How we went from startup to £35m turnover in six years

Rachael Power
Small Business Editor
Sift Media
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The Hothis are a husband and wife couple who left their high-paying jobs in 2009 to try to make professional education accessible to everyone, everywhere

Six years on, Dilshad and Barinder Hothi employ 250 staff at The Knowledge Academy and will turn over £35m this year. The pair work with 950 of the largest 1,000 corporations in the world, including Google, Nokia and Rolls Royce. They also cater for the self-employed, small to medium-sized enterprises and the public sector.

BusinessZone was curious to find out how this firm had gone on to thrive in such a way six years after launch. We spoke to Barinder to find out more.

What is The Knowledge Academy?

It’s a professional education business, run both on and offline. Training is offered online, in classrooms and on-site at a company's premises.

It includes live online sessions where learners can interact with tutors, walk-in clinics for face-to-face interaction with tutors and discussion forums with other learners. It’s available in most countries around the world.

How is it funded?

The couple started the business up with no external funding and has to this day had zero borrowing in the business.

Barinder says leaving high-paying careers to set up a new business was something they didn’t find easy.

“It was a big risk for both Dilshad and I to leave our respective lucrative careers and begin this joint venture. We literally started with zero revenue and spent the first six to nine months in startup mode just trying to establish and build customer relationships in order to generate some revenue and get the business off the ground,” she told BusinessZone.

What were your key challenges?

From building relationships in the UK, the couple went on to expand the business into new countries.This proved challenging and not only because of language barriers.

“When we started the business we focused on the UK and have since expanded into new territories.

I have learned that luck certainly favours the brave.

“With each new country and location we begin to trade in, inevitably there are different regulations and customs that we need to abide by and be mindful of. Therefore, it is important that before we enter new markets we do our own thorough research of the trade rules and regulations. This does slow our processes down, but it is important that we know what we are doing when it comes to an EU market compared to the UAE. They both present differences to the UK market and it is our job to know those differences when it comes to trading,” Barinder said.

In addition to teaching others, the married pair say they are “always looking to improve” themselves too and will continue to survive and adapt as they grow.

“Running your own business is a completely different experience to being an employee and because we have experienced such rapid growth we have had to learn and adapt quickly.

“I believe that with every challenge that you face and overcome, the stronger and wiser you become as a result. As the business grows, it will require different management skills. With our continuing rapid growth we will quickly move from a small company to a large organisation which changes the landscape dramatically, which means we will have to adapt to the changing circumstances,” Barinder said.

Any advice for startup hopefuls?

Planning and boldness are two key pieces of advice Barinder had for those looking to replicate the pair’s successes.

I think that a number of people push to start their own business without being prepared and without doing the proper research

“I have learned that luck certainly favours the brave. It is important to have a solid plan that you can execute with all the necessary resources in place, or at the very least sourced; nevertheless, without taking that leap of faith in yourself and your research you might miss crucial opportunities,” she advised.

What are your finance tips?

Preparation is key to starting off a business financially, especially if you’re going to go it alone as the Hothis did.

“I think that a number of people push to start their own business without being prepared and without doing the proper research. A lot of businesses are borne out of an idea, however, when you start a business you need to know firstly that you have the resources to progress that idea, and secondly, that your team has the necessary skills to execute the idea.

“Being a successful entrepreneur is based around solid research that you have the resources before going to market, and if you don’t have those resources, the knowledge of where you are going to acquire them from,” Barinder.

What are your future plans?

The Hothis want to expand what they do, and aren’t keen to stand still for too long. Late last year they won the Sunday Times Fast Track Ones to Watch after achieving strong sales growth in the last three years.

Barinder says it wants to continue expanding, both geographically and financially.

“Ideally, we would like to continue to expand our already extensive geographical reach even further and add to our portfolio of courses. Additionally, we hope to increase our revenues either through organic means, or through acquisitions both in the UK and internationally.

“We plan to continue to invest heavily in our overseas offerings. For example, an important programme that we are looking to execute in the near future is the localisation of content into key languages. By converting our classroom materials into French, German, Dutch and other languages we will be able to offer a more localised service for our international customers,” she said.

There’s a lot to be learned from the pair’s focused approach and leap of faith in building a business, while spotting a niche for professional education in what was then a suffering economy in the UK. Building relationships rather than chasing capital, as the couple did in their early days, may have been the catalyst to getting them the customers they wanted and the success that they’re currently enjoying.


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