This women-led tech startup is building a referral platform to promote small businesses in India and NZ

Suravi Patnaik, Swati Mehrotra, and Abhinash Sahoo started Sponsa, a social referral endorsement platform that promotes small businesses and incentivises consumers.

Suravi Patnaik was 17 when she had her first tryst with entrepreneurship. As a high school student in Jersey, Channel Islands, UK she sold Indian ethnic earrings at a festival to make some pocket money.

She describes the experience as, “the most thrilling childhood experience that is etched in my memory”.

Suravi Patnaik first discovered entrepreneurship at the age of 17 selling Indian ethnic earrings in the UK.

In 2009, after returning to India, she began her first entrepreneurial venture selling ethnic wear to people in the UK.

“It was more like a hobby back then and entrepreneurship as a career choice was a far-fetched dream,” Suravi tells HerStory.

Her entrepreneurial dreams finally took shape through her research into social norms at University of Otago, New Zealand. In her final year of BTech in Computer Science, Suravi’s research led to the development of an AI model that identified how norms are formed in society based on social interactions and practices. She then worked in the industry for about three years where the model was validated in real-life business scenarios as consumers increasingly relied on purchasing habits and referrals of people in their networks before they bought a product or service.

The validation of the process led her to start Sponsa, a social referral and endorsement platform that allows small businesses to collaborate with their consumers by facilitating cash incentives for referrals and eventually getting the top referrers to become their brand endorsers.

The bootstrapped startup offers its services in New Zealand and India. Suravi handles the business from New Zealand, while two other co-founders Swati Mehrotra, a serial entrepreneur and founder of designer footwear brand Swatimodo and Abinash Sahoo, handle operations in India.

A democratising platform

Speaking about the need for a referral platform, Swati says, “In my experience of over 10 years in the fashion fraternity, I understood networking is an essential part of business since it helps in brand and social recognition. Sponsa's business model works on the same lines with a digital approach to referrals.”

The significance of a referral feature for entrepreneurs like herself prompted her to partner with Suravi.

The platform allows consumers to refer products and services to friends and family through their own unique referral code and get cash incentives between three and five percent of the sale price if people use the unique link to make a purchase on the platform. In this way, the platform also works as a buying and selling platform and promotes small product and service-based businesses.

“Sponsa is focussed towards helping individuals and businesses grow with social referrals, and consumer endorsements. Our goal is towards becoming a growth powerhouse for entrepreneurs by democratising consumer endorsements and referrals with smart-contracts and blockchain technology,” says Suravi.

Since the inception of the platform in New Zealand in May 2020 and in July in India, Suravi claims it has 11,000 users and 115 active sellers.

The startup makes its revenue by charging a 10 percent commission on every sale for businesses and referrers. With a capital investment of Rs 18 lakh, it claims to have generated revenue worth Rs 8.1 lakh since May 2020.

Swati Mehrotra, co-founder of Sponsa and founder of fashion footwear brand Swatimodo.

Starting up during a pandemic

The coronavirus pandemic has affected businesses large and small in many ways. The restrictions induced by the pandemic have led to businesses pivoting and adopting new measures to stay relevant during these tough times.

Sponsa took a bold risk and started their operations while the pandemic was raging across the world.

“We started-up alongside an emerging global pandemic so times toughened us up from the start,” says Suravi.

Suravi believes that the increasing digitisation need helped them find consumers that they wouldn’t have otherwise found. Having a lean model and being financially vigilant during these economically uncertain times also helped the tech startup, she adds.

Having the three member team divided across two countries also worked in their benefit and enabled them to have greater exposure and connections. However, Suravi says that working remotely has been a wee bit challenging but rewarding in the pandemic times.

The startup also had to deal with starting up challenges like educating small-businesses about social commerce. Suravi says that many small businesses stick to the old ways of setting up an e-commerce store, expecting consumers to find them and shop from them while others are listing on aggregator platforms like Amazon. The startup had to put efforts into convincing such businesses about consumer collaborations as it was a new concept especially in India.

They also have to deal with many businesses confusing them with being just an ecommerce platform. Suravi says that they also had a tough time convincing service-based businesses into translating their services into “products”.

Future plans

Even though the tech startup is in its nascent stage, it is looking to gain over one lakh users in the next eight months with a revenue gain over Rs 1 crore. It also hopes to raise funding in the future.

With no direct competitors in the Indian market and some indirect competitors like social commerce platforms such as Meesho and ecommerce players, Sponsa hopes to become a niche player with a collaborative platform where the consumers get to be part of the business’ journey.

It plans to introduce a vernacular version of the platform to expand its reach in the Indian market and help small businesses from all sectors to grow. It hopes to get international brand collaborations and introduce delivery options and B2B referral and endorsement collaborations.

Edited by Rekha Balakrishnan