothing to do with it, and it still pains me when I buy coffee from Cafe Nero or Starbucks, I’m sort of green envy. That was really the lesson I learned, we should have never left that business. You get a great idea like that and you start it, which is why I wrote ‘Start Up Forever,’ because we thought it wasn’t a Start Up anymore, it doesn’t need us. And actually, it does, the whole thinking around the founders’ ethos. The company always needs that passion and customer focus and empathy, so I hugely regret that. That’s really how I built my career basically, on the mistake I made there, and the lesson I’ve learned, and the lesson I want to pass on to everyone.

Mark Bidwell  [50:30]  

I have heard that from people who’ve sold their babies, essentially, and watch them either go to greater things and missed out, or in your case, they’ve gone a different direction. It was out of your hands once you left the business, but I’m curious, would there have been an alternative path? Once you’re back into that vehicle, that Zulu guy, Jim Slater, that felt to me is really important, it accelerated things and gave you access to cash, but it felt like there were lots of strings that came attached with that transaction.

Sahar Hashemi  [51:13]  

When I think back on it, if I had the confidence, if I knew what I know now about culture, if I knew what I know now around how important it is to keep the entrepreneurial culture, I was just reading yesterday that Reed Hoffman, the founder of LinkedIn, says now that he’s part of Greylock, and they invest, they always think as soon as they invest, they’re all thinking get rid of the founders and put in professionals, and how that’s now changed, and how they love having the founder there. If you can’t have a founder CEO, then making sure that the new CEO is pretty close to the founder. They got their ear, they got the inputs from the founder. If only I’d known that, if only I’d known that people, making me feel like oh, you don’t need passion when you’re in a business process. If only I really stood our ground and thought you know what, we’re going to get a CEO that really believes in us having an input, and helping them along this journey, it would have made a huge difference, so my interview with our successor, with the CEO would have been a completely different kind of interview, instead of going through the processes and the system. This whole stuff about emotional connection was meant to be something that you are almost ashamed of, like it’s not personal. But business is personal, so really feeling it in your bones is really important. Had I known that, my God, I would have really stood my ground. I’m not at all good at running a company, but you get someone and you’re at the right hand, and you’re advising them where they need, if someone at the top needs some help. And if someone had been open to that angle, you could have had the left brain and the right brain running the company. And it got very competitive, but there’s absolutely no reason why we couldn’t have survived.

Mark Bidwell  [53:05]  

Often we question, if your mindset is I’m an entrepreneur, I’m building something, and suddenly it becomes serious, and it’s a big business. You see these professional people, very polished, they come in saying I can do this, I know exactly. And maybe you lose yourself, not self-confidence, but you downplay your actually to continue to operate at that. 

Sahar Hashemi  [53:33]  

That’s right, exactly. That’s the thing about us all, we underestimate our own abilities, whether or not that comes with age and experience, whether we were young at that time, and the success came really quickly, there’s a combination of factors. 

Mark Bidwell  [53:52]  

Lovely. Well, this has been excellent. Thank you very much. I was looking forward to this conversation for some time. Thank you very much for making the time.

Sahar Hashemi  [54:01]  

You’re really welcome, I enjoyed it. 

Mark Bidwell  [54:04]  

Where can people get in touch with you?

Sahar Hashemi  [54:06]  

I’m trying to promote my social media at the moment. None of your listeners probably are on Instagram, but I’m thinking it’s an interesting media, Instagram. It’s @Start Upforever on Twitter, on Instagram, and LinkedIn as well.

Mark Bidwell  [54:24]  

We’ll put all of that in the show notes, we’ll put the links to the books in the show notes. I really love Anyone Can Do It. I mean I like Start Up Forever, but Anyone Can Do it has been one of my favourites.  

Sahar Hashemi  [54:35]  

It’s a real story. It’s such an old story, but in a way it’s such a good story, that so much comes out of it for people. And then look at the publisher. If you’ve got the actual book on the back of it, there’s a Rolodex from 1990 when I first wrote it, would you believe it’s still there? It’s one of the highest-selling books and they still haven’t amended the Rolodex at the back. Which is why I’ve self-published Start Up Forever, because I’m not going to rely on a big publishing juggernaut that doesn’t even update one of their bestsellers. 

Mark Bidwell  [55:13]  

Ludicrous. Well, thank you very much for your time. Best of luck with your new idea.

Sahar Hashemi  [55:17]  

Thank you.



Sahar Hashemi OBE is best known as the founder of Coffee Republic, as well as a confectionery brand Skinny Candy. She is active in the world of entrepreneurialism and charity, and is an accomplished author, having written “Anyone can do it” about her journey from corporate lawyer to founding a successful chain of coffee shops, and a more recent book titled “Start Up Forever” helping large companies innovate.

In this conversation, we cover all topics related to being an entrepreneur, building a business, and what it means from a personal development point of view. We discuss some of the skills and mindsets that one needs, as well as how this impacts people in larger process-driven organizations looking to foster a more entrepreneurial mindset.

What Is Covered: 

  • How entrepreneurialism drives resourcefulness and self-discovery
  • Why people confuse entrepreneurs with inventors and what the difference is
  • The ‘startup forever’ habits that can help large companies adopt an entrepreneurial mindset

Key Learnings and Takeaways: 

  • The only way to give momentum to an entrepreneurial idea is to take it out of one’s head, make that first phone call, get a sample of it, try to price it and make the idea tangible in the physical world. 
  • Five habits to foster entrepreneurial mindset: get rid of bureaucracy and processes; get out of the office; be clueless, curious, have an open mind; bootstrap and try your idea out on a small scale, and expect people to say no to your idea. 
  • The only way to see how a company performs is to maintain the balance between the status quo and having certain systems and processes in place, but also giving people the freedom to break that status quo.   

Links and Resources Mentioned in This Episode: 

Mark Bidwell

Mark Bidwell

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