Sonu Bubna is a serial entrepreneur with established history of working in eCommerce. She is passionate about advocating Tech entrepreneurship, particularly women in Tech. She is experienced in Fund raising, Partner relationships, Financial Advisory and Banking. Sonu is a qualified accountant turned tech entrepreneur.
She has been a startup founder for the past 10 years and launched Shopper.com in 2018. Shopper.com provides a no-code platform for creators to start their own online stores. She regularly gives talks at various events including TechWeek, retail forums and entrepreneurship groups and also gives guest lectures on topics related to entrepreneurship and women in tech at various universities and schools.
She has won several awards including the Innovate UK Women in Innovation Awards, 2020/21; 2019 West Midlands Women Startup Entrepreneur of the Year Award and UK Tech Nation’s Rising Star Award 2020.
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Table of Contents
Thank you for joining us today. Please introduce yourself to our readers. They want to know you, some of the background story to bring some context to your interview.
Sonu Bubna: I am a qualified accountant turned tech entrepreneur. Prior to pursuing my entrepreneurial career, I worked for global companies such as CitiBank and KPMG. The set routine, five days a week work, and corporate perks did not really excite me. Everyday, I felt like I was chasing someone else’s dream and it was time for me to chase my own. Thus, I decided to venture into entrepreneurship in the UK. In 2018, I launched Shopper.com which helps creators enable commerce on any channel.
I am passionate about advocating women entrepreneurship, particularly in tech. I believe that with little to no resources and background one can pursue their dreams and create valuable enterprises in the tech world. I support entrepreneurs via various forums including Female Founders Forum, an organisation that helps female founders across the UK to find the right resources and mentors to grow their organisations.
In 2019, I was honoured to represent the UK in Israel as one of the top ten women entrepreneurs in AI. I am also the winner of West Midlands Start Up Women Entrepreneur of the Year 2019 Award, UK Tech Nation Rising Star Award 2019 and Innovate UK Women in Innovation Award 2021/22 among others.
You are a successful entrepreneur, so we’d like your view point, do you believe entrepreneurs are born or made? Explain.
Sonu Bubna: This is an interesting one.
In my opinion, there are certain characteristics or attributes that help entrepreneurs become successful faster. Some of us are born with these while many other nurture these qualities on their journey to be an entrepreneur.
However, one thing I am certain about is that just because you are born in an entrepreneurial family, does not mean or guarantee that you will be an entrepreneur let alone be a successful one. Entrepreneurship is not for everyone and people don’t really envy entrepreneur’s life, at least at the beginning because the journey is not for all.
Moreover, stakes are quite high for entrepreneurs as they might have invested their life’s savings in order to pursue their dreams or in my case defied the society norms to launch a business in a foreign country.
It takes lot of courage, resilience and self belief to be an entrepreneur. I grew up in a family where many of my immediate family members had launched businesses, some of whom were successful, some others managed to make the ends meet while others had to find a job to sustain.
I have seen not only the financial ups and downs, but also the highs and lows of running a business and being an entrepreneur. And one thing I can say is that the successful entrepreneurs were not successful because they were born that way, but perhaps they continued to trod the difficult terrain while many of their counterparts gave up or drew lines. Therefore, a lot depends on you and your shock/ failure absorption capacity.
If you were asked to describe yourself as an entrepreneur in a few words, what would you say?
Sonu Bubna: Self reflection is always intriguing and often the way I see myself may not be the way others see me as. So I’ll try to articulate the sort of entrepreneur I am. I am known to be a very determined and a hard working person. I’d say resilience is one of my strengths. I possessed a rebellious streak as a young girl, and I was known to be “dreaming big”.
But, as a female CEO, being assertive has been a struggle. As a leader leading from the front, being assertive is important and one of the ways I’m working on is to achieve it by conflict management. From my experience, women tend to avoid conflicts and when it comes to confronting others who are loud and have a strong personality, the probability of managing this conflict is even less. So, I’m constantly working on this area to improve myself in.
Tell us about what your company does and how did it change over the years?
Sonu Bubna: Shopper.com enables commerce for creators on any channel. Our personalised stores allow creators to endorse or sell products. Imagine showcasing artworks, merchandise, ebooks, NFTs, subscriptions, all in one place.
With merchant relations already in place for immediate monetisation, creators can use their existing distribution channels like YouTube, TikTok, Twitch or WhatsApp to sell efficiently. When we launched in November 2018, we were focused on providing a monetisation tool to creators for exclusive deals and coupons they received from the brand. but, soon we realised that the creators need a specialised storefront where they can sell their own products as well as promote products from other brands. So recently, we launched our personalised storefronts for creators to help them build their own online stores in minutes.
Thank you for all that. Now for the main focus of this interview. With close to 11.000 new businesses registered daily in the US, what must an entrepreneur assume when starting a business?
Sonu Bubna: My first point to consider is to change according to the changes in the environment. When we launched the company, we had a great start. We had raised funds and launched the platform, our users loved it and we were in the next phase of growth and fund raising.
But things quickly changed when the pandemic hit and we had to change the gears and instead of fund raising and user growth, we turned to growing revenues. As a result our user growth slowed, however in less than six months, we grew our revenues over 30 times. So, reflecting on it, I think it’s important to be adaptable and sometimes you need to take unprecedented actions in unprecedented times. Also, know that there will be unknowns along the journey.
My 2nd point is that entrepreneurship is not for someone who is looking for instant gratification. For majority of the entrepreneurs, it takes years of blood, sweat, tears and sacrifices to become successful entrepreneurs. There could be some exceptions who got it relatively easy, but most have to go through a challenging yet exciting journey.
Finally, don’t take everything personally. Even when a situation seems so personal, even if others insult you directly, it has nothing to do with you. Their point of view and opinion come from all the programming they received growing up. When you take things personally, you feel offended and your reaction is to defend your beliefs and create conflict. You make something big out of something so little because you have the need to be right and make everybody else wrong. So, be prepared that not everyone will like or believe in your ideas and your dreams, which is fine as you need to find that one right mentor, advisor or investor who ‘believes you’ and ‘believes in you’ to turn things around.
Did you make any wrong assumptions before starting a business that you ended up paying dearly for?
Sonu Bubna: There are several wrong assumptions entrepreneurs make, and we are generally just one bad decision away from closing down. I’ll share top two bad assumptions/ decisions that had profound impact on me and the company.
As a startup founder, I assumed that I should hire people fast and quickly grow the team to reach the next stage. But, hiring in a hurry is almost always wrong. In the initial phase of starting up, we hired for a senior position in the company. Our new hire said all the right things, understood all the right problems and had all the skills necessary to perform.
But, there was no cultural fit and it weighed the entire team down. Although bad hires in initial days are inevitable, my mistake was to try too hard and too long to make it work. Sometimes I even hoped that things will turn around on their own. Although we parted ways amicably, I learned that startups should hire slow and fire fast.
Another assumption was that a startup should launch its product once it’s fully ready with hundreds of features. However, in reality, waiting for the perfect moment to launch the product doesn’t really work. As entrepreneurs, we obsess about our product and every tiniest detail about it. One of the biggest problems we faced was about prioritising the product features.
We are a community driven platform and we love to talk to potential users before finalising the product. Talking to a diverse set of users gave us a lot of valuable insights that could all be converted into features but at the same time extended our product launch timelines a few times. The best way to mitigate this issue and to avoid choice paralysis, is to prioritise. We group features in three groups that align with the company goal, product vision or overall strategy.
Set a score for each group and go head with the features with the highest score. Ensure to regularly reprioritise the score as with time the business needs change, markets change and the customers change.
If you could go back in time to when you first started your business, what advice would you give yourself and why? Explain.
Sonu Bubna: I would like to give two important pieces of advice to my younger self.
First, understand the value of having a supportive eco system. I did not realise how lonely a startup entrepreneur’s life can be, and it’s even worse when it comes to women entrepreneurs in tech. It’s important to be in the company of like minded people. In my startup, we were growing, we were hiring, we were fund raising and perhaps doing everything right. It is all thrilling but at the same time it all came with setbacks.
Just because you planned something and it did not happen, you have to quickly recover from it and do the best in that given situation. It’s then I realised the importance of having a supportive eco system and how valuable people can be. Having the support of friends and family is important in sailing through these challenges. I was able to achieve my business and personal goals because of the support I got around me. So invest in people and relations and build a friendly & conducive support system around you.
Second, I’d say don’t fall a victim to self doubt. Often people think that entrepreneurs have it all sorted or they are confident or know it all. In fact, it’s very easy to get discouraged when you don’t grow as fast as you’d like or get disappointed when things go wrong or people don’t believe in your idea. And quickly self doubt creeps in and you feel like giving up. And its ok to feel this way on some days, but as entrepreneurs we are always seeking solutions for a problem.
I think one of the best ways to deal with self doubt is to log everything you do, the daily goals you set and your daily achievements. This way when one day is hard, you can flip the pages and see where you started, how far you’ve come, the obstacles you overcame and so on. This provides a reassurance that you’re on the right path and that you are one step closer to your goals.
What is the worst advice you received regarding running a business and what lesson would you like others to learn from your experience?
Sonu Bubna: Before I answer this, I would like to clarify that every advice has its own merits and the advisor might have given it in good faith. Perhaps, my circumstances and my thought process didn’t match the advice given to me at that time, so I ended up considering it as one of the worst advices. But, perhaps it was the most valuable piece of advice that some other entrepreneur received. So, whether an advice is good or bad is relative. Having said that, I’ll talk about the worst advice I received and why I think it is so bad.
I started my first business against all odds and the pressure to succeed was really high for me. However, with best of the efforts and strategies, I didn’t achieve what I had thought I would at the end of one year. So, I started getting a lot of pressure from everyone around me to draw a line. They wanted me to move on from entrepreneurship if in the next six months I didn’t become successful.
But for me, entrepreneurship was not only about financial success, it was also about creating something valuable and leaving a worthy legacy. So I continued on my roller coaster ride. Reflecting on it, I must admit that not giving in to the society pressure and moving back to corporate life was one of the biggest favours I’ve done to myself. Although there are challenges and there are days when nothing seems to go right, there are also days when I am on cloud 9 and feel invincible.
So, entrepreneurship comes with its own challenges and perks. Whenever days are hard, I would recommend budding entrepreneurs to ask themselves – what would matter after 5 years? The fact that you quit or the reason for quitting? Had I quit in the early days of my journey due to the severe pressure, I would not be writing this piece today and sharing my entrepreneurial journey.
In your opinion, how has COVID-19 changed what entrepreneurs should assume before starting a business? What hasn’t changed?
Sonu Bubna: Business has been hit by an unprecedented crisis due to the global pandemic. Hundreds of businesses have closed, and many are on the verge of bankruptcy. Despite the fact that some businesses did really well during the pandemic, most businesses had a difficult time.
However, as far as core skills or fundamentals are concerned, there hasn’t been much change for entrepreneurs seeking to start a business since the onset of the pandemic. Focusing on the core competencies, including how to finance and manage a new business, and how to bring continuous innovation and a commitment to the mission is the key to success. There’s no change in that.
A change that has occurred is that more and more parts of businesses are going digital. Today, digital is one of the most important aspects of every business. In addition, one should view digital as one of the pillars of the business, as it pertains to all kinds of businesses.
What is a common myth about entrepreneurship that aspiring entrepreneurs and would-be business owners believe in? What advice would you give them?
Sonu Bubna: Entrepreneurship is not for all and at least at the beginning, most people can’t live an entrepreneur’s life given the challenges and hardships involved. Having moved from corporate to entrepreneurship, I can share the myths that were busted once I became an entrepreneur. My three key myths were:
Passion v/s business: I started my business to work on something that I loved and thought since I am a financial professional, I would be able to navigate through the startup journey quite well. I was confident about combining my financial knowledge with business acumen to run a successful startup. But, when I started the reality was quite different. I had to come out of my comfort zone and wear multiple hats to manage work on legal, marketing and hiring front. I often heard that when you work on your passion, the work doesn’t seem like work. But in my case, the reality was that I could enjoy the part where I had some experience or knowledge in, but the other functions I had no knowledge of, challenged me to the bits.
Freedom v/s restrictions: One of the reasons I wanted to start a business was to have the ‘freedom’ of doing what I wanted to do. Like many other business owners, I thought I could decide on my work hours, not be answerable as there’s no boss and take as many vacations as I please. Well, now I know what a fantasy that was! Fast forward few years, I am practically working round the clock, so in a way I get to choose my working hours. Although I don’t have a boss, I am answerable to everyone in the team, investors, customers, suppliers and other stakeholders. In theory I could take as many vacations, but in reality given the work pressure and being there for the team meant that I take fewer vacations than I used to when I was working for someone else.
Starting v/s planning: One of my favourite quotes was/ is from Nike ‘Just do it’. I thought the thing that separates few from many is the fact that few have the courage to begin, just start walking on the path and rest will follow. Well, to a certain extent that is true, but having experienced the roller coaster ride that entrepreneurship is, I can’t undermine the importance of planning. It’s not expected that you should plan everything on day 0 or day 1, but it is quintessential to have a basic plan in hand to guide you through the initial phase of your startup, particularly financial planning. Although I was quite conservative with my income and inflated figures for costs, in reality the costs were way higher than what I had originally planned for. Startups are generally just one bad decision away from going bust and not anticipating some of the costs added tremendous pressure.
Therefore, I recommend that test the waters before you fully immerse yourself into it. Not everyone can handle the pressure of running a business whether it’s related to finance or a spike in success. Also, be prepared for the unknown and willing to go beyond the call of the duty. If you can’t walk that extra mile for chasing your dreams, no one else would ever. And finally, doing it is way better than simply optimising plans on the paper. Launch fast, fail fast, optimise fast, experiment fast and repeat the process fast. Speed of execution is critical to your success.
What traits, qualities, and assumptions do you believe are most important to have before starting a business?
Sonu Bubna: I’m not sure if there are set qualities or characteristics that assure business will be a success. However, there are certain common themes and patterns that one can observe among entrepreneurs that could be helpful. I’ll talk about three qualities:
Clarity – It’s an important quality to have before/ while starting a business. It’s essential to be clear on the overall vision, mission and the short term goals. Often entrepreneurship is confused with self employment and I think it’s important to be clear on why you want to start a business. Do you just want to work for yourself or you actually want to build a team around you? Clarity will also provide an insight into what it might take to reach your goals. For example, some entrepreneurs lay the foundation for a small yet successful business wherein some others shoot for stars and take their own sweet time to build that strong foundation. It’s important to know the risks and sacrifices it would take to build such an empire.
Resilience – I can’t emphasise enough on this quality. Resilience is something you can build over time, but you should be prepared for the stormy days. Successful entrepreneurs will say that there were times when they would have felt giving up or quitting, but something kept them going. And remembering why you set a foot on this journey, might be a good reminder to carry on when going gets tough. One thing I have experienced is that some entrepreneurs don’t just get lucky, they perhaps try a million different things and only a few click for them, which the world sees as luck.
Innovation – One thing that successful entrepreneurs have in common is the ability to continuously innovate. They see opportunities where most people see problems. Entrepreneurs may not always deliver the world changing ideas, but they do solve small yet everyday problems that may significantly improve on the status quo. For example, a new mother may not have adequate knowledge or support on breastfeeding her infant, so there are apps that would help mothers to see it on the app or connect with a certified practitioner in real time. On the other hand we have Uber and Airbnb that completely changed the way we book taxis or rent accommodations.
How can aspiring leaders prepare themselves for the future challenges of entrepreneurship? Are there any books, websites, or even movies to learn from?
Sonu Bubna: Be certain to live in the uncertainty is something that entrepreneurs should brace for. There are several books or movies that can inspire and motivate when you need it the most. I’ll talk about my top three favourites:
The Pursuit of Happyness (Movie) – I love this movie and is often my go to motivation trick on hard days. Every time I watch this movie, it reinvigorates me to pursue my dreams, however daunting the path may seem.
Autobiography of a Yogi (Book) – This book explains the purpose and the potential of humans. Self efficacy is important in entrepreneurship and feeling you contain all the powers within you gives me a sense of being in control of the events and not being controlled by the events.
The Conscious parent (Book) – I know its not really a business book but this book made me realise that every situation we face or every person we meet is for elevating us to the next level. It also explains that once we learn from the setbacks and prepare ourselves, we learn to navigate through situations smartly, something I think is important for entrepreneurs.
You have shared quite a bit of your wisdom and our readers thank you for your generosity but would also love to know: If you could choose any job other than being an entrepreneur, what would it be?
Sonu Bubna: If motherhood is considered as a job, then I have already opted for it. I think it is one of the most rewarding jobs where you get to shape the child’s thinking and value system. It’s fascinating when the child responds to you and expresses his/ her learnings or understanding of your teachings. It’s very much like running a startup where every day is a different one and most of the times you are learning on the job.
No matter how much ever you prepare, there’s always uncertainty about what’s in store for tomorrow. But, at the same time it’s one of the most thrilling experiences where you feel responsible for shaping up your child’s future and at the same time you need to let go of many of your usual routine/ habits in order to accommodate your child. I think you learn to give unconditionally and become more understanding of others.
Thank you so much for your time, I believe I speak for all of our readers when I say that this has been incredibly insightful. We do have one more question: If you could add anyone to Mount Rushmore, but not a politician, who would it be; why?
Sonu Bubna: I personally feel women are a bit underrepresented there It would be wonderful to see a woman’s face there. It may be Ada Lovelace, who invented the computer, or Grace Hopper, who did some amazing work in computing, or Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman in space.
Jerome Knyszewski, VIP Contributor to ValiantCEO and the host of this interview would like to thank Sonu Bubna for taking the time to do this interview and share her knowledge and experience with our readers.
If you would like to get in touch with Sonu Bubna or her company, you can do it through her – Linkedin Page
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