Hey, I'm Monica and I run The Spice Club, a pop-up restaurant and Indian cookery school.
We started offering homestyle, Indian food dining experiences around 10 years ago and I still run these events a few times a year. This started off from my mom and dad's home kitchen, where I started doing them as secret pop-up dining events.
The second part of The Spice Club is the Indian cookery school in Manchester and Birmingham, UK. Through these schools, I teach people how to master regional Indian cookery and it's a whole lot of very tasty fun!
Very recently I launched Shikshak, which is a branch of The Spice Club and it's an online Indian cookery school. It's a membership platform where members who join get access to a master recipe library.
Each member also gets detailed recipe videos that I've been working hard to record in my kitchen, and access to monthly live cookery classes that I do over Facebook. There's also my Shikshak community where Indian food lovers unite online to talk about delicious, Indian food.
As a bonus, members also get access to something called a WhatsApp curriculum once a week. This is for anyone that has any questions when they're cooking the dishes... I think with Indian food, there are so many nuances and I want people to just be able to have a trusted chef on speed dial when they need it.
Look for opportunities wherever you can
If I look back at it now, I would probably say that I was exposed to the entrepreneur life from a young age. I was constantly spending time at my mom and dads workplaces and when they picked me up from work, we'd go back to their work before we'd go home
I wouldn't say that my brother and I were pressured at any point to go down this route though. My mom and dad have always been fairly open and supportive as to what we want to pursue in our own careers, which I'm really grateful for.
My first experience of being an entrepreneur though was when my brother and I were at university, in the USA.
The exchange rate at the time was really good between the US dollar and the Great British pound (I think it was two to one) so there was a fantastic opportunity for import/export.
At this time, brands like Abercrombie and Fitch, and Hollister were really big and there was a huge demand for these products in the UK and we were getting them so cheap in America.
So we started selling these branded tops for £400 on eBay, and it would only cost us a couple of hundred dollars to buy them. All of a sudden, this eBay business started growing like crazy!
We ended up finishing our lectures at university and we'd go to the mall, looking like ridiculously rich children, and we'd just have a list of things that we'd sell on eBay - and that's the first business that my brother and I had.
We just thought, oh, this is what my dad always taught us in looking for opportunities!
When my brother and I moved back to the UK, we started a fashion business together. We've always looked towards our mom and dad and them being 'natural' entrepreneurs and being opportunistic.
My dad has very much been an encourager of following successful people and the journey that they've gone through. So I've always tried to expand my knowledge with lots of books and podcasts to keep learning from inspiring entrepreneurs.
I've always been really excited about business in general, and now my brother's not in fashion and I'm not in fashion, but we both have our own businesses still and that's interesting. You can always take early lessons and experiences with you no matter what business you end up in.
Monica pivoted through COVID and came up with Shikshak
It's been a really interesting year for all of us, but especially for those of us in hospitality...
We've really been hit hard and personally, it meant the temporary closure of The Spice Club as we haven't been able to run our cookery schools and supper clubs.
Initially, for me this was really difficult, especially from an income standpoint, but secondly, running this business is just what I do.
But when one door closed another one opened, so in my case, that led to me setting up Shikshak.
It all just started from me initially wanting to share recipes with people because we're all at home and looking for new things to do during lockdown, and then this business idea grew into something much bigger.
At some point in the future, I hope I'll be able to open up the doors to my kitchen again and have face-to-face cookery classes, but I don't think that will stop this new normal for people still wanting to connect online.
I think there's a real opportunity now with people able to have these really meaningful experiences online and learn from communities all across the globe.
The world has become so much closer since COVID-19 and as an example, just last week I was planning a joint-cooking class with a Japanese chef in Japan. That's just not been possible for me before!
The most amazing benefit of the move online post-COVID19 is the capability for my business to become truly global. So where I was limited in my classes to just Manchester and Birmingham, it has now opened the doors to the world.
Another example of this is that I have a couple that joins me for live cooking classes from North Carolina every week, every class without fail! I now get Indian cookery students from Iceland... I mean, I couldn't have dreamt of that before COVID, but now it's a real possibility.
No matter where you are in the world, If you love Indian food, you can be a potential customer of mine. That's what it comes down to, it's so exciting!
How Monica appeared on the BBC and Amazon Prime
A real career highlight for me was being featured on the BBC Hairy Bikers cookery show and for this I was contacted directly by the BBC, who had just stumbled across my social media and website presence, seeing what I was doing.
For my Amazon Prime show, I was contacted by a company called Tastemade, which created the show for Amazon. At first, I had no idea it would go on Amazon and they hadn't mentioned that it would eventually go on Prime. I just thought it would be a really interesting opportunity so they invited me to a Shoreditch, London recording studio and asked me to make an online course and start presenting the show.
The audition went really well and then they called me back to record with them, but I was really lucky in both of these situations coming my way organically.
I do though think having some sort of active and vibrant web presence is so important so as these opportunities come to you. I've always been engaged on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, and then just obviously having a good website, great landing pages, and a solid SEO (search engine optimization) strategy helps to put you out there.
Monica's top tips for speaking in front of a camera
There's actually some terrible, terrible YouTube video of me presenting whilst I was at uni... I think I'm like 19 and it's still on there somewhere, it's horrendous...
So I've not always been good at presenting. But, it's definitely something that I've had to practice and, I don't do this as often now, but certainly, when I was practicing for the Amazon Prime recordings, I just practiced in front of a camera over and over and over again.
I don't think people see this ever, they just think I'm a natural, but no, I have put hours and hours and hours of me actually practicing in front of a camera, with a tripod, in the kitchen, and cooking to the camera. I'm not blessed with those natural skills.
To practice, I just do the same thing over and over again, and if I mess up, then I do it again and write things down and go, "actually, that sounds quite nice". In food presenting, I sometimes find it difficult to find different descriptive words. I keep going back to the same words over and over again and saying just simple things.
So if I find a really good descriptive word to describe something that looks, I don't know, tender or moist or whatever, I write notes down and put it in my food word bank.
Doing that over and over again, just really helps me feel comfortable in front of a studio where there are seven people, they're producing the show and they're just looking at you and they go "right action". And they're like, "just be yourself!"
When I'm shooting for things like Instagram, I generally just try and make it more organic and natural - it makes you more connectable to your audience.
On Insta, it's not particularly overproduced, it's just me in selfie mode. I used to feel a little bit conscious and I used to maybe take two or three goes and be happy. I think it's taken me a while to let go as it's probably better if you are, just slightly off the cuff and it's just more organic and you're real.
How to develop a strong personal brand
We talk USP (Unique Selling Point) in marketing all the time, and it's really difficult to come out with a product that's not been done before
There are lots of Indian cookery schools and I'm sure there'll be lots of people teaching online cookery in some form.
My USP though is me. It's the way that I'm delivering my product and that's all we can do. To quote Seth Godin, "our own purple cow" - that's what we have to bring to the table. That's what we have. That's remarkable, right?
We talk about the importance of personal brands and, you know, I think it's really easy to say, be personal, but I think it's really difficult to implement some times, and not all businesses lend themselves to being naturally personal.
Not all teachers love to be in front of cameras. They might be great teachers face to face, but it's difficult to morph into online mode, not everyone does that naturally.
Top tips for a healthy solopreneur work/life balance
I try to keep a good work-life balance for my mental health, more than anything else, but for me, morning workouts are huge, so I used to go to the gym (pre-COVID), but now I'm just working out from home.
I like to go on walks too and especially get some time outside in the daylight in the winter months. Even if I just go to the garden it's some time away from the office and my desk.
Sometimes I like to just have a phone call in the middle of the day, usually with my mom or dad. And that's quite nice just to talk to someone and connect with someone else. I find life as a solopreneur can be quite lonely otherwise.
Find inspiring people to motivate your own journey
My dad came from India to Liverpool in the eighties with less than 50 quid in his pocket and he did incredibly well.
He started off with a job at the job center and then said, this isn't for me and started off doing markets in Liverpool selling menswear.
From those markets eventually, he had enough to own his own shop and had a family business with his brothers. When that didn't work out with his brothers, he decided to stop everything and continue to work tirelessly to make sure that his family were the generation ahead of him and going to do a lot better.
When my dad talks about how there was one bed with five brothers in it, it blows my mind. Eventually, when he came over to England, he worked really hard to make sure that my brother and I would never have to have a life even close to that.
Just seeing his work ethic day in, day out and the sacrifices he has made, and how we progressed in his life from where he was is amazing. One year he took us back to India where he lived and it was incredible to see that, so my dad has always been the biggest inspiration for me.
Monica's favorite business books and resources
I'm a huge fan of Tim Ferriss, looking at how other people have gone along on their own journey and what lessons they can give us for life and in running a business.
Seth Godin's Purple Cow - now that was a big game-changer for me and I also love listening to his podcasts. They're really inspirational and I always feel recharged when I listen to podcasts.
Identify and tackle your personal challenges head-on
If there was one thing I'd improve on to help me in my business, it would be to have more chats with myself. I have a lot of self-doubts, probably a bit of an imposter syndrome, and I think I often hesitate to do things unless I really push myself.
I'm really lucky that I have a family that encourages me to push myself, but I think if I had less self-doubt earlier in my entrepreneurial journey, then I probably would have done a lot more and started things quicker with a bit more confidence. It's difficult to take the first step often.
I think when I got married and moved from Manchester to Birmingham and I was on my own for the first time, that first year of being a true solo entrepreneur was really scary. And I doubted myself a lot.
I didn't have my crew, my support network. The self-doubt massively crept in that year and it delayed the start of my new business.
So sometimes just having a bit of space, just having a chat to yourself, and writing things down to reassure yourself really does help a lot.
Embrace the weird and funny moments as an entrepreneur
When The Spice Club opened, it was quite a new thing inviting people into your own home to eat, for instance, services like Airbnb had only recently launched and hadn't become mainstream like now.
For our supper club, we used to send the address out 24 hours before the actual date of the event. So for this particular event, the dinner was planned for Saturday night and Friday was full-on big prep mode. I'd be there, with my pyjamas and apron on, and really getting into the cooking for the evening after.
So it got to Friday at 7 pm and on the dot the doorbell goes and I'm like, "I'm not expecting anyone and totally smell of masala" and I'm just a hot mess basically...I then open the door and it's a couple fully dressed up for a night out, they've got wine and they're clearly ready for The Spice Club event - but they're 24 hours early!
I looked horrified, they looked horrified because of how I looked, but they came back the night after and had a really good time in the end.
What success as an entrepreneur means to Monica
Success for me is where my own business delivers a product that brings true happiness and satisfaction to the customer.
It's a huge part for me, especially when I get repeat bookings and these happy customers introduce their friends and family.
I think there's something really special as an entrepreneur to create a product and put your absolute everything into it. When that is passed on to the end-user, they get that joy and see all the effort you've put in.
I think that's a really beautiful process for me, a huge mark of success.
I still get really, really excited when someone sends a picture of a recipe that they've created as my recipe, that I've taught them and they've sent me the picture of the samosa or the chicken curry, telling me it tasted really good.
That for me is success. Every time I get those moments, I always feel overwhelmed but it's so worth it.
Monica's tips for anyone looking to start a business
I would say just go for it.
Secondly, I would say don't be put off by the slow burn.... don't expect instant results.
I think we live in this time where we need this instant gratification and we need the instant results once we've put the money in to get started.
I'd say be prepared for the slow slope on the way to success, and don't see that as a negative because those formative years will teach you a lot about business and yourself. If I hadn't had those years of just doing the same thing over and over again, I wouldn't have picked up what I now know.
Where to follow Monica and her amazing food...
Monica originally spoke with Jonny for 'The Go Solo Show' - you can listen to and watch the full recording here...
If you like what you've read here and have your own solopreneur success story then hit Jonny up on Twitter, we'd love to feature your journey on these pages.
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