A clutch of entrepreneurs in the food and entertainment sectors are trying to turn zany ideas into sustainable businesses, and draw investors and mentors
When Prashant Parameswaran moved to Bengaluru from the US nine years ago, he was mulling over a business idea: popularizing Indian grains like ragi (finger millet) and turning them into foods of choice for millennials. The idea was partly inspired by the two years he’d spent working at market research company Information Resource, Inc., in Chicago.
“Having spent hours watching consumers buy products, I realized that they were on the lookout for low sodium, healthy options,” recalls the 39-year-old. “This in the land of tinned foods. It got me thinking of traditional Indian grains like ragi and their intrinsic benefits,” he says. The traditional preparations of millets, however, were an acquired taste. So, after a lengthy R&D process, he decided to sell ragi flakes under the brand Soulfull produced by Kottaram Agro Foods Pvt. Ltd, a company he launched in 2011.
Similarly, former colleagues Anurag Dalmia and Gautham P.B., both 39, wanted to disrupt the way people bought fresh produce in 2014 when the concept of organic food hadn’t really caught on. While working at multinational company GE, the Bengaluru-based duo often discussed the use of pesticides in vegetables and fruit and their effect on people’s health.
“We decided to deliver organic vegetables and fruit to people’s homes despite knowing the huge trust deficit in the organic sector,” says Gautham. Leaving cushy jobs for a nascent concept was a leap of faith, he says. They set up Healthy Buddha in 2014, after spending 12 years in the corporate world both in India and abroad.
Parameswaran, Dalmia and Gautham are among a handful of entrepreneurs who have built sustainable businesses from offbeat, even zany, ideas because they felt there was a gap in the market.
Take gifting, for instance. Till Book My Balloons arrived in 2014, there was no way one could gift balloons to someone by just placing an order online or over the phone. Ashwin Kannan, chief happiness officer at Book My Balloons, got the idea when he couldn’t find anyone to deliver balloons to his mother. “It was an easy concept and I relied on word of mouth,” says Bengaluru-based Kannan, who quit an HR job at Accenture to start the venture with Rs 3 lakh.
Another idea that wasn’t mainstream was Abhay Rangan’s concept of selling vegan products like peanut curd and cashew oats milk. He started out by going door-to-door selling plant-based milk his mother made at home. In 2017, he turned it into a startup, Goodmylk, after receiving investment from a Texas-based vegan angel investor. Rangan, a 21-year-old animal rights activist, who quit engineering college to start Goodmylk, says his goal is to make plant-based food a household habit.
Answering tough questions
Selling an offbeat idea, however, comes with its share of challenges. For instance, how would one know if what is tagged organic is really organic? The founders of Healthy Buddha realized that the only way to address such doubts was to talk of their own food philosophy. Both spoke of the importance of keeping their families healthy and away from pesticides.
Healthy Buddha organizes farm visits for customers, farmers’ markets, and workshops on growing organic vegetables. “It’s a volume business and the margins are thin,” says Gautham, who says their startup has seen year on year revenue growth of 80 percent.
Parameswaran of Soulfull, too, had a hard time convincing customers as well as retailers about his product. “Ragi is not eaten across India. For the first four years, we were out every weekend, organizing sampling sessions in parks, supermarkets and schools,” he says. The hard work paid off, he says, adding that revenue growth has doubled in the last financial year.
Rangan of Goodmylk and Kannan of Book My Balloons, on the other hand, had it easier because their unique products instantly found an audience.
“My products are not the expensive artisanal kind and can be used just as you would use dairy products,” says Rangan. The price of one litre of cashew oat milk is Rs 120, a product unique to Goodmylk. “We see a 25 percent increase in revenue growth month on month,” says Rangan.
While Kannan didn’t struggle to find customers, the challenge has been to build his brand and create instant recognition for it. “I’d like it to be as well known as BookMyShow, maybe,” Kannan says with a laugh. In the last financial year, the company’s revenue was over a crore of rupees, he says..
Turning a gutsy idea into a sustainable business model and achieving scale can be a hard journey.
Healthy Buddha, a self-funded startup, began with two employees. Today, it has on board 50 people and about 200 organic farmers, primarily from Karnataka and Tamil Nadu for vegetables. They have signed on farmers from other parts of India for fruits and non-perishables. Some of the places they source from include Solapur (grapes), Nagpur (oranges) and Kashmir (apples). Although the founders are “still on a beginner’s salary”, they do 2,000 deliveries a week and have increased the basket size with more varieties and products. In future, they plan to add natural cleaners, including dishwashers and floor cleaners.
Soulfull, also self-funded, has expanded to include a wide range of millets-based snacks and drinks in the hope of “creating a healthy world”. It is available in 13,000 stores across 22 cities.
Goodmylk now employs 15 people and ships products across India. Book My Balloons, meanwhile, has an e-commerce website to order party snacks, cakes and, of course, a variety of high-quality latex balloons filled with helium instead of explosive hydrogen. Kannan’s employee count has risen from two to “20 full-timers and about 15 part-time workers on any day.”
Call with investors
It is tough to get resources for an offbeat business idea, especially from investors who need reassurance.
Healthy Buddha had initially sought out angel investors but that “didn’t click”. “Most of them wanted to know how many orders we had. At that time, we had 100 but they wanted at least 1,000. We decided to focus on business and profitability. Till date we have no plans to approach investors,” Gautham says. There has to be “an alignment of vision between the company and the investors”, Parameswaran believes. Last year, he found a fit in Aavishkaar Bharat fund, and received an investment of Rs 35 crore. “Our first four years’ experiences helped in getting an investor.”
Though they aren’t looking for funding, many of these founders would appreciate the experience and knowledge that a mentor could bring. “My generation is about rejection of the status quo which is a good thing. But experience is valuable,” says Rangan.
Kannan, on the other hand, is seeking a mentor-cum-investor, who would not “just pump in money and watch the show but also give me advice to guide my expansion plans,” he says.
But an idea isn’t everything; what eventually helps an entrepreneur is persistence, says Parameswaran. “That is the key.”