Chirag Shah of Simfoni: “Don’t quit your job!”

Don’t quit your job! Nowadays, you can be doing a heck of lot to build up your business in your spare time/personal time — developing your product, building a website, doing customer meetings online, etc. As part of our interview series called “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became A Founder”, I had the pleasure […]

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Don’t quit your job! Nowadays, you can be doing a heck of lot to build up your business in your spare time/personal time — developing your product, building a website, doing customer meetings online, etc.

As part of our interview series called “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became A Founder”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Chirag Shah.

Chirag Shah is a proven corporate executive and successful serial entrepreneur specializing in the supply chain B2B arena. He has a unique combination of successful career progression within the corporate world, and has also founded and exited several entrepreneurial ventures. With several successful ventures including 3-times listed TechTrack100 venture TradingPartners, Inc5000 ventures MarketMaker4 and Purchasing Platform and most recently Simfoni, a leading vendor for Spend Intelligence and Spend Automation solutions, Shah has a demonstrable track record of scaling businesses internationally and across a variety of commercial models including eCommerce, SaaS, Managed Services amongst others. His expertise lies in leveraging innovation and technology to create a disruptive force in a target sector. Examples include introducing the concept online dynamic bidding (he holds a patent in this area), pioneering the concept of asset-sharing in the world of supercars, deploying machine learning in analytics and data processing and leveraging Artificial Intelligence in the procurement sector. He is mostly experienced in operating a variety of business models relating to technology and technology-related business such as Licensing, SaaS, eCommerce, On Demand, Managed Services and Outsourcing. Key strengths include: Strategy development, capital-efficient business management, people management, channel partner development and corporate finance.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I think most entrepreneurs are misfits in some way or another. For me, I couldn’t handle being told what my working hours are. It’s not that I’m lazy — on the contrary, I probably work harder than anyone I know. I could just never get my head around having to be in an office at a prescribed hour, or needing to ask permission so I could watch my kid’s sports event, or simply limiting the number of vacation days I could take. Entrepreneurship felt like the only way to have my personal freedom whilst still pursuing a professional career.

Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?

When you first start out you have no reputation, no references and no credibility. Getting your first customer is often called the “zero to one” problem and is the first hurdle in starting a business. In my early ventures, I would spend a fortune on sales and marketing trying to secure a first customer; nowadays I save that money and re-allocate the funds to delivering the service to my first customer for free. It is a much quicker way to overcome the zero to one hurdle.

Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?

You should always set yourself a few short-term targets, e.g. “In the next 3 months we should…get to 5 customers/complete a transaction on the new software/win an industry award/etc.” In my opinion, it is important to offer a framework for measuring your success, regardless of whether you always hit those targets. When you look back at what you were doing 3 months ago, you can see demonstrable progress and that gives you the motivation to keep going.

So, how are things going today? How did grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?

I often tell my wife that entrepreneurship is about kissing a lot of frogs — you hope that one of them will turn into a prince/princess. You just don’t know which one. I remember in my first company I drove 55,000 miles in one-year meeting up to 5 prospects a day and returning home at night to write all the proposals. Then I’d soldier on into the late hours reviewing the software that had been developed that day and then start the whole cycle again the next day. Rinse repeat for weeks on end. But when one of those frogs turned into a princess, wow! I can only imagine that’s what a tennis pro feels like when they win a championship. Startup life is a process of painstakingly knocking down obstacles, one at a time.

My current company, Simfoni, is my 4th venture. The rules of the game remain the same, but I’ve grown more patient over the years. Finding the right product-market fit takes time. You have to swallow the rejections from prospects, you have to make the mistakes in delivery, but each time you know you are getting better and getting nearer to the solution. One thing that has gotten easier is fundraising. Once you have a track record, it is much easier to convince investors — and to ensure you get a fair deal on the investment.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Well, it wasn’t funny at the time but I can laugh about it now. I was about 6 months into my first start-up when my co-founder and I had finally managed to find a willing investor. We had previously agreed we were ready to give up 20% of our company for a $250,000 investment; and the investor offered something quite similar to that. Out of the blue, my partner came out with a counter of 2%. I didn’t say a word… I was partly in shock and partly wondering if he had seen something in the investors notes that meant we could get a better deal. The investor was so insulted he left the meeting and would never meet with us again. I was so angry at the time but in hindsight maybe the deal on offer was too generous, anyway. We managed to find a way to bootstrap our way through instead.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

Simfoni really stands out in terms of its employee inclusivity. I think we can claim to be the most diverse SME in the world! Being geographically spread around the world, amongst our 50-odd employees we count over 15 different ethnicities. No single race, religion or nationality comprise more than 25% of our team. We have a healthy age distribution and gender balance, and gender inequality simply does not exist. I’m very proud to represent such a responsible firm.

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

Zoom-life was initially quite attractive. We saved time in commuting/traveling, and it saved us the hassle of dressing up every day (at least below the waist anyway). But having just returned from my first road trip in over a year, I realize that Zoom relationships are not the same. They are too agenda-driven and there is no scope for off-camera banter. Life — even in business — is about these off-camera moments. Sharing a joke on the way to the coffee machine, grabbing a sandwich with your colleagues in the airport lounge. So, as we return to the new normal, my advice is to find the right balance of on- and off-camera that ensures you can have quality relationships with people — because ultimately, we are social creatures and we need that interaction in person.

For first-timers, I would also add that the most common misconception is that your venture is your one and only chance at making it as an entrepreneur. That puts you under a huge amount of pressure to hit a home run. But the reality could not be further from the truth. You will definitely have other great ideas in your life, and your current experience will mean you will be an even better entrepreneur the second and third time around. So, relax, don’t be afraid to fail, don’t be afraid to sell your business if you get a decent offer and certainly don’t hang on to something if you are not enjoying it anymore.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

My wife Ilke has been an invaluable support. Although she also runs her own business, her work situation has meant that I have been free to pursue the growth of Simfoni without compromise. If I have to go on a road trip, work late hours or on weekends, she has been there to pick up the slack. I see it as a partnership. Also, I’m a member of the Engineers in Business Fellowship, a network of engineers who have been able to pursue MBAs thanks to the generosity of Lord Sainsbury in the UK. This talented group of alumni is comprised by many entrepreneurs and has provided a really valuable support group over the years — exchanging war stories, sharing ideas, making introductions and simply providing encouragement.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

In a direct way, within our spend analytics capability at Simfoni, we offer an Impact Assessment module to organizations. The assessment module measures 28 factors across the entire spectrum of ESG goals to measure an organization’s societal impact. Most importantly, the module goes on to offer a roadmap as to steps organizations can take to improve their impact, many of which have zero incremental cost or can even generate cost savings, as well as impact benefits.

Indirectly, as a serial entrepreneur, I have migrated into teaching entrepreneurship at INSEAD Business School. I coach first-time entrepreneurs through both Startup Bootcamps and Scaleup Bootcamps to help improve the quality of their businesses and maximize the chances for success.

I am also on the Board of The Rocket Foundation, which is a charity aimed at supporting startups with socially-oriented goals.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started leading my company” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

  1. Don’t quit your job! Nowadays, you can be doing a heck of lot to build up your business in your spare time/personal time — developing your product, building a website, doing customer meetings online, etc. Keeping those paychecks coming in is far better than giving up your income and funding a new startup. Just be sure you are not in competition with your employer because that wouldn’t be right!
  2. Read these 3 books, in this order: 1) The Beermat Entrepreneur; 1) The Founder’s Dilemma; Crossing the Chasm. If you get to the end of the third one and still want to be an entrepreneur then you are all set!
  3. Be more conservative. Make a forecast. Then, if it is your first venture, you should double the amount of time you estimated for revenue growth.
  4. Find a friend. Starting a business is grueling enough as it is. Doing it with a friend or colleague at least ensures you have someone to share the pain with and you can motivate each other during tough times.
  5. Know why you are doing this. Write down your reasons for starting your own business and keep them somewhere you can be frequently reminded. You’ll need this once you get on the treadmill. So many entrepreneurs get distracted or lose sight of their original goals and then become disheartened.

Can you share a few ideas or stories from your experience about how to successfully ride the emotional highs & lows of being a founder”?

First, there are a lot more lows than highs when you get started. So, you have to find reasons to celebrate and keep going — even small ones, like the first time your software demo actually works, the first staff hire, the first office plant! Even opening a bank account can be a cause for celebration. I remember an early win for me was convincing a software development company to develop the software on a revenue share basis so we could pay them from sales income rather than our own savings.

Second, you have to be patient. Unless you are super lucky, everything is just going to take much longer than you imagine, and you will get much more rejection. One of my early sales staff had a really good lesson from when he used to be a door-to-door salesman: “In door-to-door sales, you make 1 sale from every 20 doors you knock; so start counting down from 20 to get to the next sale. That way if you make a sale after 15 door-knocks, you are happy because you beat the benchmark!”

Finally, keep things in perspective. It’s only a business. It is not your baby, it is not your entire life, nor is it the only measure of your success as a person. Entrepreneurship is not for everyone — and if it doesn’t work out, that’s ok. Good that you tried and learned that it’s not for you.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I really believe in the concept of the multiplier effect — sometimes referred to as teaching someone to fish rather than feeding them fish. Entrepreneurship is one of the most powerful ways to harness the multiplier effect, and if you can concentrate that effort in social enterprise, a lot of amazing things come about. That’s why I have joined the Board of The Rocket Foundation, an organization that donates investment funds to startups focusing on social enterprise. These entrepreneurs exemplify the multiplier effect: they create jobs, which in turn improve standards of living in their communities, and act as role models to inspire others. Moreover, their products and services solve social and environmental problems that help society at large.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

LinkedIn is the best for that. I can be found at chiragshah01; my latest venture, Simfoni, focuses on Digital Procurement and Sustainability and can be found under the same name, and The Rocket Foundation also has an account.

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

You’re most welcome! It was fun.

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