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Latte habit out of control? Blame Sahar Hashemi, erstwhile co-founder of the Coffee Republic chain.

In episode six of Sound Advice, we delve into how the coffee craze ramped up courtesy of the former lawyer and a super smart business plan that slowly smashed through suppliers’ and banks’ countless rejections.

Navigate our show notes to quickly find the information you need:

Bust self-taught myths: You don’t need the ‘entrepreneur’ chromosome

Sometimes you have to jump, and the net will appear

Lightbulb moments are daunting – what next?

A business plan is a ‘brain dump’

Business should be incredibly personal

Be persistent (it’s OK to get a ‘no’, or three)

Two founders can become the perfect single entrepreneur

What to do when you’re not breaking even

We scaled up from home – you can too

Beware going entrepreneurial to corporate

Never lose the soul of your company

Value your customer connection above all

If it doesn’t work, move on and do something special

Keep your costs as low as possible to survive

Look at your business from the customer’s point of view

Passion means to play to your strengths

If you’re a woman in business, check out Buy Women Build

Bex Burn-Callander:

You have this mantra that anyone can be an entrepreneur and that you don’t have to be born with a sixth sense for business.

Your background was that of a lawyer, which isn’t necessarily what you would class as the most entrepreneurial profession.

How did you find that you could become an entrepreneur, given it hadn’t previously been your calling?

Sahar Hashemi:

I never thought I was the entrepreneurial type. When I was growing up, there were only a few entrepreneurs people knew. There wasn’t this idea that ordinary people could do it.

Entrepreneurs had to be super creative, imaginative and adventurous – a real outlier like Richard Branson. The guy loves ballooning and risk.

But my upbringing wasn’t like that – I didn’t know any entrepreneurs. I didn’t know a single person who had started their own business.

Bex Burn-Callander:

When I was writing for a business magazine back in the early noughties, I remember struggling to find any women to put on the cover.

I remember hearing about you and being happy there were more women out there. I know that sounds crazy now because there are so many outstanding female entrepreneurs out there now.

But you were a trailblazer back then.

Sahar Hashemi:

I think I was one of the few women entrepreneurs telling our stories, but we did have entrepreneurs back then because every business has someone who starts it.

Entrepreneurship is what people have done since the beginning of time. But I was one of the people telling their story in a way by saying there’s a system to this, and this is how I did it.

I wanted to inspire women to do it, taking away the myth that there’s a particular chromosome or personality trait that some people have got, and some people haven’t.

Bex Burn-Callander:

Some people might know of the Coffee Republic journey. It all started in New York – you were a lawyer by this point, but you weren’t happy.

Give us a quick tour of the journey that took you to be a founder?

Sahar Hashemi:

I had been working for five years in a law firm and getting quite disillusioned, as to be honest, I wasn’t good at what I was doing. When you’re no good at what you’re doing, you don’t enjoy it.

Going to the office felt a bit like torture because I wasn’t using my purpose or passion. I think if you’re good at something, that’s where you find your passion.

I never thought of leaving because back then you had one career and once you were on that career ladder, you don’t leave. It would be idiotic. The worst thing you could ever do is to leap and jump off.

What happened to me was we come from a close family of four, and my father died very suddenly, very unexpectedly, at a very young age. It was such a shock to my system, that suddenly I thought – who says a career is for life? Because nothing is for life.

There is no comfort zone. If someone’s life could end like that, so unexpectedly, then what am I holding on to? Where is that sense of security that I thought existed in life?

I think sometimes you have paradigm shifts, and my dad’s death was one of those. So, who says I can’t leave and start something else.

I left this law firm, which was something, and everyone around me was saying: “You’re mad.” The thing about a law firm is once you leave, you can’t ever get back in. It was a leap into the unknown.

My big motto in life is you leap, and the net will appear. Sometimes it’s only from taking that leap that we see what’s out there. So many people get on the cliff edge thinking about the jump, and it’s a terrifying place.

But I often think about my dad’s death.

Instead of sitting at the cliff edge, looking at the jump and thinking about what I wanted to do, I did it. I left. I thought there must be something better here.

Sahar Hashemi:

When I left, I had nothing to do, having not worked before. My brother Bobby worked in New York, and I visited him because I had some spare time. I could stay in his apartment for free, so that was just an incentive, and I thought, why not take advantage?

I got my big idea the very first morning I arrived in New York. I woke up jet-lagged, looking for a cup of coffee.

I came across this shop called New World Coffee. I saw these American style coffee bars for the first time, and I fell in love with it.

I thought it was a fantastic way to start the morning.

Even now, I can remember the smell of the place and the smell of coffee. I fell in love with it, and that was the genesis. That was how I got a light bulb moment.

When I got back to London, stuck at home without a job, I felt I wanted to leave the house in the morning, and go somewhere like what I saw in New York.

It will be hard for younger people to believe that at that time, there was nowhere to go for a cup of coffee in the morning. You had to wait until a restaurant or cafe opened.

You had sandwich bars, and you could go and get a sandwich, but it wasn’t conducive to a great cup of coffee, because it was all about lunch. They didn’t get going in the morning.

My brother came to London to visit my mum, and we had a Thai meal. I remember saying to my brother, “Gosh, you know what, now I’m not working, I just wish we had those buzzy coffee bars I saw in New York to start my morning.

It was a typical conversation that you have when you’ve seen something abroad that you miss. I never said it with any intention, but my brother got the light bulb and said: “This is a brilliant business idea.”

He had heard of Starbucks when he was working in New York, and someone had mentioned this huge coffee trend coming.

He said to me, “We should bring this idea to the UK.” My response was to think he was mad. I told him, “I only meant it as a customer because I’m a customer.”

I thought to myself – why would we be the ones who bring this to the UK? As as a customer, why would I have to provide a solution to my problem? Other people do this.

But my brother said, “Listen, I know you don’t want to do it.” And I did not want to do it, because I just thought there should be other people to do this because I was a customer and there are other people that open coffee bars.

But very cleverly, he said, “OK, if you don’t want to do it, just do some research for me because I think this is a brilliant idea. What if I pay you to do some research for me?”

Sahar Hashemi:

And that was the only reason I went for it. My brother led me to the first step – do some market research.

The very next day, I got on the Circle line on the London Underground. My market research was getting off at every single stop on the Circle line to see what there was in terms of possible competition, and of course, there was nothing.

After that one day on the Circle line, I became convinced that there was a real market gap. I knew that there was nothing like I had seen in New York.

Bex Burn-Callander:

So you started with the market research – laying the path that you follow. So, you’ve got a great idea or got the germ of an idea and started with research.

Then what happened next? Was it creating the business plan and raising finances? Did you follow a standard journey, or did you take a roundabout route?

Sahar Hashemi:

It was a very standard journey, but I didn’t realise it. In the book we wrote, Anyone Can Do It, I’ve got the faxes between my brother and I. Because he was then travelling quite a bit, we had to fax each other. The next step was if there is a gap, let me find out more.

It took three months of market research before we could write the business plan. For me, the business plan was answering questions like:

  • What is it you’re going to do?
  • How you’re going to do it?
  • Who you’re going to do it with?
  • How much is it going to cost?
  • How big is the market?
  • What’s the potential?

In answering all these questions, we had to research, and get our head around the idea.

For example, I’ve seen coffee bars in New York. It looks like a great concept, and I love it as a customer, but I had to find out:

  • Does it fit our market?
  • Is there anyone else doing it?
  • Do we drink coffee in the UK, or are we, permanent tea drinkers?

You’re just going to get these little snippets of information. When you see the potential, dig further.

I think sometimes people look for too much certainty in a business idea. Every day you progress, it leads you to the next day, and the next day, and the next day.

That 1% every day could get you to 100% eventually in three months.

It’s a slow journey of persuading yourself because if you haven’t convinced yourself, there’s no way you can convince others.

The first person you’ve got to sell the idea to is yourself because you’ve got to believe in it. That’s where your persistence comes from, and that’s why market research is so important.

So we did the market research, and it’s ended in a business plan.

It’s like a brain dump – it’s everything you know in there, documenting it as it’s fresh in your mind because there’s no point getting information, where it goes in one ear, out the other.

You write it out, you logically go through it, and that’s where you’ve got a business plan. It becomes a great sales document and a great mission statement for you.

The business plan is essential – the DNA of your business.

Bex Burn-Callander:

I want to get my head around the fact there wasn’t the market and coffee-drinking habit in the UK already, so you would have to educate, as you say, a nation of tea drinkers.

So how did you know?

Did you do focus groups where people said, “Oh yeah, I could move to coffee.” Or did you have to go on gut instinct that people would come around, and fall in love with it the same way that you had?

Sahar Hashemi:

Focus groups and market research costs money.

I remember looking to see if I could buy a couple of these Mintel reports (detailed consumer data reports), and they cost a fortune.

So, I went to City Business Library, and I just spent a whole day thinking let me research this market because you could access a lot of this market research in a library.

I looked at the entire market and saw that we were a nation of tea drinkers. We drank seven times more tea than we drank coffee, at that time. Of the coffee we drank, 90% of it was instant.

Interestingly, in Europe, 90% of the coffee drunk was real coffee, sort of how we make it now in the form of espresso. It was ground coffee rather than instant manufactured coffee.

I remember in a couple of these reports I read, in the library, that we’re developing more European habits because at that time EasyJet had just started and there was sort of the beginning of low-cost travel.

We took on many European practices like eating croissants, and shops were already opening up to cater to that.

There was an idea that we’re going to blend in more with European habits, as there was a considerable discrepancy—90% real coffee in Europe, 90% instant to us.

We drank much less per capita coffee than other countries, yet the borders were going away with low-cost travel.

In my logic of persuading myself, I could see that because we’re not stuck in this sort of island and insulated anymore, we’re going to develop these habits.

So the potential was huge to move people, and frankly, I think business has got to be personal. People say business is not personal, but for me, it should be incredibly personal.

I thought it was a no-brainer because, if I have a delicious caramel cappuccino appropriately made with a proper foam and delicious kick of a double espresso, correctly done, would I want to go back to my Nescafe instant?

No. You just can’t even compare the experiences.

From what I saw myself and what I liked, I just figured it’s a no-brainer. It’s a combination of hard facts and figures from market research, together with your instinct.

You can’t just go on your instinct, and you can’t just go on hard facts. You’ve got to combine them. I call it an educated gut instinct.

Bex Burn-Callander:

There was a whole confluence of trends that you spotted. What has EasyJet got to do with the nation’s coffee-drinking habits? I would be confused. I would never have seen the link until you explained it to me.

Sahar Hashemi:

Another trend was Friends and Central Perk. The TV series Friends was massive then, and they got together at Central Perk. Everything was going towards that and changing.

Bex Burn-Callander:

How did you end up opening your first store? Where did the money come from? How tough was it when you hadn’t done anything like that before?

Sahar Hashemi:

When we did the business plan, we calculated we needed about £90,000 to open the first store, and the question was, where do we find £90,000? My brother was a banker in his job, but he had no idea how to raise that much money.

I remember calling up a bunch of banks, including my bank manager at Lloyd’s. But there was not much goodwill there from my overdrafts, so he wasn’t going to help.

So, we started randomly calling bank managers to see who would give us the loan, literally going through the Yellow Pages, and speaking to whoever would pick up the phone.

We ended up calling 40 bank managers, and of those, we got interviews with 20 bank managers.

The first 19 bank managers were terrible and said to us that this idea is crazy. We’re a nation of tea drinkers, and why on earth would you bring coffee to native tea drinkers? And they looked at our draft menus with fancy coffee names and said people would hate it.

They said it was so American – people are never going to call something like a skinny latte or macchiato or something like that.

It was so awful. I just remember driving back and being so disillusioned. But somehow, after what I now believe was a persistence test, the 20th bank manager said yes to us and said they would give us the loan, and we couldn’t believe it.

We got the loan guaranteed under the small firms’ loan guarantee scheme (no longer running but check gov.uk because there are plenty of others out there) because we had nothing to put up against as security for the £90,000 loan.

Thank God a government scheme helped guarantee that bank loan! That’s how we got the bank loan, and that’s how we got going.

Bex Burn-Callander:

How did you get over all those ‘no’s’ though? After the first 10, how did you keep dragging yourself to another meeting and keep building yourself back up when people were just trying to tear you down the whole time?

Sahar Hashemi:

You’ve got to believe in the idea.

Somehow there was this feeling of them not having been to New York, that they haven’t seen those coffee bars, and seen that incredible buzz. They probably don’t even drink coffee, and they’ve had just one minute to listen to my presentation.

Maybe they’ve had a bad day. Or they haven’t adequately thought about the idea, and they’ve got to say something. They don’t know as much as we do about coffee.

But in a way, persistence is something that we’ve all got to learn, and I had known about from my parents. They’d always taught me that you’re not going to get yes the first time around. Even when I got a law firm job, I was rejected by the same company three times.

I think that if you expect to get a yes and ask people to validate your idea, you’re going to be in trouble. You think everyone might be going to be against you, and it’s OK to get a no. I had that mindset.

I come across so many entrepreneurs now who as soon as they’ve got a great idea, they go around excited telling other people about it, and those people are just absolute balloon poppers. They just give up because someone else rolled their eyes when they said something.

That happens so often that’s why I always say keep it quiet to yourself, so you develop a kind of muscle around the persistence.

Everyone is going to pour cold water over your idea and denigrate it when you say it. It’s just a normal human reaction.

That’s why you mustn’t share your idea with too many people because they can put you off massively even if it’s brilliant. Even family members try to protect and guide you, but they can put you off.

Bex Burn-Callander:

Tell me about working with your brother and how that worked for you two. Did you fight like cat and dog, or did you just get along? Was it smooth sailing the whole way through?

Talk to me about how that relationship affected the success of Coffee Republic.

Sahar Hashemi:

It wasn’t that Bobby was a supporter – it was that Bobby initially came up with the idea, and he always wanted to start his own business. I was fortunate because he knew about business, as he’d been to business school.

He had this a certainty about it in a way I didn’t.

I always say the two of us together became the perfect single entrepreneur. I had the idea, as I was the ultimate customer.

There was a bubble in my head. I was thinking about muffins, coffee, syrups and iced coffee, while my brother was the one turning those ideas into numbers with his vision.

I think siblings are great to start a business with. I had with Bobby the type of sibling relationship where we used to fight the whole time and almost plot each other’s deaths, but we forgot about it the next minute.

So literally we got our training in the sandpit because he’s probably the only person still in life that I can say whatever I want to, and then next minute, five minutes later, be like “hey there, let’s go for a drink”.

I think people are used to fighting with their siblings, and that made it much more comfortable. If we disagreed, and we did disagree about so many things, we’d have an enormous fight about it. One of us would win, but at least it clears the air.

You’ve got to make sure you start the business with someone you can regularly clear the air with because you don’t want any tension building up.

Bex Burn-Callander:

So your first shop opened on South Molton Street, London, in 1995. How did you get the first people through the door?

Did you have any clever tricks to get people to try this new place, and what was your marketing strategy back then?

Sahar Hashemi:

The opening was on November 5 in 1995, and I remember it was terrifying. On opening day, I remember asking myself how many milk pints I order for a coffee bar?

There are so many coffee bars nowadays that there probably is a formula, but there was nothing back then.

How many pints of milk are you going to get? Who’s going to order skimmed milk? How many coffees will need full-fat milk? How many will contain soya milk?

It was real guesswork, and I remember that because we couldn’t get a milk delivery, I went to Sainsbury’s, getting the milk and dropping it off.

We opened the doors, and it was terrifying. I thought people would come in individually, but suddenly they would come in all together with their kids making a mess.

The store would be full, but we had no experience how to deal with the queues. I remember we ran out of milk and thinking where do you buy it? You didn’t have those little express supermarkets back then.

So that was great on Saturday. In November, the Christmas shopping happens on a Saturday, and we were just off Oxford Street.

But then Monday came, and it went quiet.

Our break-even sales were £700, but every day for the first six months we were making only around £200. I’m discounting my mom who was coming in every single day drinking as many cappuccinos as you possibly, humanly can drink.

We didn’t get that many customers, and that’s when we started marketing massively. I remember doing deliveries, even though deliveries were inconvenient. We leafleted all the nearby offices.

We gave up loyalty cards that stamped eight times, so people just had to buy two coffees to get a free coffee. Our first two employees and I would go out on the street with these vanilla lattes for people to taste.

You’ve got to do everything.

I always have this thing when I see new stores opening, and see the staff are just sitting there waiting. I almost bet my husband that their store is not going to last.

Because whenever I see one in our neighbourhood, and they’re not flogging it at the beginning, I feel there’s no hope, and they’re going to close.

You’ve got to flog a business.

You’ve just got to get out there and get momentum around the company. I think a business is like a human being – you can’t let it just flatline in the beginning. You’ve got to give energy to a new business.

Even if you give out loads of freebies initially – the fact that your store is full and people see people going in and getting things – it just adds to the energy.

It only adds to the momentum around the business, because if you think about it, business starts in complete inertia, and you’ve got to get it going.

It’s like a plane, where you need to use so much energy to get it to take off. Once it takes off, you’re going to be more comfortable, but just like a plane is at full throttle when it takes off, you’ve got to put every bit of energy you can to be on top of it.

It would help if you did whatever you can to get customers through the door. If you believe in your product, get them tasting your product. And because you believe in it, when they taste it, they’re going to come back. You’ve converted them.

We used to call it converting customers one at a time because we were convinced that once they come and have a great cup of coffee, they weren’t going to go back to their old greasy spoon sandwich bar.

They’re not going to be happy in the office kitchen making an instant coffee or drink something out of the coffee machine.

They’re going to want to come back for this experience because it was so great.

Bex Burn-Callander:

So Coffee Republic grew, and at its height, there were 110 stores.

So how did you find that scale-up journey, how did you manage that growth, and what was your experience of the business becoming so much bigger and much harder to manage?

Sahar Hashemi:

We were working from home at the beginning. When we had one store, my brother and I moved back to live with my mum, so our house was this centre of activity. We opened another six stores working from home.

The home no longer became home because we had to employ a bookkeeper, while deliveries were coming to my poor mum’s house.

We lived in a block of flats, and I was worried that all the other neighbours would start complaining about the number of commercial deliveries we got.

When we had seven stores, we went on a big money-raising round and reverted into this company on the Alternative Investment Market (AIM; a sub-market of the London Stock Exchange).

Suddenly we’re a listed company at seven stores, can you imagine?

That was only two years after we started. I remember we had to have a finance director full time because if you’re on AIM, you have to have one. I remember saying to my brother, “Which bedroom are we going to put the finance director in?” Which is when we thought OK, we’ve got to move into an office.

We moved into an office. It was lovely because even though we had seven stores, we were still thinking entrepreneurially. No one knew about it because the whole coffee bar thing hadn’t started.

We got quite a lot of kooky people. People who had something about them and loved this concept as we did. They loved coffee or believed in Bobby and me. There was a sort of chemistry when they came.

It was the most incredible few years with this original team. Our receptionist went and headed up one of our properties – it was the most extraordinary thing.

Sahar Hashemi:

People just gravitated to the brand, and we grew to 30 stores while keeping close to customers.

We’d have all the meetings in the stores. There were no rules, bureaucracy, or even titles. Everyone was busy doing their own thing, but there was just this cohesion and soul.

We became a big hit and people were talking about Coffee Republic. Around the year 2000, the Financial Times had just named us one of the great British brands, so we had done very well.

At that time, we thought that if we had done so well with this inexperienced management team, imagine if we got the best people in with the best CVs and experience with expansion.

We started hiring.

We brought in people from Pret A Manger because they were ahead of us in their growth. We wanted to be a big company, so we hired people from big companies who knew about coffee, like Nestle. We brought in the grown-ups.

I remember we hired someone, and he said, “I want to become managing director.” And he said to me, “Sahar, what’s your title?” I said I didn’t have a title. I just do everything. And he says, “Well you do mostly marketing. OK, you become marketing director.”

We grew the company, and change happened quite slowly. It takes time for the culture to change because the culture is about behaviours. After a while, when people bring in procedures, behaviours start changing.

Everyone had specific titles, and I could physically see silos were going up.

People came in and brought all these systems and controls. Suddenly nobody discussed anything until the Monday meeting. Systems, controls and procedures came in, and everything changed.

We went full swoop from entrepreneurial to corporate.

In five years, we grew to 110 stores. I felt Coffee Republic had become a corporate company, and it didn’t feel the same.

It was like we lost the soul and customer connection. It was all about what your boss is doing, and when the next management meeting was. It just all became about what was going on at the head office and not in the stores.

I lost touch with the company in a way. I felt quite distant from it. I felt like the company didn’t need me anymore.

I suppose it’s how parents feel when their child becomes an adult. People were hinting that although we had done well for starting the company, we were entrepreneurs. It’s time for you guys to leave and give it to the corporates to run.

And that’s what we did in 2001.

Bobby and I sold our shares, and we resigned from the company so others could grow it properly like we were told. We left very sadly in April 2001, sort of almost five years after we started.

Bex Burn-Callander:

Do you think that it would have been possible to grow Coffee Republic and keep its soul? Or do you think it’s part and parcel of becoming a big company that you have to lose some of that culture?

Sahar Hashemi:

I believe that the soul is the most important thing the company has got.

The soul gives the company a special feeling, that mutual purpose, that innovation, and customers’ real connection. The soul is something you should never lose.

The companies we see growing so fast, those Silicon Valley billion-dollar startups, have got that soul and they understand how vital that soul is.

I think the soul is the glue that ties that special feeling about the company, and once you lose that and you lose the innovation, you lose the customer connection. You lose what makes it unique.

I very much wish that we stayed on in a way, to keep that soul. Maybe others could have run it, but we would have tried to keep that soul alive because it’s the company’s real engine.

Once you lose that soul, I don’t think there’s much left. We didn’t realise how vital that soul was.

Bex Burn-Callander:

That’s good advice because many entrepreneurs and founders think that other people can run their business better.

You see a CV from somebody which has all these sparkling brands, and you make presumptions. The doubt sets in, and you assume that you might not be the right person anymore.

But you and Bobby were the right people, and it just got away from you.

Sahar Hashemi:

We weren’t good at certain things – for example, I don’t think I’m good at managing thousands of people. But the thing is you’ve got to get someone who understands how important the soul is.

I always tell the story of eBay CEO Meg Whitman.

When she came to the company, she wanted someone to tell her about stuff that she didn’t know because she didn’t start the company. It’s important someone that appreciates how vital that passion is.

It’s the reason why Howard Schultz returned to Starbucks because he felt its people had lost that connection. The same was with Steve Jobs when he came back to Apple.

They realised how vital that soul is.

If we did it again, I would have loved to have kept that customer connection, that passion and extra special something that a founder can bring.

Sahar Hashemi:

I wrote an article about it called What’s Love Got To Do With It?

I think many people say what’s love got to do with a company? But it is personal, as we knew the customers.

We had this fantastic insight into what the customer experience was, we could adapt quickly. That’s what was unique. We had that connection with it.

The corporates were too busy to understand the customer experience like us.

By the time they sorted through the market research reports, they were too busy running the company, forgetting that what essentially runs the company is the customer.

I always tell founders not to underestimate how much they know. One thing important which I think a lot of the business owners relate to after the hell everyone’s been through this and last year is fatigue.

When you start up a company, it’s relentless.

You’re so tired that you think you want to leave. I come across so many founders who say, “Oh God, I can’t wait to sell.”

I advise them that if you’re tired, don’t quit. Have a rest or sabbatical – take some time off.

I think that it’s a combination of underestimating your inabilities as a founder and what you’ve got, plus the sort of fatigue that sets in. It’s relentless – it’s 24-7.

There’s a lot of people I’ve met who quit and end up regretting it.

Bex Burn-Callander:

That’s a suitable warning for anyone listening who is reaching that breaking point and needs a break – don’t jack it all in.

Sahar Hashemi:

Exactly.

Bex Burn-Callander:

But if you hadn’t left, maybe you wouldn’t have gone on to write your extraordinary books and become such a fantastic mentor to big businesses who want to keep that startup culture.

Sahar Hashemi:

Exactly. There’s no point in sitting there in regret.

I ended up writing Anyone Can Do It, my first book, about the whole experience. At that time, no one had written about their startup experience – warts and all, breakthroughs and breakdowns.

I listed my system to start a business and tried to show anyone can do it.

Then I got on the speaking circuit telling my story, which has been incredible. I’ve come across the most incredible people and businesses, travelling around that.

My current passion is pursuing this idea of entrepreneurial thinking that we can all do, even in big companies.

I think as we emerge into the post-Covid era after everything that everyone’s been through, it’s like we have to start again.

We need new energy in our businesses. That startup mentality will become ever more relevant because in a way, after this, a lot of companies will be starting up again.

You’ve got to rise from the ashes and get going because customers have been asleep. The pace of change and their experiences have been different. It is like starting up because you’re relaunching into a new world. Where do you fit?

In my book, Start-Up Forever, I talk about that mentality. It’s not magic. It’s about through going back to customers, cutting the bureaucracy, forgetting about everything you know, trying things, bootstrap and on the cheap.

Just trying to be persistent, and create those little habits,

Adopting the joy of a startup mentality and having that kind of satisfaction could be the silver lining to all this.

Bex Burn-Callander:

You’re right that 2021 is a very unusual year. Given that many people who are listening have either just started a business or are thinking about it, I’d love to hear what you think they need to do to be prepared to trade this year and beyond.

I’ve read some research that shows the pandemic has been so polarising.

Some people are absolutely on the bread line and struggling. Other people have saved so much money; they can buy a house because they haven’t been able to go out for an entire year.

This whole polarised demographic must be incredibly unusual because the bit in the middle is missing. So, what do today’s entrepreneurs need to remember, and what skills do they need specifically to be successful now?

Sahar Hashemi:

I think for a lot of people, it is survival. Businesses have suffered in the consumer world. I haven’t been buying anything. I don’t know about you, but I can’t believe it when I look at my credit card bills.

I’ve got no desire or incentive to purchase or go out.

We’ve all gone into the lowest common denominator of just sitting in our track pants watching Netflix in the evening. But remember we are going to come out of this, and the consumer is still out there.

The world hasn’t changed to the extent people have become computers. People have a head, heart, and soul – they’re going to want things.

It’s about keeping your costs as low as you can.

My brother always told me that it’s about staying at the table long enough as an entrepreneur. You don’t want to run out of money, so it’s about keeping your costs as low as you can so you survive this rough time we’re going through.

Hopefully come spring and summer, people will be longing to get out there and do stuff and live life to the full, which is what we haven’t been doing.

Sahar Hashemi:

Are you prepared for that? The customer will come out. How are you going to meet that customer need?

So it all goes back to the DNA of entrepreneurial thinking, which is about getting to your customers. I fell in love with those coffee bars in New York because I wanted them as a customer myself.

It’s that customer experience that you’ve got to get into your head. Look at your business from your customer’s point of view.

There’s no point in saying I’ve got this business, and this is what I sell.

Who am I selling to?

Would they want it sold differently?

Do I slightly tweak my business?

Do I tweak the way I sell it?

How am I going to satisfy their need for my product?

How am I going to make sure they know of their demand for my product?

How am I going to anticipate a need they don’t realise they have now?

It’s just about entering this virtual reality of a customer’s world. They’re still there, they’re still alive, and they’re going to come out alive and kicking. It might be slow, but they’re going to want products again.

So again, it’s personal. If you think you need something, other people may need it. So have your tentacles out there, and go to business,

Bootstrap and keep your costs low so that you are there and ready and sit on the table when the good times come.

We’ve always had bad times, but there’s going to be good times again. Like that article that’s been going around the internet from that American professor that said the Roaring Twenties would come back with decadence and spending.

Let’s be ready for that.

Bex Burn-Callander:

Absolutely. And I completely concur with you. I cannot wait to walk around shops, touch everything take things to the cashier, and smile at a person.

No more online shopping. I’m going real world, bricks and mortar, 100%.

Sahar Hashemi:

Absolutely. Passion is about playing to your strengths.

Bex Burn-Callander:

Everyone talks about following your passion, and I love that you have a different spin on it because you say no – you can’t always just turn your passion into your business, as it doesn’t always work that way.

What’s your approach?

Sahar Hashemi:

For me, passion is the coming together of who you are, what tools you have, what tools you are born with, and your reservoir of talent.

We’re all born with something that we’re good at. It could be esoteric, but there’s the talent that everyone’s got – there’s some area that comes easily to them.

Your life’s journey should be finding out what you can do, and what is it unique about you. Finding what you’re good at, and then making sure what you do is what you’re good at.

Because often what you’re good at is an excellent signal of what you’ll enjoy doing.

What you’ll enjoy doing, that’s passion. When you’re playing to your strengths.

Me, for example, when I was a lawyer, I was passionate about working in a law firm, but once I started, I realised I’m not a great lawyer.

When I went into entrepreneurship, I loved my morning coffee, pastries and stuff like that. Making that happen was something that I loved doing. I could be resourceful. I loved looking at stuff, I loved researching, even as a consumer.

So, it’s always played to my strengths. Passion is about making sure that what you’re doing is something that plays to your strengths.

If you’re using your reservoir of talent and playing to your strengths, then by definition, you’re going to enjoy it. And going to work every day enjoying what you do, that’s amazing. That’s what you should be seeking.

But perhaps if you’re successful in what you do, your passion might be something that doesn’t necessarily make money.

Sahar Hashemi:

I’m launching this campaign for International Women’s Day 2021 (8 March) called Buy Women Build. Women’s businesses have been disproportionately affected by Covid because of the burden of home schooling.

The majority of jobs lost have been female jobs, so female entrepreneurship has taken a hit. Thinking of our economic recovery, if the same number of women started businesses, it would add something like £200bn to the UK economy.

I want to back female entrepreneurship. It stems from a tweet by Jacqueline de Rojas, who’s president of Tech UK. She said not everyone could mentor a female business or invest in it, but everyone can buy from women-owned businesses.

So Buy Women Build is about finding what products were made from businesses started by women, and to buy from these businesses. This not only helps those businesses, but can be a beacon for female entrepreneurship and our economy.

Audio transcript may have been edited for legibility and coherence.

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