Interviews

How Karan Bilimoria Turned £20,000 Debt Into Cobra Beer

Lord Bilimoria of Chelsea CBE DL, or Karan Bilimoria to his friends, built an internationally recognised drinks brand in Cobra Beer with little more than guts, determination and a £20,000 student debt.

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Lord Bilimoria of Chelsea CBE DL, or Karan Bilimoria to his friends, built an internationally recognised drinks brand in Cobra Beer with little more than guts, determination and a £20,000 student debt.

Interviews

How Karan Bilimoria Turned £20,000 Debt Into Cobra Beer

Lord Bilimoria of Chelsea CBE DL, or Karan Bilimoria to his friends, built an internationally recognised drinks brand in Cobra Beer with little more than guts, determination and a £20,000 student debt.

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How Karan Bilimoria Turned £20,000 Debt Into Cobra Beer

Lord Bilimoria, the impressively qualified founder of Cobra Beer explains the essential traits of successful entrepreneurs and, based on his own unique experiences, provides insights into how global businesses find their feet.

How do you explain your success in business?

I think the first thing to say is that success is not a destination; it’s a journey. I started with an idea as a student and, upon finishing my education, made the leap to committing to be an entrepreneur whilst having £20,000 student debt to pay off.

Ideas are one thing, putting them into action is another. I spotted a gap in the market for a beer with the refreshing qualities of a larger and the smoothness of ale combined. That dedication to brewing the finest-ever Indian beer and making it a global brand is what drove us from day one.

Another huge part of what made Cobra possible was the fact that I did it here in the UK. Founding Cobra was something that was against all the odds but I was fortunate enough to start in Britain, one of the most open economies in the world, an economy where anyone can have a go.

Cobra Beer

"Both law and accountancy have been very useful to me"

London was the perfect place to launch a product with global ambitions; in fact, in my view it is the best place in the world to have a business HQ.  It is the most cosmopolitan, global city in the world and, when I started Cobra, I could see London was already on its way to becoming the restaurant capital of world.

There are over 10,000 Indian restaurants in the UK, and the foundations for Cobra beer have been in those Indian restaurants. Some 24 years on we have expanded into the major supermarket chains and now, increasingly, the world’s bars and pubs.

What has been your biggest challenge to date?

In the early days it was raising finance. When you’re growing a brand with no security to offer and no collateral to give banks, you have to cross a credibility gap. No one knows your product, no one knows your brand and you have absolutely zero credibility.

"All I had was a belief in my idea and in my brand. It was that belief that gave people the faith to supply me, finance me and buy from me."

What I have done has always been against the odds; taking on the giant beer brands seemed crazy to some, but today Cobra is a household name. Our current ambition is to break into Britain’s — and the world’s — bars and pubs, and I’m confident that once again, Cobra will come out on top.

Has your education in law/accountancy helped you in your business?

It is not at all essential, as many successful entrepreneurs have demonstrated, to be highly educated in the world of business. However, I am extremely grateful to have been fortunate enough to qualify as a chartered accountant in London with Ernst & Young and graduate with a degree in law from the University of Cambridge.

Both law and accountancy have been enormously useful to me in building my business. In studying law one had to read cases, journals, Acts of Parliament, textbooks and judges’ statements and then apply that wide-ranging research in a focused manner to a particular case. In solving problems while building a business, the ability to think widely and creatively and apply that in a focused manner has been invaluable from day one.

Your early success seems to be from sheer hard work and confidence – how important are these qualities in getting started?

If there is one thing that I’ve observed, it’s that successful entrepreneurs are not only people who have the guts to start in the first place, they also have the guts to keep going when others would give up. My favourite quote of Churchill’s is “never, never, never, give up”.

I have nearly lost my business three times and each time it has been that attitude of never giving up, along with having faith in the business and the support of my team that has enabled us to get through the challenges and continue to succeed and grow.

You do business all over the world – how do you cope with the stresses and strains?

Building a business requires huge amounts of hard work, energy and stamina. But it’s vital that doesn’t prevent you from leading a balanced life. I have been very fortunate that, after the initial years of setting up my business, I was able to throw some of my energy into public life. Being appointed to the House of Lords in 2006 gave me a wonderful opportunity to participate, contribute and try to make a difference.

It is also important to make sure that your family always comes first. In my case I’m very lucky to have met my wife just after I started Cobra and she has stood by my side through all the ups and downs in the journey.

How often do you travel and how has it enhanced your business?

I travel a great deal for business including at least seven or eight times a year to India, where I was born. Travel has been something that has been vital in building the global reach Cobra enjoys today.

Lord Bilimoria

"When you’re growing a brand...no one knows your product, no one knows your brand and you have absolutely zero credibility."

Of course, I also travel with my family. My wife is South African and we take our children to visit South Africa at least once a year and also India at least once a year. We are very keen that our children know their roots and feel at home in both South Africa and India as well as here in Britain.

Which countries and economies excite you at the moment?

I have great faith in Britain, a country that is home to less than one per cent of the global population and yet is one of the ten largest economies in the world and sits at the world’s top table.

We have the best capabilities in just about every field, including in higher education where we have the finest universities in the world along with the United States of America, manufacturing, advanced engineering, design, legal services, accounting services and, in London, the world’s greatest financial centre.

I also have great faith in India, a country that is an emerging global economic superpower, with a new government elected by outright majority. India has enormous potential, particularly evident since liberalisation in 1991.

Although its growth rate has slowed down over the past few years, I have confidence that India will once again achieve growth rates approaching 10pc a year, with a huge emerging consumer class totalling hundreds of millions and with tens of millions of people being lifted out of poverty.

If you started today with £1,000 what business would you create and how would you go about it?

I’d be grateful to have £21,000 more than I had when I did start my business! I had £20,000 of debt to pay off when I founded Cobra.

What is your golden tip/s to new start-ups?

The most important thing is attitude. We must strive to aspire and achieve against all odds with integrity, you come up with an idea, you have little or no means, you have all the odds stacked against you, you make it happen and you do it with integrity; to me – that is the definition of entrepreneurship!

And what is your golden travel tip for stressed out executives?

Have a chilled, refreshing pint of Cobra!

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How Karan Bilimoria Turned £20,000 Debt Into Cobra Beer

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