“Jai Mata di! [Praise the lord.] Pass me the ammo.” There were three burly, six-foot tall men outside her room stuffing guns into their pockets. Nidhi Agarwal had just moved into her office in Gurgaon and was alone unwrapping furniture.
A chill ran down her spine as the movement outside caught her eye. This wasn’t the time to let fear freeze her. “What are my options?” she thought. Nothing came to mind.
The gun-toting trio barged in, took a long look at her. “Baby, where’s your papa?” they asked, towering over her small frame.
“There’s no papa,” she said.
“No husband. You have to talk to me,” she answered, blinking to hide the anxiety threatening to well up in her eyes.
“Mata ka bhandar hai. Dus dubbey ghee chahiye. [We are collecting money for the temple. We want you to sponsor 10 cans of clarified butter.]” That was bizarre. But the moment she heard the demand, her business skills kicked in and a semblance of calm returned to her. “How much does a can cost?” she asked.
“5,000 rupees.” So the demand was INR 50,000 (US$755). That’s a lot of money to spare for a young, bootstrapped startup which just got its first office. So Nidhi negotiated hard, brought it down to INR 10,000 (US$150), and ushered them out of the office quickly.
“My priority was to get them out of the office as fast as possible because they were armed. Anyone from my team might come in and fall in harm’s way, I was afraid of that,” Nidhi recalls, sitting comfortably across me at an open-air restaurant in Bangalore. It was a tranquil afternoon – warm coffee, cool breeze, some Bach playing in the background. A perfect time to tell stories one lived through.
I was playing the prying journalist but Nidhi would rather talk about her startup, Kaaryah – a niche estore for women’s formal western wear. In the 18 months since she founded Kaaryah, Nidhi has seen goons and worse. Now, there’s an air of nonchalance around her, much like a seasoned entrepreneur.
A spilt cup of coffee
Nidhi was a strategy director with American conglomerate Honeywell when she chanced upon the idea of Kaaryah.
She was waiting at Delhi airport for a flight to Bangalore and had a few hours to kill. She wandered into a coffee shop and settled down on a couch with a mug of cappuccino. The place was crowded, with a lot of people rushing about, and someone brushed against her, spilling coffee on her shirt. Nidhi’s trip to Bangalore was for an important meeting. She didn’t want to look sloppy with a stained shirt. So she headed to a mall just outside the airport to shop for a sharp shirt.
“I ended up going to a bunch of stores just to find a shirt that fit well and looked smart. But I didn’t find anything that I really liked. Even with expensive brands, the clothes were either too tight at the bust or too loose at the waist,” she recalls. That experience got her thinking. “I used to shop for workwear when I travelled abroad. But what about others?”
Urban India has a growing number of working women like Nidhi with well-paying corporate jobs. Most of them prefer western wear at work, so what are their options? “I spoke to a lot of women. All of them complained about the lack of choice before them. They were forced to just pick up one of three or four standard sizes available and get it altered by a tailor, who isn’t familiar with western wear for women,” Nidhi says.
Nidhi is an expert at market research and analysis. It didn’t take her long to spot the opportunity to build a pathbreaking apparel brand in India. “The decision to quit Honeywell wasn’t easy at all. But the urge to move on the idea I had was too overwhelming,” she says.
After a year and a half of market and product-related research, Kaaryah launched in September 2013. Nidhi pegs the market in India for women’s western formal wear at INR 100 – 150 billion (US$1.5 -2 billion). “The market is poised to grow twice that in the next three to four years,” she says.
The Kaaryah differentiator
The core idea of Kaaryah was to offer women’s workwear in the best possible fit. “We wanted to create well-fitted, functional, feminine, and fashion-forward western formal wear – for different Indian body types,” Nidhi says.
The estore has two proprietary tech tools: “Kaaryah’s ‘what’s my size’ algorithm, which helps a buyer discover her right fit using a measure of her bust, waist, and hips; and secondly, its data analytics software, which studies consumer behavior, fashion trends, customer feedback, demand, and feedback from marketplaces to decide on what products to have on Kaaryah. “Our brand communication, UI design, and price range are based on this analysis,” Nidhi explains.
Clothes on Kaaryah come in 18 sizes. You can find your fit in three ways -Kaaryah’s ‘what’s my size’ tool, live chat with Kaaryah personnel on the site, or selecting the product and going through the size chart. “Thanks to them, we have less than 3 percent return rate for fit,” Nidhi says.
Another aspect that she feels proud about is Kaaryah’s short “mind-to-market” time – the amount of time between a design on paper (after all the consumer analysis and feedback) and a ready product on the shelf. “We have a two-day mind-to-market time while even Zara takes around 11 days. We have zero inventory and our production starts immediately after we get an order,” Nidhi says. Stores like Zara and H&M are known as pioneers of “fast fashion.” Zara churns out new product lines in about three to four weeks.
“Our unit economics have been positive from the start.” Kaaryah manages that by using technology to the hilt for smoother workflows.
She has a 20-member core team and 26 “intrapreneurs,” who coordinate with designers to manufacture the products. All the tailors who work through the intrapreneur network were trained by Kaaryah staff.
India has no dearth of skilled tailors, but they’ve honed their skills on Indian wear like churidhars, ghagras, and blouses for sarees – not slim-fit trousers and sleek jackets. But Kaaryah proved you can teach an old Indian tailor new tricks.
“Now, we handle over 2,000 orders every day,” she says. Yet, the road thus far for Kaaryah has been strewn with challenges.
No, no, no … and the big yes, which came at the 114th try
Nidhi bootstrapped Kaaryah. Her own savings and a little investment from her family and friends were enough to get it off the ground. But to scale she needed more capital. And so, like most other entrepreneurs, Nidhi started talking to investors.
Nidhi’s resume is so power-packed that it should’ve drawn investors like moths. To begin with, she’s a certified chartered accountant. So she knows her numbers. She has an MBA from the prestigious Kellogg School of Management, and won the Dean’s Service award. She has over 15 years of experience in strategy consulting and auditing for KPMG, Bain & Company, and Honeywell. During a three-year stint with Bharti Airtel, Nidhi launched India’s first mobile commerce initiative. That was in 2006, years before ecommerce and mobile commerce became the hottest sectors in India.
Yet, when she went to investors with Kaaryah, she met with no after no. Was it sexism? “Not always,” she says, refusing to go into the details. “I often get the same questions as many other women entrepreneurs hear. What after marriage? What if you have babies, and so on. Aren’t these questions applicable to men?” she laughs.
She made 113 pitches to investors. each of which was rejected. Maybe it was to do with her being a solo founder. A part of it must have been the idea of Kaaryah, which wasn’t a copycat of another successful company. Investors in India are often accused of being risk-averse.
“I was sure about the product, my team, and what we had managed to achieve without any institutional capital. We were growing. We needed money only to grow faster,” she says.
Meanwhile, she focused on building a terrific team and an outstanding product. After a year of no’s, her first yes came from a stalwart: Ratan Tata, chairman emeritus of the multi-billion dollar Tata Group. Tata picked up a minority stake in Kaaryah in June this year.
“Ratan Tata backing us was just the right sort of validation. Now, we are looking for more growth capital,” Nidhi says. But her biggest high comes when happy customers get back to her. “I still remember one of our early customers, Jasminder Maan. After trying out her first pair of Kaaryah trousers, with a touch of disbelief she told me: “*Lagta hai kisine dhimaag lagake banaya hai [This feels like someone used their brains to make these trousers].” It’s this kind of delight that keeps us going at Kaaryah,” she says.
Many challenges lie ahead in scaling up without diminishing the customer delight. The armed extortionists have visited her a few more times. But she’s made of sterner stuff now.
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