What is it like to walk away from a high flying career, risk everything, and launch yourself into entrepreneurship without a set business idea? Moving from a ten-year career in investment banking, to starting not just one, but a multitude of successful businesses; Rupa Ganatra’s story is a unique, unorthodox – and inspiring.
Now co-founder of Yes Sir!, the multi-award winning global online retailer of men’s grooming brands, and co-founder of the disruptive expo, Millennial 20/20, we caught up with Rupa to gain insight into her unusual story, and understand how to propel yourself into entrepreneurship, even if you don’t have a concrete business idea.
Getting to know Rupa
What values were instilled in you growing up?
From an early age I was encouraged to work hard, not to take shortcuts and be the best at what I did. My father, cousins, and other family members are all entrepreneurial. So hard work and dedication were always encouraged.
Being surrounded by entrepreneurship day-in, day-out definitely helped. If you don’t grow up in that environment I don’t think the entrepreneurial path is as apparent, which is a shame. Things are now changing of course, but I do think entrepreneurialism and innovation need to be highlighted more in schools as a career path option.
“You can do what you want, you can make anything of something through hard work and dedication,”
Looking at your skills objectively, you’re both highly creative and logical. How would you say you balance the two?
I think a good businessperson has a balance of the two. They’re both necessary ingredients. In a lot of businesses, particularly the ones I’m in, you need a mix of both to succeed.
I was very creative growing up. I did Indian dance, a lot of writing, art and painting; which I’ve picked up again recently. I also enjoy the numbers side of business however, and think the two things fit quite nicely together.
“In a lot of businesses, you need a mix of both creativity and logic to succeed.”
How much has your education and mathematical skill helped you as an entrepreneur, and what would you say to creative entrepreneurs who may feel insecure about the financial side of business?
Things like my degree have little relevance in what I’m doing now. I think real life experiences are what make a real impact in entrepreneurship. I’m not saying that people shouldn’t go to university, but what you learn practically, in the real world, is what really helps massively.
“Creativity, innovation and entrepreneurship should all be there as a tool kit in education, in the same way as you look at medicine as a career.”
For creative entrepreneurs who may be intimidated by the financial side of things, I’d say to remember that you don’t have to do everything alone. Some of the most successful entrepreneurs I’ve seen have been co-founders with different skill sets, who each bring different things to the table. I believe strongly in hiring amazing teams to supplement your skill set, or in speaking with mentors to find what you need.
There’s never been a more exciting time to be a start-up. There are more resources, more support, more infrastructure than ever before, so now really is the time if you’ve got that burning idea and want to try something out.
“For creative entrepreneurs who may be intimidated by the financial side of things, I’d say remember that you don’t have to do everything alone.”
You started your career in investment banking, then risked it all to launch yourself into entrepreneurship. What was your journey from the banking world to becoming an entrepreneur?
After I left Manchester University, the natural step for me was to become an accountant, consultant, or investment banker. But entrepreneurialism was always at the back of my mind.
I had a great early start. I was at the Royal Bank of Canada’s Investment bank for 9 years. I went into sales on the trading floor, and by age 22-23 was out travelling and pitching to clients. I became Vice President at 24, and Director at 26.
“Build your network before you need it.”
When I first decided to do something different, I carried my letter of resignation with me everyday for two weeks. Then, when I realised I wasn’t going to leave, I took a two and a half month sabbatical and was given a promotion to head up the Middle East area, which I did for a year.
The decision to take a sabbatical first, instead of quitting altogether, was really underlined by personal uncertainty and fear of the unknown. I didn’t know what I was going to do if I left, or even if I’d be good at it. I knew I wanted to start my own business, but didn’t have a concrete business idea.
I think uncertainty is something every entrepreneur has to deal with. One tip I’d recommend however, is to build your network before you need it. I had a series of business cards that I’d hand out to new contacts saying ‘I’m starting a business, though I don’t know what it is yet!”
“To be an entrepreneur is a way of life, and you have to be prepared to have uncertainty embedded into various areas of your life.”
What finally pushed your decision to start your entrepreneurial journey, and how did you begin?
“The idea itself is less than 10% of success. Execution is SO important.”
On New Years Eve 2011, I finally started thinking about what I needed to do, and what I needed to get in order to start a business within one year. It was a goal I had set myself and I was going to stick to it. I eventually handed in my notice and left the world of banking. In the beginning I considered a lot of different business ideas, but really didn’t know what I was actually going to launch with.
The journey started with The Business of Everything Magazine, an online digital publication. It all began when I realised that content is the foundation and starting block of most online journeys. That’s why I first chose to start BOE magazine; I saw a gap to provide business, entrepreneurial and lifestyle advice for someone in my situation.
My second business – Yes Sir! evolved BOE organically, when I met my co-founder Nicholas. Over our first meetup, we started discussing gaps in the online retail space. In the following week we did some research, and I started to observe the massive opportunity in the men’s grooming sector as a space to add value. Although I previously knew nothing about the niche itself, I researched far and wide.
Working on BOE was how I met my co-founder of Yes Sir! Nicholas, and also how I met Viktoria and started Millennial 20/20; we were looking for events to help our own businesses and not finding them, so started our own event.
Once you identified that niche for Yes Sir!, how did you test your concept?
We launched it! Luckily my business partner had the development skillset to build the website and branding, and I was able to partner with product distributors to gain stock on order, so we didn’t need initial marketing budget or to buy stock in advance.
Three months before launch we also started to build conversation on our digital channels such as Twitter, so we developed a good following, suspense and interest before we even pressed go.
“Before we even launched Yes Sir! we started to build conversation on our digital channels, so developed a good following and interest before we even pressed go.”
As an online retailer, how do you compete with the likes of eBay or Amazon?
It’s fair to say that the vast majority of pure play retail has gone to eBay or Amazon as a solution. But there are a few things you don’t find there such as the content to support that buying journey. Men still want informational content and advice; they are still in that discovery phase, and want a trusted source to go to. At Yes Sir! we really get to know our products, try them personally and curate that experience to bring the best new brands for our audience.
Once you had established Yes Sir!, your next (and current) focus became Millennial 20/20. How and why did that come to be?
Millennial 20/20 is the first event of its kind to bring together the world’s biggest brands and retailers and the most exciting startups to uncover the future of ‘nextgen’ commerce, marketing and entrepreneurship. It came about in response to myself and my business partner Viktoria trying (and failing) to find an event that addressed how innovation, disruption and technology are evolving the future of business. Myself and Viktoria had previously run conferences together; again to answer questions that nobody else was asking (in the digital/tech space), and Millennial 20/20 was the next step.
“There are so many event options around today, so the priority for success is really to recognise how you deliver unique value and content, and deliver difference.”
When setting up our first event, the initial stage was to launch a website. Then we’d ask people we knew in the industry to speak and spend a month calling potential sponsors. We learnt quickly that being so new we might not get these sponsors, so the priority became content value; curating content and speakers to deliver the best, most unique content possible.
The inaugural Millennial 20-20 event happened in April 2016, and was a massive success. (You can read Rebelhead founder Max Pepe’s review of the event HERE).
“When launching a business you need to consider A: how can you raise the barrier to entry so high on your product or what you’re offering B: how can you do something that’s going to make a difference and create value.”
What advice would you give to someone starting a business a right now?
“Start by identifying who your customer is, and work backwards. Think about who they are, what their challenges are, and use that to inform what you do.”
Things are always evolving, but I’d start by identifying who your customer is, and work backwards. Think about who they are, what they are interested in, where they are active online, what their challenges are, and use that to inform what you do and build trust. When it comes to social media, it’s better to have one really targeted and successful social platform, tailored to your audience and your product, rather than trying to be active on all platforms at once.
“Make sure that your product or your offering has the best USP, and raises the barrier to entry for competitors to come in. Secondly, just really believe in what you’re doing, work hard, and be good at execution.”
What have you had to rebel against to get to where you are?
My own internal thoughts. Having come from a traditional, corporate world where success is defined by targets, money and promotion, and into a situation where the parameters are less defined, I’ve had to go against those beliefs and re-evaluate in order to progress.
How do you set your priorities and goals, and how do you achieve them?
I like to set five year goals, then work backwards. So if you wanted to achieve a goal in five years, look at what you need to achieve in four, then keep working back until you know what you need to achieve month on month.
“Set five year goals, then work backwards.”
You’re a great advocate of mentorship. How do you go about building mentor relationships?
As a startup you often think ‘why would someone want to mentor me?’ But you’d be surprised how many people are happy to give advice over coffee, or stop for a quick talk. It’s a definite ‘if you don’t ask, you don’t get’ situation, so get in touch, go out and communicate.
I don’t believe in paying for mentorship, but I do believe in starting mutual, helpful relationships where each person offers the other inspiration; whether that’s once a month or once a year.
My business partners and mentors are a constant inspiration for me. In all my businesses, I’ve had industry related mentors to turn to for advice; it’s knowledge you can’t buy.
Rebel wrap up
If you could go back to any point in your life, and have one hour with your past self; what moment would it be and what would you tell yourself?
I’d go back to my days at school, when I used to rebel against my mother – and I’d tell myself that my mother is normally right.
What is the best piece of advice you have ever received, who gave it to you and how has it positively affected your career?
My father gave me some great advice very early on; that with hard work and luck on your side you can go on to achieve whatever you want to do in life.
What is the one generally agreed upon rule, or conventional piece of wisdom that you disagree with?
I disagree with anyone who doesn’t believe that entrepreneurship should be on the syllabus.