For any startup that harbours long-term ambitions, surviving the first year of operations and coming out unscathed is key. The first year brings with it self-doubts, human resource challenges, issues with co-founders if there are multiple partners, financial crunches, and market challenges. Tiding over these difficulties and surviving to tell the story by making it to the second year takes guts and perseverance, and only a few are blessed with it. YourStory is happy to present a new series of articles as part of the series Survival Instinct, that track how leading startups battled the demons and survived the first year of their operations. Today we bring to you the unique gifting platform Bigsmall.
Entrepreneurship was certainly a new experience for Aman and me – before we embarked on the Bigsmall adventure, both of us had good jobs in top companies in our respective industries. However, we both had this unstoppable urge to create something new, to make a difference in the world. This awakened the entrepreneur within us. We recognized a gap in the gifting industry – the lack of unique gifting portals. The time was also right – the e-commerce industry was booming and it was easy to enter. Eventually, we decided to take the plunge, creating Bigsmall.in.
As a famous entrepreneurship quote goes, “Entrepreneurship is living some time of your life like most people won’t, so that you can spend the rest of your life like most people can’t.” Certainly, the first year is the time you spend like most people won’t. Establishing the business took capital, and as a bootstrapped startup, it was just our previous savings. In the beginning, it was just Aman and me, and we did not take out any salaries for the first year. We kept reinvesting whatever revenue we made back into the business. We believed that our vision would lead to greater profits down the line rather than taking out minimal profits at the outset.
When you take such a plunge, people start doubting your decision to leave well-paid jobs to start your own business. This creates a certain kind of pressure but we were prepared for whatever came our way, with an unwavering belief in ourselves and the vision. As new entrepreneurs, we talked to a lot of people and learned from a lot of places. It wasn’t always smooth sailing. At the start, Aman and I had to pack all the products ourselves, as we didn’t have money to hire anyone. We needed a space to store our products, but at the start, we could not afford that either, so we stored and packed products out of our house’s storeroom.
Eventually, as business started to take off, we were able to hire our first person – an operations head – after 10 months. Two years later, we have a full-fledged operations team and a dedicated packaging team.
Once we entered the e-commerce segment, we realized entry was easy, but surviving wasn’t easy. The first year was all about survival. One of the key challenges early on is identifying your brand’s niche. As an e-commerce company, a lot of customers expected us to offer the same services as Amazon, Flipkart, and Snapdeal. These big companies had set the benchmark of what an e-commerce portal should do, which was primarily offering discounts and free returns. But without even a fraction of the kind of resources these companies have, we were not in a position to compete with these companies and do what they did.
For a customer, it is not easy to understand the distinction, so we began to differentiate ourselves and build our own niche – that of unique and quirky gifts.
Very quickly, it became apparent to both us and our customers that we were just not any e-commerce company – we had our own niche. We were never competing with the likes of Amazon, and we began creating our own space through our unique style and collection. All that was only possible because we identified our niche quickly.
It was also important to have realistic, step-by-step goals for progression. Casual outsiders think entrepreneurship is about making big bucks quick, but that’s not how it works. We had planned the first year to be a proof-of-concept – understanding the industry, the market, the business, the targeted audience, our niche, and implementing our own. We tested the waters gradually and saw if our idea worked.
At the outset, we kept limited products, so that we didn’t have to stock a large inventory of items. We also tested each and every product to see how it fared in the market before ordering large quantities. Stock management was extremely important to avoid excess stocking, but we needed to have enough stock to manage our campaigns and requirements and drive more revenues. We identified certain fast-moving products, which would drive customers to our website, and built our inventory around them.
It was also fundamental for us to completely believe in our idea. Once we believed, we had more conviction to express it to our customers. If you don’t believe in your idea yourself, how will you make others believe in it? It was the passion that kept us driven – the passion to create something, be unique, and make our own space led us from then, to now.
Especially in the case of an e-commerce business, sourcing and logistics are the fundamentals of your business, and it was imperative to get them spot-on. In the first year, sourcing products from various locations was one of the biggest challenges. We did not have much knowledge in that field, but we talked to a lot of people and gained a lot of knowledge. We curated an inventory of high-quality, unique yet utilitarian products to attract customers to our website and carve out our niche.
Naturally, for an online business, a fully functioning website is the spine. Since a customer’s first impression is based on the website’s design and content – and it’s human nature to have first impressions last long – that was not an area we could compromise on. We tried out a lot of different platforms to see what worked best for us. After eight months, we settled on Shopify, an e-commerce solution which gave us the best platform for us to base our business on.
For e-commerce portals, logistics and shipping are one of the most important processes. It is something you may not have direct control over, yet it has a huge bearing on your reputation amongst customers. Thus, it was another area we had to find the best. We tied up with several of the biggest shipping companies to ensure our customers got timely delivery. As a gifting portal, delivering according to the timeline was all the more important.
In case of shipping, we believed that communication with the customer is key. There should be absolutely no communication gaps to leave the customer wondering, even when it is not in our own control. Even if it was a single day delay, we used to personally call up the customers to keep them in the loop at all times. Communication leaves clarity in the mind of the customer and leads to higher satisfaction. We believe this has also been one of our biggest differentials from ordinary e-commerce websites.
You have an idea, you believe in it – now you have to make the customers believe in it, and buy your products. It was important to build a trust amongst our customers and let them know that what we were selling was indeed real and genuine, especially made integral by the fact that as a unique gifting portal, most of our products were so quirky that the customers had never seen them before, and often they wanted to see it to believe it.
We came up with an idea to set up a WhatsApp number, where customers could request real-time pictures of a product they were interested in. Often, in the e-commerce segment, customers feel let down when they don’t receive what they see on the website. We believed in creating trust by making absolutely clear what the product they would be ordering is.
It would also serve as a platform for customers to freely ask any questions about products on WhatsApp chat, and know that there was indeed a human on the other side they were talking to, not a bot. We also often called up our customers. We focused on not just selling unique gifts. We also wanted to create a unique experience – the Bigsmall experience – of buying from Bigsmall, and these personalized touches helped in creating this experience.
Till today, we have this real-time pictures and queries on WhatsApp feature. This helped us create transparency and trust amongst our customers. We believe our transparency also helped us differentiate from e-commerce websites while tackling the challenge of creating trust.
Entrepreneurship is akin to riding a dragon – there are more ups and downs than you can ever imagine. But every challenge on the way only makes you stronger, and every failure only bears new learnings. As Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos said, “I knew that if I failed I wouldn’t regret that, but I knew the one thing I might regret is not trying,” and look where trying got him. If you have an idea, if you believe you can execute it, and if you have the belief in yourself, take a ride on this roller coaster and see where it lands you.
Yatin Hans is the Co-founder of Bigsmall.in.
(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of YourStory.)