Immigrant entrepreneurs behind fantastic UK businesses
Many successful UK start-up founders weren’t born here. Startups’ takes a closer look at inspiring immigrants helping the UK economy to thrive…
A 2016 study by the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor (GEM) found that immigrants are far more likely to be entrepreneurial than people born and brought up in the UK… three times as much in fact.
The report found that immigrants in the UK showed the highest levels of “Total Early-Stage Entrepreneurial Activity”- its benchmark for entrepreneurial vigour – while an earlier study in 2014 cited one in seven UK businesses as being founded by immigrants.
What's more, new analysis from Zirra reports that, of the UK's top 10 unicorn (valued at $1bn or more) businesses such as Shazam and Funding Circle, in nine out of the 10 businesses there is at least one immigrant or a child born to first-generation immigrants in the founding team.
Studies and analysis aside, Startups.co.uk's own coverage shows that there are a vast number of incredibly inspiring immigrants who have moved to the UK to set up and build businesses which have driven economic growth and supported job creation.
In previous years, we've tracked the success of business moguls like London's deputy mayor Rajesh Agrawal, the Indian immigrant who founded £1.3bn foreign exchange company RationalFX back in 2005, alongside Australian-born Alicia Navarro and her international multi-million pound affiliate marketing agency Skimlinks.
But what about start-up founders?
Last month we profiled London Junk founder Harsha Rathnayake and shared his rousing story of coming to the UK when he was 18 and not being able to speak any English. He would go on to learn English fluently – self-taught – and, with just £160 from his life savings, start a business that now employs 10 people and is on target to hit £1m turnover.
We received such amazing, positive feedback on this story that we wanted to showcase more immigrant start-up founders that are doing their bit, and then some, like Rathnayake, Agrawal and Navarro to help support the UK economy.
In business, now more than ever, it’s important that we celebrate diversity and inclusion and one way we can do this is to shine a light on those great entrepreneurs who are putting UK enterprise on the map; despite not being born here in the UK.
Scroll down for the full list, in no particular order, of inspiring immigrant entrepreneurs behind fantastic UK start-up businesses…
Country of origin: Israel
Co-founder of: Kano
Even before moving to the UK to launch Kano, Yonatan Raz-Fridman was no stranger to entrepreneurship.
After spending three years as an operations team lead in the Israeli Defence Forces, Young Gun Raz-Fridman completed his degree studies in international affairs, philosophy and entrepreneurship.
He went on to co-found childrens’ apparel customisation brand Funkkit; and later worked with the president of Israeli multinational firm Keter where he learnt about building global businesses.
In 2012, Raz-Fridman met his co-founders Saul Klein – the brains behind European tech fund Localglobe – and Alex Klein, and he soon made the move from Tel-Aviv to London to start work on Kano – an award-winning DIY coding and computer-building kit for children.
The innovative idea found favour with the crowd after taking to Kickstarter in 2013, where it raised $1.5m from over 13,000 backers. This was an unprecedented raise for a learning invention and, in 2015, the business secured a $15m Series A round led by Breyer Capital. In the same year, Kano sold over 40,000 kits and doubled its employee numbers to 40.
Late last year, Kano embarked on a second crowdfunding round to fund three new DIY kits. Surpassing its initial target of $500,000, the business raised over $640,000 from 2,399 backers, including award-winning musician Nile Rodgers and Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, who had also backed Kano's first crowdfunding campaign.
Learn more about Raz-Fridman and the early success of Kano here.
Kristo Kaarmann and Taavet Hinrikus
Country of origin: Estonia
Founders of: TransferWise
While the communist Soviet Union wasn’t exactly synonymous with unicorn start-ups, for Kristo Kaarmann and Taavet Hinrikus of TransferWise, it’s where life began.
Born in modern-day Estonia, a decade before it would gain independence, it was life behind the iron curtain that the duo attribute with giving them entrepreneurial spirit and drive. Talking to the BBC, Hinrikus explains:
“If you had to fix your washing machines you had to use parts from your car, if you wanted something you had to build it yourself and that has given people an attitude of not being afraid of rolling up their sleeves and getting their hands dirty.”
After moving to London, the pair experienced a problem. Hinrikus was working for Skype in Estonia so was paid in Euros but needed Sterling for living expenses, while Kaarmann was paid in Sterling but needed Euros to pay off his mortgage back home.
Waiting until midday for a fair exchange rate to agree on, the duo would simply exchange currencies with each other, cutting out the banks – and this is where TransferWise was born.
Now six years old – so not technically a start-up but more a fast-growth small business – TransferWise is valued at an estimated $1.1bn and has grown to a team of over 600 with offices in London, America and Europe – and counts Sir Richard Branson among its investors.
Just last May, the duo launched a ‘For Business' offering which aims to give companies a cheaper way to transfer money internationally, as well as raising a further £18m.
Find out more about Kaarmann, Hinrikus and the TransferWise story here
Alexandra Margolis and David Santoro
Country of origin: Sweden and Italy
Founders of: carwow
Hailing from Sweden and Italy respectively, Young Guns Alexandra Margolis and David Santoro have – alongside their British co-founder James Hind – built and scaled multi-million pound, and multi-award winning, car buying comparison site carwow.
Born in Stockholm, creative director Margolis – who recently featured in Forbes’ famous 30 under 30 list – claims to have utilised Scandinavian minamilism in her approach to simplifying the platform’s user experience – and it's an approach that has been very effective.
Now with more than one million users, over £550m worth of cars sold, and some £18m of investment in the bank, Holborn-based carwow has already achieved marked success in a mere three years since launch.
Having recently expanded in Germany and with a national advertising and TV campaign underway, the two-time Startups 100-listed company is set to accelerate further with Margolis, Santoro and Hind at its helm.
As successful immigrant entrepreneurs, Margolis and Santoro have looked to overseas talent to help grow carwow. The company employs developers from Brazil and France, an editorial assistant from Bulgaria, a producer from Argentina, and account managers from New Zealand and Estonia. We think businesses could learn a thing or two from carwow about embracing diversity!
Learn more about Margolis and Santoro and their fast-growing business here.
Anna Nilsson and Josefin Deckel
Country of origin: Sweden
Founders of: SugarSin
For sisters Anna and Josefin, it was a longing for ‘pick and mix’ sweets from their home country of Sweden that inspired them to start their very own “Willy Wonka-esque” sweet shop in the UK.
Having moved to London for university, the Scandi entrepreneurs felt that the sweets on offer didn’t match the tastes and varieties of the ‘pick and mix’ they knew and loved from Sweden – where sweets, especially liquorice, are a cultural staple.
After graduating in 2009, it would take two years for the Stockholm-born female founders to make their sweet shop business idea a reality; SugarSin.
Since launch in 2011, SugarSin has enjoyed gradual growth with Waitrose, Selfridges, and John Lewis among stockists of its sweet gift range.
This year, Anna and Josefin’s business is set for a growth spurt with a store in London’s prime retail location Covent Garden and new offerings such as prosecco and rosé-flavoured gummy sweets.
In an interview with Startups.co.uk last month, Anna and Josefin revealed that starting SugarSin in the UK as “two inexperienced Swedish girls” hadn’t been without its obstacles – they had to learn to adapt their sweet range to reflect British culture as well as Scandinavian, and had to seek advice to understand UK retail.
The duo didn’t let these issues defeat them and are set for big things in 2017 including a second store opening and the launch of a SugarSin sister brand.
Anna and Josefin’s advice for immigrant entrepreneurs? “If you’re setting up a business abroad, try to get advice from people in that country. There will be a lot of cultural differences and regulations that can hold you back.”
Read more on how Anna and Josefin’s Swedish background inspired their business idea here.
Maria Trechman and Sarah Trechman
Country of origin: Sweden
Founders of: Well & Truly
Another inspiring Swedish sister act, Maria and Sarah Trechman started their snack brand Well & Truly after noticing that demand in the UK for ‘free-from’ food was growing with research having shown that 55% of the UK population were buying in to the trend.
Having realised a gap in the market, the London-based pair decided to capitalise on this burgeoning mass market appeal. Their business proposition? To create a range of all natural, free-from products, kicking off with their first product – ‘Gluten Free Tortilla Chips’.
Developed to appeal to the British consumer with simple branding and an affordable RRP, the entrepreneurs’ tortilla snack product was quickly snapped up by Tesco with listings in more than 1,000 of its stores nationwide. It also attracted listings with big-name chains such as Wholefoods.
Having only launched the business a year ago, Startups 100 2016-listed Well & Truly has now expanded into gluten-free ‘Crunchy Cheese Sticks’, and has also added cold soups to its offering with a low-calorie, vitamin-packed ‘Refreshing Gazpacho Drink’.
A proud supporter of Public Health England (PHE) and its campaign to improve the nation’s health by helping consumers choose products that contain less sugar, the Trechman sisters are determined to encourage consumers to make food swaps to products like theirs that come with “no extra cost or taste barriers”.
Learn about the Well & Truly story in more detail here.
Miguel Amaro and Mariano Kostelec
Country of origin: Portugal and Slovenia
Founders of: Uniplaces
Having met as students in the UK, Portugese entrepreneur Miguel Amaro, Slovenian Mariano Kostelec, and British-born Ben Grech felt that there must be a way to make finding reasonable student accommodation easier.
As an international student at King’s College in London, Kostelec was forced to pay 12 months’ rent upfront for his residence, while the accommodation Amaro booked for his studies at Nottingham University was simply too expensive.
Inspired by their own struggles, the Young Gun trio began to develop Uniplaces – an online marketplace that directly connects students with landlords and property managers. Investing £50,000 from personal savings and parents, the enterprising friends started operations in Lisbon, Portugal and would later move to the UK.
Since its 2013 launch, Startups 100-listed Uniplaces has expanded to 15 cities across Europe – including London, Manchester and Nottingham – and now boasts 132 employees.
Just last year, the business attracted $24m investment in its fourth funding round and revenue increased fourfold compared to the previous year.
With over three million nights now having been booked through the platform, Uniplaces early success is evidence that students are just as eager for an easy accommodation solution as Amaro, Kostelec and Grech has been in their uni days.
Julien Callede and Ning Li
Country of origin: France
Co-founders of: Made.com
Originally from the French city of Nantes, Julien Callede’s background is in business model development and start-up management in Paris’ fast-growth business space, where he worked as an investment manager for GCE Capital and Alliance Entreprendre.
Meanwhile Ning Li, who had lived in China before moving to France at the age of 16, worked in investment banking, later switching career paths to start up his first business, MyFab, in Paris.
But it was before this, at European business school HEC Paris, where Callede and Li met as classmates. Years later, Li had the idea for Made.com and invited Callede to join the venture.
Driven by Li's vision and Callede’s breadth of operational experience, Made.com – an online marketplace that commissions unique furniture from designers and retails it for affordable prices – was born. Exhibiting a low-cost business model that had succeeded in the French market, Li, Callede and fellow co-founder Chloe Macintosh were able to raise £2.5m funding to start the business in the UK.
Since its March 2010 launch, Made.com has been growing at a rapid pace, winning Young Start-Up of the Year at the 2012 Startups Awards.
In 2014, the business recorded revenue of £42.7m – a staggering 63% increase on the previous year – and in 2015 went on to secure a huge $60m funding in a round led by Partech Ventures.
Now, the business has successfully expanded across Europe, employing over 180 staff members across its London and Shanghai offices.
Find out more about Callede and the MADE.COM story here.
Country of origin: France
Founder of: toucanBox
It was while watching an arts and crafts television show with her then-four-year-old daughter, that French-born former Yahoo! executive Virginie Charles-Dear had her lightbulb moment.
Charles-Dear was bemused by the ‘everyday items’ required to make the creations shown, which were certainly not things she’d be able to find around her house: “Who saves 24 ice lolly sticks?” she has since wondered.
It was this moment – coupled with the fact that she had a newborn baby and was unable to go out and buy the creative materials her daughter wanted – that led Charles-Dear to create toucanBox.
A subscription box service, toucanBox sends children aged three to seven all the bits and pieces needed for four creative projects on a monthly or fortnightly basis.
Charles-Dear started the business in April 2012 from her home, using nothing but savings, and she began by listing the boxes on daily deals websites like Groupon to drive awareness.
From humble beginnings, toucanBox has gone on to raise over $4.6m in funding, including a six-figure sum from JamJar Investments; the fund run by the founders of Innocent Drinks, and £3.2m from the BGF Ventures.
Today, the Startups 100-listed company is growing at a rate of 20% month-on-month, has delivered over one million boxes, and is expanding across Europe.
To find out more about Charles-Dear and her business success, click here.
Country of origin: America
Co-founder of: Deliveroo
Born in Connecticut to Chinese parents, Will Shu made his first move across the pond in 2004 while working as an investment banker for Morgan Stanley.
Being transferred to an office in Canary Wharf, Shu was working 100 hour-weeks, using dinner allowances to provide sustenance for late night shifts.
While dining options were aplenty in the US, in London where ordering-in was a rarity Shu found himself venturing to Tesco more then he would have liked – a constant routine he found “depressing”. Ready for something new, Shu returned to the US in 2010 to complete an MBA and to “drink for two years and hang out”.
By this time, smartphones and tablets had become the norm – and Just Eat was dominating online take-away ordering.
For Shu, however, Just East failed to address two key areas. Namely, their site didn’t have many recognisable or upmarket restaurants, and you didn’t know exactly how long the delivery time would be.
So in 2013 and back living in the UK, Shu, with his computer programmer best friend Greg Orlowski – who has since stepped down from the company -launched Deliveroo.
In a bid to better understand what the customer went through, Shu actually served as a delivery driver for the first eight months of the start-up’s existence.
Having now raised over $475m worth of funding, and passed the $1bn valuation mark, Deliveroo now operates in over 35 UK cities and over 40 cities globally. As of February 2017, the company claims to have created 6,300 jobs and generated £200m revenue since launch.
Find out more about Deliveroo here.
Country of origin: Republic of Ireland
Co-founder of: Hassle
A native of Leixslip, Co. Kildare, Jules Coleman graduated from University College Dublin (UCD) in 2006 with a degree in economics and finance.
Admitting to the Irish Independent that she had visited a university careers fair with “no great desire”, Coleman’s maths background and the possibility of being able to travel attracted her to the Accenture graduate scheme – which she was accepted on to.
Later transferred to the company’s UK office before moving to PricewaterhouseCooper (PwC), Coleman spent her weekends brainstorming business ideas with friends and her initial business idea of a booking website for local services was the origin of Hassle.com.
After teaching herself computer programming from scratch, Coleman quit her role at PwC and went on to launch on-demand cleaning platform Hassle.com alongside fellow Young Guns Alex Depledge and Tom Nimmo.
After extensive growth, Hassle was acquired by Berlin-based competitor Helping for €32m in July 2015, with Coleman taking on a role of ‘global co-founder’ – a position she would ultimately leave in 2016.
Find out more about Hassle here
Country of origin: China
Co-founder of: MysteryVibe
Over the past few years, the rise of the Internet of Things (IoT) has seen all manner of household objects such as kettles, fridges, microwaves and radiators become more interactive and personalised.
But perhaps there’s none more personal than the rise of the intelligent sex toy with UK start-up MysteryVibe at the centre of this rapid growth.
Established by Shanshan Xu – who hails from China – alongside her husband and business partner Soumyadip Rakshit, and co-founder Stephanie Alys, the impressive trio not only boast a diverse set of skills – but also a diverse range of backgrounds.
Xu is also co-founder of Mucho – a “personalized stylist for your taste buds”, the app curates you unique recipes based on your nutritional requirements and tastes, with Rakshit also on board.
Backed by £1.6m in angel funding, MysteryVibe secured more than $100,000 in pre-launch orders from 51 countries across the globe with its app recording over 100,000 downloads in its first six months.
Following their flagship product, the Crescendo, being released to the public last November, the trio have their sights set on mainstream stores – with the global sex toy market is expected to grow to $50bn by 2020.
Find out more about MysteryVibe here.
Country of origin: Australia
Co-founder of: LendInvest
Aussie entrepreneur Christian Faes is the co-founder of three year-old pioneering peer-to-peer (P2P) property start-up, and overall Startups 100 2016 winner, LendInvest.
Having worked as a property lawyer in his hometown of Australia and then as a corporate lawyer in London with Clifford Chance and Deutsche Bank, Faes was motivated to start LendInvest after becoming frustrated with the slow process of mortgage applications in the UK.
Said to be the UK’s ‘first and largest’ marketplace of its kind, LendInvest secured one of the biggest funding rounds of 2015; closing $22m from a Chinese technology firm, and has now gone on to secure a staggering £230m in total investment to date.
Having lent more than £625m in property loans to landlords and developers, the business’ success can be linked to its extremely efficient timescales. In fact, Faes and Thomas claim their platform can process an application in as little as two weeks – a marked improvement on the typical lender’s three month timeframe.
While the responsibility of running a fast-growth start-up would consume most people, Faes appears unfazed and has also found the time to invest in fellow Startups 100 companies such as Seedrs and Plentific, while writing newspaper columns for the likes of Huffington Post and CityAM.
For more information on the LendInvest start-up success story, click here.
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