The most commonly perpetrated rep that Kolkata, the city of joy, has earned over the years is that it is a historic city with old world charm, a place where time stands still and everybody likes to take afternoon siestas. Go beyond clichés and you will find a city deep in decay where political paralysis has a tight chokehold on growth, innovation and progress. On the other spectrum of this dismal reality lies a young population brimming with ideas on how to implement change. Most leave the city in droves for better opportunities in education, career and of course entrepreneurship.
College buddies and now co-founders Sukriti Agarwal and Kaushal Modi managed to turn this drawback into an advantage. They say, “Many entrepreneurs complain that policy paralysis has plagued the startup scene in Kolkata. But our case was totally different. It was as if Outbox was always meant to have its origins in Kolkata only. We understand the fabric of the city’s culture, how people choose gifts and what the needs of the customers are. The same wouldn’t have been possible had we started out somewhere else.”
Their startup Outbox is a personalized delivery service which provides hassle free deliveries of anything for their clients: “We provide various services such as deliveries of gifts, boxes, cakes, invites ‘in style’.” Barely out of college themselves, the enterprising duo learned about the pitfalls on starting up on the job, many times without a cushion to soften the blow. “We started when we were still in college. So with no prior work-experience, we were not sure of the path to be taken. A few of our earlier decisions backfired and we realized we had almost no-time to learn from our mistakes. That extra ounce of will to succeed drove us to achieve the maximum. Also we figured out very early that we had to maintain a work-life balance. However hard we tried, we did miss family celebration and friends’ birthday parties. Fortunately everyone was very supportive and understanding and we managed.”
The idea for creating Outbox emerged out of a personal moment of inconvenience. Sukriti says, “ One day, we were sitting on the famous ‘green-benches’ of St. Xavier’s College, Kolkata when Kaushal fussed about what a hassle making gift deliveries to 400 relatives was on the occasion of his brother’s wedding. And somehow we knew that was our Eureka moment. We realized this was one market which hadn’t been tapped till then. The per capita consumption has gone up and people are more open to the idea of outsourcing daily chores these days.”
Now it has metamorphosed into a range of services, undertaking simple chore fulfilling deliveries to memorable creative ones. “We do all kinds of personalized delivery. You want your gifts or invitations delivered-our trained staff will go from door-to-door and do it. We even pick the gifts and deliver them on behalf of our clients, once we are given a budget to work with. This year we have also done theme-based deliveries. For example, on Christmas, we had our staff dressed as Santa Claus and deliver gifts to kids all over the city. People these days want to delegate their work and fully enjoy festivities and celebrations. That is how the concept of Wedding Planners came up. Outbox is actually pretty similar. Just delegate us the work of getting your deliveries done and we will do it.”
Though the two friends did not have conscious plans of becoming entrepreneurs, desire to do something different was always there. “We were pretty much your next door college students attending classes every day, hanging out with friends and trying to make something meaningful out of our lives. We knew we were well-educated and we were always determined to do something of our own. We were always on the lookout for some avenues to put our learning to practise. You can safely assume that the zeal was always there,” says Sukriti.
Now they are excited about exploring the industry, tackling challenges and leaving their mark. “This is a completely new market we are exploring now. You wouldn’t have heard of people making deliveries on behalf of others before. Of course, courier companies exist but a personalized hand delivery of gifts is a fresh concept. Definitely, there are several major challenges we face. The biggest I think is information lacuna. People can only avail of our services once they get to know that we even exist. Majority of our publicity happens through word-of-mouth and customer satisfaction plays a big role in it. It is a time consuming process.”
Though the duo are eager to grow their business, they are going about it cautiously: “In the initial phase of scaling, we can only scale up to metropolitan areas where our partner institutions are located, most notably the Tier-I cities. People in these cities are willing to use our services and have peace of mind. We are already in the middle of finalizing more partners and franchise-holders in such cities who will truly take Outbox to the national level. Very soon you may get to see a pan-India network of our delivery services.”
They are happy to let the consumer direct the shape of their business. Kaushal says, “People have been amazed by our business idea more than anything else. So much so that they have taken it in their hands, adopted it as per our needs and given it back to us. And the result is that we are seeing a plethora of delivery opportunities we didn’t even think of when we laid this business out. Recently, we received a major order for delivery of cute little puppies from a pet shop owner! We promise customized deliveries and so we do whatever the client can think of.”
Their clients range from big corporate houses to small sweetshop owners and vendors. Sukriti says, “We have had esteemed corporate houses hiring us for bulk corporate deliveries but we haven’t established formal long-term partnerships to claim them as our partners. As for partner organizations, we have established a firm relation with most of the sweet shops, packaging dealers, wedding card designers and major event planners around the city.”
For two young newbies starting out on their own for the first time, the predictable source of funding was their parents. But they are clear to state that the seed capital was not a hand out. “Right now, our venture is funded completely by the promoters-that is us! We chalked out almost each and every minor detail we could think of after we came up with the idea of Outbox and then presented the plan to our parents, who we thought would be the most obvious venture capitalists to fund our idea. Instead, they gave us a loan against our names and we put in the money in the business as our capital contributions.
We have enough working capital resources to sustain the business but we have also been approached by a couple of Venture Capitalists who are keen on pouring in more resources to expand the business. We may take the VC route in the near future if the need be.”
Outbox is entirely a labour of love for Sukriti and Kaushal and their friends, who chip in unasked. But as the company grows, they are eager to recruit people who share their enthusiasm and passion. Kaushal says, “Our core team comprises the founders- Sukriti and me, our network of friends who generally go unaccredited for all the help they provide at every stage and a dedicated team of delivery boys and girls. Career opportunities are always available at Outbox as we are ever-expanding.”
The thought of competition excites rather than intimidating them because they are confident of retaining monopoly. Sukriti says, “We expect to see some fresh competition come up in our industry and challenge us; probably enthusiastic young people like us who are willing to analyse our working model and modify it even further to make it more profitable. But we think we will still have the lion’s share of the market by the time the aforementioned happens because we have the ‘First Mover’ advantage.”
The best part about starting up has been the learning curve it provides. Kaushal says, “Startups are pragmatic representations of upward-sloping learning curves. There has been so much we have learnt ever since we started out and so much we think we can still learn. Whenever we look back, we always get the feeling that there were many things we could have done differently, only because now we know that there is a better method to do them. We have also become more responsible beings since having started up.”
Both are extremely optimistic about the future of their venture. Kaushal opines, “Hopefully the future for Outbox looks like the way we see it-very bright! There are endless opportunities, areas we haven’t explored but now know that they can be explored. Once we have the resources on our own, we will scale up and expand and this will hopefully stabilize our revenue stream. Then we can have the liberty take more risks and diversify further.”
Though their entry into the startup world is relatively recent, the interim months have been packed with lessons and learnings of all kind. When asked what advice they would offer to those harbouring similar dreams, here’s what the co-founders have to share. “We learnt that no matter how different the idea is, one should definitely put an effort to execute it and get cognizance of the nitty-gritties of the business. One shouldn’t just drop the idea for the fear of failure.”