Nikhil Joseph has been hit by a storm when I first catch up with him – quite literally. “There’s no power, no water, no internet connectivity here,” he manages to say before the line gets disconnected. His office is in the center of Chennai, a city battered by Cyclone Vardha, but he has a startup to run. When we speak again, he and his team have shifted base to a café.
Nikhil, a 26-year-old mechanical engineer and former Facebook employee, powers niche ecommerce firm The Postbox, which he co-founded with NAFA design graduate Madhuvanti Senthilkumar, 23.
It began as a curated platform for artists. Today it works with 250 artisans across India to offer a tiny but precious range of art and lifestyle products, all designed by an in-house team, all examples of functional art.
We were the typical cockroach.
You’re likely to encounter their tote bags in simple, earthy combinations of leather and Ikat cloth while surfing Facebook.
They release no more than three or four products a month, yet The Postbox gets around 1,100 orders, with an average order value of US$30. That translates to monthly sales of US$32,440. “We hope to break even by March next year,” says Nikhil.
But just about a year ago, the going was tough.
How saleable is art?
After working for Facebook in Hyderabad and California, Nikhil found himself back in Chennai in 2014. “There was a massive amount of art and artists in the city, but there was no curated platform for their work. I met Madhu at an art conference, and we discussed the idea of such a space,” Nikhil tells Tech in Asia.
They launched The Postbox in September with six products, among them notebooks, postcards, posters, and cushion covers. Soon after, Madhu left for Milan to study brand management.
If there’s one singular trait that the founders have displayed throughout their journey, it is the eagerness to learn, experiment, and evolve. Thus Nikhil too decided to travel across India for three to four months.
“How saleable is art? What does a consumer want? How can I scale?” Those were the questions he wanted answers to.
He went to Jaipur to study the model of Fabindia, a pioneer in Indian product design suited to modern sensibilities. He came back with a better understanding of where he wanted to take his startup.
By April 2015, The Postbox was touching US$737 in monthly revenues. Until then, the startup was just a platform for artists and designers to showcase their creativity. But the founders now wanted to launch their own products.
The following month, that’s exactly what they did – with a range of laptop sleeves and terracotta mugs. Their monthly revenues shot up to US$1,769. “Seemed like it would work!” the co-founders thought.
Around that time, Nikhil also took money from his father to invest in marketing. “We were the typical cockroach. Bootstrapped with just five employees,” says Nikhil. “We were seeing massive traction.”
Working with the artisan
The Postbox works with 36 Ikat weavers across nine clusters in the southern state of Andhra Pradesh. The cloth is turned into bags by manufacturing vendors in Tamil Nadu. “The manufacturing process takes 12 days for 200 bags,” explains Nikhil.
It also works with terracotta craftsmen. “Initially, we were sourcing our terracotta from Pondicherry, but this was all natural, which means it did not have durability.”
Then Madhu traveled to Kolkata and found terracotta craftspersons just 50 km from the city. “The soil was better, plus they did ceramic glazing. That brought longevity to the mugs.”
Nikhil learned key lessons about their lighting range from Radeesh Shetty of lighting ecommerce venue The Purple Turtles. “Did you know that in India, floor lamps sell the most, followed by table lamps, and then ceiling lamps?” The startup now collaborates with 80 women artisans from Pondicherry for its lamps.
How much is too much?
Still, I ask Nikhil, isn’t US$22 for a single sadya plate a little too much? I could get a far cheaper option at a handicrafts hub like Cottage Emporium in Delhi. Not at all, he says. “First of all, you will not get a sadya plate there!” he says.
‘Sadya’ is a traditional vegetarian feast served on banana leaf in Kerala. The Postbox version is a light green, ceramic banana-leaf plate. “That plate is completely inspired by my childhood days. I spent so much time just getting the color palette right.”
Their draw is design. “We won’t give you just terracotta, but combine it with cane. Based on consumer feedback, we have added a keylock to our laptop bag. Our customers are willing to pay when they see a niche.”
They have a 13-member team; their in-house designers hail from the premier National Institute of Fashion Technology.
Nikhil believes they are very affordable compared to, say, a lifestyle brand like Jaypore. Itokri is somewhat similar, but it is a marketplace, “whereas we have our own products. In that sense, our only competitors are Nicobar and Nappa Dori, but we are more versatile in our product range.”
Ratan Tata’s golden advice
Despite their best efforts, The Postbox, however, found itself stuck a year ago. Much of the money they made was being used up for social media marketing as it is a quick means of acquiring customers.
“We were getting around US$26,550 in monthly sales. But we were bootstrapped. We simply didn’t have the funds to launch more products.”
They had a mentor in R. Ramaraj, one of the founding members of The Chennai Angels, who had been telling them to be frugal and concentrate on quality.
By February 2016, they were looking for investors. That is when they met industrialist Ratan Tata, who has been investing in a slew of startups. Nikhil quotes his feedback to them: “Grow horizontally in one vertical; make yourself known and reputed. Every other vertical or category you launch from there on will be organically well received.”
The Postbox closed its first round in August, with Chennai Angels being the major investor, and participation from Ritesh Mehta of Facebook, Ravi Karthik of ACT Fibernet, and Ravi’s wife Aruna Ganesh Ram.
The startup has now narrowed its focus to fewer products.
It has around 165 stock-keeping units; inventory size varies between 50 and 75, depending on the product category and cost. Every product is planned a month and a half in advance.
Besides their top-selling bags and travel accessories, they are now planning products for men “because there are so few in the space.” They are also creating a line for corporates, and are in talks with a couple of companies to supply their terracotta products and laptop bags.
Says Nikhil, “Madhu and I have a motto – never to let our startup settle, but to evolve constantly.”
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