Imran, where do we even start? A true master of all traits, you are currently the Founder and Managing Director of SOLV – a tutoring company that offers extra lessons to school-going youths and university students alike. You are also the founder and creative director of Alkemy Atelier – a company focused on bespoke formal menswear and the creation of a men’s concierge tailoring service evolution. Somehow you also find the time to write, with a career that has seen you as a featured contributor at GQ South Africa and GQ India; and did we mention that you’re a life coach too?
We’ll have to eat this career elephant piece by piece – tell us about the journey to finding SOLV?
Like all good businesses, mine was born out of desperation. There was a time in 1st year at University where I was scrounging around for every cent so I could treat myself to a haircut. When I realized what exactly I was doing halfway through with my hand wedged between the couch, I had officially hit rock bottom. I told myself that I would no longer live this way – no balling, no budget – and with the threat of my aunt trying to test her hairstylist skills on me. All epiphanic moments have a trigger and mine was something more emotionally intriguing – it was a categorical blight on my own appearance which we all know, inevitably, has a profound impact on our self-esteem.
It was the perfect time to push myself out my comfort zone and try to create something. I poached by best friend Puso Thahane and together we spent a full 5 months agonizing over how to do this until eventually, but surely, we registered our company. The idea behind it was to give clients an education support system that was great for both the student and the parent. We eliminated the then market leader’s bureaucratic administration system and made it easier for our staff to work and for our clients to be helped. And that was 10 years ago.
Starting a tutoring business cannot possibly be easy. Aside from finding the funding to run a business, what is most unique about your business is the fact that you had to source clientele to keep the company afloat. How did you go about finding your first few clients?
We believed in ourselves. A lot of my life coaching stems from my personal philosophies and the most important orbits self-belief. Ironically because it was a belief system that eluded me for most of my life. We knew that by believing in what we could control – our service, our professionalism, our work – that we could differentiate ourselves enough to carve out a market space that was bulletproof.
With that mantra we also set about sharing our venture with our closest networks – it is my firm belief that people inevitably move to help you succeed because it comes more impulsively, more naturally to them, than to heap hatred on you. Our network helped us by firstly believing in the product offering because we communicated it well, and secondly by sharing that belief with others.
The essence of referral-based systems of marketing. And so we have grown since by encouraging the same processes that once afforded us a new haircut. And it’s managed to help us attain a little more than a haircut since.
How important is marketing a start-up? Would you say that entrepreneurs ought to spend just as much on marketing their venture as they do in collecting the resources required?
I think that there’s power in conversation. But we have inherited an earth where the strongest, most populace age group – the under 30s – are afraid to speak. So we self-sabotage our own success. I’ve always been a good communicator and my garrulous nature has helped me develop the crucial referral-based marketing system we currently have. We shared successes, we shared failures too and through both our honesty with ourselves and our clients helped us grow their confidence and belief in what we did. And still continue to do. I don’t personally believe any company needs massive marketing budgets as a start up – the belief that a billboard is a catalyst for astronomical growth is flawed – the best way to market your business is to market yourself. But do you know who that is? Perhaps that’s a good place to start investigating before you start investing.
What makes SOLV different from other tutoring companies?
We’re the best. And I have no issues with how arrogant that sounds. We offer the fastest turnaround time, we beat prices competitively, and we make sure that our staff are happiest – because they are our service – and as hard as it is to achieve with everyone, we have achieved a great chemistry between our leadership, internal processes and the service.
Convenience comes from seamlessness of service and that is what we aim to provide. No one likes admin but everyone want the benefits of admin intense foundational elements – so we built our company on running as cloud-based as possible, as lean as possible and as people-focused as possible. Where’s a lot of possibles, there’s a lot of possibilities.
Now tell us about your other baby, Alkemy Atelier. What is the ethos behind the business and what drove you to start such a unique venture?
This came from a deep One Sweet Day moment as I call it – where I wanted to create a men’s bespoke tailoring service that built in to it a concierge service because when buying luxury silks, why not have the luxury of a tailor who travels to you and swings you an iPad to choose your collars or cuffs? It’s an A La Carte of Atelier. And that’s just something I’ve been passionate about.
It hasn’t been profitable the first year but that’s alright for me – it’s capital intensive but our performance is good. So sometimes not all good businesses are about turning a profit instantly. It’s a painstaking process that needs constant supervision. As long as our growth is going to potentially surpass our breakeven points soon, then we are on course to do great things. And I love doing great things.
Talk to us about being a features writer for a renowned publication such as GQ – how did you land such an illustrious gig, and what advice would you give to aspiring writers who wish to get their foot in the door at a large publication?
Purely luck. I can’t even lie to you and propagate some sort of mystical wisdom. I shared my pieces on my Facebook page and a friend who knew someone at GQ tagged them and before you know it – 6 editions so far have already happened. And to think I said One Sweet Day way back when hoping for a single print.
Dreams do come true – sometimes more than once.
What the GQ liked about my writing was its authenticity. I write about what I know – advice I was given from a mentor years ago. And it pays to be yourself, unapologetically and unencumbered.
What would you say drives the success of your businesses?
My fears. I’ve been poor and I’ve been deprived of the life I knew I was destined to live and the fear of going back, however distant it might seem to onlookers, is the driving force for my success. I don’t want to be back there for any reason pertaining to my own efforts. We can only control our behavior right? So that’s what I do and I leave the rest to flesh out itself.
We all have insecurities and we try so doggedly to be better at them but I learned that perhaps I fear what I fear for a reason, and I’m insecure about what I am insecure of for a reason. I then decided to let those fears and insecurities carry me wherever they might. I’m still not sure where they’ll lead me. But I’m excited to either learn from it or lavish in it. Either way it will be great.
Take us through what a typical work day looks like for you
I wake up at 5:30am. I meditate and introspect for 30 mins and then I have breakfast. After I try to hit the gym to balance out my mind and my body.
I then attend to the company and at about midday I go out to consult with my clients who need dedicated life coaching and lifestyle correction to achieve their goals.
I get home at about 11:30pm most days and then stay up working on company admin and client reports until about 2am. Then I hit the sack.
I always say sleep is for the unambitious. Some people say sleep is for billionaires. Either way – it’s true that we all have 24 hrs in a day. Period. What you do with that time sets you apart from who you were yesterday or ten years ago. So spend it well.
Advice for aspiring entrepreneurs?
Be kind to yourself. Be yourself. Then believe in yourself. When the lights are off, when your clothes are in the wardrobe and the car’s in the garage; when you’re away from the trophies and awards, the bank cards and the designer bags; when all you are left with at night is you – are you happy with what you have? If you answer yes then welcome, you’ve made it.
I would love to be mentored by… Oprah Winfrey.
The biggest sacrifice I’ve ever made is… giving up most of young adult life to work harder than anyone I knew. It paid off well and I am so grateful I did. But it would be nice to say I enjoyed student night jols and half-off pizza nights. But the sacrifice has got to worth it and I have to say that it has.
Africans have the opportunity to…prove themselves to themselves. They have the benefit of being underestimated by the rest of the world. And that is a brand of motivation I think is phenomenally powerful. Let us show you. Let us show you. Watch this space.
Worst money mistake…buying something that won’t make you happy. If you won’t derive immense joy from something don’t buy it. And if you are going to spend, spend on experiences AND things. Not just things. I’ve learnt so much about myself from my solo travels around the world. And I have to say it’s the best course you can take – get a Masters in Self and study abroad.
Best investment… People. New ideas are good. New gimmicks are wonderful. But finding people who blow your mind away and engaging in them, investing your time and energy and money in them, is the greatest way to derive the greatest – of everything, for them and for you. Just find the right people. You’ll know who they are when you meet them. Something about them will stir your soul and that will, One Sweet Day, fill your cup.