The story so far, by Azfar
I was fortunate to start my career with Accenture which is a fantastic training ground. It prepared me to move to Germany and join Deutsche Bank’s Head Office where I ran amazing projects in Switzerland, New York and Singapore driving change. I was also the bank side PM on a two-year end-to-end re-engineering of the Swiss Private Banking operations working with Accenture as consultants. Two brilliant experiences, two brilliant companies.
While in New York in 1998 I reconnected with a college friend whose previous chairman wanted someone to run his Exchange server over the internet. With my knowledge of the bank’s operations and technology I found technical resources who could validate this complex idea which had never been done. With that I developed a 20 page business model to define the concept and business architecture which garnered support from Microsoft and a leading Philadelphia based VC. The idea for Mi8 was seeded and we found ourselves on all the right trends and with backers.
Building Mi8 in 1998 was a roller coaster as it was so early on. Google, LinkedIn, social media, ready-made online services, accelerators and co-working spaces didn't exist. Neither did the concept of “product”. It was just about development and sales. Our CEO thought it would be a good idea to spend $750,000 of our seed capital on back of the bus advertising, a billboard over the Holland Tunnel and an Ad in the WSJ. Not to mention flights on private jets. Interesting choices. The phones didn’t ring but more capital came in because the market was high.
I focused on architecting the business for scale looking at 100’s of solutions, selecting the core billing, provisioning and customer care systems, and engaging Accenture. I drove all key partnerships, implemented ISO9001, ran all of our management meetings, key account sales and found a late stage investor when the CEO ran the well dry by burning $1m a month on a non-performing ex-telco sales team, and lost the Microsoft deal by suggesting we were a marketing company.
Somehow we scraped through and the platform allowed us to scale to 20,000 accounts and break even through organic growth. I developed a clear vision for taking the company into photo and file sharing, and developing services like billing and accounting. Unfortunately, the CEO and my friend the President opted to take over the company for themselves forcing everyone out instead of capitalizing and pivoting to new and higher value services. Lacking a growth strategy, they were forced to sell the company in 2006.
A radical change into the fashion industry was by chance and very challenging but an incredible journey. We bootstrapped our way to selling through 300 stores around the world from Tokyo to London and Hollywood with every celebrity wearing the products. Paris Hilton, Ivanka Trump, Rihanna, Keira Knightley, Heidi Klum and Tori Spelling to name just a few. We sourced and shipped 50,000 high end units. During this time I was personally mentored for two years by the late Gloria Gelfand, ex-CEO of Escada who helped us enormously. The financial crisis of 2008/9 was an unwelcome set-back but provided the ideal opportunity for re-positioning and a future restart.
From Deutsche Bank’s twin towers in Frankfurt to 601 West 26th Street in Manhattan where we built Mi8 in 1998 (the building didn't look so good back then and was empty when we moved in) and experienced the devastation of the World Trade Center in 2001; then to 80 West 40th Street on Bryant Park in 2004 where we started Nikka New York; and to The Hospital Club in London where Creative Media Systems was born.
Speaking at conferences or meetups representing the bank, Mi8 and more recently Creative Media Systems. Engaging with audiences such as the Master's programme at MIT or startup communities such as The Bakery in London have always been very rewarding and insightful.