After falling ill as a teenager, Suleman Sacranie from Evington decided to pursue his quite random business idea. It was a choice that would take him from selling angel delight to expats in Spain, to becoming a multi-millionaire! In the latest episode of the Leicester Startups Podcast, we hear from award winning entrepreneur Suleman as he discusses building a business, disrupting markets, attracting investment, having a mentor, pivoting, scaling and selling.

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Suleman 0:54
So after Judgemeadow, I went to college, which was the old gateway college here, spent a couple of years there, and then went on to university at Leicester to start a degree in chemistry. Unfortunately, at that time, I was going through a few medical issues. There was a potential diagnosed benign for multiple sclerosis, which is actually, for anyone that understands it’s basically a deliberating condition that happens over a period of time, there’s no cure for it, and it’s due to a lesions on the brain. So just to put it in parallel, it’s basically like putting a hole in a radiator where water goes around all over the place rather than around the catchment that it’s meant to. And over time that basically, it progresses. Fortunately, as we’ll talk about the journey following that is I’ve able to obtain a drug that’s not licensed in the UK, but licensed in the United States. But how stop any progression and as you can see, I’m quite able and had no progression for the last 10 years.

Manish Verma 3:01
But at that time, you had to stop university? And did they give you like, you’ve got X number of years? Or did they?

Suleman 3:09
No, actually, I actually didn’t even tell anyone about this. So the university as far as they were concerned, Suleman’s dropped out. There was nothing more to say. It was quite tough period of time. And obviously, I was going through the degree process as well at that stage, and it was becoming quite difficult. And it was very much at the same time, I had an idea that I wanted to progress with as well. So obviously, having been told, you know, your medical symptoms could get worse. And your period of life could be shortened. I think it was kind of a real reflection in understanding that, you know, you might want to, you know, do something that really changes what you’re doing. And I think that’s really when the penny dropped, which is, I don’t just want to complete my degree and go and get a nine to five job and actually just be quite robotic in that whole process. So during that journey, I come from a family where my dad had a number of convenience stores as I was growing up. And I’ve always been watching that journey flow of how he gets up in the morning at five o’clock, goes to the cash and carry fills his van up, comes back unloads, all that kind of process, and I’ve never really understood it. Obviously, it’s fantastic what they’ve done when the first generation came into this country, and you know, set up businesses and stuff to get us through school colleges and universities, but it just seemed a very manual process. And I thought there must be an easier way to actually diversify and disrupt this market sector. It was a very random idea to actually create on an online 99 p store, which was very much around taking the ocado model and actually applying that but to the discount market, because at this time we go we’re going through a recession, and people were being very cautious on their spending habits and the power lines in the 19 empty stores of this world. Were actually booming, revenue wise. So this is this was just an idea at the time, I had no idea how I was going to start this. I then told my parents I’m setting up a business and I’ve also given notice to the university that I’ve dropped out. all hell broke loose as you can imagine coming from a quite a traditional Asian family. It’s a normal process are you get your degree script and, you know, off you go. And that’s really what your stamp is. So obviously, I actually say my dad was actually like, fine, you know, that’s, it’s actually very supportive. That’s our mom’s just like, what the hell What the hell are you doing? And I thought, Yeah, okay. So we went through this whole charade for a couple of months. And then I realised actually, what have I actually done? When the penny dropped that actually I’m on my own here now, and I’ve got the last 2000 pounds on my student loan to fund this thing. And I never really thought about business prior to this. I you know, I never really understood the differential aspects of starting something and then I realised to even get this going, it would be very much around, I need a designer for the website, I need to pay this person, I need to launch this, it’s going to take time I need to specify open to provide my specification, I need to provide what backend infrastructure I want, I need to understand what intellectual property is owned by who, I need to find what payment gateway, I want to set up a bank account to set up a merchant account. I need to find a hosting provider. There’s all sorts of areas that I had no idea what what the hell was going on here. And then the quotes of a website started with 100,000 hundred 50,000. All this kind of madness was kicking off. So just like what have I really gone and got myself into here? And then I was like, Okay, what am I going to do? I’m actually in a complete mess now. And I wouldn’t recommend this to anyone. But eventually, as time went by, I found some designers actually in Bangladesh of all places, managed to get something up quite quickly. For a couple of hundred pounds. It wasn’t the best platform in the world. And actually, the whole concept went quite viral. Because it became a concept of accardo but online as a discount market. We had about 3000 orders in the first 72 hours. And all I’d done at this stage was upload all the Tesco products that were actually under a pound and mark them to 99 p because I couldn’t hold inventory and stock. And it was very much going to the local Tesco store, packing a basket coming home and packing a box. So our house up until up to the bathroom top was filled filled with stock. The whole house was full of stock. My mom was pulling her hair out. It was just utter madness. But it proved that people do buy online. It proved that people psychologically believe things that are 99 p are cheaper than something that’s 49 P and it also proved that actually I have a model here that could really do some damage in this industry and market sector.

Manish Verma 7:52
So you were buying things at a pound?

Suleman 7:55
No cheap these are cheaper than a pound and actually marking them up to 99p.

Manish Verma 7:59
So something like 49p. Who’s buying them?

Suleman 8:04
It was very much consumed a lot of expats, people in Spain and abroad that wanted, you know, UK goods, but couldn’t achieve them. But it was very much the demographics were quite student populated as well, because they thought they don’t need to go to a local farmer that they find cheap. So that was quite interesting in itself.

Manish Verma 8:22
You’re packing the boxes, you’ve got your house full of just stuff from Tesco. And you then pack them. You have to deliver them.

Suleman 8:30
Yes. So then I had to find a courier company that would come and collect them from home to we had to cut off time. So this was this, like I said, it was complete madness. What what was going off here and so this went on for about 12 months. So you can imagine at this stage, as you can probably see, all the grey hair I’ve got is probably due to this now. But it was very stressful. I probably learned more during that 12 months. And I think I’ve met more about my family during that 12 months and myself than I probably ever have before. It was a it was a it was it was an experience in itself.

Manish Verma 8:59
Were you surprised that any of the goods that you are that people wanted?

Suleman 9:03
Yeah, I will never forget, I think our biggest seller was Noor Seasoning. Angel delight. So yeah, you’ll be surprised at some of the stuff that people buy. But you know, you know nothing, nothing surprises me anymore.

Manish Verma 9:14
You said you learned so much about yourself and your family in that in those 12 months, what were they?

Suleman 9:20
I’d say it’s about myself, which is building discipline, being patient, not panicking, understanding that things you thought you weren’t good at, you’ve got to practice to become good at understanding that whilst you could go into a corporate job, that is a specific role. If you want to run your own business, you got to do a bit of everything, which is sales, marketing operations, it it’s a bit of everything. And as far as family goes, I think it’s more around the support that came from it. I think it was a something that I thought would be a lonely journey. But actually without the without, you know, that support I don’t think it would have I would have been able to achieve or get through that initial hurdle face.

Manish Verma 9:56
Talk to me about what it was like at home with boxes and goods and bags all in the living room in the bathroom, your mom’s pulling her hair out. Your dad is fairly supportive. But actually, you’re trying to build something here. But you know, you’ve never built a business. You’re a young guy, what would they actually think? Did they think you’d lost it?

Suleman 10:17
I think they probably thought I lost my marbles first. And I think secondly, they were the short list is just going this is the phase is going through short, it’s just going to just going to wash out and you know, banging his head against a wall and realised that common sense will prevail here. But actually, I think it then became apparent that actually, there is something here. I think they started realising that because you know, the order numbers were shooting through the roof requirements were shooting through the roof. And I think they realised that actually, this is what is going on here. And actually, you know, as soon as you could see money going through the bank and revenues, and things like that, actually, there is something here.

Manish Verma 10:56
So at 1920 years old sentiment has dropped out of uni to pursue his quite random idea of taking the discount retail market online. It’s called 99 p shopper. And one day, he attends an exhibition in London. They’re holding a Dragon’s Den style panel event there, but three people that were meant to pitch have dropped out. Sullivan asks the organisers if he could take one of their spots. He did. And after his pitch, all five panellists give him back hard, and told him to get in touch. He spoke to all of them, but one would be significant Atul Devani he sold his telecoms business in 2005 for 290 million dollars. He would become Solomon’s mentor, and first angel investor.

Suleman 11:48
He came to the house and realise what the hell’s going on here! He wanted to see the real, real set. All right, come along, and then spoke to my mom and dad. We have a really good family relationship now. And they’re like, what do you want from this and they go, just get get him out of the house. So he invested, raised our first angel seed round of funding. And he came on board full time, which was fantastic. And I think you know, anyone starting their own business, I think having a mentor, you can’t dismiss it. I think it’s probably the only reason I’ve been able to accelerate my success and growth in what I’ve been able to achieve due to it. Because they’ve made all the mistakes. Yeah, they know what not to do. And they also know how to do it, then may not always be right. But it’s about understanding that probably what they’re saying is actually correct in some ways, and shaping your own answer based on that. And I think without that, I don’t think I would have been I wouldn’t understand some of the things I understand now. I never knew there’s something called the venture capital industry. I wouldn’t have not known how to scale a business. I wouldn’t have not known how to list a business on aim. I wouldn’t have known that legalities behind a business I wouldn’t know. There’s so many things now that that individuals probably probably accelerated my career and saved me 25 years.

Manish Verma 13:10
I suppose there’s maybe a little bit of apprehension from people who have businesses to be like, this person is going to put in this much money, they’re going to take this much percentage. How do I know? They’re just gonna, you know, they can screw me over? And you know, did you have those worries at that time?

Suleman 13:27
So I think at that time, I think it was very much like it was, I knew it would be a lonely journey, but I think I just knew, I also needed the support. And I also knew that you know, what, if this one fails, then actually I’ll do another one, knowing that the lessons I’ve learned from this, so I think it’s about that attachment to something you do. But without taking that risk. You can’t scale it. And I think that’s the big thing. Do you want to remain a lifestyle business or do you want to grow into a national business and I think that’s the risk you sometimes got to take. But I think it’s about doing your homework and getting to know people and you can only work with people you get to know and before we did anything together, it was about six to eight months. You know, we put, you know, we went through the learning process of each other. And that’s when I became comfortable. I think he became comfortable that we could work together.

Manish Verma 14:06
How much did he put in? And what did that mean for the business?

Suleman 14:11
So he put in, I think it’s going back up back up back a step now. So I think he put in about 150,000 at the time, if I’m correct, really helped me scale. We then stopped selling product, we became a wholesale comparison engine and became a technology platform

Manish Verma 14:27
So first it’s 99 p shopper, you’re selling to end consumer, you then get investment, you kind of change the model, to a comparison site?

Suleman 14:37
I think I think we don’t change the model straightaway. I think it was very much around understanding that we couldn’t scale the existing model right cause when you break down the costs and this is great having someone that’s quite experienced and it’s not too close to it when you try and break it down, every dollar value of 15 pound profit on that order three pound pack in a box for 30 minutes, six pound, you lose money, you and as well as storage Starting, you can’t scale that unless you’ve got robotics involved. So it’s very much understanding how do you scale that now, without losing money, you can’t scale that kind of model, what you can do in the lifestyle offering, you can’t really scale it as a business. And that’s where we’ve looked at other options and other other kinds of elements. And I think having someone that comes from the, you know, SAS kind of model software as a service, or technology platforms, we looked at the offer opportunities within the market sector that would allow us to launch a technology platform within the market, and then you build this platform that’s greater there was Booker best way parman Harvey and Costco nobody has a comparison engine this market. We created the first comparison engine in the sector that allows shopkeepers to compare the prices because one thing they do right now is collect all the magazines try and find out where the deals are. First day we launched it, we had all the legal letters come across from all the all the wholesalers and I had all the top CEOs of the biggest wholesaler sitting in my office telling us to close this concept down and come and work for them. So We kind of had something there. Why did you get the heads of the companies saying shut it down? What was the worry there? I think the worry for them was actually how how on earth first Have you got hold of our prices? This isn’t meant to be because we if you look at a wholesaler, you if you want to get inside their door, you need to sign up. You need to go, they need to provide identification and to show that you’re a business, you need to do all this stuff, we can even get in there. Secondly, the prices are not available freely online. So how have you got this information? And the third one is actually the nobody’s ever been used to that cross comparison. So it’s disrupting that sector that’s not even ever been told that your price is actually out there against somebody else’s 10 did you get this process? Actually, we run some very interesting software and algorithms. And we did things looking back we shouldn’t have done. Right. Okay, but we’ll leave that there.

Manish Verma 16:53
Yeah, let’s leave that there, shall we? And let’s catch up. Silliman has gone from selling goods online for 99 pages. to building a comparison website, which showed rival prices for each of the biggest wholesalers. In doing so, he’s caught some attention. A lot of attention actually. One of those was from Parma and Harvey, the UK, his biggest wholesaler at the time, they struck a deal with cinnamon and his business partner to build a brand new platform called mad about deals. It was a kind of Groupon style sites, which allowed Palmer and Harvey to send offers out to their customers. That deal was worth around 150 million pounds.

Suleman 17:34
of sitting on my own in the office, the phone rings and the lady’s name was Marissa. She says our CEO is in Leicester, he would like to come and see you so I go Who’s your CEO and where you calling from? I didn’t even know who Parmer Harvey were at the time he goes, his name’s Martin Ward, and I’m calling from manavi. So I go Yeah, all right. Yeah, sure. I can come and see me and parks up. You know, you could tell he’s a well to do chap comes into the office has a chat with me goes away and then I’d Google Who the hell they are. And realise that this guys have sold a company to Rick and Benckiser for 4.2 billion and prom and Harvey is the UK’s biggest wholesalers. I had no idea who was sitting in front of well, eventually, we met a few more times. And then we agreed that actually, we would work together to launch a wholesale platform, very similar to a Deal of the Day kind of concept. And, you know, they would be the kind of investor and the distributor behind that. So you then launch this new venture together, right? So they were the stock provider. They were the distributor. They were also the investor. So it was was very much on the tech provider. You’re doing everything else. Then what happens Parmar Harvey decide they want to own that hundred percent. So we talked numbers, and then I exited that.

Manish Verma 18:51
You will not tell me how many numbers what numbers.

Suleman 18:54
Unfortunately I’m not. But it was, it was it was nice. What year are we talking? Now? We’re talking 2013. And how old were you? Gosh, I was probably about 23/24. And I think, unfortunately for Parmar Harvey, after they were the UK’s biggest wholesaler, but a couple years ago, I think they went under right to to the issues in the market sector itself are storming very good friends with the CEO from there. And it was it was a great learning experience of how you can take a startup, fold it into a big giant, work with a giant launch something with someone or the size of them, and how you sometimes will start up need to take those risks to catch them to capture their attention and show that actually we have something that could be of interest to you.

Manish Verma 21:19
A Quick catch up. That’s your old Solomon citrone from Ellington is a university dropout, stroke millionaire, after a medical condition made him really consider his future. He decides life’s too short. He’s going to be an entrepreneur. He builds a business, gets investment, pivots, scales and then sells. But having made a small fortune, what does he do next?

Suleman 21:44
That’s when I sit there thinking what do I do next? I still remember I bought a nice car. House. Yep. What else to do holidays. Yeah, but they became boring. Eventually. So yeah, then it was really what do we do next? And obviously, then I thought I’m quite onto something I care about. So the whole space was quite a sector that I do care about. And I realised that having had my neurology consultation that I asked my neurologist, a question, which is, Why can you not prescribe this treatment to me that I’m on from America? And the answer was very much that there’s no clinical trial. So I go, there’s enough information from patients in the States on it. That means it works. So he goes, yes, but it’s got no patent on it. So I go, what does that mean? So you guys know pharma company will run enough trials because they won’t have exclusivity on it, which means they can’t charge the NHS 50 60,000 pound a month, it will only cost $20. So I go and because it doesn’t make far more money. Yeah, because it doesn’t make pharmaceutical company than you money. Then, having got to the bottom of that it was very much that there are treatments out there that can help people but people just can’t get hold of them because They’re not available on the NHS because the pharma company has found a way of blocking them out, which is quite disappointing, to be honest. But I had a prescribing doctor based in Wales. And the issue that he was having was getting his prescription across to pharmacies was difficult because it just so you understand how the private prescription market works is, if you get a private prescription for something and you go into pharmacy, they can try to a different price to pharmacy BC and D. Every pharmacy can charge you something quite different because it’s based on Dr. Price and then their markup impersonating just prescriptions for standard nine pound kind of charge. So it was very much that he would have patients had given the prescription but then everyone charged differently. You could go from $20 to $2,000, depending on which pharmacy you kind of walk into. So I sat down with this doctor understood his issues built him a platform which would allow him to generate prescriptions electronically, he could actually log into this dashboard, create a prescription, that prescription would go off to a local designated pharmacy. That was in Birmingham. They would dispense that post that treatment out to the patient benefit to the doctor prescriptions are not going via post, he’s not handwriting them benefit to the patient, they’re not getting the prescription to then go and find a pharmacy that can dispense it is going to a nominated pharmacy that can dispense that drug, and they’re being charged a fixed price. So it very much automated what we now refer to as the GPS in the NHS, where your prescription used to be a green prescription. But when you go to your GP now the GP will say to you, where would you like me to send your prescription, and that will be sent electronically to the pharmacy. So we created that same system, but for the private market.

Manish Verma 24:33
Got you. Okay, so these sorts of drugs that you’re on?

Suleman 24:37
So but that then went from an electronic prescription platform aqualand I got together again. So I said to him, wouldn’t it be one of the issues is patients seeing a doctor, it takes three weeks to three weeks to get an appointment? But wouldn’t it be great if people we could we could simplify that with the addition of technology. So the concept was putting an iPad device into pharmacy consultation rooms because every pharmacy by law now has to have a consultation room. Pay can see a doctor in the consultation within 20 minutes. And when they leave the consultation, the pharmacy can dispense the prescription in real time. We launched that we proven the concept we launched in 50 pharmacies and then went to the venture capital firm. We raised two and a half million in 2016. We raised our further million a year ago and another million recently, so we’ve raised about 5 million to date. That’s been going for the last two years, two to three years now. And we’re probably in over 1600 pharmacies now. We send prescriptions electronically to pharmacies across the country. We have 180 sites with iPads in there now. Yeah, it’s really about disrupting the health sector. Now,

Manish Verma 25:41
When did you set up cheap, it’s called the GP service?

Suleman 25:43
We setup back end of -. It was set up in 2015. We raised investment in 2016. And it’s been going since then, and it’s still running. So I’m one of the co founders, I run it along with that or full time and, you know, we’re scaling We’re working with disrupt that market sector. We’re backed by private equity. So there’s a lot of expectations.

Manish Verma 26:07
Where’s the ambition to go with it?

Suleman 26:09
I think, you know, we’d be looking at, you know, potential. We really want to change the market sector. We believe in the next couple of years, this will be how people see a doctor. And I think it’s very much how do we really change the world changed one sector together, which was a retail space, and I think it’s now how can we change the healthcare sector? And that, that, you know, we’re open to whatever way that may take us, it may take us to an exit and meet it because through partnering with someone, it may take us through helping the NHS with stuff but I think right now, we’re still finding its own feet.

Manish Verma 26:36
wanted to ask actually. Because people are very, you know, care for the NHS a lot is hold it dear to their heart. When you talk about private company in NHS, the two for many people don’t don’t match. Do you get much of a kind of hostility or kind of tension there?

Suleman 26:56
I think one thing we’re not doing is we’re not competing against the NHS. We work with the NHS we work very closely. With NHS digital, we’ve access the patient’s NHS record. We work closely with the NHS to give them an option to get patients an option that if you can’t go to see your doctor, we’re not, we’re not competing. But we’re providing you a way that you can actually see a doctor. If you need advice, there’s a way that you can get advice. And I think that’s around more around, you know, giving patients that choice. And it’s not, you know, I think of competing with the NHS at all is working with the NHS, on how together, we can create something that gives patients the choice if they are struggling.

Manish Verma 27:30
It sounds certainly like a different world to retail? Has there been much crossover? I mean, you’ve gone from retail to health.

Suleman 27:40
As much as people say that I think the same logics of business applies. I think the same commitment applies. I think the same lessons apply. It might be a different market that you know nothing about but you know, the same rules apply of what you what you do, obviously, I can’t do the health Stop icon to a consultation. So you know, you hire doctors, you hire pharmacist, you need to do that. People that can bring that expertise and experience. But as far as the logic goes behind how the setup works on the operation and what we need to do, I think it’s quite clear you can you know, the same business principles apply in anything you do.

Manish Verma 28:12
You said earlier about failing, failing hard, failing fast, I guess. Was there anything that you did across your to business where you thought ‘that was a massive mistake’?

Suleman 28:22
There was a number of things I think, you know, and I think not, to not be scared to change the model. I think it’s really important. And we changed the model in 99 p lost count how many times before we got to the model that was right, even, you know, various things I’ve done before that and people are giving advice on it’s very much you know, don’t be scared because what’s the worst that’s gonna happen? You’re not shy of the spotlight. I mean, you’ve you’ve been on national TV, talking about entrepreneurship was the What was it called? Sorry, the BBC is that yes after I’ve obviously had might not be I was invited by the BBC to do a few things. So I did. The Dragon’s Den version for kids could pocket money. Fitch Did the BBC undercover show could million dollar intern which sends you in a business undercover as an intern in a failing business and your job within a week is to turn that around. So that was quite an experience.

Manish Verma 29:11
Why? Why? I mean, lots of entrepreneurs will be like, I’m just, I’m just doing business here. Why have you?

Suleman 29:17
You know, I think opportunities always arise. And I think I’m not shy to say no to opportunities, and no to anything that will really challenge me and actually challenge my strength and actually give me a new level of experience and expertise. And I think, you know, that’s, that’s a big thing for me, because I don’t want to be an individual that is stuck in the way I’m doing things. I think it’s really important that you travel, it’s really important. You look at what else is out there and you take advice from others as well. And they may be higher than you. They may be lower than you but they’ve all got a valid point.

Manish Verma 29:48
Suleman is certainly able to give advice to other entrepreneurs. Having made his fortune with one business. He’s now looking at growing his latest one, but he does so mostly from London. He’s in the capital three to four days a week. Whilst Leicester is home, London is where he feels he’s able to achieve more.

Suleman 30:09
I think London really has the kind of I think it’s I think the the startup space exists more in London, I think, you know, reaching out to investors, networking events, meeting like minded individuals, the kind of skill sets you need to hire, just it’s got a higher population, which means it’s got more kind of what you want to be doing. I think as far as let’s stick with it, I think it’s impossible to achieve that same kind of catchment. But if you want to try and start your business, and you need to get on an accelerator programme that doesn’t really exist here to get you your initial seed kind of round or pre seed round. And I think you’re being pushed out a little bit because of the kind of limited opportunities and I think if those kind of options were available, I think people would stay. I don’t think it’s a million miles away. But I think that if you’re a startup and you’re trying to get that experience, the mentoring the all that kind of stuff. I think it’s quite limited. And I think the only kind of things I know is DMU has got their own Innovation Centre. I know Lester’s got their own kind of stuff, but that’s his office space. I think there’s going to be more than just office space because it’s great giving someone a box. But then what do they do with that? You know, they’re starting for the first time. And I think there’s a lot of stuff unis now do to promote like, a small thousand pound fund or something. But, you know, where do they see that following up? Is it just a tick box? You know, when I was working, doing some work for DMU, for example, you know, I know they had some kind of programmes and stuff, but was that just a tick boxes to show that, you know, it was a, we’ve managed to our graduates have graduated and I’ve got a job for a couple of months because they’re doing their own business? I’m not sure. And I think that unis need got to do a lot more to see the longevity of that as well.

Manish Verma 31:48
Would you be averse to as a successful still young entrepreneur? Would you be averse to kind of getting stuck in here locally to try and make something happen?

Suleman 32:01
I wouldn’t be against it. But I think at this stage of my career, I’m still at the state of building rather than winding down. So I think I think this stage Probably not, but it’s not something I’m against to to.

Manish Verma 32:18
Suleman Sacrani is the co founder of the GP service, an online platform, which gets private paying patients and appointments with a doctor remotely. Solomon says he wants the GP service to continue being the platform for people wanting to see a GP, anytime, anywhere they are. And he hopes that it won’t just be private patients either. In the future, he aims to work with the NHS, so every patient can see a doctor over the internet. Something I’ll be honest, I’m surprised isn’t already a thing. Anyway, thank you very much to Suleman. And many thanks for listening to the Leicester Startups Podcast.

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