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Entrepreneur Sahar Hashemi knows how to beat the odds in business. In 1995, with a background in law and no experience as an entrepreneur, she co-founded the U.K. chain Coffee Republic. Despite a market preference for tea, the Coffee Republic concept took off—with her brother she built it to 110 stores and more than £30m turnover.

But Hashemi didn’t stop there. In 2005 she founded Skinny Candy, a brand of sugar-free sweets sold to confectionery conglomerate Glisten PLC two years later. She’s also the author of Switched On, which explores how employees working in large organizations can apply an entrepreneurial, creative mindset.

Hashemi will share her entrepreneurial wisdom this month at the 2016 Customer Intelligence Summit in London, where she’s delivering a keynote on the value of customer engagement in business. We couldn’t resist asking her a few questions leading up to the event about how to build a customer-centric culture and whether working for a large company is a bad thing for budding entrepreneurs.

Switched On - book by Sahar Hashemi
You wrote on the importance of having employees understand the needs of the customer. How do you ensure that happens?

Becoming your own customer is simple. It involves putting yourself in your customer’s shoes so you experience your product or service from the outside-in—or the same way the customer sees it.  

That includes calling your own call center, queuing up at your own local branch or eating and drinking your own products. Another option is observing customers as closely as you can and seeing why they make the choices they do. Go beyond reading research reports—understanding your customers has to be done with your own eyes and ears.

You started Coffee Republic at a time when coffee shops weren’t popular in the U.K. What inspired you to start the company?

What I had seen in New York inspired me. In particular, New World Coffee, a predecessor to Starbucks, really caught my attention. I loved the company’s focus on the coffee experience—from the decor to the noise of the machines, from the aroma at the stores to the coffee selection and from the quality of the drinks to the available sizes. I thought, ‘how can anyone be happy getting a polystyrene cup of brown liquid in a sandwich bar when you can have this amazing coffee experience every morning?’

You came from a corporate background before becoming an entrepreneur. What advice would you offer your younger entrepreneurial self?

I have made many mistakes, but having a corporate background was not one of them. In fact, it’s the best training for entrepreneurship.

Being a lawyer in a big law firm, I discovered from a young age the value of hard work and finding my way from the ground up. More importantly, I’ve learned that there are no short cuts. You have to be thorough and part of a team.  

Some people start on their entrepreneurial career too early and miss out on all the valuable lessons they can learn working in a large organization. I was lucky enough to have that corporate experience first.

"Some people start on their entrepreneurial career too early and miss out on all the valuable lessons they can learn working in a large organization."

You’ve already helped found two successful companies. What’s the biggest challenge companies face as they experience hyper growth?

The biggest challenge is losing the very thing that got them there in the first place. Young companies have a special energy—a momentum, a cluelessness and a sense of chaos. That’s magic. The key is trying to retain the vibe when size and success (and therefore complacency) comes in.

How do you ‘scale’ customer engagement as your company grows over time?

Make empathy a core to your culture. When companies get bigger, the culture becomes about the head office, the hierarchy and who you report to. Quite easily, customers get forgotten as they’re on the outside of all this. When companies grow, customers are often reduced to market segments and behavioral patterns, rather than actual humans making real-time decisions about what product or service to buy.  

Scaling customer engagement involves making customer experience—including the headaches begging to be solved, the gaps and the opportunities—the core compass in everything employees do.

Catch Sahar Hashemi and other customer intelligence pros on September 15 at our Summit in London.

Join leading brands like Viacom International Media Networks Africa, Groupe SEB, Salomon, Global Radio UK and Sky Betting & Gaming as they share how to use technology to scale customer engagement. Don’t miss out—register for Summit today.

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