Seeing his mother suffer from osteoporosis prompted this entrepreneur to launch women’s wellness startup &Me
In 2015, when Ankur Goyal was studying at Stanford Business School, his mother was diagnosed with osteoporosis, a condition where one’s bones become fragile and porous. Incidentally, data reveals that more women than men suffer from it.
Seeing her condition, Ankur started researching the disease. Soon, he realised that women have several unique health and nutritional needs because of menstruation, pregnancy, and menopause.
Ankur found that more than 54 percent of women in India are iron deficient versus 23 percent men, and 50 percent of women are calcium deficient versus 25 percent men. These nutritional deficiencies can be a result of lifestyle, social, and cultural factors.
And then, today’s hustle culture has also led to a rise in hormonal imbalances, Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), post pregnancy hair loss, fatigue, and severe menopause.
To address this alarming situation, Ankur co-founded Merhaki Foods (parent company of &Me) with Sheta Mittal in September 2017. A women’s health and wellness brand, &Me focusses on solving women’s functional needs across menstrual health, fitness, beauty, and wellness.
Founders of &Me- Ankur and Sheta
At present, &Me has over one lakh consumers and is present in more than 600 retail stores across five cities in India. Its products are also available across all online platform.
The startup claims to be seeing month-on-month growth of 40 to 50 percent.
In December 2017, &Me received an undisclosed amount of seed funding. This year, the startup raised a follow-on investment round from Matrix Partners India and Consumer VC Fund Sauce.vc. According to its Registrar of Companies (RoC) filings, Matrix Partners invested Rs 5.6 crore.
An obvious choice
Ankur has always been passionate about innovation in the food and beverage industry and the choice to start up in this sector was an obvious choice. Before taking the entrepreneurial plunge, he had worked at Nestle and Paper Boat. In fact, he almost bought a food company in Brazil during his Stanford days.
But then &Me happened.
The startup’s current portfolio includes five health drinks for women, including India's first range of PMS drinks. These help women during their pre-menstrual symptoms – bloating, cramps, and mood swings. &Me also retails a drink for PCOS aimed at hormonal balance, and range of beauty products focussing on healthy hair and skin from within.
In a conversation with YourStory, Sheta says, “We are innovatively combining the powers of ancient Indian Ayurveda with modern nutritional science for a holistic solution. Our bodies need vitamins and minerals on a daily basis for proper functioning and protect itself from diseases. Ayurveda complements nutritional science to re-establish balance and heal the body and soul from within.”
The startup claims that its drinks have five Ayurvedic super herbs, 12 vitamins and minerals, and two to four fruits and vegetables. Apart from solving functional needs, each 200 ml bottle supplies 30 percent of a woman’s daily micronutrient requirements.
"We add no preservatives, no artificial colours or flavours, no refined sugar, and are vegan (by nature) and gluten-free,” adds Sheta.
Blending the right way
However, starting up wasn’t easy. The first challenge was to get women to open up and talk freely about menstrual health. Ankur adds that while several companies, over the last two decades, are trying to spread awareness and solve for menstrual hygiene, it still is a taboo in India.
“Once we got to know what women are looking for, our second challenge was to combine ancient Ayurveda and Modern Nutritional Science, two supposedly different schools of thoughts together, for a holistic solution. Getting experts of each field in the same room to collaborate, brainstorm, and develop the product was tricky, but with the vision to solve for women’s wellness, we were able to come up with drinks that are not only healthy but also tasty for consumers! We continually outperform in blind taste tests with consumers,” says Ankur.
He recollects that the first attempt at mixing herbs with minerals and vitamins resulted in a scary product, which no one dared to taste.
Armed with one-and-a-half years of research, the team came closer to achieving the balance between herbs, minerals, and vitamins that go into a product. “We have done over 10,000 iterations on our products during the development stage. This balance is a de-risking factor for us against others who might try to perform similar experiments,” says Ankur.
The next challenge was scaling. The co-founder adds that this has been an issue in the offline market where retailers are male. Ankur says the startup is lucky to have a phenomenal sales team who came up with out-of-the-box solutions like driving trials and making retailers understand the products.
Building the team
Ankur says, “One always looks for familiarity and comfort, and my first hires were two people I had worked with at Nestle and Paper Boat. While hiring, I am looking for someone that fulfils three criteria: a strong personal connect, eagerness to be part of the grand vision, and proven skill sets (through reference checks).”
He adds that most hires have been inbound or were referred by friends, and friends of friends.
"Even my co-founder Sheta, who is passionate about health and wellness reached out to me via LinkedIn. Within the first couple of meetings, I was confident that she has the same amount of grit, passion, and craziness to get this vision going. Sheta was my 110th interviewee for the role of co-founder, and I don’t think I could have found anyone better than her,” says Ankur.
Setting up the operations
Having people from Paper Boat and Nestle helped the startup be well-positioned to establish a good manufacturing setup and supply chain with the right network. The team already knew the right suppliers for ingredients and packaging materials, and contract manufacturers with high standards.
“However, the challenge lay in holding strong to our principle of not using any preservatives or artificial flavours or artificial colours in the drinks. There are a handful of suppliers who have facilities that support that. But, with the right team in place and in-house R&D capabilities we were able to resolve a lot of our roadblocks quickly and swiftly,” adds Sheta.
It took the team Rs 60 lakh to Rs 1 crore to set the initial foundation.
Each 200ml bottle is priced at Rs 80 at retail. The average basket size is around six bottles, but for PCOS and beauty, the startup sees several consumers buying monthly packs of 30.
The market and future
This September, &Me launched two new products – a sugar-free dark chocolate with herbs and micronutrients tailored for period health, and a drink for urinary tract infections (UTIs).
According to data from Mettl and Euromonitor, the overall beverage market in India is worth Rs 43,034 crore, believed to touch Rs 130,000 crore by 2030. Of this, the health drink market will touch Rs 15,067 crore by 2023.
There are many players focussing on this market. Second-time entrepreneur K Vaitheeswaran launched Again earlier this year. Then, there is Raw Pressery focussed on healthy cold pressed juices, and Danone, too, is looking closely looking at health food and drink brands. It also invested in Epigamia.
However, &Me’s USP lies in its focus on women’s health. Sanjot Malhi, Vice President of Matrix India, says “We believe that the $1 billion plus market for functional foods and beverages is still coming of age in India. &Me's core differentiator lies within its exceptional product and brand positioning that targets urban Indian women whose daily lifestyle denies them the benefit of essential micronutrients. As early investors in &Me, we consider ourselves privileged to partner with Ankur. Our investment is true to our broader thesis of investing in home-grown consumer brands.”
Speaking of their future plans, Ankur says the team wants &Me to be a holistic women’s health and wellness brand, serving every woman between the ages of 15 and 60, meeting unique functional needs across menstrual health, fitness, and beauty.
“No one is striving to understand and serving her distinct needs,” adds Ankur.
(Edited by Saheli Sen Gupta)