It was at a startup event and if he wasn't wearing a tie, I could have never figured out that Shubham was an entrepreneur. But he is one, and by no small measure. A graduate from IIT Rourkee, Shubham Agrawal and his co-founder Anubhav Goyal are trying to revolutionize print advertising by bringing it to notebooks. Adister sells student notebooks at a very nominal price (40% les than the market price, they claim). While there are large players like Classmate, which are quite popular among the urban students, a lot of India's students still buy from local notebook brands from their local stationary shops. The low cost of an Adister notebook, like a news paper, is subsidized by the ads that it carries.
Now, this has a few advantages. A notebook, unlike a newspaper, will last for a long time with it's user, giving the print ad longevity. They follow a policy of not more than 4 ads per page, which is much less cluttered than a classified section of a newspaper. Furthermore, notebooks are used universally and it is free from problems like drop in content quality etc, which affects other content based mediums. These are great value propositions to an advertiser. Furthermore, because of the ads, the cost of the books are much cheaper than it's market price, which is always going to be a hit among Indian consumers.
The idea is simple and the idea is brilliant. They've run a pilot project in Roorkee, which received overwhelming response and they would have scaled to Delhi and Dehradhun if not for their academic commitments. The bespectacled and unassuming Shubham took me by surprise as he shared his business idea; there is a consummate businessman under the soft spoken exteriors of this young man in his early twenties. But we all know that the brilliance of the idea is only one part of the entrepreneur's story. The other is the grit to achieve it. Shubham's journey has required a lot of grit and it his persistence that makes the Adister team, very good entrepreneurs.
Does this seem like too much praise? Here's an account of a 5 year long journey, which will show you exactly why I think so -
Shubham and Anubhav had the one thing that all entrepreneurs must have - impatience. Frustrated with the free time that they had at college, they decided to start up an online daily, called offcourse.in, which would chronicle the stories across IITs in India - "We ran it for a couple of months, after which we had to close it down, because our college's dean didn't want stories about IIT to go out. In this time, we used to also attend a lot of B-plan competitions. Most people who took part in this didn't present high quality ideas; many of them were not feasible." With a focus on making a feasible business model, Shubham and Anubhav put their minds together on creating value in the advertising space.
"The manufacturing cost of a newspaper is about 25 Rs, but it is sold for a tenth of that cost. This was because of the ads that it carried. We thought of using the same on a notebook, as no one had done it yet. So we went about inquiring about the cost of making a notebook. Roorkee gave us very high quotes, so we went to the nearby Saharanpur instead, as there was a paper mill there. The cost of a notebook was about 20 Rs, which was feasible for us. We took simple photocopies of ads that we had cracked with the local dealers in Roorkee. We tied up the NSS IIT Roorkee and gave away these notebooks for free. The left over notebooks, we gave to the students of IIT Roorkee." Despite giving away the books for free, they still made a profit.
This is where they would face a familiar challenge; their Dean. He says, "We were accused of performing an economic activity inside the college and were threatened with carrying out disciplinary committee action on us (colloquially known as "Disco"). We made it through this, as we hadn't sold anything, but we were warned not to do this again." This problem came about because they didn't have a company. Levis, an advertiser with Adister, initially refused to work with them as they were still students. But the entrepreneur in both the co-founders thought of another way.
"Because we had some experience in actually running and executing a business, we had an edge over other participants in B-Plan competitions. We won the IIT Roorkee B-Plan competition and won 50000 Rs from it, which we invested in incorporating a company. We kept doing this - winning B-Plan competitions and investing money back into the company (Shubham and Anubhav have won B-Plan competitions at PEC, BIMTECH and IIIT Gwalior and were also Finalists (Top 10) of Next Big Idea conducted by IIM Bangalore, Intel and DST which had more than 2000 entries and were the youngest of all the finalists. they were also the only undergraduate finalist of Google For Entrepreneurs.) - you could say it was our revenue model! We then signed on Levis and Thomas cook. We even advertised on the corner of every page of the notebook, and we manufactured a few thousand notebooks. It got great response and we extinguished our stocks in a day or so."
However, this idea couldn't be carried out at scale and they duo decided to move to Delhi, where companies would have access to more companies with a marketing budget. They even hired in Delhi - "We didn't even have a cycle to our name, and the guy whom we hired had a car! We faked it a lot. We'd say that we had already graduated from IIT and when we got phonecalls when we were in class, we'd say things like we're in a meeting and we'd call our vendors later." However, academics and scaling a business was too much to do, so the duo decided to give Adister a break for a year. But the mind of an entrepreneur is always impatient. So they started a book review site, called Ghissu.com, which they still run on their own expense. (Check out this fun marketing video for Ghissu.com)
At the end of college, Shubham and Anubhav chose to defer their placements by 2 years, which was the first in the history of IIT Roorkee. "Because noone else had done it, our admin didn't have the documents to process our request! Apart from us, only Vivek Prakash, the co-founder of HackerEarth, did this," said Shubham. Post this, Shubham went about looking to join an accelerator program which would help them become more professional in their operations. But they would face a problem here as well - "All the accelerators had advanced their registration times by a month and we missed the deadlines."
This led Shubham and Anubhav to travel to Bangalore and Hyderabad, in search of mentors and finance. "Nupur Punjabi was our mentor for the IIT Roorkee business plan and she has helped us throughout. She has herself founded 4 Companies. She and her partner, Sumit Punjabi have known us for a while and they believed in our business plan. They gave us office space and some seed funding which has stabilized us. We're hiring people and we should close in on this in another few days." Shubham shared that Adister's next batch of notebooks will be released in August and that they've signed on advertisers which will help them sell Adister notebooks at attractive price points. Here's an advertisement for Adister Notebooks, highlighting it's social impact -
It is heartening to see such a company come from India. While Adister's operation has a great social impact, it is the sheer simplicity of the idea that endears me to this business. Their ability to run an company and the grit to persist through adversities have been proven. I'll be rooting for their success.
Check out Adister to know more.