The founder of Cobra Beer and cross-bench peer, Lord Bilimoria, spoke to Business Advice to discuss his new venture and why he thinks the current business climate is so hospitable for small firms.
The foundations for Bilimoria’s business empire were established in 1989, following graduation from Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge. During his time at university, Bilimoria had regularly eaten at Indian restaurants and felt regular larger was too gassy to be enjoyed alongside the meals, while ale was too bitter.
The desire to create a new option possessing the refreshing qualities of a lager, with the drinkability of an ale, resulted in the creation of Cobra Beer. At that stage, despite being qualified as a chartered accountant and picking up a law degree from Cambridge, he was pretty new to the world of business and entrepreneurship. “It was very important we had a mentor who was a seasoned businessman with global experience,” Bilimoria explained as his first port of call with business partner Arjun Reddy. “He introduced us to the Mysore Brewer in India where Cobra was first brewed.”
Also crucial in the early stages was devoting the entirety of his time to the endeavour. “You have to give it your everything, and cannot just spend part of your time working on it,” Bilimoria said. “Once I decided to put that big idea into play, I had to make that leap and commit to getting my business off the ground and making it a success.”
He feels having a big idea was integral to his own career aims. “With Cobra I wanted to create the best ever Indian beer and make it a global beer brand” – it’s now stocked in 98.6 per cent of the UK’s curry restaurants as well as thousands of supermarkets and pubs across the UK, and has been exported to more than 45 countries worldwide.
The same belief extends to his new project, photo-sharing app PictoSo, which Bilimoria has just launched with his cousin and business partner Rashid Bilimoria and app developer Philipp Reisinger.
The app is for IOS, free to download and enables groups of users to instantly create shared albums with photographs and ten second videos, so “they can share the moments that matter with the people that matter”.
While there’s a plethora of photo-sharing apps out there, the trio are confident PictoSo Is unique and fulfils “a genuine need”.
Bilimoria added that “it’s about creating the ultimate photo-sharing app, where photos are shared instantly, directly onto people’s phones stored at high quality, and are shared with specific groups of people”.
He has kept an eye on the tech space, while the idea for the app overlapped with his own interest in photography. Bilimoria had “a Eureka moment” at Harvard Business School, when he heard the number of photos uploaded to the internet was 700bn over the past year, and could be as high as one trillion by the end of 2015.
“Seeing the trend of storage costs dropping, broadband costs dropping, data speed and capacity increasing, and smartphone usage increasing, it was clear that everything was going in the right direction to create a photo-sharing app with a difference,” he explained.
He thinks having “global ambitions from the start” is an important propelling force in getting a business off the ground in its early formative years, and making sure you’re “creating a product that was different in some way, and which would provide a genuine benefit to your customers and consumers”.
“If I was able to take on the beer giants with Cobra, there is no reason why I can’t take on the tech giants like WhatsApp, Snapchat and Facebook,” he said.
This fearless attitude is one he feels small businesses should embrace too. “Tackle the behemoths of business boldly; if it feels brash and daring and provokes a big response, then don’t be put off,” Bilimoria advised.
Since moving into the tech space, he has been impressed by the speed with which an idea can come to fruition. “I’ve been amazed by how quickly you can come up with ideas and make them happen. You can be constantly creative, not just in coming up with the basic idea but on a daily basis refining it, improving and adapting it,” he said. “With manufacturing you have long lead times; with a tech business you can actually make things happen the next day.”
He’s also positive about starting up a firm with a partner, particularly if they boast complementary skills. For him personally it was also important as they “supported each other through those early days which were really tough – to the extent that we lived and worked, all hours, in the same place, giving it everything to get it going”.
While nowadays Bilimoria acknowledged the small business climate is “always getting more competitive”, it is also much easier to get feedback “thanks to the internet and the resources you have at your fingertips now”. He feels access to networks offering support for small firms and entrepreneurs is more widely available and governments today “are much more pro-entrepreneurship than they were three decades ago”.
These along with the development of new funding options, combine to mean “in every way, the environment’s much better to set up now than it was”, according to Bilimoria.
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