Lessons from an entrepreneur – Irfan Thassim

Starting your own business is like being a celebrity – everything looks beautiful and glamorous on the outside, but in reality, it’s messy and hugely stressful, and not everyone succeeds. But the success of a few encourage those entering the fray

It’s common knowledge that being successful in business calls for perseverance, hard work and being nimble, mainly on the part of the founder. But there is no set formula to achieve success, as no two startups will ever be the same. Echelon spoke to three entrepreneurs whose brands have achieved market leader positions on what it takes to win at the startup game and their tips for budding founders. Also featured is a business leader that made a daring decision to leave the comforts of corporate life to realize a greater vision.



At the pinnacle of his corporate career, Irfan Thassim wanted to start a fish farm in the middle of the ocean

Imagine this: You are at the helm of your corporate career, sitting in your preferred Herman Miller chair behind a polished mahogany desk inside the safe enclosure of a glass cubicle. Out of the blue, just like an ancient sage, you develop an inkling to look for something more, to create something meaningful. The once-indulged luxuries and comforts of routinely corporate life don’t hold the same sway anymore. Swirling thoughts urge you to take the plunge. But what if that idea is – wait for it – a ‘fish farm’ in the middle of the ocean?

“Everybody thought it was crazy, and most of them thought it was stupid,” Thassim recalls the shock reaction of his co-workers at Brandix when he announced he was leaving the company to start a fish farm. He worked as a finance professional for the textile company for two decades, eventually becoming the chief executive for three of the company’s key subsidiaries: American & Efird Lanka, Brandix Hangers and Brandix Textiles.

“I’m not a swimmer and I’m not a boatman. I was not even a big fish eater then, even though I am now,” he says. “I had nothing in common with this industry.”

Unbeknownst to many, fish farming is today the most predominant form of fish production all over the world. So much so that half of all fish for human consumption is produced by fish farms alone. The Food and Agriculture Organization predicts 63 percent of the world’s fish produce to be contributed by aquaculture by 2030, where fish farming is a subset. Countries like India, Bangladesh and China already fulfill more than 55 percent of their total fish production from aquaculture. Salmon, one of the most sought-after fish in the world, was at the brink of extinction until the successful adoption of fish farming. Today, more than 90 percent of salmon are farmed.

“If there is no bridge behind you, there is no moving back. The only way is forward.”

Thassim’s company, Oceanpick, is Sri Lanka’s only oceanic fish farming venture. The company has two sea cages set in the pristine blue seas of Trincomalee specializing in a fish breed called Barramundi, also called Asian Sea Bass and locally known as Modha.

The company currently produces 500 tons per annum, with plans to triple its supply by the end of the year with the addition of another sea cage with a capacity of 1,000 tons per annum. The company is today the leading supplier of Barramundi to all major hotel chains, and has extended its reach to the export business. Every week, fish are harvested on demand and delivered within a seven-day period to ensure freshness.

Fish farming is a high-risk venture. “Any livestock operation has multiple challenges,” he says. “But when you add livestock to the oceanic environment, that just doubles it.”

Here’s how and why Thassim made a daring career pivot from the daily grind of a corporate career to an enthralling entrepreneurial journey.

For many, leaving the safe harbors of corporate life is a huge gamble. Is sacrificing your daily comforts to fulfill a purpose-driven life worth it? “It’s easy when you are moving jobs because you leave one, but still get a paycheck from another. That’s hardly a risk,” says Thassim. “But when you are an entrepreneur, you’re essentially walking into unemployment. No paycheck at the end of the month, and this can go on for years at times.”

Many assume that the biggest motivation for an entrepreneur is the financial reward. But in reality, what satisfies them the most is the realization of their vision. “I left Brandix because I wanted to contribute more to society,” he says. “The fear was whether I would regret not taking the chance. It was bigger than the fear of being unemployed.”

While he was still an executive at Brandix, Thassim experienced two failed ventures before moving into fish farming. One was a coffee business and the other was a mini garment factory that he launched leveraging his apparel experience. Both ventures fell short. “The simple reason is that I was never committed. Either I had to take my employers’ time, and do my private business, which I wasn’t willing to do. Or I had to make do during the weekends, which obviously meant that the business wasn’t going to succeed,” he says. Thassim believes having a safety net can mask out the entrepreneurial zeal when faced with challenges.

“You will be tempted to run back and cross the bridge after your first obstacle or failure,” he cautions. “But if there is no bridge behind you, there is no moving back. The only way is forward.”

The vision keeps you inspired. The milestones move the needle. Setting milestones and evaluating them allow you to confront the hard truths. “As you keep passing each milestone, you gain momentum,” says Thassim. “But if you fail some key milestones, it’s time to face reality.

Then, you have to go back to applying for jobs and hit pause on your entrepreneurial career for the time being.”

The routines of corporate life cultivate a discipline to get work done in the allocated time. In contrast, a startup doesn’t have set structures or an overseeing authority to enforce discipline. If you are not very attentive to this, things can go a bit haywire. Thassim admits to learning this the hard way.

“When I quit work, I didn’t have an office. I was trying to operate from the sofa in my house,” he says. “Within weeks I realised that the corporate discipline was gone. I walked to and from the sofa whenever I wanted. I immediately went and hired a separate office space.”

Deng Xiaoping once said, “Cross the river by feeling the stones.” Thassim’s entrepreneurial journey epitomizes this quote.

When he left his corporate job in 2012, he only had a vague idea of starting an aquaculture company. “I knew the size, the shape and the form,” he says. “But I had no idea who will fund it or where the finances will come from.”

As Sri Lanka lacked the right expertise on the subject, he travelled to Scotland, one of the pioneer countries in aquaculture with a rich history in salmon farming. He enrolled in an aquaculture course at the University of Stirling, which paved the way for one of the biggest breakthroughs of his venture – its collaboration with Scottish company Kames Fish Farming, which provided the much-needed technical know-how and expertise for Oceanpick.

It’s impossible to form a detailed picture beforehand of how every step of the journey is going to be. “If you try to know everything, you will spend years just thinking and never venture out,” Thassim cautions.