It’s been over 5 months since I wrote anything on this blog, especially. Not that I didn’t have anything to observe, even better to share my experiences in retail as I learn a thing or two new every passing day. Frankly, the last 4 months have been overwhelming to say the least. In my new role as Executive Vice President that I am helming at the Daily Thanthi Group - the world’s oldest and in-continuous production Tamil language publication for over 80 years, we are building an incredible digital product that has the potential to touch millions of lives, especially the small and marginalised retailers.
More on that, later.
Yesterday, 26 September was the 9th Founding Day of my first entrepreneurial (mis)adventure Smiling Baby. Conceived as a one-stop baby-shop focussing on young parents and their little ones, we opened the first store on this day in 2014. Located right opposite to the city’s famed Malar Hospital at Adyar, the concept had the potential to spread its wings across the 33+ districts (back then) of Tamil Nadu. What remains today, is several crores of money invested without returns, memories, good and bad and a lot of life lessons.
I didn’t fathom the courage to write this piece yesterday. One, It was a long and busy day at work. And these thoughts do not come when I am positively preoccupied with things I enjoy doing. Second, I didn’t want to strain my emotions further on such a day.
I was an accidental Entrepreneur. My father was a Foreman at ITC Ltd., a class-8 pass-out turned factory worker for 33 years. My mother was a school teacher and ensured she superannuated, even though my elder sister and I were already working. My parents taught me to stand on my own legs, never to borrow money and live within our own means.
I never had a childhood / youth-hood aspiration to become an Entrepreneur ever. It was always a safe sail that was preferred, from my spouse to parents and my closely knit circle of friends. In fact, none of them pursue their own businesses. So, it was always a salaried job, slog till one can, save as much for a rainy day and die peacefully. I lived that life for 35 years.
In 2014, I was pushed to entrepreneurship – by none other than myself. Not that there was a void of job opportunities for me; in fact that was one of the best periods for me professionally. However, shopping every other weekend for my second child, I felt that there was an insatiable opportunity in the baby care, kids care and maternity space. Just like most other Entrepreneurs in India who started off with their wife’s hard earned savings, I too did the same. We invested almost One Crore rupees in the venture, to set-up a world class baby products store, backed with technology powered by GoFrugal technologies (now owned by Zoho) and a solid business plan that we went about sharing with potential investors.
A very few close well wishers whom we approached, advised me not to pursue this venture, instead of encouraging me with their financial investments. They were worried about their risk-taking abilities on a retail concept which was 98% semi-organised in India back then. None of our friends were in a position to invest, as they were struggling to pay their own EMIs and maintain a certain lifestyle. Well noted.
We managed to pivot an omni-channel model with a 3-hour delivery, a franchise model, just-in-time inventory supply chain system (that actually worked well) and expanded up to 5 stores across three cities in Tamil Nadu. Our concept of setting-up a small unit at a leading maternity hospital in Coimbatore turned out to be a game-changer. Even though potential investors refused to wake up and smell the coffee, my suppliers kept encouraging me, especially for the straightforward and clean business activities that we undertook. For the record, I ensured a 100% cash-and-carry model with zero credit. Childhood habits and upbringing, perhaps. However, from a cash flow perspective, I was locking up all my money against stocks without any leverage but future sales, though I was making 2-3% extra margins.
After pitching to over 30+ leading pre-Series A investors across India, I decided to give up. Not on my dream of setting up India’s largest regional retail chain in the niche that is “baby care”, rather being fed-up of justifying why I had to quit my corporate career to pursue a business.
Some where outright honest – they said my aspirations were not big enough since I was not expecting or working towards a huge valuation outcome and a handsome exit for myself over a 5-7 period. A lot of them said I should remain unprofitable for many years by focussing on topline (sales) and pay salaries and marketing through funds raised. A few said that I should borrow big, both equity as well as debt from Investors.
I didn’t want to skip my dinner and a 7-hour sleep everyday like many other entrepreneurs who had done this “mistake” before, so I decided to let it go. After losing several crores of hard earned money, a fledgling career that could have turned out to be an even more prosperous work-life and several sleepless nights on my inability of staying afloat, I called it quits in August 2019. I still believe it was one of the best decisions of my life. “Stop losing more money” was not just my mind voice but a writing on the wall. Loud and clear. I quit.
As I went to sleep last night, all I could remember was the learnings, the hardships, the insults, the helplessness of staying in the business to keep my aspirations live and most importantly, the time I lost trying to build an incredible business model in a niche, that continues to remain even more narrowed till date. There is not a single, regional, offline retail chain in India which has a standardised baby products offering.
Will I start ever again from the ashes – perhaps a BIG no. While I continue to remain a risk-taker in other streams of life, raising money and selling lies to investors is not something I am capable of. Interestingly, and I have seen a hundred such instances in the last 9 years, that is exactly what Investors want – a sugar coated approach where they pass on their risks!
Scars remain, memories scare sometimes, but Life moves on. And so is the case with me.