Entrepreneur Watch – Personalized Gifting

I said I had a fun interview coming up and here it is! In the previous instalments of the Entrepreneur Watch series, we met an off-beat travel firm and a mid-sized company in the business of editing and related solutions, catering mainly to the East Asian market. This time, we have a relatively new launch, that promises to spice up the gifting market with its creative, personalised solutions. Most people like to give and receive gifts, the trouble being that we often end up scratching our heads as to how our gifts could possibly stand out, among the hoards of things available off supermarket racks. That is where Myntra comes in. Here is my chat with Mukesh Bansal, a co-founder of the company, where he talks about the genesis of Myntra, why competition is good, and what people want from gifting, among other things.

Let’s begin with the idea for Myntra. Why customized design? Where do you think it fits into the market for gifting?

People want to use or gift personalized items, something that reflects your personality. Or – even apart from gifting, use things that reflect who they are, for example, if you support a cause and would like to express that. The idea then is to put the decision making in the hands of the people. Let them design, decide. This basically is the idea of Myntra. Gifts are about memories and they are personal. We want to provide a platform for personalization and we also want to provide a service of printing and delivering, because one without the other is incomplete.

Who are the heads behind Myntra? What skills/background do they bring?

There are 5 heads, some work, some don’t! So we have a good backup strategy in place!!
But seriously, we have a great team of passionate people who have worked in big companies before and have come together to build something. There is a great commonality of goals and purpose. All of us have degrees from some big name colleges but what we bank on is not the name but the drive and the energy to build Myntra. There are 3 core areas to our business where we put our heads together, in the product development, in our operations and in our marketing and sales.
I have 10 years of experience working in various development and marketing roles in 4 different early stage start-ups. Vineet has architected multiple systems in his career. Ashutosh has managed various teams for software development.

Did you face any troubles starting up?

You know what they say about having a hammer in your hand, everything looks like a nail. You look for trouble, you will find trouble. Sure there are issues that we have had to face and we will have to face. But what we have managed to do reasonably well so far is focus on execution and this is our number one priority. So every “trouble” is basically a test of our execution capability and we hope we will be able to manage most of these risks.
It was self funded by one of the founders so funding hasn’t been any issue. If there is any issue, it would be to execute faster than our resources allow at the moment. We see a big opportunity in front of us and we just can’t go fast enough!!

How big is Myntra now?

We launched in the end of May and we are still in Beta. Our registered user base has grown 100% month-on-month and our orders are up 50% month-on-month. We have also handled a few big corporate orders so far.

What is the biggest challenge you face now? How do you plan to address it?

Our biggest challenge is to get our customers to love us and get us more customers. We want to delight our site visitors and customers; the only way we can do this by exceeding their expectations over and over again, and our plan will be focused on providing the best value to our customers.

Some critics may say that with the number of gifting options available at malls and boutiques , your service isn’t really unique. What exactly do you think is the edge you have? What is your toughest competition?

The critics are right! There are a plethora of options and it is actually a very good thing. This shows that people want options and every option is unique like everything else! When you analyze gifting, what is it that people want? People want options, convenience in finding the gift, and most of all, something that is personal. We provide all that in 12 letters and 2 dots – http://www.myntra.com.
Our edge is in being able to provide all that people are looking for online. And our toughest competition is every creative item that is available in places not named Myntra.
Our biggest differentiator is a vibrant community of designers that are actively and continuously publishing designs at our site so that buyers can always find most current, trendy and relevant designs for their gifting needs.

Its interesting that not only are you offering customized products, but also a space for designers who want to sell through your site. Why? What was the rationale behind that?

That is a very good question. We are living in the world of user generated content on the web. But we know that the folks that make money out of this content are the aggregators not the creators. Our content creators are very creative, talented people. We wanted to give them a place where they could put their designs up for sale and get paid. And we now know, thanks to the Long Tail* thingy, that it is not only the hit designs that matter. Even if one person likes a design and buys it, it is good business for us.

On-time delivery is a critical issue for many Indian online services today. How are you tackling that?

Yes, it a very important issue. We have established a partnership arrangement with DTDC, one of the leading logistics providers for all our shipping needs. So we have been able to get a high level of reliability through this partnership. We are constantly improving our order fulfillment process and this has helped us meet our delivery timelines.

What next? How do you plan to grow?

Our growth plan is about scaling up, in our marketing efforts and in our operations capabilities. We will invest heavily in technology that will put us at a new level with respect to product quality. We will be adding a couple of new products every quarter and our design catalog will continue to grow as well. So we will be offering customers more choices.

Thats how the third instalment of the Entrepreneur Watch ends. If you do have any interesting firms or ideas you’d like featured here, drop me a note at aputhebird@yahoo.com

* For more info on Long Tail Theory


Entrepreneur Watch – Language Solutions

Here comes the July installment of the Entrepreneur Watch! I hope to profile atleast one business a month from now on, so watch out for more interesting material. This month, I have on interview, Anurag Goel, Founder of Cactus Communications. Founded by Anurag and Abhishek Goel, Cactus is a company that started off providing English editing solutions for the Japanese market, and has now expanded into related areas as well. Prior to starting their own company, Anurag worked with McKinsey & Co. while Abhishek spent time in Tokyo as an in-house consultant for AIESEC, an experience that proved to have major consequences! I know Anurag briefly and was always intrigued to know more about a business that targeted a seemingly impenetrable market, Japan. So here we go…

To start with, it would be good to know a little about Cactus Communications. How old is it? How did the idea for the company originate?

Cactus started of as “Editage” in April 2002 and was officially formed in October 2002. So it has been about 5 years. The seed was laid when a friend of Abhishek’s (a researcher in Japan) asked him to edit a paper as a personal favor. The favor was done and incident promptly forgotten. Two years later when we were brainstorming on what businesses to enter, this came up as an idea again. And then we took it forward.

What would you say is the crux of the service that you offer?

We focus on providing English solutions of the highest quality. This spans English editing, writing, education and training.

Did you face any troubles starting up? How did you find your first clients?

The first 1.5 years were very difficult. We had identified a niche but we did not know how large the niche was. So there was always this nagging fear that we may be too specialized and is the market large enough.

Our first client was a friend of Abhishek’s. He introduced us to a few more clients. After this there were some very difficult business trips to Japan where we tried to convince people to give us work. All we had at that time was an office in an industrial estate, with 3 employees — we needed to create enough trust and credibility for clients to look beyond this obvious problem.

We learnt a lot from our first few clients and they have been invaluable in supporting us as we have grown.

Why was credibility an issue?

Credibility was an issue, especially in the initial stages. First, because we were a start-up and were trying to sell high value added professional services. Second, because we were based in India. The India-story in 2002-3 had not yet become an accepted one globally, especially not in Japan. And we were at a disadvantage in any new client discussion as we had to first explain why getting high quality English services from us was possible.

Tell us more about the journey – how has the company grown? The challenges that you face now – how are they different from what you faced while starting up?

Hmm… this is a big question. The first 2-3 years were very exciting and heady. It was about building and creating something from scratch. One was involved in all the action at the operational level and you could see immediate impact for your efforts. A lot of passion and self belief, some fear and a lot of perseverance.

Now the challenges are very different. We are about 140 people. The problem I find most interesting and difficult to fix is that of organizational design. How do you create something that can work as fast as a start-up and still grow sustainably?

The fact that our business model is largely retail (most of our clients are individuals) – makes it more complex to manage the growth. So, the challenges now are about managing growth so that we don’t lose the excitement from the initial days, we maintain performance levels and create a stable platform and system for the future.

Tell us a little about the market that you service. Traditionally most outsourcing firms in India look west, while you’ve gone East. How is this market different, what are its peculiarities?

Our primary market is Japan, which accounts for 80-85% of our business. In the last one year we have also made inroads into Korea and Taiwan. The market is more difficult to penetrate because of huge language barriers and cultural differences. So complete localization is very important for success – and that is difficult to execute as a foreign company. What I like about the market is that it is not as purely transaction oriented as in the U.S. — where usually the most important factor is price. The East allows one to build relationships and that makes for a more satisfying business experience.

How competitive a market is this? Whom are you up against and what is your edge to compete?

The market is quite competitive locally. There are established players, typically American or Japanese companies, servicing the education and the editing market. Our edge? I think we try to bring a higher quality to the service levels and we innovate. In editing, our more established service, we are market leaders in bringing better value to clients. Competition is usually imitating us!

What next? How do you plan to grow?

As I mention in one of the earlier questions, new markets is something we are already considering actively. Korea and Taiwan are the main focus this year. Next year will be mainland China. We are actively scouting for opportunities in medical writing which will be our first concentrated attempt to tap into the US market. We are also looking at providing written English training to select Indian clients this year. A lot of things happening – too many actually.

For yourself, moving from a consulting firm to your own business, what was the toughest challenge about making the transition?

It wasn’t really that difficult since it was a thought-out decision. I knew it was a risk and nothing might come off the decision. There were, and still are, periods of insecurity. The one thing that surprised me was how difficult it is to execute well, consistently. The reason this was a surprise was not because it was difficult — since I had already known and expected this– but because I had grossly underestimated its degree.

If you were doing it all over again, what mistakes of setting up would you avoid? What would you do differently?

Hmm… I can’t think of an appropriate answer to this question. I think we are making mistakes every day which we learn from and correct. And I don’t think we have reached that level yet where I can look back and say — we could have grown faster or would have been better if I had not done this or that. I think we need to achieve a lot more, grow to a larger, more sustainable level. I will probably then have the perspective to address this question.

Well, I hope that was an interesting read. I definitely enjoyed the whole process of writing up about it, since this is a business that has now seen a few years and is facing different challenges from what a start-up would. Interesting, therefore, in a completely different way.

For those who haven’t seen it, the first post in the Entrepreneur Watch series is here. And, if you see an interesting business that you think should be featured here, do write to me at aputhebird AT yahoo DOT com

I am my Business

An acquaintance asked me for some help today regarding a speech on entrepreneurship that he was preparing, particularly regarding the trials of scaling up a business. Now, the fact remains that neither he nor I are actually owners of our own businesses yet, but having worked in start-up firms before, one of the first things that occurred to me was, how difficult it is for many entrepreneurs to move a business beyond themselves.

Scaling up a business could face many obstacles, such as lack of sufficient funding, information to enter new markets, poor working capital, or even lack of credibility that a small firm may face when approaching new customers and markets. But sometimes, the difficulties are not material, they are psychological. A business may grow from 1 to 100 employees and still essentially be dictated by the original single person. Now this is not a good thing, for a number of reasons. For one thing, it effectively ties down what the company can do to the capabilities of this single person. However outstanding he/she may be, any business of a significant size needs multiple skills, which can never all be available with one person. The reason for this resting of all responsibility in the single person, is that the owner feels insecure at the thought of “my” business being controlled or even helped along by other people. There is a reluctance to delegate any important decision-making. This is ofcourse not unique to entrepreneurs. Many managers do it too, unwilling to trust subordinates with any significant decisions.

Companies find it difficult enough to function in such an atmosphere, but for an entrepreneur-led firm, it can mean the difference between survival and death. At a practical level, customers may have doubts on the continuity of the firm, if all power is tied up with the owner alone. What happens in the case of any unforeseen event like an accident? Employees start viewing the company solely as a training ground for better opportunities elsewhere, since they know that they are unlikely to grow beyond a point anyways. So even if the entrepreneur decides that (s)he is not interested in scaling up, but remaining a small player in the market, maintaining routine business gradually becomes more difficult.

It is essential therefore for anyone wishing to grow (either in size, or in other ways, such as personal growth by freeing up your time), to be able to learn to delegate. Easier said than done, probably due to the need for control that seems inherent in so many of us! Pam at Escape from Cubicle Nation, one of my favorite bloggers, has written reams on this issue of trying to maintain control over everything, and ending up a wreck in the process. One of her good pieces on this subject is here…

Entrepreneur WATCH:The Travel Business

This is a new feature that I hope readers will enjoy. With my interest in entrepreneurship and becoming one myself, selfishly, I thought it is a good way to feature upcoming small businesses here, and learn from them 🙂

People who’ve dared to follow through on their dreams and strike out on their own. Except for a few communities who’ve always been known for business families, the great Indian Middle Class has always prized a steady job in established professions. This generation is different though, and we are seeing a lot of first-time entrepreneurs in many fields. The Entrepreneur Watch Series will bring you some of these stories, not all well-known, some in little known fields, but all interesting and enlightening for those of us who want to walk this road.

And so, I give you Deepa Krishnan, co-founder of Filter Coffee Tours and Mumbai Magic, personalised travel offerings in India. Deepa has an unusual background for someone who has entered the travel industry, and that was one of the things which intrigued me. I’ll stop here and let you read more about Deepa in her own words, in this interview I did with her.

To start with, it would be good to know a little about yourself. What was your academic/work background? (Any specific experiences/training that moved you towards this industry?)

MBA from IIM Calcutta, marketing and finance. Consulting career in banking technology. Clients included Citibank, Standard Chartered, Morgan Stanley, Barclays Bank. Was based in Chennai for 6 years. My overseas consulting clients who visited Chennai would ask me for advice on sightseeing and shopping…and I became a de-facto local expert!

One client said to me “Deepa, you know there’s a business idea sitting in here, you should do something” And I realized there was opportunity in the market for offering professional tours to business travelers. No one really was catering to the busy executive, visiting India on work, who had an evening or weekend free and wanted to see the city. So set up Filter Coffee Tours (with a partner, Zuleika Nazneen). Its now been three years. Then when I moved to Mumbai, I set up Mumbai Magic. My partner now runs Chennai.

What is it about you as a person that led you to start this?

A love for history and culture, people skills, sales skills, network, I had them all!

You mentioned working as a consultant for the banking industry. Quite a distance from travel entrepreneur! Where do the worlds meet? (Any skills/networks from one to the other?)

I was well networked into several banks, BPOs, finance companies and software companies in Chennai. It helped me get customers really quickly, because I had already been informally doing tours for visitors.

Tell us more! What was the initial experience like? What were the hiccups?

There haven’t been any hiccups actually. The business is doing well, and I’m happy with it.

Moving along, how do you see yourself competing against the innumerable tour operators who offer guided tours in various cities? Where do you score against them?

For a country like ours, there aren’t enough tour operators doing professional, insightful researched tours! There are more touts than guides, especially in the “tourist belts”. There are rip-offs, commissions and scams. I’m hoping we’ll stand head and shoulders above this, both in terms of the quality of the tour delivered as well as the honesty and integrity of the guides

I wish I had more competition, not less!

Between 30-50% of the profits from my tours go to charity, to akanksha. I also offer free tours and discounted tours for people who are doing NGO work/research into slums.

I’m promoting “responsible tourism” by involving community people in the tours e.g. our tour of Worli fishing village uses a lady from a local fishing family as the guide. Similarly the Dharavi tour uses a local person. The idea is for money spent in the country to go into the hands of local people and benefit the local economy.

Is there a particular profile of traveler that you target?

Primary market (for personalized tours by car)
– Indian companies – these are the people in local corporate and banks and software companies who receive visitors and who are looking for someone who will provide reliable hospitality for senior visitors. It is an untapped market.
– Business travelers – people for whom time is money, and who want an intelligent, insightful look into the country.
– High-end tourists – who want a high quality tour with great service, personalized itineraries, and no mess-ups.

New target segments I have started
– Small group tours – 2-6 people. These are bazaar walks, heritage district walks, boat tours etc. No cars.
– Specialized tours – right now, I’m offering Cuisine Tours where you can visit an Indian home and take a lesson, or for larger groups, visit specialty restaurants and learn recipes.
– Travel Advisory services – I am the India representative for Your Safe Planet, a UK-based travel site that promotes responsible tourism.

How are you promoting the offering? How do your customers find you?

The Internet is amazing, isn’t it? People seem to find me. My blog helps a lot. It establishes credibility. I send out emails as well, to a mailing list.

For a five-month old venture (in Mumbai) I’ve had a lot of press coverage here. It came looking for me and not vice versa. Just finished shoot for a Travel Show for Discovery Travel Channel – will air in October in the US. Just did an interview with CNN, not sure when it will air. Current India Today issue also likely to have an interview.

How big is this venture now?

Five guides in Mumbai.
Three in Chennai.
Spanish, German and English language tours.

What next? More cities? Rural? How big do you plan to be? Tell us about your plans!

Opening a Delhi office this year. Might do more cities next year (Pune, Bangalore, Hyd). I’d like to grow to a group of 50 guides all over India in the next couple of years.

Want to do a sort of lec-dem format Bharatanatyam show for overseas audiences. And then expand this to other dance forms. More specialty tours – a cricket tour, or other theme-based tours

Good Luck to Deepa for all those plans! If you know of any other interesting stories, or would like to be featured here yourself, do mail me at aputhebirdATyahooDOTcom

Mixing Business with Friendship

The old adage talks about not mixing business with pleasure; But how about mixing business with friendship ? Recently, I’ve started discussing a potential business idea with a very close friend of mine, someone I know from childhood. Now this is not something that is likely to take off immediately, so we have all the time we need to talk about it, explore things etc, and we are finding that part itself a whole lot of fun. When my friend brought up the idea, instinctively, I said Yes ! Probably because of the closeness we’ve shared over the years, which has included some catfights and other ups-and-downs, I have this comfort level with taking on a new role with her as a business partner. In general though, I don’t think one can automatically guarantee that working with a friend will go well, either on the business or on the friendship count.

Starting a new business comes with its own share of risks and uncertainties. The friendship has to be close enough to weather that. For example, if the business doesn’t work out, there cannot be a situation where one blames another for it. One of the basics has to be that both partners clearly bring some value into the work. No one can be a partner, simply because he or she is your friend.. Going this way, I think, would be a sure-fire recipe for failure. Not only will one person fail to pull their weight, later, when things go wrong, it leaves a large space for the recrimination game. Both partners ofcourse don’t need to be actual experts on the subject – one could be a technical expert, the other a finance whiz ! One could be the ideator, the other an implementor…or maybe both are jack of all trades ! Infact, if you look at some Indian businesses, where third-generation members were inducted solely because of their family ties, its clear that they didn’t have either the passion or skills for the business. So at a first level, calling in someone because they are friend or family, may provide a deceptive comfort that fails when things go tough.

Another important thing would be the level of honest communication possible between the partners. Sounds basic, but isn’t. Money often makes many simple things difficult. But – if its not a friendship where you can discuss these things with ease, then maintaining both the business and the friendship would be tough. So issues like who brings in the money, how do we divide it, who brings in new clients, who is responsible for legal issues, should be discussed in detail. Its not necessarily, that both partners always be compensated equally. Maybe one person puts in more money or time. Perhaps, as the business achieves a critical mass, one person wants to move onto other things and be a sleeping partner. Personally, while I know a lot of people who have good ideas, I wouldn’t consider a partnership with all of them. This friend, when she buzzed me, I had no hesitation in saying yes, because I knew I could be upfront about all of this. (I am not going to be talking about the idea itself right now, since its still getting finalized and I don’t want to let the cat out of the bag, but gradually, you should see more references on this blog:)

These are some of the things that I can think of for myself. What other caveats do you have for mixing business with friendship ?

When are you ever ready to become an Entrepreneur?

I have long cherished the dream of becoming an entrepreneur, moving into a business that allows me to do what I truly what to do. For me, one of the most appealing things about being an entrepreneur is that one can truly choose to work in an ethical manner, consistent with personal goals and ideas about how people should be treated. I understand this may be easier said than done. When there are bills to pay and perhaps employees waiting for pay cheques, even entrepreneurs may be faced with tough decisions that challenge their own principles. Still, it definitely seems more appealing than working in a large corporate set up, where the cog often has little control over which direction the wheel moves in.

Having said all that, as I near my thirties, I realise that I still don’t have my dream ready, not even a good idea of what it is really going to be. Part of it is that while I have a number of ideas brewing at any time, I haven’t really put in the time and effort to really, really think through any of them. But more than that, its the feeling, that I am not yet ready. Which brings me to the question, When is one really ready to become an entrepreneur?

I think some of the things that could help one to take the step are –

– (If you are married/committed), when one partner has a steady source of income, allowing the other to leave a regular job and take that risk. If you are single, is there a back-up in the event of any serious issues, like an accident/unexpected illness etc?
– When you are not simultaneously going through other phenomenal life changes ? (I am unsure about this one. Lot of women, for example, have started businesses after having children, starting as a way to work from home)
– When you know that you have a good idea, its implementable, it serves a definite need for which people will pay money, and you are capable of implementing it. I think all four of these are important. If its a fantastic idea which people like but think should be part of a free service, then it would just fall through.
– When you have a first/potential client to start you off ? I wouldn’t put this as a must, but especially in the service industry, if your existing clients, colleagues, other contacts etc can be a base to tap, it makes branching out so much easier.
– When you know that you are going to crib about every job you take up, and essentially don’t fit into the corporate hoopla !!

These are just some of the things that occur to me. I think it would be a good idea for every aspiring entrepreneur to make a list for themselves. When you think through it, it may surprise you as to what is really essential to you. Perhaps for some, financial security at a particular stage of life is critical, for some, not – they are willing to take larger risks and live on very little for some time if needed. Whatever works for you. As for me, I plan to make a larger list and figure out when I really want to move, though all the planning in the world won’t work unless ultimately one steps off that cliff !

Pizza Grannies

Its been a long time since I wrote, and a three month hiatus in the blog world feels like eternity ! But work has been way too hectic, and maintaining two blogs felt more like a chore than fun. Now that things have eased up a little, here I am again, and hope to continue regularly.

I am starting here with a conversation that husband and I had today morning. On the occasion of International Women’s Day, Radio Indigo had on air, Mrs. Padma Srinivasan, one of the ‘pizza grannies’ of Bangalore, who is making waves with her pizzas in a business dominated by MNCs. I love this for two reasons – one, I can’t resist pizza, and two, who can resist an entrepreneur granny !

But, she said something on air, that set us thinking. She spoke about how society has done so much for you, and hence, each of us needs to pay back when we can. Now, I am not really sure of this argument about how society has done so much for you. In a country like India, where our tax monies are mostly frittered away in lining various pockets, we can’t really be assured of a public fund being used for the public good. And if its not about monetary issues, then surely its individuals who reach out to one another in small, ordinary ways.

On the other hand, I do acknowledge, that in a deeply divided society, being born where I am, is a huge privilege, and something completely unearned. (Yes, I believe in rebirth and karma, but I don’t have any proof of my doings in previous births do I?). So I do think that itself is a good reason to give back. Giving to people who didn’t have this fantastic accident called birth in a (reasonably) affluent, educated, loving family can only be a good thing to do, besides being fair.

In the process, if you can set up a great business and have fun, why not ! More power to the likes of the Pizza grannies…