Sahar Hashemi: ‘Stay close to your customers’

Coffee Republic founder Sahar Hashemi tells SmallBusiness.co.uk about her regrets at leaving the coffee chain and why it's important to stay within touching distance of your customers.

After selling Coffee Republic in 2001, Sahar Hashemi has written several books and launched a diet range of sweets, Skinny Candy. Here she talks to SmallBusiness.co.uk about her regrets at leaving the coffee chain and why it’s important to stay close to your customers.

The most important thing in business is to be 100 per cent yourself. That’s a mistake I made in the past: leaving part of myself at home.

If I could go back, I would never have left Coffee Republic. It started out very much as a kitchen table business and after it began to grow we felt we needed to hire a professional management team. This brought a formal structure to the company, but also made it less off-the-cuff and entrepreneurial.

I thought maybe my time running the business had finished and it didn’t require the same passion from me anymore. I deferred to conventional wisdom. How wrong I was.

The lesson I learned was to hire for will not skill. All the people we took on board had great CVs, but their experience held them back. Being innovative sometimes involves unlearning things and sometimes there is a lot to be said for being clueless.

Customer focus

You need to be close to your customers and when you have a big management team on board that interaction can go on autopilot – you find yourself doing the same things as you’ve always done and it becomes harder to be creative. I also felt a sense of it turning into the company versus the customer.

Under the new structure I became the marketing director. I remember complaining that some of the stores were dirty and being told that it wasn’t my concern but that of the operations director.

I began to feel like an employee, with all the loaded connotations that word has of just switching off and doing the job. I’d lost control of the whole vision of the company and that’s the only way to be passionate about what you are doing. This eventually led to my decision to leave the business.

Tough call

I recently sold a 50 per cent stake in Skinny Candy to a large business and it’s in the process of being re-launched, so the jury’s out on whether or not that was a good decision. At the time of the sale the company that acquired us was headed up by an entrepreneurial CEO who had big dreams, but since then it has been bought out. So maybe that will be another decision I’ll wish I’d made differently. Unfortunately, you’re always learning lessons.

Of course there are benefits in selling to a larger company. I know plenty of people who have managed to increase their market share by doing so, but I think there is a certain paralysis in big organisations. Even when you’ve got a really great person in charge, there’s always the disadvantage that it won’t be as fast and nimble as a smaller business.

For example, with Skinny Candy we were able to move really quickly by doing things like packaging and sending off the products ourselves. A larger company wouldn’t see it as the job of the management to do that.

Heart and soul

I’ve always believed it’s important to treat work and play as the same thing. If I’m not having fun doing something, then I know I’m not doing a good job.

Of course, that also involves a lot of hard work, but it’s about feeling absorbed and really in the zone. I only started to lose that at Coffee Republic when I was told that I couldn’t put myself in the position of the customer any more and had to concentrate on my specific role.

Sahar Hashemi’s latest book is called Switched On

Leave a comment