From fashion to frosting: How Kingsley Jegan Joseph and Divya Ramasamy found the sweet spot for their business
The duo who studied design and worked for racing gear manufacturers and IT majors in the US, came back to India to start Bite Me Cupcakes. This is their #PassiontoPaycheck story.
When a famous film actor waits in a car at a random street corner, just to pick up a box of cupcakes from your store, you know you’ve arrived as a baker.
“They really like our product but can’t share their addresses with us for home delivery. In any case, we are happy to serve them,” says Kingsley Jegan Joseph, who co-founded the quirkily named Bite Me Cupcakes with his wife Divya Ramasamy.
Kingsley and Divya met at fashion school in Chennai (the National Institute of Fashion Technology) in 1997. After graduation, they started their “first, short-lived venture together” -- a brand called Sapiens, which made t-shirts with funny, sarcastic and smartass slogans. “We didn’t gain the traction we were hoping for, so we both took up jobs,” says Kingsley.
From racing gear and code, to flour, butter and ovens
Divya initially worked in apparel export companies, but wanted to be on the business side of fashion, and went to the US to do an MBA. After graduating from the University of Texas, she worked for several brands across the US, mainly Fox Racing, where she managed highly technical motorcycle racing gear, from armoured suits to helmets and gloves. Her work took her everywhere, from race tracks in the US to factories in Vietnam and China, and she even made a couple of solo trips to Pakistan.
On the other hand, Kingsley worked for a year in, what he terms as a ‘surprisingly boring’ lingerie factory in Ambattur, Tamil Nadu while also moonlighting as a web designer. This was when the dotcom bubble was happening, and he found himself finding getting more interesting and lucrative tech assignments. So, he finally made the switch to IT entirely, where he went from being a web designer to user experience designer, An MBA at Indiana University followed after which, he became a fairly accomplished product manager at salesforce.com, and then at Digital Chocolate in the Bay Area.
So from racing gear and code, to a world of flour, butter and sugar – how did the shift happen?
After eight years in the US, in 2007, the duo decided to spend the next decade of their lives pursuing entrepreneurial opportunities, and zeroed in on India as the best place to attempt that. “We wrote up a list of different business ideas we could try after moving back to India, and this (the baking business) was one of them.”
After returning to India in 2010, they individually attempted a few startup opportunities, deciding they would team up and pursue whatever gained better traction. Kingsley founded a travel startup called TripThirsty with four other people, while Divya dabbled in interior décor. “But none of them gained the kind of traction or had the kind of promising unit economics we saw when we started Bite Me as a small, home-based baking experiment. So we put all our eggs into one basket, and opened a store in Indiranagar, in Bengaluru, in 2013,” he says.
Experimenting to find the right recipe for success
Their MBA background came in handy. “We employed a lean startup methodology-- made the product, took it to market, and saw what people were willing to pay for it. We did a lot of experimentation, including putting up stalls at apartment functions, and even varied the price points during the day to see which one would work best. Then we sat down and worked out the economics of whether it was worth doing something like this.” They went ahead with the idea because not only was the business trendy, they also figured that it would get a whole lot of promotion and press on its own, without much effort from them.
“It's been five years now, and we've been through some ups and downs, and we have learnt a ton. We run three stores in two cities (Bengaluru and Chennai), and are rearing to grow even more,” he says. In Bengaluru, they have a team of 10 while the Chennai branch has four employees.
In the five years since they started Bite Me Cupcakes, their brand has become synonymous with cupcakes that deliver both on taste and looks. In fact, that’s what sets them apart, says Kingsley. “Customers know that our products always taste fresh and always look cute. That’s because we bake from first principals. At regular bakeries, they use premixes that have preservatives and stabilisers. Visit our bakery and you will find sacks of flour, sugar, milk, cream, in fact everything that you would use in a regular kitchen. So, people can taste the difference.”
They say that the market has changed significantly since they started. The entry of delivery channels like Swiggy and Zomato has made a huge difference, to the extent that today 25 percent of their sales are via Swiggy.
Design thinking in all aspects
With the duo’s background in design, it was only natural that it would reflect in their business. “Our design thinking has gone into everything, from process design-- how do we have a product that consistently performs well on the attributes that we care about, to the store design, the way we position the brand, and the kind of aesthetic that we create. In fact, from the beginning, people always thought of us as a bigger brand than we actually were. Even when we didn’t even have a store, people always associated us with a larger scale of operations because of small touches like a recorded message that played when someone called us.”
He continues, “We used our design background in a number of ways to create a better customer experience. An interesting one was our packaging. One of the biggest problems with cupcakes is that they are more fragile than eggs and would get damaged in transit. So we went through several iterations of how we would package them, until we came up with the design that we currently use which is pretty foolproof.”
Kingsley even used his tech background to write some background apps that pull in data from the shops, which populate the previous day’s sales and related figures, which help with the day-to-day planning.
Plans for the near future include a foray into the regular cakes business. Again, a major pain point for them is figuring out how to deliver the cakes across the city reliably and without damage. “Once we crack that challenge, we will have a nice big slice of the market we want to go after,” says Kingsley.
Both Kingsley and Divya are first-generation entrepreneurs, who were advised that both shouldn’t quit their jobs at the same time to start a business. Most felt that Kingsley should keep his ‘obese IT paycheck’. “But doing things together is a lot more fun,” says Kingsley.
He says it was the eight years that they spent in the US, which acted as a catalyst. “Our business degrees, the calibre of people we got to work with, observing up close how an entrepreneurial ecosystem like the Bay Area flourishes, and simply observing how some of the best businesses in the world are run -- gave us the insight and confidence that we could make something cool and grow it.”
The sweet taste of freedom
Running one’s own business is definitely challenging. But ask Kingsley what the best part of being one’s own boss is and pat comes the response: “Freedom is the biggest upside. We have friends who make more money than us, friends who inherited a lot more money, etc. But none of that beats making your own money by serving your own customers with a quality product. We have the time and energy to enjoy our success in ways very few other people do.”
Surprisingly, their response to being asked about turning their passion into paycheck is not what you would expect. “There are few phrases that get as many eyerolls from us as “follow your passion”. Passion is overrated. Our generation is wasting its life searching for passion in the same way that the previous generation wasted it looking for stability,” says Kingsley. He goes on to clarify, “Not that we have anything against passion - it’s nice, but fleeting. To follow passions and dreams means to tie yourself to something that’s necessarily ephemeral, and the very act of following it breaks it. We’d rather seek freedom instead.”