Rising stars: entrepreneurial spirit

What do fashion, finance and education have in common? Oxford graduate Cyrus Afkhami has launched a successful business in each field – Lucy Mair finds out how he did it

It's not every day you meet a graduate who has worked at two of the City's top investment banks and set up three businesses of their own just two and a half years after leaving university. But Cyrus Afkhami has done just that. After receiving a first class honours degree from Oxford in 2009, he joined the graduate programme at Nomura - but building a career at the bank was never Cyrus's long-term plan. He explains: "I always knew that I wanted to have my own business, but because I studied history and languages at university I wanted to get some financial education first." By spending a year in mergers and acquisitions (M&A) at Nomura, followed by a year in equity capital markets at Citi, Cyrus gained the financial skills and business experience he needed to "do [his] own thing".

Getting off the ground

Cyrus first tested the entrepreneurship waters by launching online boutique, The Ireland Shop, with his sister last February. The business is a platform for Irish designers and artists to sell their products to customers worldwide and makes money by taking a percentage of items sold through the website. Cyrus spotted the opportunity for the business while on a fishing trip in Ireland, he explains: "I noticed that designers were only selling to the customers who walked into their shops." The website took off quickly after its launch, but Cyrus says it was challenging in the beginning: "It was difficult to convince the first suppliers to come on board because we didn't have anything to show for ourselves. But then it became a snowballing effect and once we had five suppliers committed, approaching the sixth was easier." Furthermore, he had to balance running The Ireland Shop around his day job in investment banking - a sector notorious for its long hours. "I was finishing work at 1am and often working weekends too, so I had to do a couple of hours here and there to try and get the business moving."

Despite these difficulties, Cyrus's commitment paid off and he soon handed the reins to his sister so he could concentrate on his next venture. "I had this idea of having my own investment business," says Cyrus. The result of that idea, Minerva Advisors, works with established and start-up companies to raise capital from private investors. Cyrus uses his experience in M&A to do financial analysis of prospective clients to see "whether the business plan looks good, and the numbers add up, and where the market is growing." What's more, in equities, he learnt "what an investor looks for in a business and what makes an investor put their capital on the table," which is knowledge he now uses on a daily basis.

Isn't it difficult to compete with established advisory firms? "It's a challenge to convince people to put their trust in me when I'm 26 years old and relatively inexperienced compared to some of the professionals who work at the big banks in the City," admits Cyrus. But, he says, "you begin to build up a profile and people start to get to know you. One meeting leads to two more, and then other meetings evolve from there." And he finds having his own business more rewarding than working in the Square Mile: "One thing I detested about banking was that I could never really make a difference because of the hierarchy. The thing I enjoy most about being an entrepreneur is that I'm genuinely trying to make a difference and I'm in a better position to do it."

Building bridges

While chatting to a contact about bringing Chinese capital into private investment opportunities in the UK, Cyrus spotted a market for a third business, which has recently launched. "I noticed that my contact wasn't very confident in his spoken English," Cyrus explains. "I thought maybe there's a market for helping Chinese students practice and improve their English." After conducting market research with Chinese students studying in the UK, Cyrus set up The Native English Tutor (thenativeenglishtutor.com), which gives Chinese students the chance to practice their spoken English via Skype with Oxbridge graduates, and also offers a proofreading service for university coursework and job applications. Says Cyrus: "The competitive advantage is that students will be advised by someone who has experience and relevant knowledge on what they're studying or applying for. So, if you're applying to a bank, the person who'll check your job application will be someone who has worked in the financial sector." He adds: "We don't write essays and applications for students and we don't tell them what to write; we just advise on the best way to convey the message."

Words of wisdom

Cyrus may be young, but he has learnt a lot from his time in business. "Market research is key," he says. For any student aspiring to set up their own enterprise, Cyrus advises: "Only once you've done your research and you know there's a market there - that there's a customer who's willing to buy your product at a particular price - should you go forward." Speaking from his experience with The Ireland Shop, which took some time to get off the ground, Cyrus says: "Don't proceed if you haven't done your research because you'll lose money, time and credibility."

An ability to manage your spending habits and critically assess how much money you need to support yourself is something else to consider before jumping into your own business. "If what you want is a nice, stable salary at the end of the month, then having your own enterprise probably isn't for you," warns Cyrus, who has decided to re-invest his earnings into his businesses, rather than withdrawing a salary. "But, if you're willing to make a short-term sacrifice with the view of making your returns later, then entrepreneurship is very rewarding and exciting."