Hasan Kubba: How to Create a Passive Income Business, Without Being a Natural Entrepreneur

“If you want to be an entrepreneur, the biggest piece of advice I’ll give you is to double down on your strengths.”

Hasan Kubba: How to Create a Passive Income Business, Without Being a Natural Entrepreneur

“If you want to be an entrepreneur, the biggest piece of advice I’ll give you is to double down on your strengths.”

How did you go about building your own business?

After school I started studying medicine, but to my parents’ horror I dropped out when I realised that it wasn’t for me. Instead I studied Economics because I wanted to learn more about the world and how it works.

The typical path from there is to go into banking, but that didn’t appeal to me. During career days, graduates would come in and say ‘Oh, yeah, I’m working at a fancy investment bank.’ Places like Morgan Stanley or Goldman Sachs. ‘And yes, sometimes we do 72-hour shifts at the office, we even sleep there.’ They would almost be bragging about it, and I was thinking ‘That sounds horrible.’

Yes, there’s a lot of money in doing this, but what’s the point if you don’t have the time to spend it? And who is that job really helping? It’s just making very rich people even richer. I didn’t want to do that.

When I first finished university, I happened to come across this online course about how to start a business and create passive income. But I didn’t go for it because I thought maybe it was a scam, and I was too scared to take the plunge.

A year later there was another cohort, and this time I went for it. It was a $2,000 course but I had saved up some of my student loan, I’m not a big spender. A lot of my friends and family were like, ‘This sounds like a scam. I don’t know what you’re doing. You think you can make a passive income business? That sounds weird.’ But I’d done my due diligence and thought I could make it work.

But I didn’t start my business properly for another two years; I had too much fear and self-doubt at first. I don’t think I’m a natural entrepreneur. Now I understand that you just have to push through and go for it, even if you don’t feel ready.

How did you overcome your self-doubt?

I didn’t deal with it, I spent about a year and a half making no progress, just writing copy for my website. Rewriting it, agonising over it. I was too scared to actually reach out to anybody.

Then my parents had had enough of me doing that, and I knew they were right. They were saying, ‘What are you doing, get a job’ – fair enough. So I did, for a few months.

Working for someone else, I learned a lot about sales and investment broking over a very short time. But it just wasn’t for me, I kept feeling like ‘Oh, look how hard I’m working for a boss, why can’t I work that hard for myself?’ 

I finally quit my job and started my business in early 2014. I got my first client that year, doing web design. I ended up being their ‘internet guy’, so I had to learn all these add-on services.

The irony is that I started a web design agency, but I never had a website. We still don’t, because we just get clients through referrals. So much agonising over the website, when it turns out I didn’t even need one. That just shows how you can really hold yourself back.

I did use some of my initial copy I wrote when sending out proposals, but most clients wouldn’t even read them. A common mistake as a newbie entrepreneur is sending out long proposals.

One of my clients told me that it’s better to write just one page, listing your services and prices, briefly explain what you would be doing for them, then sign off. It’s definitely harder to write a short email and get your point across than a long one. There is a quote which goes something like ‘Sorry, for writing such a long letter, if I had more time I would have made it shorter.’ – It’s good and it’s true.

Pretty soon after getting some clients I wasn’t actually doing the web design and development myself, I was just managing a remote team – people based all over the world. By 2016, I was able to just travel as the business had become fully automated.

I gave the work out to others, but I had already learned the principles of marketing, sales and branding etc. as well as understanding what it takes to have good design, to convert website visitors, to rank well on Google. It was a full on marketing agency.

What did you learn on the business course?

The guy teaching the course was not promising miracles. He told us that it would take a lot of hard work to get there. Usually these kinds of courses gloss over that part in their marketing.

“I didn’t get anywhere until I had an accountability buddy.”

He would suggest, ‘Oh, here’s a business model you can do – you can start a marketing agency, or a video marketing agency, or animated explainer videos, or social media management.’ – giving us lessons on business models that work. All these things still work, even though the ideas are from 10 years ago – there’s still so much demand for these kinds of things. He would suggest ideas whilst also teaching fundamental principles, such as marketing.

I think the course helped me push through my fear and self-doubt, but even then I didn’t succeed at first.

I didn’t get anywhere until I had an accountability buddy. We would meet up every day in Wembley at a Starbucks that overlooked the stadium. We’d say to each other ‘Okay, come on, I’ll send out that email to this potential client and let’s see if we can get a sale – let’s do this.’ That was so valuable. For those two years of building my business I worked crazy hours. Might as well have gone into banking.

Then one of my earliest clients became a bit of a mentor to me – that’s how life takes you sometimes. I think having accountability buddies, coaches or mentors is so valuable. We don’t usually lack information, you can find information anywhere online.

It’s more a lack of accountability and clarity. Usually, one just feels overwhelmed with all the information, and you think ‘I don’t know what to do, what business idea should I pursue, what side hustle is good or what career can I do.If someone can help you find some clarity and some accountability, then you start making progress.

Did you think about finding a co-founder when you started out?

No, I didn’t even think that it was an option. I didn’t know anybody who would be interested, I never was in that circle of people. Everybody I knew went into banking, or management consultancy, or did a conversion course to do law – that kind of thing.

Once you started up, how did you go about finding a team to replace you?

I just put out job offers on freelancing websites. At the time there was Elance Inc. and O Desk Corp,  then those two combined to become what’s called Upwork now.  Another website is called PeoplePerHour and Fiverr. There are loads of these online platforms. There is also Jobs.ph for Filipino workers. I’d just put an ad out and filter through the offers.

Do you have any advice for growth scrapping a business?

If you haven’t started the business or if you’re still doing it as a side hustle, I really recommend getting a job in sales – you have to learn to sell to start your own business. Growth scrapping is basically sales, they also call it Biz Dev – business development. This is where you research who might be a lead, and learn to follow up with them. You need to be able to get their attention, start a conversation with them, and if they’re a good fit, hopefully you get a sale and add value to them.

You also have to learn to get used to rejection. That’s a key bit of advice – build a thick skin and be okay with people saying no, or not saying no but stringing you along  until it ultimately goes nowhere. That is a real sore point of being an entrepreneur – it can be a real heartache.

So you started out just reaching out to people?

Yes, that’s literally what I would spend my time doing. Once I got a few clients I focused on getting referrals – I’d ask them if they knew anybody else who would be interested, or if they could refer me to them.

Initially you take on anything, work for free or charge enough to cover your costs. You want to get some success stories, some happy clients, then when you approach somebody you can say ‘Here’s an example of some of the work I have done.’  If you don’t have that, then they might think  ‘Why should I hire you?’

Did you have any major setbacks along your journey?

Yes, loads. One of the biggest ones was going into web design, an industry where you always need to find new clients. But to have passive income you need recurring revenue, so long-term partnerships with clients. So I had to switch tack and offer other services too.

Another one was when I went into SEO (Search Engine Optimisation), that was hard. SEO is an interesting industry, because there’s all these people out there claiming to get you these results, to get you to the front page of Google etc.

The problem is, it takes three to six months to see any results from your work. So what people can do is promise to get you to the front of Google, in six months time. So you’re paying them for all this time, but getting no results. Only after 6 months do you know if they’re a fraud, but by then they just move on to the next sucker who’s going to pay them for six months, and the cycle repeats.

There were a lot of cowboys in that industry, and it was really hard to get it right. But when I was able to nail it, I was really able to start making passive income. Clients are willing to pay a lot to get on top of Google, and we were really smashing it, moving up the ranks to number one for all these keywords, which were worth a lot.

We were out competing all these expensive digital marketing agencies, all these ‘big boys’ who were charging around 10/20k a month for SEO, while only charging around 3k a month. But getting it right was tough, as well as finding other skilled people to hire.

I took an online SEO course at one point, but it ended up being rubbish. That was a low point – one of those valley of despair type moments that you get in entrepreneurship. We got there in the end but it was hard. I mostly learned just from reading things online, and trial & error.

What was your next step after building a passive income?

Once my business was running itself, I went travelling. When I came back home I met Ash Ali, he’s my co-author in the book, ‘The Unfair Advantage’. He was investing in start-ups, and had just had a big IPO with Just Eat. He was their first marketing director, so he had shares in it. It was valued at £1.5 billion – mind blowing.

We became friends as we both lived in north west London. He liked my thoughts and analysis so I kind of became his investment partner. People looking to raise money would come in and literally pitch to us Dragon’s Den style. We gathered a lot of insight doing that.

Then we started working on this book together. It contains what we feel founders should know, which we felt they didn’t yet. We were going to self-publish it, but managed to get a publishing deal – we couldn’t believe it. We actually had multiple offers.

We thought publishing deals were usually for academics, celebrities, and big influencers. We were none of those things, we were just a little known in our own industry, Ash more so with his Just Eat story.

Incredibly we won Business Book of the year, and we got Best Start Up/Scale Up book as well. We got these awards and went on the BBC Radio, spoke at MBA schools, and were invited to Oxford and Cambridge to speak – it was mind blowing. So here we are today.

Now I’m a teacher in a way, I run my own courses online. That has always been a dream of mine. I used to be big into online courses before they were really a thing, back in the 2000’s when they would come on DVD sets which you would order online. I was 15 years old at that time and didn’t have a credit card, so I would just torrent them.

How many years were there between starting your marketing agency and publishing the book?

The book’s publishing deal was in 2018, with it being published in 2020, and the market agency started in 2014. So, four years after I started my business, I got a publishing deal. But that wasn’t purely because of me, it was me and my co-author together.

The book came out just before the pandemic. We were able to do a bit of a book tour, and then everything was shut down. Loads of events and podcasts were cancelled, because no one knew at that time what the hell was going on. Nonetheless, the book has done well which has been incredible. Especially having no background in writing, I had never even blogged before.

We often get asked “How did it become so successful?’ I think it’s because we understood our audience. We tested our content on our audience by speaking on stage, by mentoring start-up founders and people who wanted to get into business.

Through that process, we iterated on the product and made it better. We treated the book as if it were a minimum viable product for a start-up, we got a lot of feedback and improved it based on that.

That’s quite a short time. How do you think you were able to learn all the necessary skills so quickly?

I have always been into learning, I started reading self-development books at the age of 11 years old, I loved them. Part of the reason I wrote the book was to address the misinformation in many self-development books. They would often say ‘You can do anything; you just need to put your mind to it. Just visualise, use the law of attraction,’ and other nonsense’. In fact, success is more based on one’s unfair advantages and no, it’s not just based on how hard you work.

 

“Even what seems like a disadvantage can be an advantage with the right mindset.”

The motivational speakers will say, ‘Look at your life right now, you are where you are purely because of the decisions you’ve made.’ But it’s not true. It’s not purely because of the decisions you made. Yes, they have played a role. Yes, it‘s helpful to take responsibility for your life, to say, ‘You know, I need to make better decisions. That’s fair enough.

But did you choose where you were born? Did you choose what parents you had? Did you choose what education you had? Did you choose your circumstances? Do you choose how much of a financial cushion you got?

I was able to start my business living in my parents’ house in London. That is an unfair advantage. I was born in Baghdad, and if my parents had stayed there, how far would I have gone with the economic sanctions of the 1990s, with Saddam Hussein and the war?

Luckily for me, my parents moved here when I was three years old, so I’ve got a native English speaker accent. Imagine having a strong accent, people just perceive you differently.

Part of the motivation to write the book is just to say, ‘Here is a more realistic take and actually, it’s not all bad, because even what seems like a disadvantage can be an advantage with the right mindset.’

Did the sections you wrote on mindset come from books you’d read in the past?

Yes, absolutely. We didn’t spend too much time in the book talking about mindset, because I feel like it’s well covered by a lot of other books. A great book that we do reference is Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, by Carol Dweck. It talks about a fixed mindset versus a growth mindset.

One key thing from her book is to not say ‘I can’t do something,’ but rather ‘I can’t do something, yet.’ So, if I don’t know how to start a business, I must say ‘I don’t know how to start a business, yet.’ Adding the word yet is a magical way to have a growth mindset.

At the same time, I can’t say ‘I’m not a premier league footballer, yet’ or I’m not a Nobel Prize winning physicist, yet.’ Realistically, I’m not going to get there, ever. So, that’s where you have a bit of a dose of reality, we talk about a reality growth mindset in the book.

Having said that, I would rather overestimate my potential than underestimate it. It’s better to be a little bit delusional about what you’re capable of, because we probably all generally underestimate our abilities. Most of us underestimate what we can achieve.

I never thought I’d get to this position now, where I’m seeing the words ‘Award winning author’ next to my name – it’s weird.

You never know where life will take you, but to get there you need to double down on your strengths. That’s the message of the book – figure out what your strengths are and what your unfair advantages are, and double down on those. Partner off with people who have your weaknesses as their strengths and go for it.

What does an average work day look like for you?

I spend a lot of time coaching clients, often in groups. It’s amazing to watch people learn and inspire each other, it inspires me in turn. Since the book came out, I’ve really taken an interest in working with popular creators online, people with millions of subscribers on YouTube or TikTok. I find that space – the creative economy, really interesting.

I also spend a lot of time making courses and preparing for the US book launch. Funny little story, when we were launching the book somebody reached out to me on Instagram to say ‘I’d love to be involved in your project, free of charge.’  He was an investor and a venture capitalist. That was cool, it shows you the power of having an audience, even a tiny audience. I think I had around 1k followers on Instagram at the time. But I met this guy for a coffee, and he told me to check out this guy called Ali Abdaal. 

I liked Ali’s content, and watching him made me think ‘This guy kind of reminds me of myself.’ Then Ash met him and said that we have a lot in common with this guy. So we sent him an advanced copy of the book to review. He said that he was thinking of starting a new book series called The Book Club, where he would review and summarise books. That is how our book became the first one that he did. It just blew up from there.

We became friends and he also became my first client as a business coach. I started by coaching him on writing his book, and he got a publishing deal based on the proposal I helped him write.

It’s funny, The earliest version of my business, back in 2014, was to target experts, authors, consultants, who wanted to market themselves online and build their fan base and following. But I pivoted away from that because the clients I had just didn’t have much money. Things went full circle and now I’m back here doing that again, as it was always my interest.

Do you still make time for learning these days?

Yes, I do. Learning and creating are two things I’m trying to be more consistent with. When we wrote the book we had a deadline from the publishers, and it all went well. But I didn’t have a habit of creating content, I’ve had to really build up that now. 

 

“I would far rather spend my time reading than doing anything online. I find it just triggers more thoughts and more creativity.”

A key idea for this is to always be reading.  I believe one of my personality traits is to constantly be learning, I’ve always got a podcast or an audiobook on the go. But there’s something about reading specifically which creates more ideas for content, maybe because it’s slower. It doesn’t just keep going on and on like an audiobook.

I’m trying to design my life so that I have enough time to read and write, to consume and create good content.

We have a podcast as well – The Unfair advantage podcast, which is quite new. We haven’t really launched it officially; it’s more of a soft launch. We talked in a recent episode about your information diet, as in the content you consume.I think it’s really important to look into that.

I try to tune into more proactive content, instead of choosing to just flick through TikTok or watch something on Netflix. I just do these things out of habit, and end up wasting time when I’m supposed to be doing something more valuable.

However, I would far rather spend my time reading than doing anything online. I find it just triggers more thoughts and more creativity.

Any interesting books you can recommend?

Yes, there are loads. I’ve got this big hardback book called Poor Charlie’s Almanack. It was around £‎60 when I bought it back in 2014, but it’s really good. It’s a collection of speeches by Charlie Munger, Warren Buffett’s business partner.

I also liked The 48 Laws of Power, that was interesting. He’s got the same publisher as I do, so whenever I visit them, I can just pick books off the shelf and take them home – a little perk. I really liked Ryan Holiday’s book too, Perennial Seller.

There’s something else I was reading today on the train; this tiny little booklet called Managing Oneself by Peter Drucker. It’s really short, around 50 pages, and tiny pages with big font, more like a booklet. But it was really good, I loved it.

If you had read your own book when you first started out, do you think you would have changed your approach?

Both Ash and I wrote this book for our younger selves, but I think I sneaked more of that into it than he did. Ash was more the big picture, and I was more the nitty gritty writing.

But to answer your question, it would probably depend on which stage of life I read it at.

“I also used to think that you had to be good at everything, but it’s just not true.”

If I had read it when I was still at university, I might have been more open to entrepreneurship, maybe I would have participated in the entrepreneurship society. I remember thinking, ‘What the hell is that? That is so not for me.’ That is how much it wasn’t on my mind, hence why I’ve called myself an unnatural entrepreneur in the book.

I also wouldn’t have shied away from trying loads of different jobs. I was open to trying new things back then, but I didn’t really go for it. One thing that I really do recommend to young people who are still at university, is to just try loads of things. 

Find out what you enjoy and what you’re good at because you’ve got nothing to lose. Even after university, try many different careers.

Life isn’t like academia, where every year you progress to the next level. It’s much more random – you’re going to jump jobs and careers. The days where somebody had a job for life are gone. Now people change careers midway through, they start businesses, they do side hustles.

So I think if I had tried more things, I might have figured out that I’m good at communication, writing, and speaking earlier on. For example, I took part in this society thing once at Freshers Fair. The society was called AIESEC, it’s about developing yourself through travel or study & work abroad.

I went to one of their events and gave an impromptu speech, I just put my hand up and did it. I was watching a lot of TED talks at the time, back when they were still cool and there weren’t so many terrible ones. So I just reworded a TED talk called ‘The Paradox of Choice’ by Tony Schwartz. I realised then that I was quite good at speaking, but I never pursued it.

Maybe if I’d read my book I would have had the courage to pursue more there and then, rather than waiting another nine years to get back on stage and start talking again. It would have shortened my learning curve a lot.

Maybe I would have got into tech start-ups and found a job along that line, and just tried to work my way up. I wasn’t aware that was even an option. When I was a university back in 2011, it all just sounded like IT to me, which was boring. But it’s not at all like that – it’s a fascinating industry and a good way to make a ton of money..

I wasn’t aware about being an entrepreneur because I never grew up with entrepreneurship being a thing. They call that cultural capital – how you’re brought up and the ideas you’re surrounded with. If your parents are doctors, you’re more likely to be a doctor. If your parents are entrepreneurs, you can go into the family business, then start your own from there.

I also used to think that you had to be good at everything, but it’s just not true.

I used to watch ‘The Apprentice,’ and one task they always had people do was sell things at a market stall, like fruit or vegetables. Could you imagine Mark Zuckerberg or Bill Gates trying to do that? They would be terrible at it, but that doesn’t mean they’re not good entrepreneurs. You just have to partner up with somebody who’s good at doing that side of it.

Something I took about entrepreneurship from your book is to focus on the problem you’re trying to solve, not your solution. Is that correct?

Yes! I’m glad you got that out of the book, that’s such a huge message. One big tip for marketing is to realise that everybody’s always thinking ‘What’s in it for me?Therefore, you should write your emails, outreach or speak to people in a way that really highlights what’s in it for them.

The worst kind of outreach you can do is – ‘I’m doing this thing, here’s why I’m doing it, it will be so good and I would really appreciate it if you could help me with it’ This approach is like you’re asking for a favour. Instead you should explain why it is good for them and list the reasons why they would want to be interested in doing it.

What are some of your proudest achievements to date?

I would say the book is my biggest accomplishment in terms of how well it’s done. It was originally going to go straight to paperback, and be this little book in the business section.

Funny story – we were at the publisher’s office signing the contracts, when Ash told them that we had the first draft ready and we just needed to do some updates. I was kicking him under the table because the truth was that it was far from being ready. He was being very optimistic. 

We signed the deal in October, and the deadline was now December, because of what Ash had said – he wanted things to move quickly. We had only written 10k words at this point, we still had 50/60k words to go. And it had taken us roughly four to five months of writing, just straight up writing to get to 10k. Plus we still needed to develop the ideas properly.

So we had to do six times as many new words in half the time – an impossible task. We ended up with this crappy first draft, which I handed it in to the publishers on the deadline, but I told them I wasn’t happy with it, that I was going to work on a new draft, starting from the ground up.

There is probably only around 3-5% of that first draft in the book now. The publisher said they liked it, but I still wasn’t happy and asked for an extension. I wrote most of it from scratch in just a few weeks and handed in something new. Then they told me ‘Wow, this is a completely new book, and it’s really good.’

They decided to release it in hardback first and change the tagline to make the book more broadly applicable. It used to be ‘Boost your chances of startup success’. It was changed to  ‘How you already have what it takes to succeed.’ Being a hardcover book first and then being released later as a paperback meant we had two launches. It meant the publishers believed in it more.

I’m proud of all the awards we won, but the thing I’m most proud of is the reviews and feedback we’ve received from readers. If you look on Goodreads, we’ve got around 1200 ratings, if you go on YouTube and search the book name you’ll get quite a few reviews or summaries of the book. I just saw a new one today actually.

The fact that so many people have been inspired by it – when people tell us how much of an impact it’s had on them, that makes me really proud. We really wanted it to be well received, so thank God it was.

What is your advice for young aspiring entrepreneurs?

If you want to be an entrepreneur, the biggest piece of advice I’ll give you is to double down on your strengths.

“I used to think I had to do everything by myself and had to figure it all out myself. You don’t.”

Try to understand yourself, try and build that self-awareness so you can figure out what your strengths are. If you can afford a business coach, get one. If you can’t afford a business coach, at least try to get a mentor. There’s also a section in the book about how to get a mentor and level up your peer group.

That’s a classic self-development idea, but it’s so true. You are the average of the five people you hang out with – that’s powerful stuff. Get an accountability buddy, get a business partner. Even getting investors is a good way of getting accountability. I don’t necessarily recommend it because you’re giving away some of your business and you get extra stress, but you do get accountability.

Worst case scenario, if you can’t get any of that, then at least use a journal to get what you need – clarity and accountability. That’s what coaching can give you, but a good journaling habit can also do that, although iIt’s quite difficult to stay consistent with.

Nowadays I’ve got a coach for every area of my life, because I just believe in how useful they are. I’ve got a productivity coach, an executive coach, I’ve got a tennis coach, I’ve got a fitness coach, a weight loss coach. I’m all in on coaching.

If you don’t know what to do, coaching is actually an interesting idea to pursue. I was very sceptical about it before, but it’s a fast growing field because people really need help in this age of endless content.

To be a successful coach you need to understand how to add more value than just providing information. If you can organise information into a step-by-step process people can follow, you’re providing value. If you’re helping people find clarity and accountability, you’re providing value.

If you’re like me – the type that’s a bit scared to get started with something new – push yourself to say yes to something, then figure out how to do it along the way. That was terrifying for me, but it’s another way of getting accountability. If your prospective client says ‘Can you do this’ and you say ‘Yes’, then you’re going to figure out how to do it. It’s not lying, because you’ll learn and deliver a great end result.

You can figure it out, so you should trust yourself to do so. If you have a paying client, now you have the money to hire somebody – a consultant, a coach or an expert, a developer or whatever you need to get the job done.

I used to think I had to do everything by myself and had to figure it all out myself. You don’t.

 So all my advice really comes down to: focus primarily on gaining accountability, then secondarily on getting some clarity as to what you can do.

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