Since January, when we first met Kuljit Thiaray, founder of online ethnic marketplace Desi High Street, she has been on quite a journey. Here she speaks to Your Ready Business about launching her digital business, the discipline of working from home, and how a business accelerator programme has given her an entrepreneurial mindset.
Desi High Street is an online ethnic marketplace. It offers a much wider customer audience to traditional bricks and mortar shops selling South Asian and Middle Eastern goods. Shops that would otherwise only get customers walking in from the street.
I launched the company in December 2015, soon after taking part in a business accelerator programme called Entrepreneurial Spark. It runs courses for budding entrepreneurs with the aim of helping small businesses to grow – fast. The programme enabled me to launch our live test website in just three months. And at long last the bubbling idea I’ve had since 2012 became a reality.
Our business model is that we make commission on each item sold. Therefore it was essential to develop a robust and user-friendly platform that makes it easy for storeowners to upload and publish products themselves. The simpler we make it for them to sell, the more commission we get.
After the site launched, it was all systems go. We rebranded and ran an awareness campaign on South Asian television – tripling the number of retailers we have on board. There’s still work to be done, and more investment needed, but we’re moving in the right direction.
Sparking business growth
Entrepreneurial Spark is the world’s largest free business accelerator for start-ups and SMEs. They provide entrepreneurs like myself with mentorship, investment and a collaborative workspace to network and foster new relationships.
I first came across them on Twitter and was impressed with how positive and engaged they were with the entrepreneurial experience. So, when they tweeted that they were launching a ‘Hatchery’ in Leeds, I immediately applied online and anxiously awaited the outcome.
An email arrived giving me a date for a structured seven-minute interview and a pitch. It was nerve-wracking and on reflection, it was more a passionate preamble than a pitch, but thankfully I was accepted onto the programme.
Just a month later at the Entrepreneurial Spark Hatchery launch event, I found myself with five other businesses pitching for prize money to a panel of business dignitaries, professional services companies (including KPMG), and the CEO of the RBS Group, Ross McEwan. Much to my delight, I won!
The programme gave me the essential training and, crucially, the confidence to not only build my online platform but also launch it before it had been ‘perfected’.
Given my minimal tech experience, it was a huge learning curve to run an online business and manage a content management system (CMS). But I learnt fast, and the wonderful irony is that I now travel up and down the country convincing storeowners who are not familiar with technology to start selling on the web. To get over that first hurdle, I show them how easy it is to take photographs, upload and publish their products online.
Adopting an entrepreneurial mindset
Many of the storeowners that I visit want to know if I’m established before signing up. But ASOS Marketplace or Amazon didn’t happen overnight. They all had to start somewhere. Entrepreneurial Spark has helped me to think like an entrepreneur and given me the confidence to pitch my business in front of an audience.
They differ from other accelerator programmes in that they’re committed to building the entrepreneur behind the business, not just the business itself. I even have my own mentor (Entrepreneurial Spark calls them ‘Enablers’), the brilliant Mike Stephens, who meets me every fortnight. He acts as a sounding board and helps me set aspirational goals.
The programme can last up to eighteen months for those small businesses who demonstrate progress and development. And you’re not guaranteed a place. Business owners really need to show that they’re committed to the programme and are willing to make the effort, as there is a lot of competition out there from other budding entrepreneurs all vying for a position on it.
Fully equipped for flexible working
As a mum of three, technology is critical in enabling my business to run from anywhere. I set up my home office away from the main living space where I wouldn’t be interrupted. I have all my basic office needs – fast broadband, a mobile for business, laptop, printer and so on – everything necessary to ensure I can run my business smoothly from home.
With regards to IT and technology, the reality is that as long as I have 4G and data connection on my mobile, I can connect my laptop and work anywhere.
Words of wisdom for new SMEs
You don’t need to go it alone. Instead, I would recommend a business accelerator programme to any aspiring entrepreneur. The mentorship, opportunities and support they provide can propel a business like nothing else.
My other advice is to become comfortable with being uncomfortable. You must embrace unfamiliar challenges. Otherwise nobody will buy into you or your business. After all, if a tech novice like me can grow a digital business, nothing is impossible!