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A Life Less Ordinary: Zia Yusuf

Zia Yusuf was working 80-hour weeks as an executive director at Goldman Sachs – surrounded by colleagues who had the means, but not the time, to experience and enjoy life – when he realised there might be a digital solution to their problem.

Together with Alex Macdonald, Yusuf created Velocity Black, an invitation-only personal concierge platform designed to discover and book just about anything: rooms in the world’s top hotels, safaris, retreats – even last-minute reservations at the best restaurants or tickets to Wimbledon.

Yusuf speaks to THE STAND about how his experience in the corporate world translated to start-up success, the importance of creating meaningful experiences and why time is our most valuable asset.

I didn’t come from poverty, but I didn’t come from money either. I was born in Scotland, but my parents emigrated from Sri Lanka. My father has been an NHS doctor his entire career, and my mum worked in nursing, then psychology.

I studied at LSE before joining Merrill Lynch, then Goldman Sachs, working 80-hour weeks and suddenly having a very disposable income. I worked alongside people with houses all over the world and clients who are billionaire captains of the universe. I thought with that much money you could do what you want, when you want. But that wasn’t the case – they were working unbelievable hours.

Materially successful people make huge sacrifices. None of my colleagues got to tuck their children in at night. It’s one thing, for example, for my mum not to be able to tuck me in at night because she’s got two jobs to pay for school fees. It’s quite another for you to have all the means in the world to do that, but still be so committed to your career.

People’s time is the most valuable asset. This truism interested me, and that’s when I realised there was a huge gap in the market for a platform like Velocity Black. When you get to the age of 90, the memories that mean something to you aren’t necessarily extravagant, but they need to be with people you care about.

Having a co-founder who I’ve known since we were 13 keeps me grounded. I met Alex Macdonald at school. So much in life is about trust. We know each other so well – we know each other’s strengths and weaknesses, and we know we complement each other. We speak 15 to 20 times a day. We rely on each other.

As a business leader, everyone looks to you as the bellwether. Words are largely immaterial – it’s about how you act. I don’t watch Chelsea games in the office any more, because if they lose, which has become a little too frequent lately, I get annoyed. My body language and mood changes, and that courses through the organisation.

Surround yourself with people who aren’t just talented, but who also share your values. This is the biggest thing I’ve learned since starting the business.

The more successful you get, the more problems you have to deal with. If you’re the CEO, you essentially deal with the problems no one else deals with – and that’s the case for anyone who is successful. You are constantly fighting a battle of what’s important versus what’s urgent – and the urgent always wins. Notifications, the next email, the next text, a client who’s got a crisis that they need to deal with on a Sunday. You have to respond to that. Then you think about the important stuff – taking your mum on the safari she’s always dreamed of, for example. Imagine your regret if you’re not able to make that happen.

We are at the mercy of our smartphone. People love going on retreats where there’s no signal. You meet other people who are like you, who are also trying to escape the incessant phone notifications. These experiences allow you to reprogram your brain and escape the dopamine rush we get from likes and from the WhatsApps, the SMS and the emails.

We have some members whose net worth is in excess of a third of a trillion dollars. But they still want to tell us their recommendations for where to stay, or where to eat. These are people changing the world. They make decisions that impact people’s lives, they found and run companies, they create works of art. We have two world-champion racing drivers – inspirational people. And when I talk to them, they all want to tell us their favourite restaurants.

Time really is the most precious asset. The last thing you want to be doing is waiting around on hold or asking your assistant to help you. We guarantee the person you’re talking to will be available within 60 seconds at any time. We use in-app messaging as the primary source of communication, and we take ownership of the experience.

I don’t believe the best restaurant exists; I believe the best restaurant exists for you as an individual. That is personalisation, and that’s where the technology behind Velocity Black comes in. We wouldn’t recommend Noma to you if you were dining with your 6-month-old daughter, because it’s not that type of restaurant. Most of the people there will have been waiting on their reservation for months and have travelled to Copenhagen specifically for the reservation.

If you don’t have empathy for customers’ time, you’re never going to build a meaningful relationship with them. We use technology to personalise the recommendations and give you real-time access to our inventory, but we’re also very careful about making sure that all of our people – in London, New York and LA – really understand our customers.

Wealthy people are sick of being treated as wealthy people. We get a tremendous response because we listen to people, and we treat people as individuals. Wealthy people are surrounded by people who are trying to extract something from them. We focus on treating them as a human being with needs, wants and desires – and concerns, and hopes and dreams, still unfulfilled.

Our network is based on connectivity, trust and a sense of community. We’re an invitation-only community, which is why we insist on people behaving well. If you turn up at a hotel and you’re intoxicated and rude to staff, you won’t be a member of our network any more. That old-fashioned sense of community and responsibility is really the thing that bonds members.

Meaning is the thing that we are so devoid of in society right now. What we’re really trying to do at Velocity Black is to help people. Our mission statement is ‘to use human and machine potential to help people live their most meaningful lives’.

One of our members banned single-use plastic from his company after we arranged a marine conservation trip. He headed a multi-billion-dollar company with thousands of employees, but he was so moved by the issue with plastics and what was going on with the ocean that he completely changed his company’s environmental policy.

So many people are tired of turning to retail therapy, endless binge watching of Netflix or comfort eating. We’re all human, and we all do it. But really they’re looking to feel something extraordinary – that’s the meaning of success to them. And that comes down to human relationships, pushing our boundaries and expanding our horizons.