Interview: Nadeem Sarwar, online entrepreneur
As with comedy, success in business can come down to good timing. While everybody wants the Covid crisis to go away, it has fed a number of businesses which were well-placed to respond.
Nadeem Sarwar’s online pharmacy and delivery company, Phlo, launched last autumn hoping to disrupt the traditional chemist shop model. Within months it was in high demand from locked down customers who have helped drive turnover from £1,000 a month in January to £75,000. That figure should double over the next two months and almost double again by March. It is the realisation of an idea he had while on a Saltire Fellowship in the US.
“I saw the digital pharmacy businesses they had and thought it would work in the UK,” he says. “Besides, I hate queuing.”
That was five years ago and on his return from Babson College he put his plan into action. Since then it has been a long, and sometimes difficult, experience to get the business live, and now thriving.
“I have had ‘near death’ experiences,” he says. “Building the tech, hiring the right people, persuading people to invest in the business. We are six to nine months behind where I intended to be because I didn’t know enough about what I was doing.”
He admits to being impatient and that there have been mistakes along the way. “The key to being an entrepreneur is to listen to others and learn quickly. You have to be resilient and take the knocks.”
Sarwar’s Pakistani parents instilled a work ethic in him from the time they arrived in the UK, choosing to live in the far north of Scotland, rather than the central belt. Sarwar was born in Thurso and educated at Golspie High School before studying applied social sciences at Glasgow University.
He exhibited his sense of adventure by joining the parachuting club, though in later life he admits to getting his excitement from armchair computer games. His techie leanings took a break when he embarked on a career in banking at RBS and HSBC. His year in the US was a time to reflect on what to do next.
‘When I build something I don’t play for today. I try to visualise what the world will be like in a few few years time’
After its years in development, and £2m of support from an angel investor, Phlo is now a sophisticated operation based in a “warehouse” in Glasgow. It is a registered pharmacy with a hard-earned NHS contract to dispense medicines via its own delivery service. “Think of it as Deliveroo with a kitchen,” says Sarwar.
Currently its clients are in England as the electronic prescription service that it uses is not available in Scotland.
“They have been working on it,” he says, clearly frustrated by government inaction. “We do not make a penny of revenue in Scotland.”
While he had the vision for Phlo he credits his chief technology officer Jonathan Forbes for building the system and assembling a team of 12 engineers. There will be 20 by the turn of the year and 50 staff in total.
This expansion will be supported by a current crowdfund exercise which exceeded its £1.65m target within 24 hours. It currently stands at £1.9m and Sarwar expects it to close at between £2.5m and £3m. “We have some big fish ready to come in,” he says. A flotation at some point has been pencilled into his plans.
He says the Covid crisis may have focused minds, but he was already looking ahead to where the next opportunities lie. “When I build something I don’t play for today. I try to visualise what the world will be like in a few few years time.
“In 2030? People will not be willing to queue for things. There will be lots of on-demand delivery. Phlo is built on how the future will be shaped. The pandemic has just accelerated that process.”
Occupation: founder and CEO, Phlo
Education: Glasgow University (applied social sciences); IFS University College (banking, management); Babson College (Entrepreneurial Business Leadership, International Business)
Career highlights: RBS and HSBC (relationship, portfolio and commercial manager); Phlo (founder and CEO)
What frustrates or annoys you?
People who think it’s easy to run a business
What have you learned about yourself?
That I can’t do everything. I am probably not the most patient guy.
Optimist or pessimist?
Optimist, but I have a healthy dose of pessimism.
If you could invite three people, past or present, to a dinner party or meeting who would you choose?
Albert Einstein (scientist) for his great brain
Barack Obama (former US president) who I find inspiring
Sheryl Sandberg (COO Facebook) to give me some insight into communication
Photo by Terry Murden (DB Media Services)