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Walking the tightrope of success: Manisha’s journey from starting up to acquisition

Tanvi Dubey
22nd Sep 2016
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With almost everyone in the Indian startup ecosystem gunning for funding, bootstrapping seems passé. Only those with mettle and courage can sustain over a period of time and stay bootstrapped. Manisha Lath Gupta has proved that she has the mettle for she started, and sustained a business over a decade, and has seen it acquired and rebranded.

Manisha started IndiaArtCollectors in 2005, which was later rebranded as Mojarto. It is a democratic platform for artists, galleries, buyers, and dealers. “Though the name has changed, the core remains the same,” says 44-year-old Manisha, Co-founder and CEO of Mojarto.

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The first steps

In 2002, Manisha and her husband began collecting art. This hobby turned into an addiction, which led them to every gallery in town. “As I explored the industry more and more, I realised that the art market was quite inefficient. So I started IndianArtCollectors with an aim to build awareness and transparency in the market,” says Manisha.

In the absence of marketplaces and lack of social media, building a community, drawing traffic and building a customer base was done only by word of mouth. Being a niche category, the biggest challenge was convincing people to buy art. It remains a challenge even today.

From moonlighting to a full-time entrepreneur

Born in Chandigarh, Manisha graduated in 1997 from IIM Bangalore, where she did a PGDBA. She worked with Unilever for eight years. In 2004, she joined Colgate Palmolive and moonlighted as an entrepreneur for six years till she joined Axis Bank. While at Axis Bank, Manisha decided to keep away from her venture to avoid conflict of interest. During this time her sister, Anuja Lath, took over the reigns of IndiaArtCollectors to help her out.

In 2014, Manisha decided to quit her job and become a full-time entrepreneur.

I felt that IndianArtCollectors was now ready for my full-time attention. With e-commerce booming, the one thought that kept nagging me was that someone else would do the same thing that I was doing for so long and manage to scale up.

Her learning’s at the bank were put to good use. “At a bank, digital channels are a major source of customer acquisition, engagement and service delivery. Given the fact that I ran the electronic banking group for the bank, as CMO, I quickly became well versed with technology, user experience, digital marketing and customer lifecycle management - something that I had not done earlier. This helped me evolve IndianArtCollectors further and I started applying the same principles there. Developing a new user experience, responsive across web and mobile, putting a strong email engagement plan in place were some of the things I did when I started running it full time in 2014.”

Acquisition and rebranding

Manisha shares that her running costs were vey low and the venture paid for itself. “Typically, we did an annual turnover of about 1.25 crore and had healthy margins of about 20 percent. The period from 2011 to 2015 saw accelerated investment spurred as technology was evolving rapidly, competition

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began to spring up and we had to make significant investments in UX/UI, digital marketing and operations.”

However, despite all the investments in technology and operation, volumes did not scale up in a commensurate manner. It was at this point, Manisha realised that customer mindset through media, PR and storytelling was the need of the hour. “NDTV was looking to set up an e-commerce venture around art. We happened to meet, and realised that IndianArtCollectors was an ideal platform for NDTV to build their business on as it had already built a large aggregation and community of art lovers and creators. That’s what led to the acquisition,” she says.

Currently, Mojarto has become the point of aggregation for the art and design community with over 17,000 original and curated artworks and products. The product was revamped aesthetically to create a sleeker experience. “I think the site has never looked better.”

Malvika Mehra (former NCD and EVP, Grey Worldwide India) and Jayesh Raut (former creative controller at Ogilvy and Mather) and the team from NDTV came up with a new name and IndiaArtCollectors was rebranded as Mojarto in 2015.

The platform currently has a team of over 15 members.

Acquisitions: advice for entrepreneurs

Speaking of the acquisition, Manisha says,

It’s a bitter sweet feeling. You feel good, because you feel you are taking your venture to the next level – giving wings to your idea, realising a bigger vision. But you feel sad because its no longer only your venture – other stakeholders are now involved, and sometimes their vision or direction may be quite different.

As someone who has been there and done that, Manisha has good advice for entrepreneurs:

When entering into an acquisition deal, one has to be prepared to 'let go'. “The most important learning is that no matter how much one believes in a joint vision, there will always be a dominant party in the relationship and it will be the one with the majority shareholding. If one is not ready to let go, one should not get acquired.”

It is essential to stay up to date with legal paperwork. “No matter how much you trust each other, it’s important to follow the legal protocol - this protects the rights of both parties, and saves them from unnecessary stress. Acquisition is not a marriage where both parties live happily ever after - its a sell out - and you have to be prepared for that, and reasonably strong about it, as it does mean giving up your baby to someone else.”

It is important to step with caution and not rush into a deal. “Understand your acquirer well and evaluate what they bring to the table. Listen to your lawyers – they don’t charge so much for nothing!”

Her experience, age and maturity, Manisha feels, have been plus points in engaging with a board and investors.

Just like any job, here also we have difference of opinion, but the key is to put out your point in a mature manner.

Road map

With a career spanning almost two decades, Manisha has used her experience and learning wisely. Despite the challenges, she knew how to aggregate the market, attract users, drive conversions and make art interesting and engaging. “That’s what we did at IndiaArtCollectors, and that’s what we are good at doing with Mojarto,” she says.

The only thing Manisha feels they are lacking is abstract works of art. She wants to sell some of the existing collection on Mojarto and acquire works from some newer younger artists.

As she continues to grow strong with Mojarto, she confesses that is has not been easy.

It’s been a great adventure – founding a business, growing it and selling it. But its not for the faint hearted,

words of wisdom from someone who has been there and done that.

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