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From Chennai, with love: The Postbox makes you nostalgic

Athira Nair
19th Jan 2017
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A post box is an object that somehow makes you nostalgic, bringing back memories of an era of pen and paper, ink and warmth, and the excitement of receiving a little package, and this very sentiment was what inspired two youngsters from Chennai to start up.

Two friends — Madhuvanthi Senthil Kumar (23) and Nikhil Joseph (26) — named their product design firm ‘The Postbox’, wanting to get people to reconnect through design, and to give them a personal, nostalgic experience. Madhuvanti says, “The symbol of reconnection for us is a post box, in the most traditional manner. So we decided on the name instantly.”

Nikhil Joseph and Madhuvanthi Senthil Kumar

The Postbox’s philosophy in design and product development is influenced by the cultures and subcultures of India. “Ensuring utility and aesthetic sensibility, we design and create products for the Indian audience,” says Nikhil. Their catalogue has art and lifestyle sections; while there are postcards and wall art in the former, cushion covers, ceramic mugs, and the like make up the latter.

The two-year-old startup now has Rs 20–22 lakh revenue per month, with a profit margin of about 45 percent. Although they expect to be profitable this year, the journey has been a long one.

Building The Postbox

Nikhil and Madhuvanthi met through common friends. Having studied fashion design at Singapore’s Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (NAFA) and fashion management at Milan’s Istituto Marangoni, Madhuvanthi brings in the design expertise whereas ex-Facebook employee Nikhil takes care of strategy, technology, and marketing.

For Madhuvanthi, design comes first. “Designers are not artists; we inherently become entrepreneurs when we set out on our own. So entrepreneurship was a by-product of my desire to reach out to people through design,” she says.

Starting out, both co-founders luckily had family support. Nikhil comes from a family of entrepreneurs in Kerala. “A first-generation entrepreneur, my dad had stressed on The Postbox being a sustainable business, and made sure we abide by the legal and financial framework set by the government.”

Even Madhuvanthi’s grandparents stepped in for resources and supply chain set-up. She says,

“My mother helped us out for the longest time at the packaging unit until we got a core team in place, and my father, with his HR skills, offered us his network of people and expertise.”

The Postbox went live as a platform for upcoming artists and designers on a curated level in September 2014. “For months after launching, I travelled to understand the market — Mumbai, Delhi, Bengaluru, Jaipur, and Gurgaon — working with artisans and weavers. I found out that there is a gap for niche product design. People want something unique in design and yet affordable,” Nikhil recollects.

Accessory case from The Postbox

From May 2015, The Postbox started selling their own products manufactured in Puducherry, Pochampally, Kolkata, and Jaipur. “Our revenue was Rs 40,000 per month in April 2015. When we launched our product line including laptop bags in September 2015, it became Rs 9 lakh per month,” Madhuvanthi recollects.

Nikhil and Madhuvanthi also interacted with craftsmen in Auroville. About 80 women, all tsunami victims, were skilled with lamps. The Postbox worked with them to turn their work into a contemporary product line.

“From December 2015, about 20 artisans from a village near Kolkata started to make all terracotta products for The Postbox, and 1,000 pieces per week are sold even now,” Nikhil claims. So far, The Postbox has had over 27,000 orders.

Backend secrets

ThePostbox website is hosted on Shopify. All UX and UI changes are done internally. “Every time we work on a UX/UI change, we try to show maximum content in a seamless manner over a few minutes and gauge what the user wants to see based on history, purchasing pattern, and so on.”

The Postbox uses multiple sources for customer data, the most significant being Google Analytics. “We believe strongly in the practice of R&D. We experiment and develop each product using different materials and later test it on durability, utility, and aesthetic comfort,” Nikhil adds. Artisans and manufacturers are also involved in the design process as they can simplify the construction of each product.

The Postbox’s target audience is from 18–34. “We reach out to them through Instagram, Facebook, and collaborative stories through content-sharing websites and pop-ups,” says Nikhil.

In terms of product feedback, it works two ways.

Ceramic mugs from ThePostbox

“Every time a new product is launched, we reach out to the first 50 customers after 14–21 days of having the product delivered to them, and we ask them specific questions. Based on the analysis, we decide on what to act upon and what to eliminate and what makes sense in the long run.

“Every product after the sampling stage is tested by the team on an everyday basis for almost 14–21 days. Any sort of important utility change is then taken back to the production team,” Nikhil says.

About feedback on product design, the team considers how it will affect product positioning and pricing and impact customer experience. “For instance, after getting customer feedback, we added key holders inside bags so that finding the key is easier. A lot of our products have changed since the launch. They come with a utility factor, so we ask the customer how we can make it better,” Nikhil adds.

Mentors and funding

As with most startups, The Postbox’s toughest moment was when they were raising funds. Sify founder and lead investor at Chennai Angels R Ramaraj was their mentor. Since they were bootstrapped at the time, The Postbox couldn’t scale beyond a point although they were making Rs 15–16 lakh per month. So Ramaraj put in the bridge round and introduced them to Kanwaljit Singh. Soon Chennai Angels pitched in, as did Facebook’s Ritesh Mehta (who heads economic policies for Southeast Asia), and Bengaluru-based theatre artist Aruna Ganesh Ram.

Roll-up wallet from The Postbox

“When funds were drying up, we emailed everyone — including Ratan Tata. We got lucky; he invited us to meet. It was a unique pitching, not on metrics and numbers, but around product and strategy. He wanted to know where the leather was coming from and how old it was. We got clarity about taking our brand forward. He told us to scale vertically in one, before across verticals, for better brand recall. We implemented that, although he did not invest,” says Nikhil.

Future plans

The Postbox is now a team of 13 — in marketing, operations, design, and customer experience. They claim to have 100 percent annual growth. Designer bags and accessories which stand out with their style definitely have a market, especially with the likes of Chumbak and TheCrazyMe establishing themselves.

Being based in Chennai has its merits, Nikhil says. “It’s a virgin market — there are not many startups like this. The city is not too costly, it’s a leather hub, and provides proximity to artisans from Pondicherry. Those who manufacture our leather products also do it for brands like Land Rover,” he adds.

The Postbox claims that their success lies in the fact that there are now over 300 artisans across the country that are back to believing in the craft they grew up with, strengthening it, and willing to even scale it up.

There are plans to take the omni-channel route too. Madhuvanthi says, “We’ve been getting multiple requests about whether we have an offline space. So we are launching our first offline space in Chennai in March.”

The Postbox aims to cater to a large segment of people, rather than remain a niche player. There is no better time than now.

 

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