'A lot of my ideas have gotten validated over time': Ishita Sharma on creating Candidly Couture
Shopaholic turned entrepreneur
Ishita Sharma is an unashamed shopaholic. And she should be. While the rest of us wallow in the consequences of our spendthrift ways, Ishita harnessed her addiction to retail therapy in the best way possible- by starting up. She says, “I was and still am a Shopaholic, I have spent hours and hours on various websites and in stores and I know how it feels to not have the perfect outfit when you need it the most. I started a Facebook page, which had a curated selection of apparel up for sale. The collection reflected my taste, the kind of clothes I would like to wear and luckily, my taste resonated with a lot of people and they started following my page. The next step was of course to make shopping easy and fast, and we got our website for that.”
Today she is the founder and CEO of Candidly Couture, one of the fastest growing e-commerce fashion portals in India. Yet not long back, life was rather unremarkable. “After graduating from DU and doing a couple of jobs here and there I was toying with the idea of going for an MBA, but l was not sure of what to do with my life. I was in a media house as an entry level associate and had time to kill which I spent browsing Indian and International E-commerce websites and fashion blogs. Devi, who is the co-founder of our company, was working at Wall Street. He quit his job late last year and moved to CC.”
Labour of love
Candidly Couture is a labour of love for Ishita. There is no dearth of websites wooing the young Indian woman with their wares. But it is important for her to distinguish her brand from this race. She says she strives to curate fashion that exudes sheen and sophistication while being centered on contemporary aesthetics and sensibilities. “While choosing a design, we keep one thing in mind-our customer should never ever feel ordinary wearing a dress. She is meant to stand out from the crowd and admired for her sartorial choices.”
A major source of inspiration for the Candidly Couture creative team (which is largely Ishita herself) are red carpet fashions from around the world- Bollywood, Hollywood and everything in between. They work to identify couture trends of high end designers and reproduce their own affordable interpretations of the same. “I do my best to identify trends which would work amongst our customer base and adapt them as best as possible. Sometimes certain things don't work, but that doesn't mean I would start doubting my instincts. If a design doesn't work we let go of it and wouldn't touch that trend again with a ten foot pole,” exclaims Ishita.
“It took me almost 1.5 years and a great deal of research and some bad deals to establish relationships with manufacturers who currently provide us high quality fabric and great designs. We have resisted selling through market places, and intend to do so till our brand is established wide and firm. We don’t run Candidly Couture based on discounts and deals. Almost 95% of our inventory is sold at full price. We love our customers, and intend to pass on as many benefits as we can. However we wish to be recognized by our products and service, rather than on discounted prices,” she emphasizes.
Then vs now
“A lot of things were seemingly uncertain when we had started out in 2013. Things like logistics and online payments were in a nascent phase. There was a dearth of startup friendly logistics companies and payment gateways. Today the services that support e-commerce have grown to an all new level. Further, people still had doubts about the impact of e-commerce when I had started. A lot of my ideas have gotten validated over time,” muses the young entrepreneur.
“The next challenge for the industry is adapting to m-commerce. We thoroughly believe that getting to a customer’s mobile phone is getting closer to them and are very excited about the impact of our upcoming mobile app,” she says.
Ishita is convinced that this is the right time to be an e-commerce entrepreneur in India. She says, “Globally, I see e-commerce continuing to outperform traditional retail by a significant margin in the future. I strongly believe e-commerce will penetrate deeper in India than it is even in the US. India’s social infrastructure is growing way faster, and e-commerce is creating unmatched efficiencies.
On how this affects her industry, she says, “In terms of fashion, I see our tastes improving on a daily basis; and hope we will be able to facilitate a much better fashion culture around the country, especially among women.”
Candidly Couture has witnessed remarkable success in the short time, since 2013, that it has been operational. “We are stoked about the progress we have made and are happy watching the company grow every day. The best part is our customers. We share a mutually obsessive relationship with them, we are always obsessed with keeping them happy and giving our best to them, in return they reward us by appreciating our designs and showing great loyalty to our brand. We have an almost 30% return buyer rate and we intend to preserve it as we scale up.
We hit a profitable run rate during November last year and have increased our sales 2X since, along with further increasing our profit margins.
Our biggest milestone was crossing six figure sales in a day in December last year. I just hope we achieve bigger and better each day,” exclaims Ishita.
For Ishita and her co-founder Devi, conventional marketing methods don’t hold much water. Instead, they are excited to implement new age strategies. “My Co-founder Devi Prasad Biswal joined me late last year and he brought along a lot of great ideas for the company. For example the lean start-up model wherein we are trying and testing apparel as a minimum viable product. We have invested minimally in advertising and Facebook is the only platform, which we have spent on.We are more than happy with the traction we have found, and intend to expand to other categories such as bags, shoes, jewelry, and our own make up line. We also intend to increase our marketing spend by almost 50X in the next year to establish our brand wide and firm,” she says.
Funding and more
“I didn't believe in saving money until recently. I started this out with minimal investment and ran the company only on profits. Devi's joining has led to our company scaling up as he invested his time and money. We are actively looking to raise VC money in the next few months,” says Ishita.
For Ishita, the cornerstone of Candidly Couture is the partnership she shares with co-founder Devi. “Until recently, our team comprised of me and Devi. We did everything from warehouse management to customer service to merchandising and social media. We are excited about the addition of a dedicated creative team in February. Our company has strength of 5 employees as of now,” she shares.
As much as she loves her regular clientele, seeing famous individuals don her designs is a ‘pinch me’ moment for Ishita. “Recently I saw Madhurima Tuli post a picture of our outfit while she was promoting the film Baby (co-starring Akshay Kumar). It came as a pleasant surprise when I realized I had spoken to her few days earlier and helped her pick the outfit. I had no idea I was talking to a Bollywood Starlet! A few days ago, Gaelyn Mendonca, who is a famous MTV VJ and Bollywood actress expressed an interest in visiting our office in Bangalore and shopping for herself. I am really looking forward to it,” she smiles.
The best and the worst
Ishita’s startup journey has been characterized by a series of inadequacies and mishaps. It has not been easy by any means. When I started this I did not have a personal computer to manage the page. I had to use Cyber Café computers and borrow my friend's laptops to manage customers. The delay in response left a few of them quite unhappy. Last year, our site took about two months to become fully functional. Consequently sales were sparse and the bills were abundant. I did not want to approach my parents for help and it was a tough phase. But smooth sails never made a good sailor. I am wise enough to now know that customers respect you if you respect their time and it's always good to have a separate savings account for emergencies. Today I am glad I stuck to my dream despite the circumstances,” she reflects.
Thankfully, there was the good to offset the bad. For Ishita, that is nurturing new talent. “There is nothing better than helping those around you succeed,” she enthuses.
The present and the future
Candidly Couture has finally acquired office digs worthy of the brand. “Our brand new office is in the heart of Indiranagar, which I am looking forward to decorate. That and getting an office pet (a happy, energetic, ball of fur) is high on my agenda right now,” she says.
“But what I am most excited about,” she continues, “is our mobile app, to be launched in the next 30 days.”
The future is a game being played equally by the two co-founders. “We are coming up with our new app which is being solely handled by Devi, he is also working on wowing our customers by providing exceptional services. I am spearheading the creative campaign, we would be soon coming up with our blog, where we would not only style our products, but also dole out make up and skin care advice,” she says.
“I have been an oddball in the world of start-ups and have maintained a low profile. My co-founder has helped me a great deal in running this company successfully. Apart from him my mentors have been the books on the my bedside table. From Tony Hsieh to Sophia Amoruso, I have read them all over and over again. The best advice I received:
No matter where you are in life, you'll save a lot of time by not worrying too much about what other people think about you. The earlier in your life that you can learn that, the easier the rest of it will be: Sophia Amoruso, Girl Boss,” says Ishita.
If she could one piece of advice, it would be this: “Fortune favors action! If you are reading this sitting on a job you don't like, quit your daydreaming and start living the dream.”