Gush Mundae

Meet the founder of Bulletproof, the global multi-million-pound creative agency that landed clients like Disney and Coca-Cola

HOF Entrepreneurs Gush Mundae 1920X1080

Published: 23/01/2024

When it comes to his entrepreneurial journey, Gush Mundae had the odds stacked against him. Born in Delhi in 1971, he came to the UK in 1975. The family didn’t have the best financial start following their move.

"We didn’t have a lot of money. My father had studied to be a doctor but wasn’t allowed to practice here because they didn’t trust his exams. They thought the Indian educational system was corrupt – it wasn’t. He sat a few more exams, flew through them but still couldn’t practice and had to complete a final year without pay. He couldn’t do that as he had too many commitments. He worked in a petrol station. I watched them struggle quite a lot.”

This made Gush determined to secure his financial future, but the journey didn’t start well as he didn’t fit in at school. He recalls: “School wasn’t great. I didn’t speak English very well, was made to stand up in front of the class and speak. I hated it. I decided it wasn’t for me.”

It was only in the early 80s when he discovered the hip-hop, rap and graffiti culture that he found some belonging and an outlet for his creativity. “The one discovery was that I was really good at art. I got into graffiti art – illegally. I wasn’t going to school and I was hanging out with the wrong crowd.

“An art teacher sat me down and said, ‘You are really talented, but talent is everywhere and if you squander it, it’s gone.’ He got me onto a course at West Thames College.”

Early career moves

When Gush showcased his work at West Thames College his teacher was impressed by his profound sense of colour and form. But despite his talent, it was initially difficult for Gush to pin down what he wanted to work on.

Initially his teacher suggested creating brochures or posters, but this didn’t inspire him. His interest was piqued when it was suggested he work on album covers. “That I can get behind because it involved all different kinds of art and I love music. I fell onto this course doing graphic design. I just loved graphics – colour, form, typography - and I progressed to a higher national diploma,” explains Gush.

After graduating, he worked for two agencies, but he never felt ‘at home’.

“I left and joined a small business designing album covers. I quickly learned that for every amazing album cover you work on, there are 100 boy band and girl bands that just need an image and a signature. It wasn’t inspiring to me and I wanted more.”

“I loved the culture early on, but they didn’t have a global scope of work and I always wanted to do that. The second business had global work, but didn’t have a great culture.”

It was at this point that Gush wanted to start his own business. The ambition was to create a company that offered all the things he yearned for – great culture and global scope of work.

Landing Disney

Gush had saved enough money to get the business started in London.

 

I was brought up to save for a rainy day. I took a studio space in Covent Garden to get a good address. It was just me in a room with a fax machine, a phone and a Mac, ringing around everyone who I thought might need work. Through a PR agency, I got onto a pitch on Disney. That was my first gig.”
Gush Mundae

Gush didn’t work alone for long. His business partner and friend from college, Jonny Stewart - whom he met over a very un-PC joke - soon joined the venture. He says of the joke: “We were the only two that laughed at it, and we are still best mates. He worked in advertising. I was creating logos and brochure work. I said to him ‘I need help with this’, and he helped me with the pitch, along with the marketing company. We won it all. That’s when Bulletproof really started to take off.”

From there, Bulletproof grew quite rapidly by focusing on what Gush deemed ‘the important stuff’ - product and people. Last year was the company’s 25th anniversary. It now has eight offices dotted around the globe and turns over around £60m.

Gush recalls: “When we started, we had no plan. It was a different environment. It was 1998. We were influenced by the music and the art of the time. You had young British artists such as Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin and music was exploding with the likes of Blur, Oasis and Massive Attack. All these influences were forming our direction. I would go out and present, then we would work until 1am and get the night bus home. We were great with clients, particularly Jonny.”

Smashing Coke’s brief

Gush endured many highs and lows. One of the worst lows was realising he was losing out on business. He explains: “Two years in, we were working with this marketing business, and I started to notice the work wasn’t coming in as much. I asked them what was going on and they said they were taking it all in-house. That was around 80% of our work. Dealing with that was difficult. We were honest with the team, saying it would be slow for a while.”

But they didn’t give up. They created a mailer to pitch to 100 potential clients. From this they only got back one call - from Coca-Cola. Gush explains:

It was just before Christmas, and I was walking down Tottenham Court Road when I got the call. Coke tried us on a brief, and we smashed it! Eventually, they gave us their Christmas campaign – and I under-priced it. I can remember the client calling me up and telling me to double my prices! We worked so hard. That client changed the trajectory of our business, and we had the Coca-Cola account for 18 years.”
Gush Mundae

To cope with the work, Gush took on Nick Rees as a senior designer and promoted him to creative director. “I had to let go of the reins. That was difficult. But the business is in great hands with Nick and so that was a great learning.” Nick is now Chief Creative Officer across the global business.

Gush adds that not every client was a joy to work with. “We had a major account that we had to step back from, because they were killing us. They were disrespectful to the team. That was difficult – it was a third of our revenue. They were shocked when I resigned the account - I don’t think anyone had ever done that to them!”

Gush never took on loans to finance the business. “When we had the issue with the client taking the work inhouse, I went to the bank and they wouldn’t lend me money, so I had to remortgage my house. I’d just got married and my wife was pregnant. I believed in the business, and I knew we’d be OK. Now, I still don’t trust banks.”

When the company got bigger it was the London base that paid for expansion into New York. Then London and New York paid for Singapore. Gush adds: “We’re at a place now, where the business may not be able to fund all the growth. It’s a learning curve, so today we’re thinking ‘How do we approach the next phase?’”

Trust your instincts!

Gush admits he got some inspiration from a business mentor, who gave the team lots of encouragement and direction. “It gave us perspective. He encouraged us to focus on our key themes: people and products.”

When asked what tips he’d dish out to others thinking of starting a business he advises future entrepreneurs to trust their instincts. “If something feels off, it usually is. It might be a new MD you’re bringing in or a new strategy for growth.”

He also recommends employing good people and looking after them. “Employ people who are better than you and be honest about it. The curse of the entrepreneur is wanting to do it all and thinking we can do it all. That was me all over! I believe you don’t grow a business; you grow people.”

Despite all the setbacks and the success, Gush doesn’t suffer from imposter syndrome. “A lot of entrepreneurs may be driven by insecurity – I can’t let the family or my employees down. It’s too important. As I had children, it made me more ambitious, not less. I had to work harder because I had more responsibility. It drove me.”