Reckon you could start a £100m business when £20,000 in debt? Cobra Beer’s maestro did

Against the odds

My overriding motto is to inspire and achieve. Some of our competitors are 400 years old, we are only 14, and yet Cobra has still been phenomenally successful.

Taking off

Like Churchill said, “Never, ever surrender.” I see a new business as like a plane on a runway. A good idea is like a full tank of fuel and if you stay on the runway long enough eventually you will take off. There were times when I didn’t think the business was going to take off. At one stage we were working out of a roof conversion and I just had pennies in my wallet. My credit card was at its maximum, our overdrafts doubled, but I never gave in and by staying on the runway the business eventually flew.

Fatherly advice

One of the most important life lessons was given to me by my father. He said that to be successful at a job, you first have to do the job, but secondly, and more importantly, you have to give that little bit extra. The rule that says if it ain’t broke,don’t fix it, is absolute rubbish.You set about being successful by being creative and innovative.

Howdy partner

Most successful entrepreneurs started with a business partner. Often those partnerships don’t last. Mine didn’t make the journey and left after five years, but I still think having a partner is very important.

Starting from scratch

Building a business outright means that you can identify with everyone’s role in that company. At the start of Cobra, our first company car was a 2CV. I would park it up the road when I was doing the deliveries. At that stage, I did everything: packing the boxes, managing the books and delivering the beer. It meant I knew every little thing about the business and now means I know how important all the individual roles are.

Looking outward

Success isn’t a destination, it’s a journey. You have to be outward-looking. Every person in every job can always say they’re too busy. But you have to make time and look to other roles. I’m now involved in public service tasks, I’m a peer in the House Of Lords and the youngest ever Chancellor of Thames University. I’m enormously privileged to engage in the community in these positions. It stems from always looking outward and making the time.

Role models

It helps to have inspirational leaders close to you. My grandfather was a great inspiration. He built up a successful business in the south of India and was very active when giving to charity. I feel immensely proud to follow in his footsteps.

A fail to plan is a plan to fail

I try and set five-year goals and break them down into monthly targets. I remember when I first started Cobra I went into the computer room – PCs didn’t exist back then – and created a spreadsheet for the next five years, month by month, container by container. I always knew exactly what I wanted to achieve for the business, even though we were just starting out.

Bottled For Business by Karan Bilimoria can be bought on for £8.99



"I skipped my A-levels and went straight to university and graduated by the time I was 19. But in truth, at that age, I didn’t know much at all."


Accountant, Ernst & Young. "It was a good experience to work at such a massive company. I was able to see how other businesses operate and also witness first hand the pros and cons of corporate culture."


"I started Cobra when I was 26. I had £20,000 of student debt and was entering one of the most competitive beer industries in the world, with absolutely no experience."


First shipment of Cobra arrives from India to the UK. “At the very last moment we changed the name from Panther to Cobra. One of the best decisions of my career."


Awarded CBE for services to business.


Becomes Chancellor of Thames University. "It’s the largest university in Europe, with over 65,000 students. It’s a great opportunity to engage in the community."


Chosen as a cross-bench life peer with the title Baron Bilimoria, becoming the first ever Parsi in the House Of Lords. "The average age in the House Of Lords is around 70, so it is a tremendous privilege and a great honour."


Cobra is now valued at £100m and is sold in 45 countries.