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How to turn an idea into a dream job – by people who have done it

Emily Brooke, founder of Blaze and inventor of the Laserlight bicycle light

What was your idea?
When I was in my final year at Brighton, a girlfriend and I decided to cycle across the UK for charity. At first I was worried about city riding. I was doing the final year of a product design degree, so I gave myself the theme of urban cycling. I found that most accidents happen when cyclists are travelling straight ahead.

I was cycling through Brighton when I had my eureka moment and made a light that projected an image of a cyclist on to the road ahead. I raised funds on Kickstarter in 2012 and the business grew from there. We’ve now sold more than 15,000 Laserlights, export to 65 countries, and equip the public hire bikes in London and New York.

What was the biggest challenge you faced?
Finding the right people and moving fast enough. I’m incredibly impatient, which I think is a bit of a trait for entrepreneurs. I want something done yesterday, but we are very seasonal – selling our range of lights mostly when the clocks change in October until Christmas. So we have to be patient. In the early days, the week before we went into production, the supplier of the laser in the lights reneged on the deal and more than doubled the price, which would have made the entire business unaffordable. I was about to fly to Japan when we managed to sort it out.

What would your advice be to people who want to start a similar business?
Get on with it and don’t worry about how you’re doing. I spent the first year and a half absolutely terrified. I kept asking myself: “Is this the right way, or that the right way? Who can I ask?” It took that time to realise that there are obviously a million ways to do anything, so you just have to get on with it. You’ll learn so much more taking a best guess and having a crack than if you wait. And if it’s not right, you change and still get much further, faster, while learning a lot more.

Also, get out there and speak to your market. We’ve gone away from the days of stealth and everyone protecting their secrets. Get out there and speak to as many people as possible: customers, the man on the street – whoever they are – get their feedback. It’s the scariest thing to do but so valuable.

Dan Kieran, co-founder and CEO of Unbound, a crowd-funding publisher

Dan Kieran: ‘The business world needs new values and perspectives.’

What was your idea?
I’m a writer and worked out that I’d spent 10 years building an audience for my books but hadn’t captured a single name or address. I’d sold about 400,000 books but was relying on intermediaries – publishers and book retailers – to find the audience. I thought, someone needs to build a platform to bring readers and authors together to try to make writing more sustainable.

Technology and the internet make that possible: at Unbound, two-thirds of our ideas come direct from writers. If we think it’s a good idea and that you can write, we’ll take on pretty much anything. The guy who says: “That’s a great idea, but I can’t see it selling,” doesn’t work for us. We help the writer make a video and give them the chance to talk about the idea. Then our community has the chance to fund the idea, pledging anything from £10 to £5,000. Once you’ve hit 100%, we publish a quality book, send it to the people who pledged, and sell them in shops in the normal way.

What was the biggest challenge you faced?
Understanding what it will take out of you. You’ll have no idea what you’re doing, so you have to be very clear about what you’re embarking on. And that means not being put off, but also understanding the scale of it. My job is evolving continually and from one year to the next I’m required to be good at completely different things, including managing people. It can be very lonely, but also exciting and rewarding. You get to make something exist entirely down to the way you and your staff want it to be.

What would your advice be to people who want to start a similar business?
When I was growing up under Thatcher, the endless Tory image of an entrepreneur was fast cars and sharp suits – overweight white guys on yachts they can’t sail. But what I’ve realised is that the wrong people think they’re entrepreneurs and the right people don’t. I think we can change the world if the other people start to realise that they can run a business. I’m always telling people they can, because the business world needs new values and perspectives. So do it!

Kuldip Singh Sahota, co-founder and CEO of Mr Singh’s hot sauces, cooking pastes and crisps

Kuldip Singh Sahota (right), with his father, Harder Singh Sahota, and brother Sukhi Singh Sahota.

Kuldip Singh Sahota (right), with his father, Harder Singh Sahota, and brother Sukhi Singh Sahota. Photograph: Rii Schroer

What was your idea?
My dad came to east London from Kenya and, in the mid-80s, created this simple chilli sauce that everyone loved. My idea was to sell that secret recipe to chilli lovers around the world, but it started much smaller than that. I made 1,000 bottles and sold them at the BBC Good Food Show in London, with the simple ambition to pay back the £900 credit card bill from paying for the stand. We sold out and gained the confidence to make more. Almost 10 years later, we produce more than 100,000 bottles a year and are stocked by Ocado and Selfridges. We’ve added cooking pastes and are about to launch Mr Singh’s crisps.

What was the biggest challenge you faced?
Being persistent and persevering, while accepting that challenges and setbacks are part and parcel of business. Whether it’s raising money, managing cash flow, or realising that the factory you just outsourced your production to is making a terrible product, there’ll always be something. It’s about accepting that as normal and learning to come through it.

What would your advice be to people who want to start a similar business?
Know exactly what you stand for and go for it. That means understanding what makes you unique and being able to explain that to people when you go out and talk to them. If they ask what you’re about and you can’t tell them anything beyond: “It’s great,” or: “It tastes delicious,” you’re going to struggle. You need a sense of identity, a story. When you’ve got that, don’t think twice. Even if it’s making one bottle and trying to sell that, you’ll learn so quickly.

Later, when you’re speaking to buyers, play it cool. I remember my first meeting with a large supermarket chain and it was like: “Oh my God, take everything, take my shirt and trousers.” Anything to make a deal work. But you should go in as if it’s the local shop up the road, where you know the shopkeeper, and be normal. Also, do your homework. If you can say: “I know you’ve got this promotional schedule and this supply chain and I think we can work with you,” it makes them think: “These guys are small, but they know what they’re talking about.”

This article was amended on 15 August 2017. An earlier version incorrectly stated how many books Dan Kieran had sold.

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