Today’s episode of What Do You Actually Do!? will be focusing on being an Entrepreneur. We talked to Phil Daneshyar, who is the co-founder of Kanda (formerly TradeSmart) and also came up with the concept for the hydration device ‘Thirsti.’
(Please Note: This episode was recorded before the global pandemic)
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Phil is an entrepreneur & co-founder of Kanda (formerly TradeSmart). He studied Philosophy, Politics & Economics at the University of York and whilst studying, came up with the concept of Thirsti – a hydration device. Phil later went onto Dragons’ Den to gain investment in his product.
For more info about getting involved with student enterprise activities:
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For more info about working for yourself:
For more info about Kanda:
For more info about Thirsti:
To hear more self-employed related podcast stories:
Jess Allason, Freelance Hypnobirth practitioner and trainer:
Nick Gliserman, Historical Adviser for an American educational video games start-up:
You’re listening to the What Do You Actually Do Podcast. Each week, we want to bring you an inspiring interview, a useful tip or an encouraging message to help you find your place in the professional world.
Hello and welcome to this episode of What Do You Actually Do? My name is Kate Morris and I’ll be your host today. In today’s episode, we’ll be talking about working for yourself. We’re joined by Phil Daneshyar, who’s an entrepreneur and co-founder of trade smart. So Phil, what do you actually do?
So I run a company called TradeSmart (now Kanda) and we automate paperwork, invoices, contracts and payments for construction workers. So anyone from a plumber, to someone building a house.
So where did the idea for that come from?
So, it’s an odd story actually. This isn’t my original concept. So, my family friend Richard, he is an electrician, has been for about 10 years. And he’s had late payments come through quite a lot. It is pretty typical in the industry. And then one day he got stung for about 20,000 pounds. So yeah, horrible story he was doing work for them, it was the last stage of the work and then they shut up shop and move the company to Italy and he just couldn’t get the money back. And then after sort of speaking to him about it, him and his cousin, so my other co-founder is Richard’s cousin. And he’s a Cambridge PhD student, super whiz, technical guy, you know, so smartest guy in the room all times and they started to come up with this concept to basically create an escrow service for trades’ people. So when you do work with someone, they would pay into an escrow and then when the jobs complete, they would release the funds to you. And then I was chatting to the guys and basically, you know, they sold me the story and I just jumped on board straight away.
So what are the key elements of your role then?
So my technical title is CEO, but it doesn’t really work like that in a startup, everyone’s kind of the CEO and the assistant. So my role really is, my strength in the company is product. So I sit a lot with the development team and conceptualize the product roadmap and work with customers to understand what actually the product needs to do for them in terms of features, in terms of how they need to be able to access it on their phone, on desktop, as an app, whatever. And then at the same time, I run sort of sales and marketing alongside Richard, and sort of actually, you know, going out there and speaking to customers and trying to find new leads, etc.
So it sounds really varied then, if you’re kind of doing the strategic work really methodically, having planning meetings, etc, but then actually getting out and about and doing the sales stuff at the same time.
Yeah, you kind of have to wear every single hat as they say. And really, it’s just because you haven’t got the resources to go and hire people. So it’s good and exciting to be able to kind of one day do product, one day do sales, one day do marketing. But also, you can become sort of, like you can fall into a safety net. So if you’re already good at one of those things – so I used to be really good at product or I like to think I’m good at product. I’d end up spending 70% of my time doing product and maybe only like 20% of my time doing sales, which is not what the business needed. So that’s kind of the dangers with a startup in that sense.
So I imagine sort of, no two days are the same, but how does it work from a practical point of view? Do you get up at the same time every day? Working in an office? Do you work at home? Do you finish when you finish or do you have set times? What does it look like for you?
So I follow a 33 rule. So what that means is I write myself a list of three really important tasks to do that day, like three top level, critical tasks. So these could be big things like, create a product sprint. So that might be like a four hour meeting with the development team. And I have three big tasks like that, and then I have 30 small tasks, so some admin and paper work. That doesn’t necessarily mean I’ll get through all of them. My aim is, no matter what I do or where I’m working from, if I’m in the office, or at home or abroad, I get the three big tasks done. And then I work through that list of 30, until I basically can’t think anymore!
So it’s quite a fluid day then, you have those key objectives, but in terms of how, when and where you complete them, that changes all the time?
Yeah, and that’s partly because there’s a small team. So it’s two reasons. One, it’s because there’s a small team and so sometimes we work in the office, sometimes we work in someone’s house, sometimes we’re in meetings, so because you haven’t got like a department, running one sector, you’re not necessarily in one place all the time. And the other part of it is just because my personal schedule is quite crazy. So I’ve sort of just become accustomed to, like a skill I’ve had to learn is to be able to work. Just be able to sit in a cafe, pick a laptop up and dive into something straight away, rather than what I used to do, especially when I was at university studying. I’d sit there for like 40 minutes to an hour, get myself ready and perhaps actually do work. You kind of don’t have that luxury.
So you don’t procrastinate at all, you just crack on basically?
Yeah. Well, I say that, but I probably do procrastinate and just don’t realise it!
It’s good thinking time.
But that’s interesting, though, that you impose a structure, but it doesn’t have to be an external structure. You’ve got a plan and that plan doesn’t change in terms of ‘I do this 33 rule every day’ but what’s happening around you, where you are and what time it is can change.
Yeah, one hundred percent. That’s just because there is no structure. I don’t know how you put a structure around a startup, especially at this early stage, because like I said, you’re not doing one thing every day, you haven’t got one particular task and the needs of the business are always changing, and therefore your schedules always changing. So, a good example of this is two days ago, we looked into offering users of the platform finance, so if you’re a homeowner, you’ve got to send a quote for the platform, you could take out finance on that. So, in doing that, suddenly we had to fill out loads of paperwork, and that task became a big priority, so we couldn’t just say we’re gonna leave it for the next week and you just have to dive into it there and then and that seems to happen a lot. You can’t really predict what is going to happen next.
So where did your interest in setting up your own business come from, because you were involved in this at university, from my LinkedIn stalking you’ve been involved in running and setting up a few businesses now. So where did this passion to go down this route rather than your traditional ‘I’m going to get a great job and, you know, follow the same path as other people’ kind of thing?
Where did it come from, I think it came from my parents. So my dad is an entrepreneur in the purest sense. He’s Lebanese Iranian. He came to the UK with his brothers and cousins. They started like a carpet manufacturer, and then he went to Germany, and then he went to the states and then finally settled back down here in Warwickshire. And now he runs a bar & restaurant, so classic entrepreneur in the sense that he’s just done so many different things. And I sort of grew up around that. And there’s a lot of risk, a lot of downs with that, a lot of ups to that, especially as a family. And then my mom, she’s a teacher. But she sort of stopped teaching and went into private tutoring. And then she started writing her own books and stuff. So she’s sort of got entrepreneurial spirit as well. And that kind of rubbed off on me. I just sort of looked at that and thought, like, it’s really interesting. My brothers and sisters, they looked at that thought, well, I do not want that at all – that’s so unstable. I don’t want that. And they’ve all kind of gone down a more traditional route. Whereas I looked at that and thought, like having the ability to just be in complete control of yourself and your time, like, it was really sort of inspiring for me. But it is, you know, not easy in that sense, but it’s kind of like, I think it’s a bug. Some people say that when they get a bug for something, they just can’t shake it off. I’m like that and when I have tried to work in other startups and not necessarily work for myself, it’s always been difficult even doing that because you have autonomy, but you don’t have decision making ability. That is the ultimate, motivating factor I think.
So your degree was in Philosophy, Politics and Economics. How has that impacted on your choice of career?
I was thinking about this the year after I left uni. And one of the things that I think that degree in particular taught me was how to think deeply on things. So it’s a skill I want to try and practice more. And certainly something I did a lot at University is, you get a notification of a problem or you’re told you need to do something or there’s an issue with the business. And our human nature is the first thought that comes into our head. We sort of think that’s the answer. You reply to someone, and then you send another reply, and eventually you’ll sort of formulate your answer as you’re typing. I think what I learned from PPE was, don’t jump straight in and respond, sit down and think critically about the problem. And if I was to pinpoint one aspect of the entire degree, I did a module on logic and logical thinking, which is basically just drawing symbols all day and trying to work out the patterns. But that taught me this idea or, you know, this ability to think of problems in sequential stages, and then you work out what’s the outcome I’m getting to, what do I think I should do, and then what’s every step in between? So, that has been so important in any challenges I’ve faced in business or personally, really.
That’s really interesting. So not just reacting to something, actually taking that time to consider and be strategic about the decisions that you’re making?
Yeah, because I think with, you know, smartphones and social media, I think we’re always online and always responding. There’s an expectation on ourselves to respond to anyone. So when you apply that to a business setting, if someone pops up to you and says, you know, what do you think the solution to this problem is, your natural instinct is to just respond straight away. But the problem with that is you’re not necessarily thinking clearly. So say you’re on the train or you’re on the move, you rush your response and you have a duty to the business to actually put effort and care into your response.
So as well as that ability to think logically and methodically about things, it sounds from what you’ve been saying, you really need to be flexible and able to adapt if you want to be an entrepreneur? What else would you say you need to have in terms of strengths or personal qualities to be successful as an entrepreneur?
I think perseverance. In my mind, that’s the only thing you sort of need as an entrepreneur. You need perseverance. Actually, I’ll caveat perseverance with self-awareness – those two things. And it’s something you know, you have to work on. Constantly.
I watched your episode of Dragon’s Den. I mean, that must have been a really interesting experience to go on, which I want to hear about in a second. But, just on that point of perseverance, because I don’t think they fully understood your idea, but they all completely understood that you as an entrepreneur had something special to offer, and were driven, and were highly likely to be successful. And you see a lot of people who go into the den and they’re crushed by not getting a positive response to their idea. So I think that perseverance, but as you say, the self-awareness to sort of be open to different types of feedback and the resilience to overcome setbacks, you must, in any startup, encounter a lot of rejection and people not getting it and not wanting to invest. So that was really interesting to see. You have to be able to take these things on the chin and learn from them rather than be crushed by them.
Yeah, it’s a mindset thing, really, I mean, the way we typically think about it, like rejection is known as sort of the endpoint. Whereas I think when you’re in a startup, particularly when it comes to raising investment, and even sales, as well, no is just like the most expected answer. So, you know, typically you would try and raise investment. You don’t care about the no’s, you’re not looking for the no’s, you’re looking for the one yes. And that’s the mindset you have to take. Because, you know, with Thirsti, I got rejected loads, with TradeSmart I’ve been rejected loads, you know, you think about Facebook or Instagram or Twitter, any massive company, Uber, whatever. They were rejected. 50, 70 plus times, you know, and the idea is, like this point of perseverance – the no is kind of expected and you don’t take it personally. And you just assume that, you know, your vision is strong, and you learn from the feedback they give. So if you’re not presenting yourself clearly, like you said about Dragon’s Den, an issue I had there was I didn’t actually present the concept clearly enough because I thought it was easy to understand, but you know, I was wrong on that point. And from there, then I went into meetings with retailers to sell the products to them. And I changed the pitch because I knew I had to make it much simpler, much clearer. And that then led to future yeses in those meetings. I like to think of it as you know, no is expected and yes is what you’re searching for. It’s not, no is the end of the world and you stop searching.
That’s a really interesting way to look at it. And I guess it is just that ability to take the useful learning points from those experiences to refine what you’re doing to then get to those yeses?
Yeah, one hundred percent. And it’s like in school or in university. You hand a paper in and you get some feedback and you can prove and iterate with a startup, you are sort of your own tutor. So anyone that will give you feedback, and that is whether they explicitly give you feedback in the sense that you’ve asked them for it or it’s kind of a bit more shrouded because you’ve gone to a meeting and someone said no. You need to analyse that and understand why did they say no? What were their objection reasons and you know, you probably won’t agree with them, but you can then say, okay, they thought the product was doing X, it was actually doing Y. So I now need to make sure the next meeting I go in, I explain that it’s doing Y not X, and almost predict that they might even say, oh, you’re making a product for homeowners and you say no, we’re making product for tradespeople. It’s for the people providing the services.
The other thing that struck me when I was watching the Dragon’s Den episode was, you seem very calm and confident. Like you didn’t flinch even though obviously, it must have been, I imagine a pretty intimidating kind of experience. Would you say sort of having confidence or at least the ability to appear confident is also important for someone who wants to be an entrepreneur?
Yeah, one hundred percent I think. I don’t think confidence is the right word, I think belief like you have got to believe in what you’re doing because you know, the idea of running your own business and startup – it’s become quite sexy for want of a better word. It’s become a desirable, but if you think about it, you’re unemployed, you have no money, you’ve got no security blanket. And you’re trying to will an idea into existence that, in most cases has not existed before. So you’re really up against it. So it’s not really about having confidence in yourself. It’s more about having belief in your vision and your idea. But that being said, you have to be practical about it and you have to go out there prove as quickly as possible that people want this or they don’t want it.
It must take a lot of self-motivation, though, as well. It’s funny, I see students who at first struggle to adapt to not very many contact hours and a really unstructured sort of system. That’s very different to school. And as we’ve been talking about, your world now is highly unstructured. To keep focused and motivated, that’s got to be a really important aspect of being successful in this kind of world.
Yeah, it’s interesting, because I don’t know, if I think about University, how motivated I was in terms of going to my lectures or whatever I think, you know, so from my experience, I didn’t actually go to a lot of my lectures. But what I did is, I sort of knew what I had to learn in order to get the results I wanted to in exams or do the coursework. I think it’s about creating, like you said earlier, creating your own structure. So you know, if you think about University, you’re given a timetable. You go to lectures, and you know, I’m not saying don’t go to lectures. I’m not sure that is what you want on the podcast! What I’m saying is, you’ve got to look at that timetable and say, okay, how can I structure my world around this? You can’t just say like, someone gives you a piece of paper and you turn up to your lecture, you go home and that is it. You’ve got to kind of formulate your own working day around it.
That’s interesting, though, it sounds like, again, even though there were sort of objectives that you had to meet as a student, even back then you were still kind of, ‘okay, these are set objectives, but how I meet them is up to me. I don’t have to follow the standard path.’ So again, that seems to be similar to the general entrepreneurial approach of, well, I need to earn money, and I could do it this way. Or I can do it that way. Or, I could work nine to five or I could work three to one, you know, it’s having that ability to think objectively about something rather than just follow what you’re told to do kind of thing.
Yeah, one hundred percent. What I see a lot in my friends or even myself sometimes is you need to achieve a task and there’s like a way of doing that. So, a good example might be like, the working day, you know, you’re told that you should start work in the morning, sort of eight, nine, and then you should finish at like five or six. And you should have lunch or a break for an hour. Most of the time you just blindly accept that and you just think, well, this is what the done thing is. Whereas, you know, some people perform really well working from 8pm till 5am, I bet they just do. They perform better like that and they’re mentally happier, they get better sleep if they do that, all those things. But for some reason, you just assume that’s wrong to do. But when you think about it, you think well, why do I assume that? There’s no law, there’s no rules. There’s no science that says I shouldn’t be able to work from eight till five if I’m still getting my eight hours of sleep. So I think it’s about taking control of yourself and being comfortable with going against the grain, doing your own thing and not caring if people have comments on your processes or what you’re doing.
So it sounds like there’s loads of positives to working for yourself with this autonomy, this feeling of being in control and being able to work when you feel is best. What’s the worst aspect of being self-employed in your experience?
It probably depends on the stage of where you’re at in your own business. So if you’ve got like an early stage startup like me, the worst aspect is kind of, there’s always a clock running down on your time. So, you know, we have a certain amount of funding in the bank. And when that runs out, the company’s over, unless we can do two things. One, generate enough revenue to keep us going or raise more money. And that’s typically what happens to every startup, whereas, if you’re working in a job, you know, there’s no clock running down. Perform well and you know, you’re going to stay in that job unless the company fails.
So what do you think the key challenges will be for startups over the next few years, what should people anticipate if they’re thinking they might want to go down this route?
So really, there’s one boring answer to this, which is the level of funding available. So the government runs a scheme SEIS, which basically means as a startup, you can raise up to a million pounds. And then from private investors, venture capitalists, whatever, and the government will basically give those individuals a tax write off. So, typically what happens is you raise 150K under SEIS and that means the people providing you with the money are basically only risking £75,000 from £150. And then there’s another transfer that goes up to a million where they’re basically risking £500,000, not a million pounds. So what this means is there’s more funding available for very early stage startups and early risks like companies that have no revenue or are at the pre-product stage. That might come to a change. So that might end soon. It’s been going since around 2014. It might end after Brexit, interest rates might go up, I think they’re actually gonna go down again. But they might go up. And if they do, funding typically goes out of the startup sector and into bonds etc. So my point with that is, you need to be aware of how you’re going to get your first round of money, or you need to have cash in the bank. So friends and family, your own personal pockets, whatever to get going. The biggest risk or the biggest problem I see a lot with young startups is they have an idea and they need a million pounds to launch it. And I just think, unless you’re from Eton and you know someone who’s going to give you a million pounds which has happened a few times – I’ve known a few friends who have done that. It’s hard to get off the ground. So you need to think about and seriously think how am I going to get that first, you know, 50k or 100K to get going?
It’s worth also knowing for students that we have enterprise support here at the uni. And the university also does some support for recent graduates as well. So I’ll put some links about that afterwards – did you participate? I think you did participate in some of the enterprise stuff here?
Me & the enterprise department became good friends. I think I applied for every grant possible. And just on your point, for anyone listening to this, if you have an idea, go and speak to enterprise because it helped me with Thirsti, getting enough money to get a prototype together. And that led to raising investment and it probably would help me with TradeSmart as well.
Any other sort of advice for students who are thinking about setting up their own company?
Yeah, reach out to other students. The uni does some good programs. I think they have one in summer, I’m not if you guys still run that one. You can sort of work on your idea for 8 weeks and get paid to do so. That puts you in with other students from the local area, they’re doing their own ideas. And the other point I would say is speak to other students who are kind of entrepreneurial, or maybe not even entrepreneurial about your idea, because you’ll get feedback on it. And you’ll be able to have discussions. And what happens is sometimes people get an idea, and they’re worried everyone will steal it from them, and then they become really insular on it. If you don’t talk to anyone about your idea, you’ll never get feedback. And most of the time, you know, people don’t steal your idea. Because, you can use your idea, you know how to do it, you’re going to achieve it, you know, regardless of them trying to copy you if that were to ever happen.
That’s brilliant. Well, for more information about the careers we’ve mentioned today, I’m going to add some relevant links, I’ll put the links to the enterprise stuff that we do here as well as that SEIS thing that you mentioned, that sounds really useful. We’re also going to have a full transcript of today’s show as well, so I’ll add that. But thank you so much for giving up your time today.
If I could just add to that. If anyone wants any advice or help, you can put my email address on there, and feel free to get in touch and ask any questions
Brilliant. I’ll put a link to TradeSmart as well, so people can check that out and have a look at what you’re up to. But yeah, thanks so much for your time today, Phil. Much appreciated.
Yeah, no worries. Thank you very much.
Thanks for joining us this week on What Do You Actually Do? This episode was hosted by myself, Kate Morris and edited and produced by the Careers and Placements team. If you love this podcast, spread the word and subscribe. Are you eager to get more tips? Follow University of York Careers and Placements on YouTube, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. All useful links are in this episode description.
This has been produced at the University of York Careers and Placements. For more information, visit york.ac.uk/careers
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