Recently got connected with Atrai Ganguly (nee Mukherjee), an entrepreneur from Kolkata and recently had a successful exit from her first ecommerce venture, My Sweet Store. I was really excited to listen to her story – how she came up with the idea, how she managed everything almost single handedly while raising her kids. I personally believe that she could have followed many other options, but she decided to exit – let’s listen to her story.
BTW, she is a Rodinhooder as well and follows us sincerely 🙂
Saikat: Let’s start with your background, Atrai. Please introduce yourself to the fellow Rodinhooders.
Atrai: I have a usual background, an engineer and an MBA. I worked for TCS, PWC and ICICI. I took a career break after my daughter was born and I was not keeping well. I have lived and worked in Hyderabad, Bangalore, Mumbai and some really remote parts of Orissa. And whenever I stayed away from Kolkata I missed Bengali Sweets. I love to eat, play games (computer and now mobile) and travel.
Saikat: Great! So, when did the entrepreneurship bug bite you?
Atrai: I have two very young kids (two under 3 years) so I wanted more control over my time. And I was missing work and I wanted to go back to work. Then I started thinking about doing something on my own, with a lot of encouragement from my husband. When looking for ideas I thought of what I could do and remembered the many occasions when friends (Bengali or not) and casual acquaintances have expressed their love for Bengali Sweets. When I compared this with my own experience of not having access to high-quality authentic Bengali Sweets I realised that maybe this will be a good place to start 🙂
So I started an online sweet store where one could place an order and have yummy authentic Bengali Sweets delivered at their doorsteps. I also wanted to include sweets from all regions of India in the future. I started thinking about it from around January 2014; and founded the business in June 2014.
Saikat: Tell us more about this project; what you did, challenges you faced etc.
Atrai: There were so many challenges. Deciding on which sweets to select? How does one ensure the sweets reach fresh, that sweets remain intact? How will people get to know that there is an e-commerce site on a quiet internet corner?
While I was preparing to launch, I researched the competitive landscape. There were few other sites offering similar service, but their portfolio was restricted to dry sweets (Karapak Sandesh) which had a longer shelf life. But what about the seriously yummy ones like Mishti Doi, Malai Chamchams, I asked myself? These highly perishable products were not on sale. I needed to find ways to get these delivered fresh. I also realised that if I became successful in sending it fresh it would be a first.
But to make this work I needed to find the right kind of packing box and packing material at an affordable price. I did extensive research and talked to manufacturers to find the solution. I tried out multiple options during the trial – however, most of them failed. I didn’t give up easily and reached out to more potential vendors. And finally came up with the perfect solution that could keep these perishable products fresh up to 72 hours. And the success of this is evident from the multiple successful deliveries to places like Chennai and Ahmedabad even during summer months.
I also made the mistake of most first- time entrepreneurs, I had a ready platform but with no real marketing plan or effort. The first few days were great and lots of orders came from my own network but then in 2-3 weeks orders trickled and stopped. I was really lost and realized that my adviser and husband was right. I needed to have a plan especially a marketing plan. But with so many options email marketing, SEO, social media marketing, AdWords what would be the best thing to try? If done wrong marketing is the best and easiest way to lose money. Being on a tight budget I had to choose wisely reached out to influential bloggers. It was not an obvious choice but one that worked the best.
Then started a really good phase; orders came and this time from completely unknown people. The biggest high was when customers expressed happiness gave us good reviews and kept giving repeat orders. With festive season round the corner business picked up.
This venture was self-funded and making losses like big e-commerce players was not an option. So I had to put in long hours calculating the prices, selecting the product combination and making sure the operations remain lean. I also had to keep a tab on expenses (not the most fun part though). Logistics cost is one the biggest components in this type of business, and tied up with logistics aggregators (AVN) to get the best deals. All these controls really paid off, and we made some profits (though a small amount) even during the first 6 months of operations.
Saikat: That’s amazing. So, what is your future plan?
Atrai: I had big plans of expanding the business to include sweet shops from other parts of the country. I wanted to include sweets like ghewars, Mysore paks and peras in the portfolio. I was also contemplating expanding the delivery locations to outside India like US and UK. At this point of point of time, I got to know that we would have to relocate outside Kolkata because of my husband’s professional commitments.
I felt very sad as I knew that entrusting an employee to take the entire responsibility of a fledgling start-up might be disastrous. I started looking out for exit options. When I casually mentioned the situation to one of my sweet shop partners Balaram Mullick and Radharaman Mullick, they expressed a lot of interest. After multiple rounds of discussions and negotiations, I finally sold off this venture for a neat sum of money in March 2015.
I had so much fun running My Sweet Store, that I would like to start over again. I am currently planning something but managing a location change and starting up is proving difficult.
Saikat: But why did you choose to exit? Why you did not build a team or approached an investor?
Atrai: I could have done that if I knew that I was going to stay in Kolkata. I was a reseller after all. And to scale it up, I had to tie up with many more vendors. I was making profits because I followed a very lean business model. My business was 100% bootstrapped and self funded – I felt it was difficult to build a team who could take up that kind of responsibility when I am not present here in person.
Saikat: So you ran this business for less than a year. How much profit did you make, how profitable was the exit?
Atrai: During festival season such as Durga Puja, Diwali I had more than 100 orders in a month with average order value around Rs.500. I was not making a lot but was making some profit. During exit, I got 3.5 times of what I invested in the business (not counting my own efforts).
Saikat: Alright. I am sure you would start over again, Atrai. So, from your first venture, what did you learn and what you would like to advise to your fellow entrepreneurs.
Atrai: Lessons learned:
1. I should have made a business plan. I had put in a lot of effort in getting the operations up and running without any marketing plan. When the orders stopped coming I was under a lot of pressure and felt desperate. Figuring out what kind of marketing would work took time and effort. But if I had made a business plan it would have forced me to think about every aspect of the business – from marketing to finance, operation to execution, expected revenues. And I should have been better prepared.
2. Think in threes. I was generally excited about meeting a supplier or confident that a packaging solution would work. Looking back, most plans do not work (at least the way we want it to). Wish I remembered that a plan can have 3 possible outcome – the plan works perfectly (which it rarely does), plan fails, and plan works partly (trickiest situation). Basically, if I had done more scenario planning and not just build expectation around the most favourable outcome I could have got more done.
3. Personal touch is well appreciated. There were many situations where I pro actively contacted the customer about the order delivery time or enquired about the product quality. People when contacted were more than happy to give feedback, accept apology or promote us on social media.
With so much good and solid information on entrepreneurship available on Trhs I feel a little shy sharing my two cents, but never the less here it is:
Create something of value: I think I was able to find an exit because I solved a real problem. In my case, I was able to send perishable sweets like Mishti Doi using affordable packing methods. Though I ran the business only for 8 months but I was also able to scale it and demonstrate that the solution works.
Cherish the moments: Like every journey entrepreneurship will have its moments, your first sale, customers praising you on social media or making lots of money. Whatever it is I think we should really celebrate it and remember it during tough times.
Plan: This is the boring but really essential part. We may feel tempted to skip this but its best to remember that “failing to plan is planning to fail”.
Saikat: Thanks a lot, Atrai. Wish you all the best for future 🙂