Avneet Mann and Vivita Relan had wildly different career trajectories till they came together to commiserate in unison about the sorrow of not being children any longer. Avneet says, “I went through the high-achieving arc of college, MBA, marketing job at MNC A, hopped across to MNC B for a bigger
salary. I hacked it for eight years in the corporate sector. Then had a quarter life crisis about what I was doing with my life. It led me to understand I needed to be part of something I truly enjoyed and believed in – to be happy. Next step was to summon the courage to make that leap from a steady salary with a predictable upward trajectory to unpredictable, uncharted territory without a pay check.”
Vivita, on the other hand, was on a different level of experimentation altogether. She says, “My corporate ‘career’ lasted exactly nine months before I realised that I didn’t have the thick skin and cut-throat ambition to cut it. So I cashed in my chips and dabbled around for a bit. I tried writing non-fiction for a while, and then content writing for websites. Then joined a newspaper agency – and ended up heading the food section for the City paper of national newspaper Hindustan Times. I ended up liking food more than I thought and I went on to launch a regional restaurant with a friend. Avneet and I were in discussions for a while about starting something together, something which interested us and we felt passionate about, and so it began.”
Wishing Chair was born out of a deep desire to recapture childhood while still enjoying the adulthood perks that a pay check brings. Avneet explains the concept, “The Wishing Chair is a lifestyle retail brand in the home accessories and gifting space. With a strong creative and feminine aesthetic, the Wishing Chair seeks to connect with its customer on a personal level, imparting a sense of wonder and happy nostalgia. As women who decided to make ourselves the target customer – we felt we knew where to fill in the gaps in the market.
It operates out of two stores in the Delhi NCR and its website www.wishingchair.in. To create a holistic shopping experience, both our stores house The Mad Teapot cafe to allow our customers time to unwind and truly soak in the atmosphere of the space.”
Vivita adds, “We design and curate our products – adapting designs to our aesthetic. We have a team of designers from leading Indian design schools that design, illustrate, and dream up the tchotchkes we sell. They all have to speak the same language: magical, dreamy, fairy-tale, whimsical, feminine, playful, and wondrous.”
The Wishing Chair was a name derived from Enid Blyton’s children book series, a firm fixture in the duo’s childhood memories. “We felt it has the same transportive nature of the magical chair, making you believe you’ve been transported to the fantasy world of your childhood stories. We hope entering the store has that influence on people, tugging at those wistful heartstrings that pine for a more magical, simpler time,” says Avneet.
It’s not all magic and whimsy for the co-founders. The business model of Wishing Chair is also fuelled by hard economic facts. Avneet says, “In India – a pinteresque culture is booming – fuelled largely by an Instagram obsession. Everybody is a curator, photographer, stylist today – but most of all, they have all become visual artists. Seeking expression in the most photogenic ways possible. The Wishing Chair is expanding dimensions in the trend. Pinteresque culture not only allows you to commercialise prettiness (click to buy if you like what you see) – but also allows the scope of the business to extend beyond selling traditional products. It focuses on channelling emotions and experiences – letting customers ‘own’ your brand, to adapt and mould it into their world, and therefore be more vested in it,” explains Avneet.
And that’s how two women with (comparatively) limited resources distinguish themselves from giant e-commerce brands with limitless pockets. “And that’s how we distinguish ourselves from giant e-coms. As businesses are getting hyperlocal with their problem-solving – we are into local community building. Our brand has a distinct persona, a personal connect, an aesthetic ethos – that is very thoroughly conveyed to our customer. TWC has a face – and we show it frequently through interactions and local events; whose purposes aren’t wholly commercial, but to create a bond between the customer and community. These could include building a social net in a neighbourhood by hosting open house events, boosting new entrepreneur awareness with pop-ups, and promoting crafts and creative skills through afternoon craft sessions,” says Vivita.
Back in 2012 when Wishing Chair was founded, it was a different ball game. The two women marvel at how fast the industry’s evolved. Avneet says, “It’s ironic how so much has changed in just three years – the money flooding in the market right now is unprecedented. Every MBA dropout and IIT graduate is getting funded on mere business ideas. And the kind of money that would take most bricks and mortar companies over 30 years to accumulate. Funding seems to be coming in many forms, such as the more formalised VC funding, or benevolent angel investing, or wildly unpredictable crowd funding.”
She understands that more funding means more opportunities for individuals like her to start up. But then there’s the dark side as well. “Of course – more funding means a lot more competition – which means everyone has to over promise and over deliver. Which means the customer can look forward to some good times. However, funding can exert excessive pressure to expand in ways that may not be feasible or necessary – to abide by an arbitrary excel sheet business plan,” she muses.
Wishing Chair doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Profits are important. But so is connecting to the core of the business. Avneet and Vivita are determined to scale on their own terms. “Well that’s already in the works. We are expanding our team. Setting up robust, real-time ERP systems to better manage and control our supply management, inventory tracking, purchasing and financials. We’re of the firm belief that once your operations are strong everything else falls into place. Then you can scale – without quality loss. There is a certain sense of responsibility we owe to our team members and to the customer. Go big or go bust – that’s not our motto. Maybe that needs to modify – we’re not sure yet. But for now, we are scaling up on solid ground.”
Routine Indian problems threaten to undermine the existence of this solid ground from time to time. Avneet and Vivita share some of the biggest woes they’ve had to deal with to keep Wishing Chair afloat. “Indian-specific startups tend to mostly have similar laments; especially for those that start out as brick and mortar companies. Infrastructure: electricity, plumbing, roads, refrigeration, build quality. If you’re in the retail or food space, especially one of these things is going to give you the finger.
The Government – It’s a ‘dark hole.’ Red tape, bribes, corruption, opacity of rules and their overall murderous need to crush anything that starts up. Taxes – We’ve ended up paying obnoxious taxes based on new loopholes, or because someone else didn’t file theirs. Dealing with suppliers/vendors – They seem to be in a time warp when a commitment of next week actually means whenever they feel like it over the next six months. While there have been no major setbacks, there have been road blocks, which are totally in tandem with any business that starts up in India. So far, it’s been relatively smooth – we hope nothing too catastrophic comes our way anytime soon.”
But as with anything that comes with a flipside, the upside is a delight. “If looked at from the right perspective,” says Vivita wryly. “It’s great to decide you can go on a vacation whenever you like – but now you’re not going on vacation for a while, because while you are chief everything officer, not much can function without you being around.”
Both of them adore ‘to not having to wake up in the morning and be at some over-zealously air conditioned open-space cubicle at 9 am.’ “But now you have to push yourself every day – with motivation you might not feel you have,” adds Avneet. The best perk though is, “No boss, an office with a recliner as a desk, and the ability to say ‘we made this’.”
The two charming ladies have some heartfelt advice for those contemplating a journey similar to theirs: “Get in it for the right reasons: don’t get in it because everyone else is building an app, or because you think you’re going to get rich or because you think all managers in the corporate world are slaves (they are mostly not). Get in it because you are solving a problem, you love finding solutions to things, and you are willing to do the work to build something of substance.”
As they gear up for Wishing Chair’s most ambitious strategy yet – ‘a three-year plan – to open eight stores across India, setting up a huge design lab – where we innovate to own experiential commerce with a certain aesthetic for our target consumer, and a dynamic, thriving international online presence and a large farmhouse office with a pool (the prerequisite for every startup these days) – here’s wishing them every success. And reminding that no matter how arduous the trek ahead, Enid Blyton would always be there to welcome them home.