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Lord Karan Bilimoria CBE founded Cobra Beer in 1989 and started off by selling it to restaurants as a less gassy lager that would complement food. Cobra is now in a joint venture with the multinational brewing company Molson Coors with Lord Bilimoria as chairman. Born in India before settling in the UK, he divides his time between multiple ventures including being a member of the House of Lords, the chancellor of the University of Birmingham and the founding Chairman of the UK India Business Council. He takes a pause from his activities to reflect on what advice he’d give his younger self.
As the child of a Lieutenant General in the Indian Army you will move every two or three years between very different locations, from Kerala to Rajasthan to Delhi – and a brief spell at school in England. But the adaptability you will learn from making friends and adjusting quickly to new places will be helpful in life.
You will learn this lesson at the age of eight when you protest at having to learn Malayalam – the state language of Kerala – at your Jesuit school. Your parents will tell you to do what you are told but you will maintain that Malayalam won’t be much use to you when your father’s post changes and you move away from Kerala. So you will ask the priests if you can learn Hindi instead. When they tell you they don’t have a Hindi teacher you will suggest that they bring one in as there are other children of army officers and corporate workers who would prefer to learn Hindi. And sure enough they will bring in a Hindi teacher and 20 children will join the class.
That early lesson of rebelling – and finding an alternative – will be crucial when you are an entrepreneur. Entrepreneurs have to create things that don’t exist already and that go against the grain.
You will always remember the way your grandfather tells you off when you are 14 and losing a tennis match against a player who isn’t as good as you. You say that you were just giving the other guy a chance, but your grandfather who was one of the first Indians to win a commission from Sandhurst to be an officer in the British army – will tell you that you must always do your best otherwise it’s not worth doing at all.
You’ll remember those words in your first business venture selling polo sticks to Harrods and Lilywhites. It’s not easy when you are in front of a buyer trying to differentiate your product and get a sale, but if they can see that you have faith and confidence in your product then it gives them the faith and confidence to give you a chance.
When you set out to study in the UK as a 19-year-old you will need a visa. The passport office likes to put a stamp in students’ passports saying “Immigration check required” as they know students won’t be earning an income. Your father will tell you to accept this, it’s just the way it is, but you know that stamp could cause you problems at the borders when you travel in Europe. So you will go to the head of the passport office in Bombay and tell him it is unacceptable, and successfully convince him to remove it.
That same quality of not taking no for an answer will come in handy when you try to sell an unknown beer to restaurants that already have a huge selection of beers and believe they don’t need another.
When you move to the UK you will feel that as a new immigrant you are behind your peers, but you can catch up quickly. It’s all about attitude.
Sure you might prefer not to start out with £20,000 of debt, working off a kitchen table with one friend, and having to roll up your sleeves and do everything yourself from production to sales to actually delivering beer to restaurants. But when you are in a joint venture with a US$20 billion global brewery you will feel confident that you have had experience of every aspect of the business.
They are having a strong brand, the right values, and the support of your team and family – particularly your wife. You will nearly lose your business three times, for very different reasons, but those same three things will get you through each time.
In the first eight years of your business you won’t do any executive education but when you do start studying you will wish you had done it earlier. You will realise that the networks you build, along with what you learn from faculty and your fellow classmates, are invaluable.
That might be joining the UK government’s New Deal Task Force, Welfare to Work programme, in 1999, or as a member of the House of Lords where you can talk from real-world experience.
You will be proud to say that the company you create from scratch has won multiple awards and become a much-loved brand and household name. You will also help create an award-winning course for young entrepreneurs at London Business School and see it past a stumble in the second year when it doesn’t take place, into its 13th year and counting. And you will found the UK India Business Council and fight for funding for it, and see it become one of the primary interfaces between the UK and India.
He was an entrepreneur, a philanthropist and a member of India’s Upper House, and you will adapt his motto for your vision for Cobra: “To aspire and achieve, against all odds, with integrity.”
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