This interview is with Shonil Sumaria, who is a co-founder and the CFO and Head of Marketing at The Oblique Life, a London-based members' social club and lifestyle management service. Shonil, along with his brothers Romi and Keyu, all went to University College London (UCL) at various points. They founded The Oblique Life and have been growing their company under the guidance and support of UCL Innovation & Enterprise since March 2017.
We recently spoke with Shonil about his experience starting a company with the support of the Innovation & Enterprise hatchery and what he's learned along the way.
How has UCL Innovation & Enterprise helped The Oblique Life?
Before we were accepted at UCL's Hatchery startup incubator in March 2018, The Oblique Life had no office space or full-time employees. While we have quite a mobile business and could work from home, we wanted to scale our business. The Hatchery was critical in becoming a base for us, providing rent-free space for our company to grow. This was a really big bonus for us considering the rents in London.
Now we have access to hot desks, public receptions areas, a restaurant and meeting rooms in King's Cross. Having a central location to work out of is critical for our business, as we need to get to events around town. We're now a team of 7 employees, including Romi and Keyu and myself, although we had a few interns over the summer bringing our team up to 10 or 11.
Another way the Hatchery has helped us has been our mentor and business advisor, Doug Stidolph. He's been incredibly helpful in introducing us to people who might fit our needs at the time. There are some really passionate people who work in the incubator who’ve been an invaluable resource for us.
How long can you stay in the Hatchery?
Originally when we joined there was a 6 month cycle, where every 6 months they look at KPIs and track your progress and decide if they'll extend your term. Within our first year they extended that to two years for us. We've been there 18 months now and will stay another 6 months.
What have been your biggest challenges in the last year?
We're already cash generating, as opposed to other tech startups that are trying to grow user base then revenue build. We've always tried to watch our overhead because costs can get away quickly. Rent was a big thing for us so the Hatchery was a big help. Growing sales has been a hard push for us, but the digital marketing space is even more saturated now. The amount of money you can waste trying to compete in these spaces is quite tough especially when you don't have the big cash flow that some of your competitors do.
PR is another challenge. There's a lot of pressure for a small business, because you don't have a safety net knowing if a campaign doesn't work we can try just another one in a few months’ time. So it's always trying to pick your battles of what we invest in, how do we get the best return, how to we track that, how do we keep growing.
Keeping a balance in the team and keeping everyone fresh is another challenge. We work really long hours and do a lot of events. It's HR management really, making sure people are taking their holidays and getting rest when they need to. We have quite a young team, relatively, so it's a balance of making sure our team are developing in the right way and also working to achieve their goals.
Another focus of the past year has been to transition from the do-everything-yourself attitude we've had, because as a startup that's what you do, to now delegating and giving out more responsibility and re-segmenting the roles around the team. As we've grown in the last year we've really had to work to get that right.
How is it working as a team of three brothers as founders?
We get along and complement each other really well. When we have tough conversations, we can move on. The fluidity we have as siblings adds a lot of adaptability to a small business situation. My oldest brother Romi is the CEO, he focuses on sales and top-level growth objectives. I'm the CFO and Head of Marketing and my younger brother Keyu is Head of Community, membership and partner management.
What did you study at university, and how did that help you in your startup?
We all went to UCL for undergrad. My older brother and I each studied geography and my younger brother studied Spanish with management.
Geography is really about the study of people and psychology and how the world works. That's the bread and butter of what we do. Studying geography definitely helped me widen my understanding about how people live in London, their mobility and what they're looking for.
What inspired you to become an entrepreneur?
We've had it built into us. Our grandparents started a family business years ago, and our dad was part of that. So we've been in and around it, but it wasn't a given we'd want to do it ourselves. Having worked in the corporate world – I did cost accounting after uni - we felt we wanted to do things ourselves. Because of our upbringing and family background.
My grandparents really went out on a limb. They moved from Kenya in the 40s or 50s and said let's give it a go and build something, and they started a plastics manufacturing company. My dad joined, and his cousins. They’ve built a good business that can sustain and support a family.
What's interesting is that risk aversion changes. I think the focus of my parents' generation was to provide a safe and stable environment - they were in a position to get the kids a good education so they can get good jobs. Ironically, they come from a background where it's about driving and entrepreneurship and building a business but they encouraged me to something more safe.
But our upbringing is about trying things and building a business. We sat back and said we'd rather be like our grandparents.
You need to have the hunger. Not necessarily for money, but to build things. A lot of people don't have that. To be an entrepreneur you really need that inner drive; it comes from within.
Do you have any advice for young entrepreneurs?
Learning from failure is the best way of figuring out what doesn't work and what to do differently next time. Failures can be big and small but I think one thing is to not be afraid to go out and try things and get things wrong. But to be savvy about it. It's learning how to pick your battles.
More than anything I'd say find something you're really passionate about. When you're trying to build your own business, getting up in the morning doing loads can be really difficult to keep going - but if you're passionate about your business it makes it that much easier.