Showing posts with label Angel Investor. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Angel Investor. Show all posts

03 May, 2020

My Nostradamus moments in Retail

The year was 1998. My classmate and I created an online booking option at 123India, a popular website which allowed users to build websites with a personalised domain suffix for free. The Madras based Client was Enhancers, an Event Management Company which organised concerts, Carnatic & Fusion Music involving some of the most reputed artists in India and abroad. We were freelancers cum college students and had the privilege of companionship and brotherhood, sparingly some snacks and coffee on the house. After all, we wanted to put to good use the coding languages that we were learning at NIIT.  One could choose the Concert, click on Number of Tickets required, share their Phone Number and Residential Address and within 3 hours, we would deliver the tickets and collect the money.


That was when I imagined a day when as a Consumer, I would simply click a button on a website, order grocery, food and other items which would get delivered right at my doorstep. Few months later, I heard that a company was already doing something similar to this at California in the US. The firm went by the name Amazon. During my stint at Musicworld, I saw in action the same model put to use where HamaraCD, the Kiosk installed at the store could be used to build a personalised playlist digitally, which would get recorded at the backend and delivered to Customers in a week’s time. That a CD bearing 9-11 songs would cost ₹399/- was a deterrent to potential customers and the project never took off.


In 2015, I tried to go back to my idea of 1998 and tried to put it in to good use. I built a website myself on Zepo (similar to and an Indianised version of Shopify) where Customers could order Grocery and Household items which would be picked up by my team from a neighbourhood area and delivered to Customers. Oyethere was warmly welcomed and embraced by Customers and we made a lot of noise and news for delivering Tender Coconuts during the Summer of 2016 and Kabali Movie Tickets and T-Shirts thereafter. We delivered 100s of Patanjali products across Chennai and 100s of clay Ganesha Idols a day ahead of Pillaiyar Chathurthi 2016 – ones which were available by the roadside but many patrons ordered to simply see how this worked, for we also said we shall take back the Ganesha idols for immersion.


Investors although were not impressed. A noted personality from Mumbai, when I pitched at TiECon 2016 asked why would he order on our platform when he could walk down to buy it. He and many other “Potential Angel Investors” said the venture doesn’t make “Unit Economics” for we had more Opex than Revenues, an unwritten norm and a must-do for StartUps and Founders today. There was no Corona Lockdown back then. I said, our StartUp targeted “Cash Rich Time Poor” shoppers who preferred convenience over cost, because our model was to charge 2% on Retailers of the Order Value and a small fee from Shoppers. With volumes of deliveries, we would eventually break even. Those days, Swiggy and Zomato were not delivering Idlis or Burgers below the Menu Price, there was no concept of Delivery Charges for “parcel food” from Restaurants although MakeMyTrip and BookMyShow were already charging users. I convinced him and many others over the next three years, around 50+ pitches. I went back to a day job early this year.


When the Covid Crisis was taking shape and making headlines in India during the first week of March, I sensed a huge surge in OTT Consumption and switched Levista’s Advertising to News Channels instead of GECs. I also shared my views that Multiplexes would reserve 1 seat unutilised for every 4-6 seats which were blocked. And that Swiggy, Zomato and Dunzo would redefine Hyperlocal Retailing. Small joys of life when I see things happening right in front of my eyes.

These are some of those “Nostradamus moments” for me as I look back at my 23 years of being in the Indian Retail Industry. There are many such instances that I could add and share. Like how Consumers would order online and get home-delivered Microwave Ovens, Refridgerators and LED Tvs along with grocery items, although not from the same App. Amazon Prime could be an exception. We’ve just begun. Miles to Go... 

22 January, 2019

Coffee Matters (Noun & Verb)


My former Boss at BIAL, Mr. Stephan Widrig, the then Chief Commercial Officer blocked his calendar and sent me a meeting request with the Title - “Coffee with Shriram”. I was stunned and confused at the same time. I was awaiting to have my annual performance review around that time with him and instead he sends me this. Most Indian employees (excuse my bias, please) are used to sitting nervously in front of their bosses during such sessions, with sweat falling profusely and continuously for the entire duration, what with the Boss is going to gag the employee with their non-performance of metrics and expectations. But this session turned out to be different. 

Stephan had done his homework (as always) and had just a single page with pencil notes on it. He invited me warmly to his cabin and we had a 45 minute discussion on what I have contributed to that particular FY as well as the 2 years I had spent with the company which was involved in setting up the first private Greenfield Airport in India. I was more critical about my performance than him, frankly. But he calmed me down often and suggested never to be so difficult on myself. The review went well and I came out with flying colours (as cliched as it sounds) and a hefty increment + bonus, but most importantly I walked out with so much satisfaction of working for such a person!


A recent study by John Bargh of Yale University suggests that a Coffee Meeting with the Boss can do wonders and this article is the reason for my outpour of my fondest professional memories.The study suggests that the “coffee meeting” can also work wonders when one is pitching new projects to Clients, raising an Investment or even discussing with Suppliers and Business Partners.

“What we found was that there was a significant difference between the two groups, such that participants who held the hot coffee cup saw person A as being more generous, more sociable.”

It’s common to see Starbucks and CCD outlets across India (and perhaps elsewhere in the world) filled with people engaged in discussions - as we reckon from the Food Retail Industry, cafes are the most preferred third choice of location for most of us after Home and Workplace. I am told Pubs are a great place to pitch Angel Investors by Startups in the West - and we have seen and heard enough stories how many Unicorns who raised their first round of funding over beer. Back in India, alcohol is still taboo - at least in most business occasions (well, Delhi and Mumbai could still be exceptions). Even some of the largest Indian corporations and business houses do not hold official Dinners with alcohol, thanks to an inherent cultural mindset. So cafes are the “go-to” places.

I recall when I was a student 2.5 decades back, the cafe culture was still setting in. Chennai had “Hot Breads” even before Cafe Coffee Day came up and there were similar such smaller joints where young couples would turn up for a “coffee date”. Even a conservative city like Kolkata had it’s brush with “Coffee Pai”, a speciality cafe with wonderful desserts and coffee to go with run by my friend Naveen back in the millennium year. Over the years, the cafe and coffee culture has outgrown with every important road across the top 30 cities in India doting a regional, national or International coffee shops. Such is the power of Coffee.


On the same note, a number of Tea joints have also sprung up in India over the past decade, with some having raised millions of US Dollars in Investment. My favourite in Chennai is “Chai Kings” which serves a wide variety of speciality Tea and have upgraded their outlets with a swanky indoor, with the recent one opened at Ramanujam Tech Park in Chennai. However, the value proposition for Coffee over Tea (Price being a differentiator) is way too high and hence Coffee chains can afford to charge much higher than Traditional Indian Tea. 

As the Indian spring begins this January, do plan a coffee meeting soon with someone important in your career and life - from an Ex-Colleague to your current Boss, long lost friends or your spouse. And remember to go for a Warm Coffee than a cold one. You will feel the difference, trust me. And write to me, if it did make a difference. Cheers.

01 August, 2018

Year 5 of Entrepreneurship

Very frankly, I am an Entrepreneur by accident. Having been part of India’s Retail revolution with 21 years’ behind me; having worked across various Retail verticals such as Food & Grocery, Malls, Airport Retail, QSR and Automotive Retail; Rated among Top 50 Retail Professionals in India; Young Achiever Awardee and so on, I never endeared to become an Entrepreneur. My entry to Entrepreneurship was more circumstantial than a planned one, which is very unlikely of me. Having spent a large part of my professional career in Business Strategy, I continue to remain methodical in most of my approaches. But this journey was different.


I decided to take a break from my professional career on this day, 1 Aug. 2014 and set foot in to this unknown, uncertain and unapologetic world of Entrepreneurship. With loads of aspirations in my mind, a continued fondness for Retailing and a special focus on the “Baby Care” format, I set-up Smiling Baby, a retail store that sells products needed for new born babies up to 6 years and Maternity products for Pregnant women and new Mothers. I created a catalogue spanning over 3,000 SKUs almost singlehandedly, right from finding suppliers to POS providers, staffing to architects, almost everything. Ran the venture for a year after having invested close to Rs. 1 Crore of personal savings that my wife and I made over a decade. Within no time, the bank account came to mere 4 digits although we didn’t achieve expected sales. Various factors, including failing miserably to expect potential Investors on my name than on the business, massive impact on offline Retail thanks to online companies selling Diapers and more below cost price; and lastly Investors refusing to put their money on a purely offline model swelled with Capex of over Rs. 40 lakhs per store. 


On the first anniversary of the store, the shop was not operational. Call it bad timing, miserable luck or simply underestimating the vagaries of Entrepreneurship. We moved to a smaller location close by but again, the misery continued; Chennai witnessed massive rains and floods in November 2015 and the store had recreated a mini Niagra within. Lost almost all of the stocks, computers, interiors, et al. The Insurance guys didn’t support stating that the “flooding” clause was not covered in the Policy. Bizarre  Continued to operate for a while until we decided to call it a day, once and for all. The business was shut, lock seal and barrel. Everything was lost, but for my persistence and perseverance. Decided to join hands with a fellow-Retailer and co-create a workable model, which again much to my chagrin, failed. All attempts were through and I didn’t have the courage to invest another penny more into this sinking ship. 


Went to the Himalayas and cooled my heels for a few weeks; introspected at Lake Gurudongmar at 18,000 feet, wandered around Lachen for a few days in freezing winter. Came back resurrected and found new ways to survive. While I was already pursuing Retail Consulting on and off, I decided to focus full time on Consulting and started to reach out to clients. Got a few wins, gathered steam and today have more work coming my way than I can actually handle, that I have to decline a few assignments. Life’s Good. Meanwhile, explored and worked on a Franchise model for Smiling Baby and today we already have a few stores up and running and business is picking steam. Hope to raise an Investment soon and scale up Smiling Baby across the 32 Districts of Tamil Nadu, the southern state of India.


My biggest achievement has been my “perseverance” and my “never give up” attitude. That’s one thing I wasn’t wired as a child by my parents and later by many whom I have admired and continue to do so. However, there is as much guilt that shows up often – my parents and wife continue to support me day and night in my adventures and endeavours, which is atrocious sometimes. I have peeled their skin more than they deserve and this haunts me a lot. But for my wife who’s stood rock steady the last four years – I am not an easy guy to; She’s handled our marriage of 12 years, my emotional tantrums and most importantly, the financials of the household. She has taken care of my Late Aunt who had Stage 3 Advanced Cancer in her Uterus & Vagina, my Kids education and their wellbeing and of course my parents – all singlehandedly. She's my Angel, she's my Investor and so she's my Angel Investor! And she continues to put the same smile on her face every morning while waking up and puts more effort than the previous day at workplace till date. 


Entrepreneurship is not easy. It is not for everyone. We don’t just need a strong financial backing and good luck – more than that, we need a supporting family and loved ones. A lot of people will come and encourage us midway, some may even discourage us but what matters is our undying spirit to keep moving on. My journey has just begun, Miles to Go…

01 August, 2015

One Year as an Entrepreneur!

It’s already been a year, I wondered. What started as a passionate journey has gained momentum in the past 12 months. Life has been very different, as an Entrepreneur to say the least. It is one thing to turn an Entrepreneur when you are in your fifties – you probably have enough savings to dip in, dabble on experiments and have alternate plans if one thing doesn’t work. The world has indeed seen many successful Entrepreneurs who started late in their lives. And it is completely different to start off on your own when you are in your twenties, which currently seems to be the flavour of the Entrepreneurial ecosystem. Lads that age have successfully demonstrated that their ideas can be converted into mega-businesses, touching the lives of millions of people. So, starting off in my late 30s was something I was not very comfortable, honestly, at the outset. I was having a fixed salary, enjoying air travels and hotels across the country, meeting the high and mighty exchanging business cards of large companies who gave me the identity that I probably deserved.


But things changed. They had to. The past two years have been troublesome for me, at a personal front which had an impact on me professionally. Entrepreneurship instincts come naturally to a few, and many others develop it over time. Mine was the latter. That’s probably because being born and raised up in middle class environments taught me the essence of valuing money. It was not too wise to let go of all what you have earned and saved, forget borrowing and running a business. It’s a bit of a taboo too, for an Entrepreneur is expected to do things which one doesn’t have to otherwise. I too, like any other person thought of all these things before I ventured in to the entrepreneurial journey. To say the least, it has been extremely gratifying and satisfying. I have learnt quite a few things more in the past 12 months, which I may not have seen and learned if I was still working for someone.


The decision to start my own venture was a well thought out plan. My wife, who is my pillar of strength (sounds a bit clich├ęd but a golden truth) and I planned our goals meticulously for over a year before I finally got on to it. We worked on various business plans and models and finally arrived at something what we thought was a profitable, scalable and a saleable model. Smiling Baby (a baby shop that would cater to young parents and parents to-be) was first coined in my car during a long trip we had undertaken followed by the logo designs on a computer screen. Quite soon, the first store was up and ready. We commenced operations on a Friday. We had sunk in (or invested, if that sounds right) almost all our savings that we had accumulated over the past decade or so. It was a roller-coaster ride that we anticipated. And boy, what a ride it has been. I would have met atleast a 100 potential so-called Investors over the past 2 years. The very first one whom we met chided the idea. The person (and I am not going to identify their gender at this stage) discouraged me to pursue Entrepreneurship and instead focus on a day job which was more stable and secure since I had a family and two little girls. I gave a patient ear. And went about what my heart said. No offence to the person’s thoughts.


We prepared and shared a MS Powerpoint presentation coupled with backing numbers on an MS Excel Work Sheet with numerous people. The first question was – “Have you started off?” and this kept bothering me. It looked like they would pour money once we started. And there were quite a few examples that way in the entrepreneurial ecosystem already where professionals had been backed by “Angel” Investors who went on to build successful companies. So, I decided to quite a full time career and start off – 1st Aug. 2014 was the day I was officially an Entrepreneur. Wishes and congrats poured on my LinkedIn page along with messages and calls from all corners of the world. Friends and Acquaintances appreciated my gall to quit a full time salaried job and pursue my dreams. It was very encouraging and I honestly enjoyed the attention and spot light for a few days.


We spoke and met a number of so called potential Investors. Some displayed grace. They heard our story. They encouraged us. They offered to support us. Many others said this would fail, probably they were a lot more clairvoyant than me for they were seasoned “Investors” who could predict which way things would go. They knew cock-shit about Retail, forget knowing what it takes to quit a full time job and become an Entrepreneur especially when you have a Cancer patient at home and five dependents including your little ones to take care of.


I should have probably listened to them and should have quit being an Entrepreneur. I didn’t since I was already in the game and wanted to give it a whole try. Things were fine for some time. Not a single instance of brick-bats from our customers, who appreciated what we were doing. The journey was turbulent but we thought it would stabilise slowly. Unfortunately, things didn’t go the way we had anticipated. There were a few reasons for this – we were a bit myopic in our thoughts about the business. I was quite confident I could raise money in a couple of months from starting, since the business idea was a strong one. It continues to remain so. And I had a decent pedigree – I was among the Top 50 Retail Professionals in India as recognised by a top research firm in 2014.  


We went door after door, making presentations and pitches, changing our business course as we moved forward from time to time. Our bank balances were drying. And one day, it was near empty. A few good Samaritans came forward to help us cross the bridge. It gave us a buffer. Although a short one. Those who had promised to support us couldn’t, for various reasons. Many emails, messages and calls went unanswered. We were losing hope on people whom we thought would give us a helping hand. I was willing to offer even half of my equity at some stage, just to ensure survival. Things went awry. My lowest point was for a few days when I gave up even on God.


I finally came to terms. It was my life and no one is expected to make an impact on it except me. Probably my close family and a few friends. I decided to shut the first store we had taken on lease. I had built it more passionately than the three houses we had bought in our lifetime over the last decade. I pulled out everything out of the first store, some personally with my own hands. I was choking. But with a glee in my heart, that this was not the end. And probably it could have got worse.


On 31st July 2015, the day I completed 365 days as an Entrepreneur. This day and date will be etched in my mind all my life. It was a Friday too. The day we commenced our venture. And on this day, I had to legally cancel the lease agreement. It was a couple of hours’ thing and it was all over. Finally. For a venture which was started with so much excitement, it was not the best way to end.


As I wake up, sip my coffee and write this article, I begin my second year as an Entrepreneur. I have stood up, dusted, come to terms with the Ecosystem and have moved on as an Entrepreneur although I have a bit of baggage left as an individual. I have lost faith in people whom I trusted and those whom I didn’t know much – I would get carried away at times by sweet talk, but not anymore. I have realised that people come and go out of our lives for a reason. The “going” and let-go part seems to be more important, on a lighter note.


I always thanked my ecosystem for making me a reasonably successful professional over the past 18 years. In my first job when I used to scoop Ice-Cream 18 years back at Baskin Robbins as a part time job during my graduation, little did I realise that I would be blessed to offer jobs to a few people one day. “My Retail Journey” has been a very exciting one. And it continues to be so. I felt that an important reason for my success was the ecosystem. And I also feel that the same ecosystem let me down as a first time Entrepreneur. Am not sure how much importance should I give anymore to the ecosystem though. But I will continue to respect the views of people around me, although I may not be able to abide by what they say at all times for all issues, unanimously.


I have a few plans for the next couple months on what I should be focussing on. This time, I have not one but multiple back-up plans. Although they are just plans on paper and computer at the moment. But am sure, I am going to crack this, come what may. I cannot and shall not allow life dictate terms to me. This is my life and I shall live it the way it suits me and those around me the best.


I have Miles to go, before I sleep. This is not the end of year 1, this is the beginning of Year 2.


Watch this space. 

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