10 offbeat startups that are trying to make it big in India
25 Jan, 2015, 0712 hrs IST, Rajiv Singh, ET Bureau
They’ve breathed life into offbeat ideas and claim their ventures are unique and face little if no competition. But that’s still no guarantee of success
It’s ingenious but, er, does it make money? Perhaps all the entrepreneurs who feature in this special package would have been asked this question at some point in their startup journey.
Kalyani Khona, who has started up Wanted Umbrella, which she claims is India’s only matrimonial agency for differently-abled people, may have had observers wondering where the money will come from. Her quick answer: “I have married a social cause and business.”
It’s ingenious but, er, why on earth would people want it? That’s a query Alpana Agarwal, co-founder of Con Affetto, which makes edible bouquets — think cupcakes, cookies, truffle — may be used to by now. Ask her about who are the potential customers and she just might tell you about the good lady who placed an order in New Delhi for her grandson’s first birthday and carried it to Jaipur.
It’s ingenious, but will it fly? That’s what Mrinal Pai must be asking himself on the odd bad day. His startup is a farsighted concept that offers custom drone products and services. Pai sees a (near) future when drones will be used to transport organs between hospitals, flying over gridlocked roads; and when you could use his service to drop a quick personalised note of endearment to your beloved. Yes, but will regulations — which have yet to be framed — allow his drones to keep flying?
These are just three of the 10 offbeat startups we’ve deep-dived into; just three of the 800-odd startups added every year; and just three of the over 3,000 startups that are trying to make it big in India.
The 10 that we’ve picked are novel, but being different or a first mover is no guarantee of being the best mover — or moving at all a few years later. After all, success rates in the world of entrepreneurship are notoriously low, as low as 10% in the tech world. And funding is no guarantee of success. CB Insights, a US-based venture capital database, reckons that companies typically die around 20 months after their last round of funding and after having raised $1.3 million.
For the 10 featured over the next few pages, being unique is a good starting point. But as Sanjeev Krishnan, partner and leader (private equity and transaction services) at PricewaterhouseCoopers, explains, the markets for many such differentiated offerings are not large enough. “So unless the market expands exponentially, a shift in focus would be essential to create a new market segment,” he points out.
There’s something else that may work in favour of these newbie risk-takers: the proverbial fire in their bellies. When you hear Nikunj Jain, co-founder of Frankly.me, talking about being “Darwin’s children” and that “we run faster and kill harder”, you will get a sense of the fire burning. Read on:
King of Drones – Mrinal Pai
You could call him ‘drone-acharya’, although Mrinal Pai is a guru in a field a bit different from military arts. The 22-year-old lad from Kerala believes that one day Indians will be able to outsource petty jobs to machines. “And if that happens, moms won’t be heard saying: ‘beta zara doodh leke aana’ [son, please buy milk] as drones will get it.”
Pai is the co-founder of Skylark Drones, a Bengaluru-based startup that offers custom drone products and services ranging from aerial views for real estate developers to 3D surface model data for land surveys to wedding shoots and banner advertisements, and keeping a close eye during sports and other events.
Started in July 2014 with a seed capital of Rs 4 lakh, Pai now wants to scale up the use of drones in areas such as organ transportation between hospitals in a city to bypass crowded roads.
Aware that the market for drones is still nascent, Pai believes that first-mover advantage will help his startup.
“The biggest challenge for us now is not money or technology. It’s regulation,” he contends.
Not even a year old, Skylark, says Pai, has broken even. And he’s keen to break through potential barriers to the growth of his firm.
“Brick walls are there to stop people who don’t want it badly enough,” he says. Pai for sure wants it bad, and wants it now — and he’s got his drones to bypass the walls!
Not Quite Kid Stuff – HowToTellYourChild’S Deepa Kumar
Last July, when violent protests erupted across Bengaluru over the sexual abuse of a six-year-old student in her school, Deepa Kumar refused to hit the streets. Reason: she was getting ready to fight back in her own unique way.
“The only way to curb such abuse is by talking about the topic with our kids,” says Kumar. “We have to get rid of the devil in our heads.”
Kumar did that with HowToTellYourChild, an online startup that offers videos, books and related products that parents and educators can use to teach children about topics like sexual abuse and puberty in a fun and easy manner. Started in November last year, HowTo-TellYourChild plans to tie up with schools, hold counselling sessions with parents and make videos in regional languages to expand its reach.
According to a study by the ministry of women and child development in 2007, every second child is a victim of some form of sexual abuse. The problem is enormous but so is the opportunity.
“This is a serious subject and we are the only ones doing it,” says Kumar who insists that HowToTellYourChild is a perfectly viable business model. As she readies to tell a story to kids, there’s another audience that would be keen to listen in too — investors.
Don’t hold your breath
Kaushal Sanghavi knew that his business was unusual but little did he realise that customer acquisition can happen in the strangest of circumstances. A few months back when a hearing at the Bombay high court got delayed by three hours, it made a couple of women professionals restless. They wanted to use the toilet but it wasn’t quite, well, swachh. So, they booked one of Sanghavi’s ‘breathing rooms’ to use the loo and, whilst they were there, they also decided to work out of it for a while.
BreathingRoom provides on-demand hourly workplaces to professionals and business travellers for meetings and conferences. The rooms can be booked from a mobile app even 15 minutes prior to a meeting.
The idea is indeed unique — offering unutilised or underutilised commercial spaces in Mumbai, Delhi, Bengaluru and Pune at an affordable cost. The startup soon plans to expand into other cities such as Hyderabad and Chennai and is scouting for investors. Sanghavi is also rolling out OpenSpaces — in bars, restaurants and cafes — from which users can work for free when they’re less busy.
Started in October last year by two ex-Amazonians, Sanghavi and Jacky Chow, BreathingRoom is now used by a wide range of clients such as startup founders, financial and tax consultants, and marketing and sales professionals to name a few. The rate charged per hour — Rs 400 — is so reasonable that even work-from home entrepreneurs are opting for it, claims Sanghavi. The startup makes money by pocketing a 30% commission, the rest going to the property owner.
Whilst co-working hubs are mushrooming, the BreathingRoom model of tying up with owners of under-utilised spaces is still an untapped opportunity. And Sanghavi is not cramped for space — not yet.
Filling the Bill
When he was a PR executive at Lowe Lintas, Bharat Ahirwar would find it impossible to take a break. A day away from the office would be swallowed up by the time spent on bill payments (electricity, mobile et al), fixing leaky taps, a trip to the municipality office and bank-related chores. That’s when it struck Ahirwar that there would be many working professionals like him in a similar predicament. Result? A Eureka moment that culminated in the setting up of errand-running startup GetMyPeon.
Started in July 2012, GetMyPeon is a newage version of a courier and concierge service, offering services ranging from the routine bill payments to the downright bizarre delivery of vada pavs from a specific food stall to a client waiting at the airport; or handing over just a button from a distant suburb that a stylist needed at her studio in South Mumbai.
“Our service is niche. We provide hyperlocal solutions and cater to urgent needs of customers,” says Ahirwar, who is busy beefing up his team, developing an app to improve user experience and planning to roll into other cities. And, yes, funding is definitely on the cards.
With startups like YourGuy Concierge, Timesaverz and Grofers offering many services that overlap with GetMyPeon, Ahirwar will have to constantly innovate to stand out. “Our stable growth is proof that we will survive and thrive.”
On the Scent of a Bounty
Why would anybody shun a tall, good looking man who is always nicely dressed in jeans, tees and leather shoes in college? This is what Karan Vij, who got enrolled in California University to study international economics, couldn’t fathom.
He got the answer from an Indian friend: “Stupid, it’s your shoes. They’re so formal and intimidating.”
The learning helped Vij in setting up his business after coming back to India in 2012. From formal, he was keen to leap to the other extreme — he wanted to be funky. So he started Scentra, a scented shoe brand that uses organic cotton to make footwear, designed in California and manufactured in Spain. And, yes, imported to India.
“It’s India’s first scented shoe brand,” claims Vij. The scent is not sprayed on the shoe but it’s dyed in the sole to make it last long. And if you thought that only women would rush to buy the product, 43% of Scentra’s customers are men, lets on Vij. Having sold over 1,300 pairs over the past five months, he is now targeting to sell 100 pairs every day, at an average of Rs 2,000 a pop.
Possible? “Absolutely as the market is huge and we are the only player,” he says. There’s another reason for his confidence — the insight that he got from girls. “The first thing they look at in a guy is the shoes.” Now he’s got to get more men to believe that.
Marrying Business and a Cause
Last year, when Kalyani Khona approached a differently-abled man with a marriage proposal, he was taken aback. Reason: Khona was 21 and the man double her age. He didn’t of course know at that time that Khona was the founder of Wanted Umbrella, positioned as India’s only matrimonial agency for differently-abled people.
“With over 40 million disabled people in India, only 5% or less get married,” says Khona who started Wanted Umbrella in July 2014 in Delhi.
When she started up, there were sceptics galore who wondered aloud whether a young girl could handle a subject as sensitive as marriage. Her progress so far would have silenced more than a few of them. The startup has a strong base in Mumbai and Delhi NCR. It now plans to foray into Bengaluru and is developing an app as well. And for those who think Khona is running an altruistic, not-for-profit setup, think again.
The revenue model for Wanted Umbrella is simple: subscription fees and money from organising events. “It’s a huge and untapped market waiting for somebody who is passionate to tap into. I have married social cause and business,” she says. Now that for sure is a match made in heaven.
Toeing a New Line
After seven years of elbow grease at Infosys, Reetesh Rao, Rajesh Acharya and Kotresh Chatriki decided to listen to their hearts — quite similar to what three friends did in the blockbuster Three Idiots.
The trio resigned and started Caricme, a personalised caricature-gifting service for individuals and corporates. The products can be tweaked to be made into trophies, photo-frames, certificates or showpieces.
The long stint at the IT giant was threatening to bore the trio out of their minds. “We were not enjoying what we were doing,” says Reetesh Rao, CEO of Caricme. So in January 2013, the three friends took the plunge. The first year was difficult, personally and professionally. Their parents were disappointed, their spouses took long to get convinced and outsiders found the business idea weird. “Most people think caricatures are cartoons,” says Rao.
Although people were not taking them seriously, the friends followed their passion seriously. Initial orders came from colleagues, word-of-mouth and Facebook posts. While tying up with small online players helped in getting regular orders, biggies such as Amazon and Snapdeal gave them traction. Now they get 12 orders every day and want to scale up to 25.
But can their business reach a scale to lure investors and survive? Reetesh sounds confident. “When passion meets business, you scale heights.”
Johny Stephen hasn’t quite followed in the footsteps of his father, who was in the Air Force. Two years ago, the 34-year-old geek left his lucrative job with Akamai Technologies, a cloud services provider in the US, and returned to Bengaluru to start his own venture.
“He [his father] is yet to come to terms with the fact that I am into foot massages,” chuckles Stephen, co-founder and CEO of TheHappy-Feet, a startup that provides feetcare services and products on a call or a click.
Sounds outlandish? Not to Stephen, who believes in the saying that proudly flashes on the Facebook page of his startup: ‘If you are going to be weird, be confident about it’.
Starting with a seed capital of Rs 50 lakh raised from family and friends, TheHappyFeet works with therapists who go to customers’ offices or homes to provide feet-care services. The venture has broken even, says Stephen who is now in talks with investors to fund an expansion.
So how did the idea of feet-care come about? On a flight to London, Stephen told a friend, Sharath Kishan Keshavanarayana, about a soothing foot massage he had had in San Francisco. That led the duo to discuss it as a business, culminating in them founding TheHappyFeet in January 2013.
Stephen has few doubts about its viability. “Ola got recognition in India when Uber entered the country,” he says. “We are also waiting for an Uber-like thing to happen.”
Clearly Stephen won’t be bargaining for the controversy the ride-sharing app plunged into.
Frank and Ferocious
He is driven by an animal instinct. “We are [Charles] Darwin’s children. So it’s survival of the fittest,” says Nikunj Jain, co-founder of Frankly.me, a mobile app that enables users to get answers from celebrities and experts through video selfies.
The 26-year-old Delhi lad has not only survived after selling mobile app development company InoXapps last year but is clearly also thriving by raising a cool $600,000 from Matrix Partners for his second venture.
Jain’s poster boy is Peter Thiel — tech entrepreneur, cofounder of PayPal and one of the first investors in Facebook. “The next Bill Gates will not build an operating system. And the next Mark Zuckerberg won’t create a social network,” says Jain, quoting from Thiel’s Zero to One. “If you are copying these guys, you aren’t learning from them.”
Jain, who swears by the future of mobile video, is putting Thiel’s lesson into practice by starting up a venture that he claims doesn’t have direct competition in India. The nearest rival would be Twitter, he reckons.
So does it help to be the first mover, and offbeat? “It does,” he says “but offbeat sells only when you know your beat.”
Frankly.me claims to have 35,000 registered users and over 100 celebrities on board, including Arvind Kejriwal, Snapdeal co-founder Kunal Bahl and lyricist Javed Akhtar.
Jain says he is adding over 3,000 users daily. And he isn’t fazed by potential me-toos. “We are ruthless. We run faster and kill harder.” Ouch!
Coming into Bloom
I your girlfriend is Marwari, the easiest way to earn her wrath is to gift her a bouquet of flowers, reckons Alpana Agarwal. “For Marwaris, flowers are a waste of money,” insists the co-founder of Con Affetto, a startup that makes edible bouquets by using cake pops, cookies, cupcakes and cake truffle.
Last September, Agarwal, 32, started this venture with her younger sister Upasana with a seed capital of Rs 10 lakh in New Delhi. With a starting price of Rs 600 and a maximum tag of Rs 3,000, the sisters have been selling over 15 bouquets a day in Delhi and the NCR and soon plan to open kiosks to push their products in other cities, including Mumbai.
While being in a segment where there is no direct competition definitely helps, expanding the market is a tough task for the duo.
However, the biggest challenge is luring people to shun flowers, a task easier said than done. But the sisters are not deterred and take inspiration from numerous instances that have given them hope.
Agarwal recalls one such episode. A woman who got to know about the idea when the sisters were researching the business waited for a year to place an order for an edible bouquet on her grandson’s first birthday. “She carried the bouquet to Jaipur,” recalls Agarwal, “and it gave us immense wordof-mouth publicity.”
While being in a segment where there is no direct competition definitely helps, expanding the market is a tough task for the duo. However, the biggest challenge is luring people to shun flowers, a task easier said than done. But the sisters are not deterred and take inspiration from numerous instances that have given them hope. Agarwal recalls one such episode. A woman who got to know about the idea when the sisters were researching the business waited for a year to place an order for an edible bouquet on her grandson’s first birthday. “She carried the bouquet to Jaipur,” recalls Agarwal, “and it gave us immense wordof-mouth publicity.”