Big companies can benefit from start-up state of mind

Entrepreneurial spirit works no matter what your job is, says Sahar Hashemi

Being entrepreneurial should not simply be the preserve of those in start-ups. It’s a way of thinking that is often missing in large organisations. However, those brave enough to display it could prove to be salvation for larger companies from more nimble, disruptive entrants to traditional markets.

That's the message from Sahar Hashemi, co-founder of Coffee Republic, who is in Dublin to address a business audience hosted by KPMG next week on the subject of the entrepreneurial mindset.

"The pace of change now is such that being big now is no longer enough and can be a disadvantage in fact. You very much need to mimic start-ups in terms of fast execution and using technology to meet customer needs," she tells The Irish Times.

“A lot of organisations were started in a world that’s very far away from today’s market. Their systems and processes were in place before the connectivity and disruption we have now was put in place, so companies are not as agile. Start-ups are much more responsive.”


However, rather than leaving organisations to start up their own enterprises, Hashemi believes executives should consider whether they can bring about significant change in the organisations they currently work for. They may not be able to change their entire organisation overnight but they can change the team they work in, she says.

She also says that personal fulfilment can be found with the added benefit of the safety and security of a salary.

“People mention organisation culture as a barrier to change but culture is not set in stone; it’s the accumulation of behaviour. Everyone has a team, and you can change the culture of your team,” Hashemi says.

“Individual behaviour can have a big influence on teams. It could be about changing attitudes and the level of empathy with customers or experimenting and not being afraid to fail. If you do that, the culture of your team changes and that becomes contagious.”

Personal ownership

Hashemi says being agile and innovative are no longer “nice” attributes but are now necessary requirements for survival.

Taking personal ownership is a significant part of her entrepreneurial story. A former lawyer, she developed a taste for coffee culture on a visit to New York in the mid-1990s. Finding nothing similar in London when she returned (Starbucks and others had not yet exported the coffee chain concept to the UK), her brother and cofounder Bobby encouraged her to take the leap rather than waiting for someone else to do it.

They documented the early struggles of their business in their best-selling book Anyone Can Do It: Building Coffee Republic from Our Kitchen Table - 57 Real Life Laws on Entrepreneurship, to give it its long title. Raising finance was a problem with one banker allegedly rejecting the idea on the basis that Britain was a tea-drinking nation and a coffee chain would never work.

While snapping photos of a New York coffee shop she wanted to model hers on, her camera was confiscated. So she then persuaded a group of New Yorkers to pretend to take tourist pictures of themselves but to photograph coffee shops instead.

Major success

Despite a precarious start, the business became a major success and by 2001 it had more than 100 outlets and a full stock market listing.

Hashemi left the business at that stage to pursue other interests including mentoring, speaking and writing. Leaving Coffee Republic was a wrench. She recalls bursting into tears when the reality of this hit her when she read the story of her departure in the pages of the Financial Times.

She later established a confectionery brand called Skinny Candy, producing low-fat sweets and chocolates for speciality stores.

In 2012, Hashemi received an OBE for her services to the UK economy and charity. Among her current interests is advising a project to train homeless people to become baristas running their own coffee carts in London.

She has no plans to return to the coffee chain business herself which she believes is saturated. She is also not excited by the so-called third wave coffee concept that sees coffee as an artisanal foodstuff like wine.

“Those guys take their coffee pretty seriously, maybe too seriously. It’s only coffee at the end of the day,” she says.

Sahar Hashemi’s tips on being more entrepreneurial

1. Develop better empathy: Connect with your customer and see through their eyes how their world is changing. Opportunities then present themselves.

2. Don't be afraid to fail: Fail fast and learn from it as innovation doesn't happen otherwise.

3. Move out of your comfort zone: We are more stimulated and open to learning when we do new things.

4. Execute, then adapt: Do things this way if necessary, rather than waiting for the perfect moment.

5. Persevere but don't be disheartened: If one thing doesn't work out, try something else.