Toucan is a new digital platform that is revolutionising the way business dreams become realities through a unique mentoring programme and counts Marcus Wareing, Bruce Oldfield and Nina Campbell among its tutors. The Resident catches up with CEO Rasha Kawaja
Words by Amelia Duggan
Rasha Kawaja is the CEO and founder of Toucan, a digital ideas platform where entrepreneurs, businesses and start-ups can pitch their ideas to the world, get feedback and advice, and receive mentoring from Toucan’s impressive network of industry luminaries. Rasha is the daughter of international businessman and philanthropist Wafic Saïd. Judging from her sharp mind, warm manner and passion for business innovation, the apple didn’t fall far from the tree. Since its launch, Toucan has helped countless businesses get off the ground, has been compared to TV show The Dragon’s Den, and described as Kickstarter for the Facebook generation – analogies Rasha says she is humbled and grateful for.
What inspired you to start Toucan?
My idea was to help start-ups take their ideas to the next level, because there’s no platform that’s a one-stop-shop for entrepreneurs in the UK, or anywhere really. You have your crowd-funding and crowd-sourcing platforms, but there’s nowhere that someone can go to be supported through the whole process of setting up a business – to take that idea scratched on a napkin and see your shop open a few years later.
Can you explain how Toucan works? People pitch their idea on the website and it’s voted for by the public. What happens next?
After someone pitches their idea and it has been voted by the public into the ‘green zone’ – and remained there for about four months – we get them into the office and discuss their plan and find out where they are in the process. Do they have a business plan or an executive summary? Lots of people don’t have things on paper – they’re at the beginning of their idea. At this point, the public has voted for the idea so we know it’s really good, but we need to have more before we meet the mentors or talk to investors. We work together to create a strong, viable business plan, making their vision as concrete and robust as possible. And we agree to how much equity Toucan will take in the company.
Tell us about the mentors…
Most of them are from my personal network and some I reached out to them through the other mentors, so it’s grown as an organic network. There are around 12 mentioned on the website, but we have around 40 on the books. We’re a young company and we’re going through a lot of publicity so I said ‘It’s ok, you don’t have to be on the website!’ But we can go knocking on their door when we have the right idea to give to them. And if we don’t have someone appropriate for the business, I go to the mentors and ask if they have a relevant contact.
We’ve had lots of ‘foodie’ ideas come in because we have lots of great ‘foodie’ mentors on board. Just recently we’ve been working with the chef Marcus Wareing, Julian Metcalfe from Itsu and Richard Reed from Innocent Drinks. They’re a powerful threesome – very exciting, very fun, very charismatic. And they really want to help good ideas come through, so that’s really helped a spike in food ideas like juice bars and restaurants.
Toucan has partners that include the likes of Amazon and Sky. What are the roles of these companies?
These partnerships make Toucan more powerful in that we can rely on each other in terms of best supporting the entrepreneur.
A lot of the companies we’re linked with have the spirit of entrepreneurship. DCM (Digital Cinema Media) own most of the cinemas in the UK. If there was this great young director who wanted to showcase his films, I would say to them: ‘There’s this great young visionary – how do you think we should move forward? Can we use one of your screens?’
Do you think there is a strong entrepreneurial culture in London?
Enormously so! Any time I get into a cab I get approached with a new idea. ‘What do you think of this, what do you think of that? What does it take to make that happen?’ People want to do things; want to make things happen. We’re a great nation – just think of the Industrial Revolution – and Toucan is helping to usher in a new wave of entrepreneurs.
We’re hoping to buy an area where we could rent out space to shops in London coming through Toucan, because the prices in London are going sky-high. We’re currently looking for that space. There are lots of genuinely good industries – shoe-makers, tailors; hard earned skills – being lost and out traded because of high rent prices. It’s a big problem in this country and if Toucan could do something to preserve these types of skills that would be amazing. To get visibility is very difficult: it’s a chicken-egg situation. We want to help those people, but we need the space first, and we’re looking for investment for that.
What are your values when it comes to business?
It’s very simple – transparency. We are a very nurturing company but we are a business at the same time, and it’s important to be very honest in business. I’ve never liked dealing with people who are two-faced. You can read me like an open book: if you like me, you like me, if you don’t, you don’t. It’s the same with my business. We deal with things very ethically and honestly. We’ve had people approach us for certain things that we’ve had to reject because they weren’t compatible with British law.
What advice would you give to someone with a fledgling business idea?
The best advice is to speak to people. Don’t sit in your room: you’ve got to bounce your idea off people. Even though it’s the scariest thing in the world, they will help you evolve it. They will make your idea bigger and better. Go to a trusted group of people where you feel secure and confident – the right people, be it friends or family – and they will help you grow it.
With tuition fees being so high now would you encourage young people to get into businesses rather than go to university?
Yes tuition fees are high but you should always have a base on which to start your life. A qualification – whether it’s a GCSE, an A-level or something else – will hold you in stead and give you something to fall back on. I think fees will come down eventually, because the government want people to be educated. Education is one of the most important things in the world, and I see an enormous amount of value in it. You can’t just have an idea then go to being Steve Jobs. You need to have a realistic understanding of the process in between. You have to know the questions to ask and that only comes through education. That’s why we’re bringing in the Toucan Academy.
What’s the Toucan Academy?
So all these things you need – business plans, executive summaries, investment memorandums, how to talk to investors – that can be quite scary to do for people who haven’t had basic business training. And it makes their journey so much more difficult. So we’re putting them up as templates on the website and people can download them to use, step by step. And if that’s still too scary, what we’re doing is setting up a call centre. You can call them 24 hours a day and they’ll take you through the template. This is the whole process laid out. And we’ve got the mentors – and myself – giving practical tips. It’s a step-by-step program.
What is the future for Toucan?
Global domination! We’re looking to set up a foundation, an alumnae group and a scholarship program, so if entrepreneurs from further afield required monetary support, we could help them. And we’re becoming FCA accredited, which means we will be able to put people in touch with investors directly – at which point we take a 5% finders fee. And we have plans to partner with UK universities, with the idea of reaching young talent and growing Toucan Academy through those networks.
Toucan Academy launches March 2015. See Toucan.co for more information.