On the face of it, Alma Mater is a well-designed, aesthetically sound looking website selling t-shirts online. But if one peeps in a bit, the rich backdrop to the startup emerges which is probably what has made the company so popular. Founded by Varun Agarwal and Rohn Malhotra, the company epitomizes the state of every young entrepreneur in the society. And I say this because of the immensely popular book written by Varun, “How I braved Anu Aunty and built a million dollar company” which has all the ingredients which represents a young entrepreneur’s life in India.
This book alongside the hardwork which led to the book was the backdrop and coupling it with an innately viral idea about an online store providing apparel and memorabilia to alumni students from schools and colleges across India, forms one of the most interesting entrepreneurial story from India. Founded in 2009, the company has shipped 3,00,000 units till dates and is continuously innovating to push this number. An IAN investee, Alma Mater recently introduced PLAY that allows anyone to customize a t-shirt online and then get it printed. We got in touch with Varun and Rohn to talk about PLAY, and a lot more:
YS: PLAY looks like a great utility. Tell us about it.
AM: The Customized T-shirt tool has been in existence for quite a few years now but most of them are quite cumbersome to use. What makes Alma Mater Play unique is that is really super easy to use. Also Alma Mater PLAY stands out because we give you the option to Doodle on the Tee and over 2000 art vectors and over 800 fonts to choose from. The best part is you can upload your school/college or company logo and remove that irksome white background with one click.
YS: Why PLAY and what were the challenges in building it?
AM: When we started the Customized merchandise option at Alma Mater we realized the process was extremely long. I mean first you would have to send us an email, then tell us your design requirement then our designer send you few options and then the back and forth over emails starts. PLAY cuts this time to a few minutes.
Creating PLAY was really challenging because it had to seamlessly be integrated with our E-Commerce Back end, CRM and the Print Output . It took us 8 hard months to finally get it up but it’s definitely worth it.
YS: What’s unique about PLAY?
AM: The most unique part about PLAY is that it’s completely social. So while we were working on Alma Mater PLAY we realized just creating a PLAY tool wasn't enough. We had to make it social. So we came up with Play Groups. So you can create designs using Play and save them in your Play Group. You can create a group for your school, college, company, start-up, biker gang, rock band or anything under the sun and then use Play to save designs in your group.
YS: How has the response been to Play?
AM: It’s been tremendous so far. We were a bit skeptical if people will start placing order using the Play Tool but we've been getting orders from Patna to Jabalpur and all major cities. We've been getting messages from all over India about how it made ordering customize merchandise so much easier. . A 53 year old lady used the Play Tool to design tees for her kitty party and some students from PESIT who graduated last year got a chance to make their class hoodies in minutes. Surprisingly we're getting a lot of Start-Ups are using to play to make merchandise for their team which I think is great because tee and hoodies help the most in branding and promoting your Start-Ups.
YS: How big is Alma mater now? What scale are you working at?
AM: We have around 20 people working for us. We have worked with over 2500 school/colleges, 600 corporates, 400 private groups 100 Start-Ups spanning over 180 different cities in India and 6 countries and customized over 3,00,000 units to date.
YS: Tell us a bit about how your manufacturing/procurement process has evolved.
AM: While earlier most of it was out-sourced we've managed to get all the printing and most of the manufacturing in-house now. This was the only way to sustain the quality. Because if someone orders from us once they would like to get the same quality again and with outsourcing that’s not an option.
YS: How many t-shirts/orders are shipped per month? What kind of profit margins are we looking at?
AM: Currently we ship around 15,000 units a month (25-30% gross margins). The most interesting thing about this is that most of these are small orders. Like 20-50 pieces per order. In-fact we don't do many large orders because there are absolutely no margins on those.
YS: What's your motivation as an entrepreneur right now? Where do you want to take the company?
AM: We want the company to be the go-to brand for customized merchandise and Play is definitely a step towards that. That being said we will always continue to be a school/college memorabilia store as well.
Our motivation now is way different than we started off. Then it was great to be an entrepreneur, to get your first order, to be featured in newspapers. Now it’s more about ensuring growth and innovation. These two constantly motivate us to work harder.
Website: Alma Mater