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Gush Mundae moved to the UK from India when he was just a child—unfortunately he didn’t have the warmest welcome.
Due to being inundated with racial abuse from his peers, strangers on the street and even the police system, Gush turned to a creative outlet to calm the resentment and anger he understandably felt.
After leaving school and working for some creative agencies, he couldn’t find a company that suited the way he wanted to work, so he decided to start his own multi-million-pound business, Bulletproof Design.
This is a story of resilience, using your differences to your advantage and solving your own problems when there are no existing solutions.
Here’s what we cover:
Growing up experiencing racial abuse from all avenues
I want to dive straight in. So you moved to Southall when you were just a kid.
New culture, new language, new environment, new food, and I know you struggled to fit in.
Just tell us a little bit about that experience and your early memories.
Yeah, well I couldn’t speak English. I could speak four Indian dialects. But I couldn’t speak English.
We moved from quite a large house in the suburbs of Delhi, to one bedroom. All four of my family lived in one bedroom, my mum, my dad, my sister, and I.
So it was completely different. It was very cold, whereas I’ve been used to it being very warm and so everything felt different.
And having to go to a new school, was really an experience I’d never had before. I really enjoyed school in India, from what I remember.
I was quite kind an outcast in the school that I attended over here.
And you experienced quite a lot of racial abuse, didn’t you, as a kid and growing up, not just from other school kids, but also from the police and the establishment as well?
Yeah. Well, from everyone.
I think it was a difficult time for the country, if I look back on it now. A lot of social political unrest. I guess a lot of the English thinking they’re losing their identity. The National Front was a big thing.
And honestly, everyone I came into contact with at certain points, at certain junctures, there was racism there. I experienced it in totality, where I was called various names. Or I was just kind of ignored in some shops.
So the more well-to-do neighbourhoods that I would frequent, if I was going there, they’d just sort of ignore me.
Then where I grew up and where I was growing, it would be very much in your face. I remember numerous occasions of just grown men shouting out of vans at me.
And I’m a kid, I don’t know what’s going on, I’m just trying to walk across the street. They’re stopping their vans and shouting at me and stuff like that.
As I got older, I started to experience that with authorities, as well. So within the police system, constantly getting stopped and searched, which I know still goes on today. And it’s just not a great technique.
We’d be rallied out, we’d be driving our cars, very young, and we’d be taken out of our cars. The cars would be searched in and out, no apologies, nothing. We’d be walking down the street, and we’d be accosted, and we’d be split up into our group of three or four of us, just walking, everything was searched.
It was just a very difficult time. When society treats you like that, when authority treats you like that, you know you don’t belong because they’re not doing that to everyone else.
While we are being searched, groups of, let’s just say how it is, groups of white kids are walking past and looking at us. And so it’s not happening to everyone.
So you’re going, what’s the difference here? What have I done? So we got it from everywhere.
Breaking vicious cycles and finding your identity
And that sort of feeling of not belonging, of always feeling different to everybody else.
You must have built up quite a lot of anger and resentment.
How did you break the cycle?
Well, so when I was young, I’m talking sort of six, seven, I was just trying to comprehend it and I couldn’t. I remember feeling just a bit confused and quite emotional about it, not really understanding.
As I got a little older, around 12, 13, I started getting very angry about it. By then I could speak English and I started getting into fights, scraps with anyone and everyone. There was one occasion where it just happened.
And then after that, I was just very angry for quite a long time. I don’t think I was a very nice person. I kind of carried this chip with me.
I knew I didn’t fit in and if someone would look at me the wrong way, we’d just get into it. And I remember being quite physical, very angry and very confused still, as to why it was happening.
But the way I dealt with it was very different.
And you channelled some of that sort of anger and aggression into a more creative outlet, didn’t you? And you sort of found that tribe in graffiti and hip hop.
Tell us about that and how you found your identity there.
Yeah, I did. So it goes right back to my schooling. And I didn’t have a great schooling, and it started when I came to the UK.
So because I couldn’t speak English, for some reason, teachers would ask me to speak from books and make me stand up in front of the whole class. And the class would laugh because I couldn’t speak English. Instead of seeing that and protecting me, they just let me carry on.
The reason that’s important is, I started reading comic books. So comic books became a staple because there were ways for me to understand story and narrative through colour and vision and very small soundbites, really.
So I actually learned to read through comic books and because they were so visual, I started to draw. So I started to draw the comics and I started to draw the characters and I fell in love with some of the characters, especially Batman and The Hulk.
I loved The Hulk because his way of dealing with everything was just smashing it apart. So I just loved his way of, I’m not having this, I’m just going to break it.
So I used to draw them all the time and that really became the precursor to me loving art because I still didn’t love school because of that experience.
You keep that, you harbour that experience for a long, long time.
What I did love was art. And I was encouraged by one teacher, and I think this happens a lot, actually. You only need one person to really care about you.
I remember, he sat me down and just said: “Look, you’ve got a great talent, but I’ve got news for you. Talent is everywhere, and it’s really how you choose to use it.
“And if you want to focus it, I think you could go far, but if you don’t, it’s just a waste.”
I was doing a lot of graffiti at the time and loving it. And that was in the dark. That was over the weekends. So I wasn’t doing a lot of schoolwork, and he was just saying: “Look, something’s got to give. I’m not saying don’t do that, but I’m saying focus on a creative career.”
And he said to me: “I’ve got an ex-student who used to study under me. She now teaches the graphics course at Hounslow College.”
Which is West Thames now. And unbeknown to me, it’s one of the best courses in the country. And he said: “I’d just like you to go there and have a chat with her.”
So I went there and had a chat with her. She was like: “I love your work. It’s really strong, it’s very graphic.” And I didn’t know what that meant.
And she was like: “Well, it’s very stylistic.”
And with this, she was like: “You could create posters or brochures?” I was like, “Nah.”
And then she was like: “What about record sleeves?”
And that’s when there was that light bulb moment.
I loved hip hop, I loved music, the music, the dance culture, the graffiti. That’s where I found my belonging. So not fitting in at school, not fitting in the way the society wanted. Hip hop was very new to me and I found that calling there.
I started like everyone, a bit of dancing. I loved this fashion, I loved the clothing, loved the music, still do, still my big passion.
And then I started getting into graffiti and because I read the comics and because I had this, I could write really well, I had a good sense of colour and typography, it just came quite easy.
So it was his encouragement to do something with that that would end up being Bulletproof that I love. And I’m really thankful for that. So thanks Mr Moffitt.
Thanks Mr Moffitt. It’s amazing how pivotal those small conversations can be. That changed your entire journey and your career.
If there is no existing business to solve your problem, create it yourself
So tell us then, so you went into graphic design. What made you take the leap and set up your own agency, Bulletproof, and you’ve turned into this multi-million-pound business.
What was the push point for you?
So when I studied graphic design, I started to love it, and really started to love typography. And again, that came from letter forms, from graffiti and everything else.
Then I left during the recession, and it wasn’t great and everything we had done was handwritten. So we’d learnt everything that was hand-drawn, and the Mac was just really coming into place.
So everywhere wanted you to use a Mac. They’d sort of look at your book and go, actually can you just use that computer? And so I had to learn that my myself. So I did, and I joined a couple of places.
So I joined a very small shop which did record sleeves. That’s what they created. It was called Shoot That Tiger. We had an amazing little culture. There were only 10 of us. It was a great atmosphere, people were amazing. We worked really long hours, and we did some lovely work.
The only problem with that was I quickly learned that, for every great record sleeve you get to work on, there’s a 100 boy bands or girl bands, even back then. So it’s really not creative as you wanted.
One of the guys left there, and he took me with him to a much bigger agency. Although it was small at the time, and it grew to a 100 people within a year. And there I was being exposed to global clients, but the culture wasn’t just right, or what I understood to be culture then, it was a feeling, is the way I describe it.
So I just thought there’s got to be a way of creating a business where you get global work, but you have a great culture, where everyone feels included, and we are working hard, but we’re enjoying it, and we are learning, and we are progressing all together.
And I couldn’t find it.
So I freelanced for a little bit, but I just couldn’t find it. So I thought rather than sort of moan about it, I’m just going to have to set it up.
So I set up Bulletproof. I didn’t really know what I was doing. I had a little bit of savings, I put that on the first quarter’s rent and a Mac and that was it. So it’s really basic.
I got a really good address, which was in Covent Garden. It was a room, but the address was amazing. Beeston Street in Covent Garden. So it looked good on a business card. So it did all of that.
I did all the things that I thought were right and important with the little knowledge I had, and I set up and that was it.
Securing a deal with Coca-Cola
And how did you get the business off the ground? What was the big turning point for Bulletproof?
So what we did, so I started the business, and then I basically got Jonny, who’s my business partner, I roped him into it because we were winning lots of advertising projects or briefs or pitches and I wanted someone to bounce ideas off, and we’d worked together at college anyway.
And what would happen was we’d be on the phone every day, calling up agencies if they needed support, calling up marketing businesses, calling up brands, and really walking my wares to them every day.
When I’d land work and convince them that we could do this great work. I then had to get back to the office that we shared, which was smaller than this boardroom, and we had to do the work.
So in the evening we were doing the work. So it would be all day kind of selling, showing what we can do, convincing clients we’re great. In the evening, it would be doing the work till very late hours in the morning and then often getting a night bus home.
So the turning point really came when we sent out a mailer. It was kind of the last big push that we had.
We had a bit of money in the bank, and we just thought, we’ve got to do something because it was just tiring, just going out all the time, trying to sell, meet people and then getting one project out of that.
So we did a mailer, we created a 100 of them, we sent them out to the great and the good, and one of the clients that we sent it to was Coca-Cola.
And it was that very rare timing where it was the right place at the right time.
So often it’s not that, it’s that Sliding Doors moment where it’s actually, had you come to us two months ago, we’d given you all our work.
We got a call and I remember I was on Tottenham Court Road, it was near Christmas. I was trying to do a bit of shopping and I got this call, and I had this flip phone. So I thought I was the coolest.
I had this flip phone, and I was like, “Hello?” And she went, “Is that Gush?” And I went, “Yeah.” And she went, “Hi, it’s Karen here from Coke.”
And I was like, oh my god, “Hi Karen.” And then trying to be all cool, trying to style it out in the doorway of this shop, with hundreds of people walking past.
She was like, “Look, we’ve got the mailer, we love it. We have something we’d like to talk to you about. Can we come in tomorrow?” And I remember just going, “Yes, of course, no problem.”
Trying to be all kind of cool, get my breathing right and everything, putting the phone down, snapping it shut, running back to the office saying, “We’ve got to clear this mess up. We’ve got clients coming in tomorrow.”
We were like four boys in an office and that was it. And she came, and she brought one of the brand managers with her, and we got our first gig for Coke and that was the turning point.
That was amazing.
So you went from being this quite kind of scrappy starter, working really late hours, getting the night bus home, surviving on fast food. To having to quite quickly professionalise the business and working for global clients, like Coca-Cola.
Professionalising your business
How did you professionalise the business? What were some of those crucial steps you had to take?
Business wasn’t explained to me. It wasn’t like you do this, you do that, and it’s a very different time. When you talk to people about pre-internet and pre-email, it sounds like the 1800s, and it really isn’t.
So we were professional, in that we could take a brief really well, we’d make our notes, we’d ask all the right questions, even if we didn’t understand everything. And then we worked really well to deadlines, and we put heart and soul into it and that’s all we knew.
So although we were scrappy, we never let our clients down. And really, we just thought the thing that’s going to tip it is great original ideas and creativity.
So we’ve always had that as a business and that’s a staple really, of Bulletproof today and what we represent. So that’s never changed. So that was how we dealt with it.
What I had to do was, I had to really think about the numbers and that’s what I wasn’t used to. So I’m a creative by heart and I still love the creative process. I still love seeing graffiti, I still love all that.
So what I had to learn was, how do you create that value? Because what I was doing was looking at, okay, there’s four of us working on this, we’re working all night on this, it’s X amount of hours, so it equals that.
Although that’s not wrong in itself, it’s not really saying, well actually this is a campaign that they’re going to own for the next two years, and it’s going to be global. So I wasn’t really thinking about it like that. So that was the big thing.
Actually Karen, to her credit, we were invited to work on the Coca-Cola Christmas campaign, which is their biggest campaign. And when I put the estimate in, she came back and said, “Gush, look, we need to talk.” And I was like, “Okay.”
And she went, “Look, it’s too low. You’ve got to make it higher because if you don’t, my boss is going to think you are guys aren’t going to deliver, and I know you’re going to deliver it. And she’s going to think what’s missing?”
So I didn’t ask her how much by, but I stuck another £10,000 on it, which was everything, Kate. It was everything to us. And she went, “Yeah, great.” Signed off.
So I had to learn how to invoice and create and generate estimates properly.
Not just based on hours, but actually based on how they’re going to use it, which was a massive learning curve for me.
Making it up as you go along and learning to trust your gut
And as a creative then, did you go on any business courses or read any business books?
Or was it just about finding your way and asking as you went along?
I didn’t know what I was doing. I still don’t read the books, really. I still don’t go on courses.
I kind of think that everyone who runs those courses have never run a business because I think there’s theory and then there’s practice. And so I never did that.
Just, look, if I’m really honest, I think just made it up as I went along. I don’t think there’s anything wrong in that. I’m not apologetic for that. Every day’s learning. So you’re learning new things all the time.
We’re asking all the right questions. I’ve got Jonny there, we’re bouncing off one another in terms of, is that right? Does that feel right? Is that cool? And then asking our friends, our peers as well for any kind of advice we could get, which was a little bit sparse, I’ve got be honest.
But it felt right. I think if you do a really great bit of work, you get rewarded with more work. And that was happening quite a lot, especially with Coca-Cola. So we knew we were doing something right, and then these amazing marketeers would go, “Just wait here, I want you to meet my counterpart in this area.”
And so we’d love that because we love people, we love that connection. And so we knew it was going well because every time we went to Coca-Cola, when they were in Hammersmith, in the hallowed halls of Hammersmith, we’d pick up another brief, we’d go to deliver a presentation and pick up two briefs.
It was just incredible.
So we knew it was right, and it never fazed us because when you’re 28 and people are chucking work at you, you’re like, “Yeah, yeah, I’ll take it, I’ll take it. No problem.”
So it felt intuitive and that’s why intuitively it felt right. And I’m a great believer in trusting instinct and your gut. I still believe in that today.
If you think something’s off, it probably is. So that’s how we navigated it.
Being an outsider is a superpower—it forces you to think differently
So Gush, you’ve always stood out for thinking differently. And I know you’ve said before that as an immigrant, you have to adapt.
So how has that ability to adapt and reinvent yourself helped you as a business owner, particularly in recent turbulent times?
Well, I think as an immigrant, a bit of an outcast, I think you have to be resilient, right?
Because you’re not treated the same, you’re not treated fairly, so you’ve got to think in a different way. I call it hustle. And one of the team coined hustle and heart, which is, it’s a basketball term, and that’s what we’re all about.
So I think when you’re an immigrant, when you’re an outsider, you have to think around the periphery quite a lot. You can’t go with the flow because you’re not part of it. And so you are always adapting and thinking about the next thing or, what if I did this?
So our business has been built on that from the start. It’s problem-solving, it’s solution solving. And so that’s how my brain works, that’s how I’ve always been brought up as well. And I’ve had to learn that myself.
So it’s about thinking through things in different ways. So when the pandemic hit, for example, none of us knew what was going to happen. But we made a decision very early on that our team were feeling very unsure, very unsure about things.
And this word kept coming up like furlough and everything else. And I had to Google that. I didn’t know where furlough was, I had no idea, who knew?
So we kind of looked at the books, we looked at called our clients, and we made a decision four weeks in, to say to everyone, “Look, we are not going to furlough anyone. We are keeping everyone on. We want you to feel really reassured. And as we are working together, but apart, we’re going to put in regular catchups regular meetings, regular Q&As, where we can talk to you, and you can ask us anything you want about the business.”
Which we do anyway. We do that anyway within the business, but we’re all working virtually. So that’s quite difficult.
And I think it’s just about listening and as things unfold, going, you’ve got an idea and a process, and if things change, you just got to rethink that narrative a little bit. And that’s what we are very good at.
We don’t just go, we’ve got this in place now. That’s the way it’s going to be for the next five years. As things change, as the landscape changes in terms of business or something else we have to learn, or a new technology comes in, we rethink things and put them back into play.
I think that’s cool. I think not enough people do that. And I think, as an immigrant, you’re always thinking like that because you have to. You’ve got to be on your toes all the time. So I think it really helps.
As I say, what I thought was a weakness, being an outsider and having that outside perspective, I really think is a superpower to think differently.
Supporting underprivileged communities
And you are also supporting communities and underprivileged kids through charity work as well, aren’t you?
Yeah, so we have a charity fund that my wife and I own, called Saavan’s Trust, which is a charity that supports underprivileged children. And our basis is that we use learning and education as a way of self-improvement and progression because actually, in many parts of the world, education isn’t a given, and it’s certainly not free.
So schools we believe are, it’s quite interesting, because of my background, but we believe that schools in these local communities are the cornerstone because they’re so much more than just a place for education.
It’s actually a place for community and people to come together. They do so many functions for the villages and what have you.
So we’ve built a school in Barmurikona Village, which is in the Assam region of India, that’s for 1,800 children. When I say we built it, we funded the project through Action Aid, who are an amazing charity, and they find us these projects, and we then take that project on and fund it.
And as part of that, we went over there to actually clear the land and lay the first initial bricks for the foundation, which was amazing. We were just in love with all of the children and the teachers.
The reason we do this in underprivileged parts of the world is for two reasons really.
One, is because it’s really needed, and they don’t have access to education, and it’s really important. And the second reason is that the pound goes a long way.
Even now, when we’re smashed against the dollar, in parts of India and other parts of the world, it still goes a long way. So £150,000 builds a school for 1,800 children.
We’ve got a second project we’re supporting in Cambodia, which will be going over in January of next year. So to do exactly the same thing. So really believe it’s very important to give back.
And that goes back to my roots, my origin, really. So I’m Sikh by upbringing, and as Sikhs we are taught sewa and sewa is the act of giving, without any consequence to yourself.
So you help, and you give unconditionally, and you don’t take anything back for it.
So I’ve always been brought up like that, and I think if you are in a position of strength, you should help those that are less so. I’ve always thought like that.
So it’s something we foster here at Bulletproof. And out of the pitch fees that we donate to charity, anyone at Bulletproof can nominate a charity that’s close to their hearts, for personal reasons, and we’ll support it.
Thank you so much for joining us today, Gush. I’m just in awe, and I’m sure our listeners are as well.
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