Sahar Hashemi Q&A – ‘Scale-ups need to step onto the podium’

Coffee Republic co-founder believes government needs to pay just as much to scale-ups as flashy startups

Sahar Hashemi is co-chair of the government’s Scale Up Taskforce. She launched Coffee Republic, the UK’s first coffee bar chain with her brother Bobby in the early 1990s. Within five years, they had grown it into a high-street business with a turnover of £30 million with 82 stores. Having left Coffee Republic in 2001, Hashemi then created now-defunct confectionary brand Skinny Candy, which she sold in 2007. Since then she has become an author. Her new book Startup Forever was published in February.

Why are you so passionate about scale-ups?

About two years ago, I didn’t even know what the phrase scale-up was until I got a letter from Margot James, then the business minister to say, hey, we’re building a taskforce to help scaling companies.

I have always been involved with companies in the start-up space. I felt that as a country we didn’t talk enough about entrepreneurs and we had fixed ideas who entrepreneurs were. So, when I got the letter from Margot James, I realised how far we lag behind in scale-ups in the country.

We’re ranked third for start-ups in the world but 13th for scale-up businesses. We lag behind the US and a lot of other people, so the potential for is huge. We need to close the gap between start-ups and scale-ups, discover what those barriers are and remove those barriers.

‘Once you’ve identified how to grow, you need to build up your house’

What are the barriers to growth facing UK businesses?

First, a lot is access to talent. Particularly, enhancing leadership and management skills is huge. A lot of scale-ups need more help because they lack leadership skills and don’t have any succession planning. There’s a lack of knowledge around leadership and management.

Also, there’s not enough information about external investment and equity finance. There are myths about bringing in outside investors because people don’t want to grow and give away too much, and what that entails.

Exports and being eligible for government procurement are other areas of concern.

What we must do is identify scaling businesses in growth hubs around the country, get them to collaborate with business schools and universities locally, and give them the proper training they need.

We’ve been putting entrepreneurs on a pedestal, but there are so many businesses doing an amazing job and we need scale-ups to step up onto the podium as well.

Government can give them a helping hand. If the government can be somewhere to connect those dots together, there’s huge benefits in that. The dividends could be huge.

What can be done to address entrepreneurs’ fears about external finance?

What’s happening now is that although there’s so much information on the internet, it’s not properly curated. There’s a lack of clarity.

What would you say to entrepreneurs thinking of scaling their businesses?

First, you need to think externally. Look at the potential out there. We’re all looking at a much more global market. And we’re not restricted to who supplies us locally when we’re looking for a product now. The potential is so much bigger.

Once you’ve identified how to grow, then you need to build up your house.

What’s the biggest surprise for you that’s come out of the Scale-up Taskforce?

When I first started, we were not a nation of entrepreneurs. America was much more entrepreneurial. It’s amazing how much we have become the start-up nation. We’ve got 5.4 million small businesses.

However, other countries give scale-ups local support. There’s a gap in the market here.

What change would you make to the ecosystem?

What I’d do is use these growth hubs because people can learn so much from each other. When you’re starting a business often you need to have somebody who’s been just one step ahead. My ideal solution would be to have robust local networks connected to local universities. That’s how you build a really strong ethos of scale-ups in a nation.

Sahar Hashemi is author of Startup Forever, published by Troubadour Publishing at £10.99

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