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Full Interview: Simon Kahil – CEO of Pepperleaf

Noel Tiufino: Alright so Simon, thanks for coming along.

Simon Kahil: You’re welcome Noel.

NT: Through LinkedIn research your background is very interesting. I tried to analyse it and it wasn’t very linear. If I drew a line from where you started and where you are now, the line deviates wildly!

SK: Yeah, it’s unusual Noel.

NT: Have you always wanted to run your own business?

SK: I think not running my own business has never fit with me. I have had ‘real’ jobs before my early mid-life crisis, but it never suited and I always felt like the work experience kid that didn’t go home.

NT: Why now?

SK: I spent eight to ten years as a tennis coach [for Tennis Australia]. I had a stint in risk and insurance and then ten years as a tennis coach and that’s got a shelf life – physically, and so now is the right time. We’re getting old, Noel. We’re getting old.

NT: When did you know? What was the moment? Did you rupture your ACL or injure something?

SK: No, nothing like that. It just creeps up on you. You get a step slower and you played soccer last night, Noel. I bet you’re slower than you used to be.

NT: Definitely!

SK: So yeah, you’re a step slower, and it’s a good time – it [the business] is something we’ve worked hard at over the last year or so to make happen, and hopefully it goes well.

NT: So that 8 year stint in risk and insurance, how has that shaped what you’re doing now?

SK: Not at all. I’m not risk-adverse. Risk and insurance, it’s all about risk mitigation. So, maybe it’s shaped me in that way, I’m all about having a go. I’m all for knowledge and reasonable research and so on, but definitely having a go. I wasn’t a comfortable fit in a corporate environment. I always felt like a fish out of water.

NT: Do you feel more comfortable now?

SK: A lot more, yeah. Much happier. Leaving corporate jobs was a very, very good thing for me. Not to say it’s good for everyone, but I felt an enormous relief from getting out and doing something I love, and in fact, that’s probably the key to it – doing something I love rather than something I’m forced to do.

NT: You mentioned before that you were a tennis coach for eight to ten years. Starting your own business do you feel more like the coach or the student?

SK: The student, actually. I’ve got this very strong sense that you should defer to people that know more on a given subject than you. I give the company direction and I’ve got very strong opinions on everything, but if someone knows more in a given field than me, I defer to them.

NT: What disciplines of being a tennis coach have shaped your behaviour in starting this business, if any?

SK: Yeah, that’s interesting. Tennis is a very repetitive sport, and you have to keep working at the same things over and over again. Hitting the ball; I must have hit millions of balls in more years than I can count, and I think that’s the key to doing something well – repetition, but then constant learning as well. If you repeat bad habits, it just makes them permanent. So, always looking to be better and always looking for a new way to do something, in a better way.

NT: I’m not sure if you’ve noticed, but as you talk it looks like you’re hitting a backhand with your hand gestures.

SK: Ha ha! I do that a bit, Noel.

NT: We touched on this before, but if you will, tell me a little more about the transition from employee to employer.

SK: Without sounding like a megalomaniac, it’s about having control over your destiny and wanting to pursue a vision rather than implementing someone else’s vision, as good as that vision may be. I’ve had experience working with people where I just didn’t buy into their vision and I think that caused a real internal dissonance. I found it quite stressful, wanting to do one thing; having strong opinions about doing one thing, but having to do another, and that might be a personality flaw but having the ability to author your own vision is a very, very satisfying thing.

NT: So now about your business – Pepperleaf, can I please have the elevator pitch?

SK: We are a meal kit delivery service. We’re asking customers to do everything in a whole new way, to shop differently – we are very much a lifestyle product. We try to give back time to people who are time-poor.

You’ve worked long hours, Noel, but you still have answer the question, “what’s for dinner tonight?” and we like to think we help answer that question – we give people back a bit of the time they have to spend planning meals and shopping. We also have a philosophy on supporting artisan food producers. You won’t find anything in your delivery that you can go and find at Coles or Woolworths.

We support small, local producers. It [the food] is not from factory farms, it’s not from enormous dairy companies… Noel, you asked for an elevated pitch, this has turned into a monologue!

NT: Ha ha! That’s alright.

SK: … so we’re trying to do things a bit differently.

NT: I love it – I’m a big fan of the concept. So what is your vision for Pepperleaf?

SK: To be huge! We have ambitious targets but our vision for Pepperleaf is to stay true to our ideals – I’ll give you an example. We have an opportunity. We could expand into Brisbane tomorrow. There is the infrastructure in place to do that. However we won’t because it compromises on the freshness of the produce. It has to spend an extra day in transit. It’ll be capital-intensive but we would rather start up an operation in Queensland, when we can deliver fresh and local.

We can get to Sydney and Adelaide [from Melbourne] overnight, and that’s not a stretch for the produce, but if we start selling to Brisbane customers now, we compromise on freshness. So while we grow, we want to keep revisiting why we’re doing this – stay true to the ideals, use small local producers and all the other things that I’ve spent a lot of time boring you about. Stay true to that while we expand, that’s my vision for it.

NT: That’s a great vision, definitely one to be proud of.  So we’re on to the most fun part of the interview, bookkeeping and accounting.

SK: Right. Stop, Noel.

NT: Ha ha! I recall a conversation we had a while ago about accounting software for your business, you had a preference for either Xero or Saasu. Why those two?

SK: I’d seen MYOB in its old incarnation in my wife’s business and I felt like its tentacles were pretty strong [in that] it locked her into some ways of doing things.

With Saasu I didn’t really know very much about it, but it was definitely there in my research. I just wanted information to be accessible. We’re not financial experts so we want it to be accessible, easy to understand, and not just spreadsheets. Xero certainly is super accessible. You just check in.

NT: Xero just checks all those boxes for you?

SK: Yeah, absolutely it does, and we can manipulate it however we want and look at reports.

NT: How often do you aim to review your financials?

SK: We like to keep a pretty good eye on it – we look at key metrics every week.

NT: And what are those metrics?

SK: Subscriber numbers, churn, so they’re all revenue measures, and then the cost obviously. What’s the saying? Revenue is vanity and profit is sanity.

NT: … and cash is reality.

SK: Exactly right, and that’s why you’re paying for coffee Noel.

NT: Ha ha, I already did! How important is your relationship with your accountants and why?

SK: Very important. Going back to what I said about deferring to people who are experts. We don’t have that expertise and we’d be foolish to try and do things that we can’t do when they’re that important.

I mean, I’m happy to glue boxes together. I have the limited dexterity to do that, but in terms of things that we’re just not experts at, we want to partner with people who we can trust that we can delegate that stuff to.

And so it’s a really important relationship and it comes down to, as all relationships do, trust.

NT: If you were to wind back the clock to the inception of Pepperleaf with the knowledge that you have now, what are some changes you would make, so as to give advice to people in the start-up phase?

SK: What it looks like now is so different. There’s not a thing, apart from the core proposition that it’s going to be food and delivery on a subscription basis that looks the same.

We were willing to make anything change along the way. Not in the ‘whatever way the wind blows’ kind of way but I think if you’re too dogmatic about your idea, you’re going to miss opportunities to learn and change and be armed better information. So, back to your question about my advice – to be open to change and to keep your eyes open for opportunities.

NT: That’s great advice! Anything else for entrepreneurs starting out?

SK: I’m a big fan of gut instincts, and I think we’ve developed those gut instincts over millennia and to disclaim them now would seem foolish. Going on gut instinct but being open to change and advice, I think that’s a nice blend of skills to have.

NT: Great, well thank you very much for your time and all the best with Pepperleaf!

SK: Thank you, Noel. I appreciate your time.