As part of the Oxford Women in Business group’s series of talks this term, I went to listen to Sahar Hashemi, founder of Coffee Republic and Skinny Candy, as she told us the story of her rise as an entrepreneur.
Hashemi was keen to stress that she was not a natural businesswoman. “I never had this idea of myself as an entrepreneur. [There was no] special DNA. I did not make my first million in [the] playground, I was not even a school drop out.” She followed “a very traditional path” to study Law, and then worked at a law firm. But the legal world was not to Hashemi’s taste. “I couldn’t understand why no one was having fun at work… I refused to accept that, these were meant to be the best years of my life!” It was her father’s unexpected death that spurred her to try something different. She quit the law firm with no other job to go to. “My motto in life” she claims, “is jump first, and the net will appear.”
On a trip to the USA, Hashemi was entranced by American coffee bars. “I was hit by a wave of freshly made coffee in the morning…I remember going to the bar and being asked ‘Soy cappuccino, latte, espresso?’ I fell in love with it.” When she returned home, she complained to her mother and brother that there were no coffee bars in London. “Bobby turned to me and said ‘Right, we’re doing this. We’re going to bring coffee bars to London.’”
At first, Hashemi was not impressed. “I was just like ‘Hang on Bobby, you’ve got me completely wrong, why doesn’t someone ELSE open a coffee bar for me to go to it?’ I didn’t see why I had to provide a solution to my own problem.” But Hashemi was unemployed, and Bobby offered to pay her to do some market research. “I simply got an all-day tube pass for the circle line, and got off at every stop to see what they offered. It was disgusting filter coffee in polystyrene cups, and people were drinking it!” It was at that moment, Hashemi says, that she thought it would work.
It was a time for action. Bobby quit his job, they both rented out their flats and moved back in with their mother. I ask Sahar how her mother reacted when her two adult children moved back home. “She was always so supportive. People have often asked me who my mentor was, and I always said I didn’t have one, but my mum died recently and I’ve come to realise it was her.”
They knew nothing about coffee, and so gave themselves three months to learn as much as they could: “I nearly died OD-ing on 26 espressos during a coffee tasting course – no one told us we had to spit them out, so Bobby and I just drank them all.” Hashemi stands by “the importance of being clueless”, saying, “Never let your ignorance stop you. You can teach yourself, and then you have the asset of a fresh perspective.”
The bankers were not convinced by their enthusiasm. Of the 40 loans they requested for £90,000 to open their first coffee bar, only one banker said yes, “because we were a nation of tea drinkers” – Hashemi rolls her eyes – “but I had done my market research, and saw that coffee consumption had increased decade by decade.” Coffee Republic was the first coffee bar of its kind to open in the UK. “It was a disaster,” Hashemi tells us. Bobby and Sahar needed to make £700 per day to break even: they averaged £200 for the first six months – and that was including her mother, who gulped down several espressos a day just to keep the business afloat. Sourcing their products would also prove a challenge. Everything they did was “bootstrap”. Hashemi tells me, “We made our own coffee cups because no company knew how to make American-style coffee cups, no bakery knew how to make muffins.
“I had to get my cousin to send me cook books from America, and I found a woman who would make muffins in mum’s house every morning, which I would deliver to the store.” They stole their first two employees from Pret à Manger, because only they knew how to work a coffee machine.
To get the setting just right, Sahar and her cousins posed as tourists and took pictures of several American coffee bars to replicate the set-up in the UK. But after several years, the Coffee Republic became a thriving buisness, opening thousands of stores round the country. “We converted one customer at a time.” Now it’s difficult to imagine an age without coffee shops.
Sahar and Bobby sold their shares in 2001. “It was very traumatic… suddenly I felt redundant.” Hashemi remembers crying in the airport reading her own story in the Financial Times. “People were looking at me, wondering ‘What on earth could be so sad in the Financial Times?’” With more time on her hands, Hashemi could reflect on the meteoric rise (and eventual collapse) of her company, and wrote her book Anyone Can Do It, which has topped the Amazon best-seller list in the business category.
Hashemi describes it as her “anti-Richard Branson book”. She aimed to de-bunk myths about entrepreneurship. “I thought I was going to have to go to business school to do this. My brother said to me ‘Sahar, you’re going to the best business school in the world – you’re starting your own. You do not have to be an inherently special person. You just have to have an idea, determination, and be prepared to work very hard.”
Some might question whether it is fair for Hashemi to claim that “anyone can do it”. She had a professional background, a supportive family, and, most importantly, some financial assets. Some might say that the “net will appear” is a fine motto to have when you’re in your late twenties with a law degree; having the faith to leap with dependents or financial insecurity is another matter entirely.
But what one has to admire is her enthusiasm, inspiration and utter determination to succeed as she continues to expand her current business, Skinny Candy.