Buying underwear or innerwear is still a tricky thing for many in India. The sheer effort of having to spell out the size and stuff can be pretty embarrassing, all the more if it is for a lady or a kid. People often tie themselves in knots when having to purchase underwear, especially for family members. But that experience could undergo a radical change if entrepreneur Ajay Malhotra has his way. Looking at the embarrassment as a business opportunity, Ajay launched innerocver.com, a portal that is exclusively dedicated to innerwear. The idea is to provide an easy and affordable solution with all the discreteness that is offered by the Web. In the past, Ajay has worked with in leadership roles with prestigious brands like Yahoo!, Google and Nokia, before being bitten by the entrepreneurial bug. Taking along his spouse, who specialises in Marketing, they launched the innerwear Portal, which has received fairly good traction till now. In an exclusive interaction with Shashwat DC (Features Editor, Moneycontrol) Ajay shares his insights and challenges on being an entrepreneur and how he is coping with them. Read on.
Educate us about the business of buying innerwear online in India, where does it stand and what’s driving it?
A couple of reports which came out in the last 2-3 years on the India innerwear industry claim that the Indian inner wear industry is growing at around 13% CAGR and by 2020 and 2023 the market size will be around Rs.43700 Crores and Rs.59,540 Crores respectively. Unfortunately we do not have the numbers of online sales. But we can safely say that e-commerce in India is at a very nascent stage and the growth which is happening now and would happen in the future is very encouraging for companies like us. The potential for the online innerwear industry and e-commerce in general is immense. At the moment there are basically 4 types of players in India when it comes to selling innerwear online. First, we have players who are exclusively offering inner wear for women, second, we have fashion/clothing players who are offering clothes, other fashion accessories along with innerwear. Third, we have horizontal players who sell everything from shoes, utensils, clothes, home decor etc along with innerwear. And last but not the least we have players which offer only innerwear and that too for men, women and children. I maybe wrong but I am yet to come across any other player in this segment apart from Innercover.com. Almost all the players sell brands from other manufacturers but some women exclusive online stores have forayed into private label lingerie as well. The primary reasons for this online niche segment to take off are the same because of which we too started our venture. Privacy, product originality and hygiene, choice and unavailability of one stop innerwear shop for the whole family were the many concerns that we faced while purchasing inner wear. In a typical physical store all sizes, brands, variety are not available. They generally stock items which are fast selling. In an online store apart from these problems not being there, one can buy the products in the privacy of their homes or offices by spending as much time they want to spend in understanding various styles, fits, brands offerings and then making their selection. Even the element of social discomfort is taken away.
How important is the idea of anonymity, especially when it comes to buying underwear?
What are the systems you have in place to enable them? Well, there are a lot of people who do not prefer that anybody should know what they are buying. That is why if you look at physical stores, buying underwear is a 5 minute chore. Very rarely would you find people discussing what they are buying with the sales person. Not much discussion is done about style, fit, fabric, size etc. Whereas when one buys online he or she can spend as much time in deciding what they want to buy in the privacy of their homes or office etc. To top it all, at Innercover, we make sure that we do not have any of our branding on our packaging. There are no details about the product which a consumer has bought. Even “Innercover” is written in a very fine print and the name of our company (Blessai Retail Pvt. Ltd) is shown as the sender of the shipment. We do not share the customer details and the products they order with anybody hence maintaining complete anonymity.
How is Innercover different in comparison to other online options, like the big retail online brands?
We are probably the only online store offering exclusively inner wear for men, women and children. Rest of the players offering inner wear are focusing either on women primarily or are retailing inner wear along with shoes, buckets, laptops, pet supplies etc. Our focus is inner wear for all and we want to be experts in this field, that is why the tag line “Innerwear is our speciality”. If you look at our Expert Advice Pages, our blog, facebook, G+ etc pages you will find very rich content on inner wear. It can be something as simple as to find the correct style for oneself to determining the correct inner wear size to solutions and their problems which users face regarding their inner wear. Whereas big online retailers can sell everything, but they will find it extremely difficult to be experts in each and every field. In many case you will not even find a size chart to help out the customer make an informed call about their inner wear.
You also have a social initiative tab on portal, wherein you will be donating a fixed amount out of the sale. How did you think of the same initiative and which is the NGO that you work with?
When we started, one thing was very clear in our minds that we will make some contribution, however small it might be in the beginning, to a social cause. We want to give something back to the society right from the inception of our company. And the cause which is very close to our heart is education. We sincerely believe that a well educated India can progress faster and make India a better place to live in. We believe that education can solve most of the major issues facing India, be it poverty, unemployment, crimes against women & children, corruption etc and bring in prosperity for all. One such NGO which we have spoken to is Pratham Books whose mission is “a book in every child’s hand”. As a not-for-profit publisher, their dream is to see a country where every child wants to read, is able to read, and has something good to read. Also the way we want to work is that instead of working with just one NGO, we want to keep our selves open to working with many of them. So every quarter or in every 6 months, whenever we decide to make the contribution to the cause of education, we will pick the same or any other NGO for making the contribution. The only condition is that they should be doing some good work in the field of educating India.
There is an interesting blog that is associated with Innercover, enlighten us on the genesis of the same?
We are a niche player in the field of inner wear. Hence it is very important for us that we establish ourselves to be experts in this field. And for that to happen the most important thing is the content we have on our Expert Advice Pages or Blog or Social Media Pages. Though we can change the content of the Expert Advice Pages regularly but sometimes it becomes practically impossible to do so. We needed something where in, we establish ourselves as experts in this domain by sharing our thoughts, advice or any happening in the world of innerwear with our customers and followers on a regular basis. That is when we thought of our blog. If you read our blog, you will find content with a poetic bent.
Considering that social media marketing plays a critical role in success, what is the strategy you are adopting for the same?
In today’s day and age social media is very important for businesses and we are no exception. It is all the more important for us since we are catering to a niche business and want to establish ourselves as experts in this field. We need to connect with people, tell them who we are, what we stand for, what do we offer, how can we help them and what is our viewpoint on various issues related to this field.
After an illustrious career working with some of the biggest name in the industry like Google, Yahoo and Nokia, how and when did the entrepreneurial bug bite you?
I have worked with the best of the brands in the telecom and the internet domains. And everywhere I have worked and whatever I did, either it was new for that company in India or it was very new for me. As a result a lot of times I was building something from the scratch and had the complete ownership. That was fun and gave me a lot of satisfaction resulting in the growth of entrepreneurial desire inside me. Specifically at Google where the culture was such that everybody was encouraged to try out new things, this feeling got more fodder. There was this continuous buzz inside Google, with lots of discussions happening about new ideas, ventures etc at the lunch, during free time. I think sometime during my tenure at Google, I had made up my mind that I have to do something of my own.
It is one of the rare ventures, where the husband-wife duo are the entrepreneurs. How does it work, namely what are the positives and the negatives of the same?
My Co-founder and my wife, Kavita also has very relevant experience in the internet and telecom sectors with companies likes Naukri.com, Cleartrip.com, HT Media etc in the marketing and products domains. She was also keen on starting something of her own and infact just before we started this, Kavita was pursuing her pottery hobby and trying to create a business venture out of it. She used to sell her creations in various exhibitions, galleries, through referrals and even created a site called handmadeinclay.com. But unfortunately she was diagnosed with tennis elbow and had to give up pottery. We would discuss a lot about what to do and one day we decided to do it together. Somehow it all fell into place very naturally. We understand each other’s strength and weaknesses and are able to complement each other perfectly which helps in running of our venture in a smooth manner. Since we know each other so well, we can debate on each and every thing easily. But mind you, sometimes these debates become heated as well but we solve this like the way we solve our other problems. The biggest negative I see is that there is not much difference between professional and personal lives. We start discussing about our work even at our dinner table, during our outings with our family. Sometimes jokingly we take an oath that during any particular movie outing, we will not discuss about our work.
How have you prepared for the entrepreneurial journey, like trying to safeguard against failure?
Once I decided that I am actually going to take the plunge, I started thinking about my safety net. How much would we need to run the house and how long can we sustain without any income? Once all these issues were carefully ascertained and sorted we were kind of confident that we can sustain up to x number of months. We are hoping that by that time we would have built enough traction and would have a VC onboard. With our experience till now this looks like a definite possibility.
Any special tips or insights you have for would-be entrepreneurs, based on your own experience? Or is it too early?
Well, it hasn’t been a long time since we started but whatever little experience I have gathered till now a few things are very clear. 1) There is no right or wrong age for starting you venture. It is an individual thing and whoever wants to start, will be the first one to know that the correct time has arrived. 2) Have conviction and confidence in your idea. Do talk to others but only as sounding boards. The final decision and direction has to be yours. And if somebody is able to convince you against your idea, be rest assured, you yourself did not have enough confidence in the idea or are still not ready.