Many entrepreneurs can trace their successful ventures back to a moment of clarity. Here the movers and shakers behind a crop of canny enterprises share their foundational breakthroughs.
What makes a formidable founder and where do such eminent folk find their inspiration? While you're unlikely to meet a lazy entrepreneur, there's no singular quality that defines success. So perhaps the best way to maximise your chance of steering a venture to prosperity is to listen to as wide a range of voices as possible. Here we present a selection of light-bulb moments that sparked into life some of our favourite brands, as told to the team at Monocle Radio's 'The Entrepreneurs'.
A roadtrip in Italy inspired husband and wife Sameer and Neena Vaswani to establish a plant-based chocolate brand embodying the ideals of environmental responsibility and health-consciousness.
“We were driving across Italy, stopping off at petrol stations and little shops. We wanted to buy our children snacks for the journey but couldn’t find anything that we were happy to let them put into their bodies: everything on offer contained too much sugar or too many processed ingredients – and that’s not to mention plastic pollution.
It dawned on us that we should create a business that could figure out a new way of doing things in the food industry. We are both chocoholics, so we thought, ‘OK, why don’t we start a chocolate brand that is fit for today’s world?’ That’s what consumers are looking for. We also wanted to help the next generation.
So we invented Prodigy, which seeks to reimagine the classic chocolate bars, snacks and biscuits that we all grew up with and love, making them better for both the planet and our bodies. We wanted it to cause less harm to people and communities – and, of course, to our health.”
Brewing up a storm
Hector Butler and Matt Brunault, co-founders, Shima, London
Hector Butler and Matt Brunault were living in New York when they stumbled upon a modest neighbourhood bar in Brooklyn. There the friends fell in love with saké. A few years (and several trips to Japan) later, they successfully launched Shima, the ready-to-drink canned saké that is shaking up the hard-seltzer market.
“We met in Georgetown, where we were at university together. After graduating we moved to New York. For a while we were Brooklyn clichés: earning no money and living in a sort of box apartment. Then we noticed that these craft saké breweries were popping up in the area. After just scratching the surface, we fell in love with it – the range, the choice, the depth.
Fast-forward a couple of months: I visited Matt’s apartment and saw buckets, vats and other equipment all over the place. I said, ‘What’s going on here?’ It turned out that he was brewing his own saké. Shima is our love letter to the beverage. We make canned saké spritzers; we launched three flavours about a year ago. At its heart, the brand is all about our passion for saké and making it a little more approachable for a Western audience.”
In 2013, multi-talented Hanna Olzon Åkerström co-founded Soeder, a Zürich-based natural soap company with a sustainability-led approach to luxury bath and body products. Åkerström’s aim was to bring a more environmentally responsible approach to the sector. The brand manages every aspect of its production process all the way to distribution and its partners include Swiss International Air Lines.
“With Swiss, we are getting to work with people who are putting faith in us and also pushing our limits a bit further and faster than we might have done otherwise. We have had many interesting conversations about where we could expand product lines and how we could change the way that Swiss works with them.
For instance, we are now introducing refills for the airline’s onboard products (we introduced refills for its lounge range a long time ago). I don’t think that there are many other airlines that reuse their lavatory bottles in this way. It’s very important to have a partner that we can grow with and that listens – and also wants to give us the chance to change things in its field.”
A family affair
Chitra Stern, co-founder, Martinhal Family Hotels & Resorts, Lisbon
With her husband, Roman, Chitra Stern created Martinhal Family Hotels & Resorts, which has reimagined luxury family holidays. She tells us about her latest project, Martinhal Residences.
“I’m British and Swiss, and of Indian origin. I have lived in Singapore too. We moved to Portugal in 2001. I have always been able to see things with different eyes. It comes down to the people and how open, tolerant and liberal they are. We’re not robots; we want to feel welcome – that’s one of the great things about Portugal for entrepreneurs seeking to start a business. Lisbon is well connected and good for families too.
When people start having children, they don’t suddenly stop wanting to be part of the excitement of a city. We help families to enjoy all the bustle, while providing things that make life easier for them, such as stools for children to enable them to step up to a sink and brush their teeth. We have cots, baby chairs and even a baby concierge service so that parents don’t have to lug all of their stuff. We call our front office a ‘family concierge team’ – it’s there to assist not just small children but the entire family, including grandparents.”
Open for business
Alex and Mathieu Cléon, co-managers, Kleman, La Romagne
Brothers Alex and Mathieu Cléon head up French footwear brand Kleman, whose heritage goes back to 1945, when shoemaker René Cléon formed a team of apprentices and bought his first stitching and assembly machines in postwar France. The third-generation leaders recently launched Kleman’s first flagship shop in Paris’s Le Marais neighbourhood. They tell us why they prioritise investment in French manufacturing.
“Not long ago, we opened our first flagship shop in Paris. It was a significant step for us. Next, we’ll be developing our brand further while promoting the ‘Made in France’ idea worldwide. French know-how is an important part of our dna. When we entered the fashion world about seven years ago, we decided to develop new ideas while still basing it all on the brand’s heritage.
We have created new kinds of soles. Sometimes it’s not easy for a heritage brand like ours to invent novel styles. We really want to add environmentally friendly objectives to the creation of our collections too. We work only with locally sourced materials, with ‘local’ meaning European – or French in particular.”
When worlds collide
Henrik Berg, founder, Morjas, Stockholm
Henrik Berg is the founder of Morjas, which creates men’s footwear and leather accessories with a timeless aesthetic and has an unusual Spanish-Swedish heritage: Berg’s grandmother was an urbane Madrileño, while his grandfather was an outdoorsman from remote Vårmland. Morjas now has a beautiful shop, Casa Morjas, in Stockholm.
“My grandfather was a charming man who enjoyed wildlife, hunting and fishing. My grandmother was used to the hectic lifestyle of Madrid and going out in high heels. But they fell in love and he convinced her to move with him to Sweden. I wanted Morjas to have that combination of opposite worlds.
Some brands that honour timeless aesthetics can become a bit boring. That’s a big no-no for us. I appreciate that they’re trying to make seasonless, trend-free products that live forever but I need some kind of edge that makes jaws drop or heads turn. Whether it’s a product or a photo shoot, we always try to make things sharper and more exciting. That’s noticeable in our use of materials, in how we work with silhouettes and content. The brand, the packaging and now the physical shop – these are all touchpoints with a customer.”
Borre Akkersdijk, co-founder, Byborre, Amsterdam
Borre Akkersdijk co-founded Dutch textile company Byborre with Arnoud Haverlag in 2015. His background as an industrial designer and passion for textiles have helped him to develop techniques for creating modular, sustainable garments that blur the boundaries between fashion, art and technology.
“I had been innovating in textiles for more than seven years, travelling the world and diving into the nitty-gritty of the industry. But when I met Arnoud in 2015, it went from me in the supply chain to us building a company. You can innovate for years with people giving you their thumbs-up, being flown around the world to give talks, while still being unable to afford your groceries. I thought, ‘How can I be working with these amazing brands but not getting paid much for it?’
That was the beginning. We created Byborre textiles and said, ‘These are things that we have designed and you can use.’ They’re good for interiors and fashion, and you can buy them, whether a small amount or 100 metres. We looked at some of the big textile companies and thought, ‘Maybe we have to step up and not be a company that just does the small, innovative things.’”
Reaching for the stars
Linda Rosendahl Nordin, co-founder and CEO, Pure Effect, Täby
Linda Rosendahl Nordin co-founded Swedish brand Pure Effect in 2015. Its cleaning products, based on active bacterial cultures, are so stellar that they have attracted the attention of Nasa.
“A personal health crisis inspired us to start Pure Effect. We were having trouble conceiving our second child and I learned about all of these things that could affect our endocrine systems, making it harder for both animals and humans to have babies. A professor in Sweden told me that people were putting too many toxins into the ecosystem. These toxins enter our bodies through food and water – they’re everywhere – and they accumulate.
There are industrial biotech solutions that have been around for at least 20 years for professional use, a way of letting bacillus spores degrade organic matter. We thought that this could be used for household cleaning and decided to launch a version for consumers. One day I received an email from a firm working with Nasa, asking us, ‘Could you please share the evidence?’ I hope that they evaluate the technology because they obviously have a problem with laundry up in space. They need to travel light and our solution could help.”
In good spirits
Annabel Thomas, founder, Nc’nean Distillery, Morvern
Annabel Thomas is the founder of organic whisky distillery Nc’nean on Scotland’s west coast. Here, Thomas reflects on her decade-long mission to change perceptions of the spirit, reach a more diverse customer base and innovate production through sustainable practices.
“We had a family dream to set up a whisky distillery on my parents’ farm, which had some old disused buildings on it. But before I quit my job in order to make this a reality, I went to do some research and said, ‘Look, I’ll write the business plan because otherwise we’re just going to talk about this and never do it.’
The first thing that I did was visit a few distilleries. What struck me was that so many of them were very traditional, doing things in the way that they had always been done – which is not always a problem in a traditional industry.
But there was no one doing anything else. In particular, I noticed that there was a lack of focus on sustainability across the sector. I realised that someone needed to do something about this. And that was the moment when Nc’nean Distillery really got going in earnest.”
Namrata Sandhu, co-founder and CEO, Vaayu, Berlin
Namrata Sandhu, the woman behind innovative carbon-tracking platform Vaayu, tells us about how real-time data is empowering retailers to be more sustainable and reduce their environmental impact.
“When I was growing up in Mumbai in the 1980s and 1990s, it was very polluted: the beaches were dirty, the city was dirty. My friends and I thought, ‘This isn’t OK – we need to do more.’ So we started a kind of charity when we were 13 and set up the city’s first recycling programme. Much later, after I had been working in the climate and sustainability field for a long time, I noticed that a lot of retailers were keen to do better and wanted to know how they could make a positive impact. But nobody had the data; everyone was doing this individually. I thought, ‘Can we do it differently? Can we scale it? And can we help people effect that level of change and reduce their carbon footprint?’
In a way it was very strange because I had been doing this for such a long time. But there was a moment when it all clicked and I knew that I needed to solve this, by connecting with retailers and brands, and helping them to track and cut their carbon emissions.”
Out of tradition
Khulan Davaadorj, founder, Lhamour, Ulaanbaatar
Khulan Davaadorj is the founder, director and chief technologist of Mongolian organic-skincare brand Lhamour.
“I did my master’s degree at Columbia University in renewable energy, management and policy. After living abroad all my life, I returned to Mongolia to work for the country’s first wind farm. The extreme weather here affected me so badly that I developed allergies. Doctors suggested that I should live more healthily and use natural products, especially for skincare. So that was the starting point. Then I looked around and couldn’t find anything here. I thought, ‘Why is nobody making organic skincare in this amazing country, with its vast countryside and all these natural resources?’
Whenever I create a product, I try to include traditional materials: for example, the milk that we use is part of our nomadic culture. Organic is nothing new to the nomads; it’s their way of life. We have something called sheep’s-tail fat that we use on babies’ and elderly people’s skin. It contains so much collagen. Mongolian sheep have it in their tails because they have to survive our harsh winters. In nomadic culture, this is so normal.”
Clean up your act
Suwar and Berfin Mert, co-founders, Bower, Stockholm
Suwar and Berfin Mert are the brother-and-sister team behind Swedish app Bower, which rewards users whenever they recycle everyday waste items. They tell us about fundraising for global expansion and why there’s no such thing as trash any more.
“When you recycle plastic bottles and cans in the Nordics or in Germany, you can receive money for it. Our company started with that idea. I had a lot of reusable cotton bags that I would always forget to take to the shop. So I thought, ‘Why not have a similar deposit system for these bags as well?’ We explored this concept and pivoted a few times before we came up with the solution that we have now.
We realised that the way forward was to make the recycling part a no-brainer and reward people: you scan the item that you want to deposit and bring it with you to the nearest recycling point. Once you have done so, you are awarded points, which you can redeem for money or discounts on various products, or alternatively you can donate it to charity. We want to show that all packages have value and that nothing should be dismissed as trash. That’s where Bower comes in.”
Going with the grain
Aimee Yang, founder and CEO, BetterBrand, San Antonio
Aimee Yang’s innovative food start-up uses “grain-changing technology” and plant-based ingredients to provide healthy, delicious alternatives to carb-heavy foods, such as bagels.
“My life has always revolved around my diet and healthy eating. I used to be on a roller-coaster ride of craving something and then wondering whether I should eat it. If I did, I’d feel guilty; if I didn’t, I’d feel deprived. It consumed so much of my mind and caused me so much anxiety. I used to dream of a world where we could simply eat what we wanted and never had to worry about gaining weight or suffering negative health consequences. I thought that it would be so exciting, so liberating. Then I started looking at health and nutrition statistics and all of the dots connected. I said to myself, ‘This is what we’re going to do. We will make this dream world a reality.’
That initial excitement still fuels my journey with BetterBrand. We started with the Better Bagel because it’s the most carbohydrate-heavy food. What better way to showcase our innovation than by transforming something like that into the net-carb equivalent of two slices of banana?”
Passing it on
Andreas Von Der Heide, co-founder, Les Deux, Copenhagen
Andreas Von Der Heide was studying law at the University of Copenhagen when he co-founded Les Deux in 2011, which is now one of Scandinavia’s leading menswear brands. He also engages in a wide range of charity work, both personally and through his csr platform, Les Deux Legacy.
“We have built a fashion company but I see it as a platform for doing good things in the world. We have a social responsibility wherever we are doing business in the world. Whether it’s putting children through school or building basketball courts, we want to be part of the community – and part of changing the world. People are afraid of talking about being profitable but we couldn’t do this if we weren’t. People want to interact with the brand and our employees love it; they feel part of something bigger. We are proud of what we are doing.
I always had a dream. My father died when I was two. I wanted to leave behind a company that would ensure that I had a legacy. I need to show my three children at home what their dad and the company that he was a part of were capable of. One day they can look at it all and say, ‘OK, we can make a difference.’ That is what I’m teaching them.”
Tom Edwards, host of ‘The Entrepreneurs’
One constant in the testimonials that we hear on The Entrepreneurs is the great value of guidance, the defining contribution that insights from those who have already blazed a trail can make to businesses at the start of their journey. So, our final word to the wise and piece of advice for aspiring entrepreneurs out there is to keep listening to the fabulous founders who are kind enough to share their stories on Monocle Radio. In every episode, people reveal how career switches, unexpected ideas and a little luck took them in fresh directions that they might never have imagined otherwise. And it’s OK to have questions. Most founders don’t quite know where the next venture might lead them; many have moved mountains (as well as country) to try something new for just this reason. And no matter where you end up, success remains subjective if you’re your own boss – and sometimes there will be hurdles along the way. So, whether it’s from a social enterprise changing perceptions about purpose or a technology company that can incorporate traditional values, you’ll hear essential advice and unrivalled insights every week. The very best idea you could have right now? Tune in. Your own eureka moment is just a twist of the dial away.