I was five years old when I left Delhi and arrived in the UK. I couldn’t speak a word of English. Although we were middle class by Indian standards, my parents saw an opportunity for us to gain a better quality of life and better future abroad.
Back then, the connection between the UK and India under Thatcher was strong; immigration was seen as a means of attracting foreign talent and a way of strengthening the workforce to fuel economic growth.
We found ourselves exchanging the comforts of the six-bedroom family home in Delhi for a tiny single room in a house in Southall, west London. We went from being fairly well off to practically poor in an instant.
My father was a very well educated man and had huge dreams for our family in London. However the reality of work in the UK forced him to compromise his degree in medicine and work in a petrol station to make ends meet.
Growing up, I was a restless and disruptive kid. I’ve lost count of the number of times my parents were called into school to discuss my attitude. I wasn’t a bad kid. I just found school boring, and I couldn’t relate to many of the things that we were being taught; English history, for example. If anything, it served to underscore just how much of a cultural outsider I was.
I’d always wanted to be an architect but that dream was promptly shot down at a career day when, aged 14, I was told that under no uncertain circumstances would I ever make the profession; my maths and physics test scores just weren’t good enough. I quickly grew disengaged with school and education after that.
As an immigrant, that feeling of being an outsider never really leaves you. You are never ‘invited’ in; it's a real hustle just to make it – I learned this from seeing how my father was treated. You learn to become resilient and take nothing for granted. And you’re constantly at the brunt of discrimination. I was stopped and searched by the police in the street every week.
Hip-hop was just emerging in the UK and I became obsessed with graffiti art. This fuelled my passion for art, letterform and colour. It also got me in more trouble with the boys in blue and rival gangs – but that’s another story. My art teacher at school was the only person who encouraged me to explore graphic design and made me realise that the path I was currently on wasn’t going to end well. I went to art college to study graphic design and advertising, and went on to work for two agencies but I became frustrated by the limited scope of work of the first and by the ethics of the second. So, in 1998, I took the plunge and started my own design agency, Bulletproof, using £2,000 of personal savings. That was literally all I had. There was no safety net.
I worked on my own for six months before persuading Jonny Stewart, a mate from art college, to abandon his six-figure advertising salary and come and work for me for next to nothing. He’s now Bulletproof’s managing partner – and one of my dearest friends.
We had to work tirelessly to get the business off the ground. By investing in a tiny office within a prestigious post code (Covent Garden), we created the illusion of being a far bigger operation than we really were. And we were fearless. I remember blagging my way into a Coca-Cola agency day without an invite by saying I was the creative head of another agency based in their Indian and West Coast offices. We worked on the campaign for Tomb Raider for Eidos and I used that work at E3 [the Electronic Entertainment Expo] to get in front of the VP of marketing for EA Sports – inviting myself to his VIP area and his smoked salmon sandwiches. Once we got in front of clients, we wowed them with our ideas, outstanding creative work and infectious energy. We handled EA Sports’ FIFA work (their biggest franchise) for four years and Coca Cola remains one of our largest clients.
We’re now a £16m business employing 145 people across London, New York and Singapore. We’ve built a tribe of highly-talented, creative individuals and we’ve maintained our fiercely independent, can-do spirit.
The ‘immigrant mindset’ has never left me. When you’re an entrepreneur you’re driven by passion and fight. The mongrel is always stronger than the pedigree.