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What made you start Nota Bene Bespoke? How did you come up with the name?
Being from London, UK, I grew up with an admiration for being well dressed and looking smart. During my MBA at McMaster University, I was surrounded by individuals who were on a student budget but needed to wear suits to class. At this point, I saw an opportunity to introduce a cost-effective luxury bespoke menswear experience to Canada, by minimizing overhead, through selling direct to consumer and working directly with manufacturers. By cutting out the middleman, we introduced affordable luxury menswear!
The name Nota Bene means “to pay special attention” (in Latin). It’s what we give to each of our bespoke garments, and what our client’s expect when they wear our garments!
It’s been a long road since you started the idea back in 2011. What’s made you stick with the business? How has the business evolved from when you started to now?
You’re right; it has been a long road, and not easy! There have been different unique challenges, but we’ve been able to navigate through these challenges by being humble, listening to feedback, staying consistent, being nimble, and being able to recreate our vision. For example, during COVID, there was no need for luxury menswear, because there were no events; no real need to look good. Instead of letting this impact us, we re-purposed our fabrics to create facemasks, and were able to secure some lucrative contracts that minimized the impact from Covid.
Our business evolved from a school project, to one of Toronto’s go-to destination for luxury menswear. Initially we did not understand our target market, and we tried to serve any potential customer. Around 2017, we asked ourselves; who are we truly trying to serve? We accepted that we couldn’t serve every and anybody and were comfortable losing customers that were deemed not our target market. By clearly defining who are target customer was, we created strategies to develop an experience specific to that customer. Remember, we aren’t just selling luxury menswear, we are selling an experience!
What is the business model?
It’s very simple. We create bespoke luxury menswear (suits, overcoats, dress shirts, bomber jackets, etc.), by working directly with our in-house tailors, and we sell directly to our customers through our network of style consultants. We are currently in the process of developing a unique e-commerce platform so that our style advisors can serve their customers virtually; what we are finding challenging currently, is reproducing the in-person experience to online.
You’ve got a number of notable and high-profile clients (athletes, entrepreneurs, musicians, etc.) - like Danny Green, Atiba Hutchinson, Richarlison, T Minus, etc. How do you get new clients?
At the start, we literally worked our network. We looked at who knew who, and we weren’t shy in asking for an intro. It takes thick skin, and a true belief in your product and service to put yourself out there like that. But as we started to add to our resume, the notable clients started approaching us.
For example, we were recently reached out to by a few individuals from the Brazil World Cup Team. The most notable name, being Richarlison. We flew down to London initially to take measurements and flew back, a few months later to hand deliver the garments to the players. Richarlison absolutely loved the garments we made for him; so much so, that he wore one on the plane to Qatar!
Entrepreneurship, especially in the last 5 years has been glamourized, but there is a lot of hard work behind the scenes to create the content that you share. Tell us about the grind involved in your recent trip to Europe.
You’re right! Recently, my business partner and I went to the UK to suit-up a few notable soccer players. Of course, we posted pictures with them, got some jerseys signed, and all that fun stuff. We started in Manchester, then went to London, then to Birmingham, and back to London; all within 5 days. We carried 12 suit bags, along with our own personal luggage across the UK. Although we kept our energy levels high while with our clients, we were exhausted. On Instagram, I’m sure the trip may have appeared glamorous and fun, but it was tiring and stressful!
You have an engineering & MBA degree. How did your education help you with creating and navigating the world of entrepreneurship? Or do you see education (the way it’s correctly constructed) not as useful for someone exploring the entrepreneurial path?
My formal education has helped me in the world of entrepreneurship. Anyone who has graduated with an Engineering degree will attest that it is no easy feat. Engineering created a sense of resiliency and confidence which I didn’t have going into the program.
The MBA program helped me strengthen skills that I perceived as weaknesses before entering the program. During this program, I started to come out of my shell, and built the foundational expertise that any successful business needs (an understanding of taxes, strategic finance, basic marketing and selling skills, etc).
Now, do I think that formal education is required to be successful as an entrepreneur? No! But did it help me? Yes!
How did you think your childhood or your formative teenage years play a part in you becoming an entrepreneur?
The uniqueness of being Tamil, is that we have all come from some form of hardship. We’ve seen our parents work two jobs, and we’ve seen our parents figure it out. That resiliency is something I witnessed in my mother, as she raised two males, by herself. It wasn’t easy, but she got it done! Seeing this during my formative teenage years, set me up for the real world.
Where do you see yourself and the business in the next 3 years?
I see the business developing into an omnichannel business (in person with stylists, in store, and online). Our goal is to open a flagship in Toronto, continue to expand our stylist network, and introduce our e-commerce platform.
What’s been a failure (or “learning lesson”) you’ve experienced in the last 3-5 years and what did you learn from it?
You cannot be the best for everyone. Before 2017, we tried to serve the everyday menswear market, as well as the luxury menswear market. What we found was, we were not great at both, and that was because we lacked focus whilst stretching ourselves thin. Five years on, from making the decision to focus on the luxury market, we have seen success, and a clear path to growth.
What do you do outside of work for fun?
I love to watch documentaries and business interviews. I also play and watch soccer! In-fact I play in a Tamil pickup league on Saturday’s at 7am in Scarborough!
What is an insecurity you have?
There are moments where I get a feeling of imposter syndrome. I believe it stems from not being satisfied with where I am at, and a drive to want more.
In terms of your personal legacy, in a few sentences, describe how you want to be remembered by your family and friends?
I want to be remembered as a dedicated, honest individual, who is loyal to his friends and family.
What do you think you would tell 16-year Shana looking back?
Listen to your mom! She’s not right always, but she’s right most of the time!
What is your favourite book(s) you’ve read recently and why?
Recently I read “Rework” by Jason Fried, because it was suggested to me by one of my clients. This book resonated with me; not only did it make me think differently about business, but it has also energized me to double down on our 3-year roadmap!
What is a new belief, behaviour or habit that has most improved your life?
Not new to me but a game changer. I treat my calendar as my bible. If I do not have the appointment, meeting, activity in my calendar, it does not exist! There are so many things going on in life; by maximizing the utility of my calendar, I’ve become exponentially more organized and productive!
What is something that you've splurged on recently in the last year that you have zero regret about?
To be honest, I’ve splurged on my business, and I have zero regrets! Short term pain, long term gain.
How has the Toronto Tamil community impacted you both personally and professionally?
A lot of our first customers were from the Toronto Tamil community. We built our brand with the support of the community and will be forever grateful!
What is your favourite Tamil food (meal or dessert)?
Kothu rotti, especially if it’s coming from my boy’s restaurant - Samosa Hut!
What is your favourite Tamil movie?
I’ll be honest - I haven’t watched a Tamil movie in a long time, but the one that is most memorable to me, is Kannathil Muthamittal. This movie is memorable to me because it provides a glimpse of how life would’ve been in Jaffna during the Civil War, whilst touching on the importance of family.
What does Tamil culture mean to you?
It means unity, uniqueness, and perseverance.
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