As competition gets more intense, how are entrepreneurs managing to create brand recall for themselves?
Those who can create better customer value, find an unaddressed market and the right product market fit, pass on efficiency gains directly to customers, and find the sweet spot for their brand and stick to it, manage to cut through the clutter.
Here are four startups who have cracked this puzzle, and their founders share the story of how they found the right market fit and their future plans.
“Comfort doesn’t mean compromising on style or being boring,” says Rashida Pankhawala, founder of The Floating Pineapple, a six-month old startup that offers Indo-Western garments.
Rashida had dreamed of being a fashion designer but couldn’t pursue it due to unforeseen events. Instead, she worked at a leading digital advertising company in Mumbai for six-and-a-half years before finally going after her dream.
Today, she plays the roles of visionary, strategist, marketer, manager, executer, photographer, content writer, graphic designer and video editor of her startup. “Because I had exposure to most of the roles in my earlier company and because I have strong family support, I am able to multi-task,” she says.”
The real challenge for Rashida is ensuring growth of the niche brand. “While I believe everyone has an audience, the size of that audience is diminishing because of the market clutter. Retailing through big marketplaces is great from an exposure angle but not always profitable for a young brand.” That is why Rashida believes that putting greater focus on the brand’s own portal is the key. “And, if you can have an offline presence. That adds value as well.”
According to her, another challenge in building a niche brand is “actually finding your niche and trying to showcase the value you add. Not everybody understands this, which may cause you a lot of self-doubt.”
Her own self-doubts were put to rest when she launched her first collection on The Floating Pineapple. She says, “We received a positive response across various elements, the style, the fabric and the entire garment. Now we are looking forward to releasing the second collection with more positivity.”
She is also working towards building a better online presence, better marketing and participating in more events. “The plan to set up a brick and mortar store is in the works.”
As a first-time entrepreneur, she believes that there is immense support for entrepreneurs. “Be it mentoring, financials, or technology — the ecosystem is so supportive. And, being part of a programme like Facebook’s SheLeadsTech has been a knowledge and confidence booster.”
SheLeadsTech is an initiative by Facebook that focuses on helping women entrepreneurs like Rashida and women-founded startups go further in the startup journey by providing access to mentors, connect them to fellow entrepreneurs and give them access to tools, technologies and knowledge.
As an illustrative designer, Amrita Nambiar wanted to make her art a part of people’s everyday lives. She dreamt of working with light as a medium to create this interaction. “When you switch on a beautiful soft light, it changes a conversation, a mood and a space. It allows you to step into a different realm where you can slow down and dream a little.” So she started Olie in 2015 in Bengaluru.
What began as home-based light studio today has grown into a lifestyle brand with 300 SKUs. Olie launched its online store in 2017 and it continues to be their main retail window. Today, Olie is also designing office spaces. “Restaurants, spas, hotels, or just redoing office spaces, we are open to it,” says Amrita.
Looking back on her journey, Amrita says, “I didn’t realise how consuming and gruelling it would be.” Chuckling, she adds, “I may not have taken this path had I known all that it meant.” However, Amrita goes on to say, “Entrepreneurship isn’t about achieving goals alone. The journey is what makes it such an incredible experience.”
Having successfully nurtured a niche brand, competition is not something she worries too much about. “As long as we make something unique enough, we will see a demand for it.”
January Leathers was founded in June 2018, and handcrafts leather bags and accessories.
Founder Swati Chandrasekhar completed her B.Tech in Leather Technology and began working at a leather finishing unit. Marriage into a business family found her actively involved in the running of the business. Once she felt she had the necessary experience, she started her own business.
Initially, she spent a lot of time designing, getting feedback, streamlining manufacturing and working on prototypes. “It was all about understanding what leather suits which designs, which patterns work better etc. The process was lengthy and slow. But it was important to get the product right.”
Swati says, “The leather sector is export oriented. A number of global brands outsource their manufacturing to countries like India because we have the expertise and technical knowhow. Yet, buying a good branded bag in India is expensive because what is produced here gets exported.”
January Leathers aims to bridge this gap of “affordable luxury”. Swati says that they carefully curate and process their own leathers in sustainable tanneries. What also distinguishes the startup is that their products are handmade and limited edition.
So are bigger brands and marketplaces competition? Swati responds, “It’s like having 10 restaurants that all serve almost the same dal, yet each has a different taste. You will have customers loyal to each. Similarly, our designs resonate with our audience and that’s what keeps us growing.”
Swati feels there is a growing opportunity for niche startups. “Indian consumers today prefer to buy products that are affordable yet not ordinary. They are willing to experiment.”
While the tribe of conscious and experimental consumers grows, you also have entrepreneurs who are willing to support each other as a community. “SheLeadsTech has been one such community,” says Swati. “It is reassuring to be associated with a peer group because all startups face similar kind of challenges even when we are working on different products or are in different sectors.”
After working in the US in retail and management consulting roles, Shweta Sharma moved to India in 2015. While shopping for her work wardrobe here, she was dissatisfied. “I was looking for functional pieces that were comfortable and chic. Unable to find any, I discussed with my friends and colleagues to realise they faced the same issue. Workwear in India was one-dimensional.”
That’s when the IIT Bombay graduate and her sister, Prachi, came up with the idea for Ombre Lane. The sisters spent nearly nine months studying body shapes, sizes and functional requirements of working women in India by interviewing over 1,000 women. “We found that over 70 percent of Indian women have a pear-shaped body and an average height of 5 feet 2 inches. But over 80 percent of western wear available in the market was made for a woman who is 5 feet 7 inches tall and has a rectangular body, which is more common in the west. We used our findings to create the right designs and fit for Indian women. Even today, we continue to refine our size charts and fits based on customer feedback and sales/return data.”
Ombré Lane was launched in 2018 and offers sophisticated work pieces with emphasis on functionality. The founder explains, “The women’s workwear market in India is over Rs.10,000 crore. As more women join the workforce and move towards western wear, the market is poised to grow at 15-20% CAGR over next five years. The big brands are just scratching the surface and since the choices available score low on functionality, design, trends, quality and fit, startups like Ombré Lane have the opportunity to make the cut.”
She adds, “There is lack of branding ecosystem for startups in India, so we need to find innovative ways to create brand awareness sans mega-budgets.” Here, Ombré Lane has leveraged corporate events, content and social media to drive awareness.
The next one year will see the startup expanding its direct-to-consumer channel with an eye on establishing Ombré Lane as the go-to workwear brand in India. Talking the SheLeadsTech programme, Shweta says, “I believe it’s a great platform for women founders to meet like-minded folks and build a network.”
Created to support women-founded startups, the SheLeadsTech programme provides access to community, tools, mentorship and resources to overcome barriers and succeed in building a business in technology. This includes FbStart, a programme that provides year-round technical support from Facebook, through an exclusive community of global startups, free credits to tools, training on Facebook Developer Tools, and services from dozens of premier partners, including MailChimp, App Annie, and Amazon.
SheLeadsTech also provides access to mentors in the industry through monthly Ask Me Anything (AMA) sessions and quarterly in-person engagements at events. Participants will also have access to a peer community on Facebook, who will act as a much-needed support network for these women.
So, if you are a woman founder/co-founder, and have a tech-enabled startup or apps, then the SheLeadsTech programme is what you need to grow. Find out how to apply here.