‘Trust your gut.’
Sukhi is the co-founder of MarketOrders, an online platform that allows independent jewellers to purchase gold and diamond jewellery directly from manufacturers. MarketOrders currently employs five people — two full-time founders and three part-time and has won a £100,000 pitch award.
Where did the business idea come from?
I am a secret serial entrepreneur. I’ve had five businesses beforehand on the side. All of them were failures because they didn’t take off, but to be honest I feel like there were signposts showing me ‘this is the right way, so try a different way’.
My background is banking. I come from a very strong processes and systems background and my co-founder has been in the gold and diamond industry for the past 20 years. The more I looked into it the more I loved the industry.
Less than 7% of transactions for gold and diamond jewellery products occur online. It’s an incredibly old and traditional industry where there is so much opportunity to disrupt and reinvent the way processes, systems and business are run. The core of this business runs on trust as we are dealing with high value products. With the majority of transactions taking place offline currently, this results in issues of purity with the gold and diamonds and the inability to track where retailers can purchase products they trust. MarketOrders aims to be the biggest and most trusted marketplace for both retailers and manufacturers to trade with each other.
My co-founder and I had a previous business prior to MarketOrders where we supplied retailers with the products they needed but the process was done the traditional way, offline. In 2.5 years we turned over £26 million but our profit margins were being eaten away with the costs of running the business offline. That’s when we decided to create MarketOrders. We thought, ‘let’s turn this business model on its head and disrupt it by taking it online’. So we pivoted the business.
I often say that MarketOrders is the phoenix that arose from the ashes of our previous business! We took all our learning and industry knowledge to create MarketOrders. It’s the online version with better systems and processes. Using technology in this business has created a lot of efficiencies and increased our margins so that we can now run a profitable and scalable business.
“I was lucky enough to raise £250k from an early stage VC fund…but I turned it down”
What challenges have you faced?
My favourite part of the story…
One of the challenges is finding a one-stop shop, which shows an entrepreneur where they can go for the information and support they need. When I became a founder I struggled with knowing where to look or who to speak to get the information I needed. It’s so scattered, you don’t know where to go. So, I resorted to googling everything!
The challenges I faced included finding answers to questions such as: ‘where do you find talent for start-ups; how do you raise investment?’. I came from a corporate background so asking my ex-colleagues to join my start-up was a no-go area, they said, ‘Good luck, but no thanks. We like our regular pay cheques!’.
Where do you find investment? I went online and got a book about how to raise funds and most of it was American focused. It’s completely different from the way that the UK market works. You have angel funding, how does that work, angel networks? Then you have the bigger players like VC (venture capital) funds. You need to understand how the process works and where to find information on funding.
The other thing I needed was a network of founders where we could knowledge share. I’ve got twenty different WhatsApp groups on my phone with all different types of founders I coincidentally met. It would be great to have some female-founders-focused support.
Do you feel that anything in your background has been either an advantage or disadvantage in your start up journey?
I’m of the viewpoint that if I want to achieve something I will do what it takes to achieve it. I don’t want to choose a particular reason why you didn’t get the funding. I’ve had over a hundred meetings with investors and got turned down by every single one of them. Then I went to a pitch competition where I was one of only two women and I won £100,000 this July (2018). So persistence does pay off!
Very early on in my funding journey I was lucky enough to raise £250k from an early stage VC fund…but I turned it down. This is because the terms were not right for my business growth or for my team and so I made the decision to walk away from a quarter of a million pounds. In hindsight I know I did the right thing and I also learned it takes far more courage to walk away from money on the table.
I went on to meet over another hundred investors after this and every ‘no’ taught me so much. This experience taught me how to remain determined and persistent and still have the energy to motivate your team and run your business.
Walking away from that money made me even more determined and even more resourceful and creative!
I’m from an ethnic background. I’m a female. But I don’t think these attributes have held me back. But what I do note is that there are not many Asian women starting their own businesses, especially in the tech field. I do think it’s important to showcase people from diverse backgrounds because I guess unconsciously I do seek them out. I find those stories most inspiring.
How have you overcome challenges?
For me it was taking extreme ownership. Taking responsibility for my business and not allowing it to be somebody else’s responsibility. So when I was phoning and emailing angels and VC funds and they didn’t respond I kept on going. You have to be persistent and follow it up and just keep on making progress. And I guess you develop a really thick skin.
So I practically built up the courage and the confidence to ask and ask.
I’ve been swimming in the ‘land of nos’ for over a year and it actually doesn’t faze me, but before it did. I have become rejection proof- just kept bouncing back every time I got a rejection!
In the early days, I allowed myself to wallow in self-pity for a little while. There have been weekends with Netflix and ice cream. I think it’s important to say that it is a difficult journey because entrepreneurship is such unknown territory. What works for one founder or start-up might not work for you; because the timing might be different, or your industries are different.
So, I feel the courage and confidence came from trusting myself. Trusting that I know who I’m serving. I understand my industry, I have a strong and clear vision and I have a great team. Having that trust in myself and also being kind to myself. It’s okay to mess things up — not taking the rejections personally. A relentless belief in yourself as long as you’re not doing something really crazy like Uber for cats.
I put myself out there. I don’t like networking. Put me in a room and I’ll be in the corner. But I would say ‘go and talk to one person and just enjoy being in their company. And help others as much as you can’. That’s the approach I take when I meet new people. I always ask, ‘how can I help them?’ You could just be making a friend.
“…I was taking it too personally.”
Can you remember a day when you thought about packing everything in? What was it that kept you going?
Yes, the Netflix and ice cream weekends — A solid month of thirty meetings with potential investors and those conversations just going from bad to worse. I felt so demoralized. They can criticize you quite a lot. If you don’t have profits, they want profits. You come back with profits and they say ‘that’s not enough’. There was the point where I did feel like ‘how am I going to grow if I don’t get these funds? I’m coming up against a wall all the time’. That was last November. December was coming up, maybe I should take a month off and think about what I want to do. I decided then to go out all guns blazing and give it my best shot. What I learned from that period was I was taking it too personally. I didn’t have that gap between me and my business and the mindset shift that I thought I needed.
Not having the funds instantly made me more resourceful. I have still grown the business in the last six months and done amazing things without funding and now it’s slightly easier to get their attention because they can see what I’m doing.
Be open to learn and absorb information…
Was there a moment where you thought ‘this is going to work?
Yes, it was when I won £100,000. The funny thing was, it was a pitch competition and I didn’t apply for it, but I was given a funded place to attend (because it cost £1500 to attend). I didn’t have the same prep as the other twenty participants. So when I went in, I pitched on the Saturday and Sunday. I’ve done it 120 times before and the mentors, judges and angels were flabbergasted. They said, ‘You’re incredible. Your business is amazing’. ‘Wow’.. A lot of people were saying, ‘Can you teach me? How do you do your pitch?’ That presentation was an accumulation of all that work and that’s what I want to share with other founders. It’s not one event. Nobody looks underneath the car hood. That engine has been running for many months and loads of effort has been put in. So I thought ‘you know what I do have a good business. I do have something to offer and I can pitch and tell a great story about this incredible industry I am in and the changes happening in it using tech’.
This year, I was nominated for four different awards as well. Those are the signs that tell you ‘Sukhi you’re on the right path’. I was listed as a top 100 Asian in UK tech. I was a finalist in the ‘Asian Women of Achievement award’ and I won the ‘We Are The City Rising Star award’ beating over 1500 other nominations. I was also featured in The Telegraph as part of Management Today’s 35 women under 35 to watch’. Those are good signs that I’m on the right path.
What’s the best advice you have received?
A phrase I came across ‘no matter what’
I have it on my wall. It’s a phrase I use whatever happens, no matter what. So, whenever something is not going to plan I tell myself ‘no matter what I’ll find a way. There’s always a way.’
What are your dreams/ plans for the future?
I have so many. I’m excited about the way the business is going. We are looking to raise £500,000 in total the first round of external cash coming in and I want to use these funds to create my marketplace serving retailers and manufacturers. I want to double my team within the next 18 months and expand into European markets including Belgium and Turkey and Germany
I’m also an author of three books and I want to write more books. My passion is helping female founders. I’d like to write a book about my particular journey which would explain where to look for information and resources founders need at the start of their journey and what pitfalls they need to look out for.
Is there anything you wished you had known before?
Yes, loads. I would say ‘Trust myself more from day one. Listen to others less’. I was given a lot of advice which I don’t agree with... A lot of mentors are from very different industries to you. They can give you the wrong advice. That’s when I thought I need to listen to my gut.
There is no straight path to success. There are ebbs and flows. It’s completely normal.
No one else knows what they’re doing. It can get demoralising if you think everyone is better. We are all trying to do our best, but nobody really knows what they are doing! We are all just trying to do our best and find a way forward.
What could existing founders/companies do to make their workplaces more inclusive for someone like you?
Encourage more people to speak up and give their opinions. Ask actively for opinions. Get staff to make decisions, even small ones. Don’t let all decisions be made by people at the top. I always ask all of my staff, ‘what you think about this?’. I want to hear what they have to say. They are coming with different set of skills — that rich diversity of experience that people have, has to be tapped into and the best way is to encourage them to participate. Get them to come up with solutions.
Why do you think it’s important for tech companies to be diverse and inclusive?
Life is about embracing diversity. Things are better when you’ve got the whole mix of different people contributing. I know that in my company. Some of them come up with completely different ways of thinking. When me and my co-founder get stuck on a problem there’s only so much we can do. I ask my marketing guy who is from a different country, was educated elsewhere and he comes up with a really obvious solution that we missed.
What is your message to inspire other under represented founders?
Go for it! The only barrier to being who you want to be is yourself. Push yourself. Be open to learn and absorb information and trust your gut and instinct to know what you should leave behind and what you should take on board. I’ve had a very structured life, went to university, checked all the boxes. Moved into an entrepreneurial path which is often filled with uncertainty. But it’s also an adventure and so much fun. I wouldn’t have it any other way!