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Startup power: Desi Hangover turns poor cobblers into trendsetters

S. Aijaz
23rd Apr 2015
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Kolhapuris to big dreams

More than three years ago, Hitesh Kenjali travelled Egypt wearing a pair of kolhapuri. When the Maharashtrian chappal found its fans in the scorching heat of the Middle Eastern desert, an idea for a startup struck him. This is the story of Desi Hangover.

Hitesh returned to India, refusing a plush job at a multi-national company. Back home, he partnered himself with Abha Agarwal and friend Omkar Pandharkame, who is also co-founder and CMO of Desi Hangover. In Egypt, Hitesh’s acquaintance, Lakshya Arora, a Chandigarh native, would eventually handle marketing in North India for Desi Hangover.

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Hitesh, Omkar and Abha

 

Omkar describes the startup as a ‘foster community entrepreneurship,’ where entrepreneurs like him (and his friends) foster skilled communities for both entrepreneurial and social causes. A full-time business, when Hitesh first approached Omkar with the idea, he had to convince him to drop his job with a German MNC.

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Lakshya

Here were four engineering, marketing and economics graduates working together to create genuine handmade leather footwear. Omkar says, “We needed to get to the roots of where to source leather from. Once we got on to a design, we tried to source out the best leather.” That journey took them to a rural village inhabited by a cobbler community in Karnataka.

100 kilometres from Belgaum and close to 70 kilometres from Meerut, the village is more of a hamlet where artisans come together to earn. “It’s not even recognised,” says Omkar. Until Desi Hangover, cobblers, with the influx of globalised mass production, were forced to make cheap substitutes that barely earned them ₹2,000-3,000 a month. An inconspicuous place, it had one bare bones structure for a school run out of a temple, and no benches. Once the entrepreneurs settled on this hamlet, they immediately began setting up a small manufacturing facility. Because the team was passionate about making their enterprise a socially-conscious business, they opened bank accounts for aritsans, helped them receive healthcare support and gave them seminars on microfinance. Desi Hangover eventually adopted the hamlet’s only school under its own programme Adopt a School. “Whatever money we earn,” says Omkar, “we pump it into the school to improve its facilities. We bought them computers; we’re trying to make it more accessible and a good place to study. This what we’re doing on the social side of entrepreneurship.”

Desi Hangover's Adopt a School programme
Desi Hangover’s Adopt a School programme
Scouts and gambles

On the business side, Desi Hangover first began with scouting international markets. Whilst the rest of the team travelled North India, Omkar visited Canada, Australia and Romania to see how well their products would sell. In Australia, the logistics didn’t pan out and government limitations on leather imports meant bleak prospects for a Desi Hangover down under. And unfortunately, the Canadian winter is no friend to leather sandals. “It would completely ruin six months of business,” says Omkar.

“West Europe has a lot of ‘nakhras’ (pretenses) in exports. But East and Central Europe is more welcoming.”

Desi Hangover went back to were it was first conceived: Egypt. “It was a place close to hearts.” He continues, “We created a lot of connections and met distributors in Egypt. It was a cake walk to enter. And we’d already known such a product was welcomed in this region.” The Middle East was a natural home for Desi Hangover products. It’s a place where sandal styles are named after the tribes that design them, the demand is high and competition stiff. Indian leather would comfortably sit next to the madas abou antal, the Turkish yemeni, Saudi madas sharqi or its expensive cousin, the zubairi, and many more. “It goes great with what they already make,” says Omkar. “We’re also exploring our options in Netherlands just to check if this product could work.”

As far as Omkar’s Romanian visit goes, it was simply a testing ground. He jokes, “West Europe has a lot of ‘nakhras’ (pretenses) in exports. But East and Central Europe is more welcoming. This whole hipster vibe first started in Germany, and it’s at its summit in Romania. It was simply a gamble that worked well.”

Soul to sole

“Our footwear’s biggest USP is it’s completely handmade, and it’s made from one of the finest leather in India. We use ethically sourced hand-tanned leather.” In Chennai, a cheaper substitute of artificial leather called Rexine leather is available and most-often used to make sandals. Rexine leather, originally founded and trademarked by Rexine Ltd, UK, is an environmentally exhaustive alternative to pure leather, which is more expensive. But Omkar says, “Leather is supposed to be expensive, and it justifies why my footwear is expensive. The leather market in India is not an organised one. When leather is auctioned off, there’s a big scarcity of ethically-sourced premium leather. Our aim is to not have the animal killed, but wait for the animal to complete its lifecycle.” He continues, “We have two major markets: Premium leather is sourced from Durgapur inWest Bengal. The other one is Agra, which has a good leather market.”

An artisan family fostered by Desi Hangover
An artisan family fostered by Desi Hangover

With India’s obsession for bargains, discounts and cheap prices, startup producers of premium leather goods feel the budget jab particularly hard. At the same time, Omkar says it’s also a matter of how well you market yourself. “If people are mature enough to differentiate between a denim jeans from Diesel and an off-brand jeans, then there’s no issue. It’s about recognising brands and quality.” The results of the end product also speak for themselves. Omkar says they use the best machines their money can buy, the leather is good quality, so the footwear naturally lasts longer. “I’m giving you three benefits: finest ethically-sourced leather handmade by artisans who’re actually employed.”

The employment also comes with its own predicaments. Unorganised sectors, for many reasons, slip back into disorder even when there are players like Desi Hangover trying to bring a semblance of order into the market. “They’re conditioned into being in unorganised markets – you order products and give it to the distributor. We, in fact, made a small video to show how we made a difference in the village and the situation with these artisans. They haven’t been formally trained, but their skill is passed down through their forefathers. It’s the only skill they know.” There’s also the added apprehension that comes with a poor, but highly experienced and skilled, 40-year old artisan working under a 22 year old.


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The road ahead

With an investor on board, a shop in Chandigarh, shipping internationally, huge success in markets like Kitsch Mandi and Sunday Soul Sante, 2015 is a vital year for Desi Hangover. “We need to see what we’ll be in the next two-to-three years. We wish to open shop. Though e-commerce is growing, it’s not as fast as I want for my business.”

Having a brick and mortar business also has its uses. “Because our footwear is handmade,” says Omkar, “we can’t have uniform sizes. To avoid that, we plan to open a couple of shops in Mumbai and Bengaluru.

Besides being 20-something year olds who, many times, people don’t take seriously, Desi Hangover’s biggest issue is actually time. Towards the end of last year, Romania was gripped in a harsh winter that reflected in the shoes’ sales. Similarly, monsoons are also a terrible period for these entrepreneurs where sales are almost non-existent. “There are many challenges – to take a leap in new products, getting the right kind of artisans, interviewing people, packaging and logistics. We’re relatively very small, so we don’t have a fool proof logistic system. In Mumbai, you’ll find me doing the delivery.” And unlike mass production, producing premium handmade leather products is a time-consuming art. At the moment, Desi Hangover averages to around 500 footwear a month, and the process is preceded by acquiring the leather, cutting it and drying it before use. It’s a process that cannot be hastened. “Our biggest concern is – Would we be able to deliver? If it goes more than 500, we can’t handle it, and we can’t hire right now. But when I see someone wearing our footwear, it’s a momentous pride,” says Omkar.

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