The non-stop man, OakNorth Co-founder and CEO, Rishi Khosla

We sat down with Rishi at his table in his floor-to-ceiling glass-encased office, giving a full view of the office floor. From the corner of the room, you see the vibrant Carnaby Street. We’re in the heart of Soho, hardly rubbing shoulders with the rest of the old guard of banking – closer to Ronnie Scott’s than RBS.  

He is relaxed, casually taking his afternoon cup of tea and something sweet as we chat through our questions. We start with humble origins, taking him back to his childhood and his early days as a self-starter. Touching on how early the entrepreneurial spark started within him, Rishi tells us he had barely started his school days by the time he was thinking about starting small businesses.

From the age of six or seven, I was taking early release VHS tapes that my parents would bring back from trips abroad and renting them out to my teachers. I would make back the cost of the tapes after two days of rental. After that, it was pure profit – and I charged late fees!

By the age of 10, Rishi had moved on from VHSs to new ventures, teaching other children to code and how to use their computers. Conscious of his younger target customer and their disposable income levels, Rishi provided value for customers early on with lower charges for younger kids. Dynamic pricing before you’re even out of your first decade? Sounds like the entrepreneurial wheels were already in motion.

But, as all great entrepreneurs understand, it’s not just about what you know but who you know…

One of my other childhood money-making schemes was making use of a friend of a parent who had a general store, and I would sell on odd ends from their shop in my own makeshift storefront at school. We’d be selling things like stationery and small toys. There was even a point where I’d be piecing together the parts of broken pens to make more products to sell!

Rishi’s resourcefulness is clearly that of a leader rather than an employee in a bigger machine, and it wasn’t until he was done with his studies that he took his first salaried job. ‘After graduating, I worked in banking, and the most useful thing it taught me was resilience. There was a point where I was working on a project in some dark basement in Warsaw where I went weeks without seeing the sun, as we’d start before sunrise and not leave until well into the night, and in the middle of the Polish winter, those nights were long. It was then that I knew to pursue more for myself and to tap back into my entrepreneurial ways from my teenage years.’  

Rishi tells us that he has always had that entrepreneurial drive, as it is in his blood. ‘My inspiration first came from watching my dad. I knew I didn’t want to spend my life being an employee after seeing him transition into a business owner.  

It may be in the blood, but Rishi has plenty of desire of his own making that fuels him. Usually found in his OakNorth hoodie, jeans, and trainers, he’s in the office most days, chatting with his colleagues. And when it comes to that glass office, you’ll most likely find him out of it rather than in it, forgoing it in favour of his treadmill desk. 

Given his success, we thought it only right to find out his secret sauce – what are the best tools and tips he’s picked up as an entrepreneur? While we may have hoped for a ‘becoming an entrepreneur for dummies’ starter kit, instead, Rishi shared with us his guiding principles:

I’m guided by resilience, hunger, and humility, and I figured out my own criteria for success. I go into things having no plan B, so you’re in survival mode, and you have to make it work.

Hunger is a constant feature in Rishi’s journey, and when he sold his first business Copal Amba to Moody’s, Rishi was quoted in The Telegraph saying that his ‘greatest struggle was finding hunger again.’ So, what could motivate someone out of a funk like this to continue innovating and setting up a new business? “Our drive and hunger for Copal came from always wanting and striving for more, so I never felt poorer than when we sold Copal. Up until that point, we had an income. We were adding more value to the business and watching it appreciate. But once we sold it, we weren’t adding to it anymore. Instead, you see no income, and you start counting backwards.”

It’s too easy to talk only of successes, so we touch on the concept of failure as well, something we live and learn from as OakNorthers.  

‘It’s all these micro failures we make daily that have brought us to where we are today.’ But there’s a fine line between taking risks and making mistakes, and there have been many of those along the way too. Rishi talks about leaving a healthy job where he was making six figures in his early twenties. He used 80% of his savings to start Copal and lived off the rest, paying the mortgage with his wife’s salary. Again, he only had a plan A – he knew he had to make it work, so he did.

We ask who he has been inspired by, but Rishi said he isn’t drawn to figureheads. Though he would read the books of other entrepreneurs, the most valuable learnings he’s had are from the mentors he had at different points in his life. One at school, one at Copal, and several when they started OakNorth, as banking was a new area for him and co-founder Joel. But not knowing what to do next, and even not knowing a mentor hasn’t stopped him from reaching out, their success has been built on surrounding themselves with the right people. “We’ve never had a situation where we weren’t afraid to contact someone. If we don’t know them, it’s never a deterrent. You’ll be surprised who will be willing to help you, so don’t ever be afraid to reach out.”

It’s well known amongst OakNorthers that Rishi loves his music and hasn’t been afraid to bring his moves to the dancefloor at a Christmas party, so the conversation turns to songs that describe our lives, and we ask him to pick one song that would be his entrepreneur anthem. Rishi immediately lights up when talking about the Hamilton soundtrack, humming along to a song he can’t place the name of. As he hurries to get out his phone, we suggest one song that immediately is relatable to Rishi called My Shot, where the title character lays out all his ambitions and how he won’t give up on achieving them. Rishi gets excited, ‘Yes, that’s the one!’ and starts playing it on his phone, drawing out all the parallels in his own life.

My Shot from Hamilton is definitely my anthem. The parts where they are talking about the grand task of writing the constitution and having to make it work to set up this new country; it draws parallels with how I approach business. I am not throwing away my shot!

And after the thrills of geeing yourself up with chest-thumping anthems, we reflect on the less glamorous sides of being an entrepreneur. “What others don’t understand is the pain, people from the outside rarely know the heartbreaks and highs. Your journey is a series of ups and downs, and in part, you have to dull yourself to the pain of the lows to get through them, which can impact how you feel the highs. This tough part of the journey can’t be seen. It took three years of us running Copal before we earned back the initial amount we put in. But what most people will focus on is the speculated sale price.” 

Finally, we touch on Rishi’s unique relationship with co-founder Joel Perlman, who he constantly bounces off around the office. They met as students at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) and couldn’t have been more different. But they studied together well, spending many nights in Maroush, a favourite Lebanese restaurant. “We were polar opposites when we met, and we’re still pretty different. But we always learned a lot from each other and felt our personalities complimented and balanced each other out. There was undoubtedly synergy there which we took and ran with.”

We finish the interview by pulling out a very pixelated old photo from 20 years ago of Joel and Rishi in the first office for Copal. ‘What comes to mind?’ we ask. ‘No words’. After a long conversation, we leave him speechless, and you can see all the memories flooding back as he looks at the photo.

A couple of days after the interview, we got an email from Rishi following up on our conversation about music. He said that the Hamilton song he chose as his entrepreneur anthem had got him thinking about the rest of the soundtrack, and he pointed us to some of the other songs on there that stuck with him, ‘You have to listen to ‘Non-Stop’ — look up the words and let me know if they resonate!’ Even after all these years in the game, he still takes the time to chat about his favourite musicals with the team, squeezed between meetings, his daily meditation and his four kids. And do the words resonate regarding Rishi’s never-ending journey to success? How to account for his rise to the top? Man… the man is non-stop!