Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
Hello, I am Darshan M the founder of an organic sustainable yoga lifestyle brand Deivee. Deivee makes organic and fairtrade yoga-inspired clothing, yoga mats, and accessories.
Our flagship products are Yoga Kurti (a typical Indian top for women), copper water bottles, and Organic Biodegradable Yoga Mats.
We started off by making just 500,000 Indian Rupees (INR) in our first financial year ($7K). We scaled to 5.5M INR ($73K) in the second year and last year we did 120M INR ($1.6M).
We are not a very well funded start-up and our growth was quite impressive in such a price-conscious market given our products were premium and handwoven.
What’s your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
I have been in the business of sports for a very long time, close to two decades now. I have worked across the spectrum including managing World Champion athletes, running events, running one of the world’s largest advertising agency’s India sports businesses, and even was the CEO of an IPL (Indian Premier League) cricket team. From content to curating experiences we did it all and I had no plans to ever get into building a sports product brand.
The right people can get you to great success and the wrong people can pull you down.
Deivee was an idea that I stumbled upon when I noticed that most Indian women are uncomfortable with the existing sportswear options in the market. As we chatted up with many women across the country we realized they did not like figure-hugging and sticky polyester clothing sold all over the world as sportswear.
We realized Indian women had different body types, different environments, and very different sensibilities. So I teamed up with a leading Indian Star (model, movie star, and fitness Icon) Milind Soman to launch Deivee. Deivee (pronounced as DEVI) means a goddess. We wanted to help every woman unleash the goddess within.
While we started researching materials and the process was when I realized the apparel industry was one of the largest polluters on the planet. So we quickly decided we will be fairtrade and work with farmers paying them higher prices and with factories that pay fair living wages and improve the quality of life of the people.
We also decided to go completely organic and only buy and use pesticide and chemical fertilizer free cotton. We wanted to help the whole value chain and the planet.
The power of the thought just propelled me to go full steam though I was not at the best financial position at the time personally. The whole idea that you could create an impact was all that drove us. Sometimes a greater purpose is all you need.
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
Building out my vision was totally different from imagining it. I wanted to build the world’s first performance Kurti ( a tunic length clothing common in India but tailor-making it for sports). This was difficult as no one else could see what I could see.
My senior colleague and fellow shareholder who was from the apparel industry was the first to object. He said, “If no one has created this product to date there should be a reason they didn’t?” I argued saying, “Maybe none thought of it till date”. But he was clear that it was because it won’t work.
So he left and I had no expertise myself to build. We got a bunch of young kids with little experience in the apparel space but that was not like having a veteran from the industry.
Finding a factory that was willing to work with start-ups, was a challenge as most apparel manufacturers are huge enterprises that focus on exports. They make millions of tees a month and didn’t want to entertain a start-up asking for 5 samples. Luckily having a celebrity co-founder made it easier and we got some large factories willing to give us a shot.
Our first sample came out close to a year since we dreamed up the idea. And worse, the factory had never heard of a product like this, so they had labeled it nightwear and sent us the sample.
The first few months were terrible. We spent too much time and too much money and we were totally unhappy with the first batch of products. So we had to dump the designer and the designs and get back to the drawing board.
Luckily we did hire some young kids fresh out of design school and they seemed more capable of building out a viable product.
Describe the process of launching the business.
While we were still developing our range on one side, on the other hand, we were running out of the seed capital raised from a friend real quick. And to make things worse the numerous investor discussions were just not progressing forward.
There was a lot of interest but nothing was closing. So my good friend and colleague Ashok, suggested we go all in and launch. And that is what we did. We called for a press conference and invited our seed investor Allu Sirish, who is also a celebrity, along with the celebrity Co-founder Milind Soman.
The media was in full force and we got some huge media coverage nationally. And the investors started moving forward and we finalized on a very good family office for our first formal fundraise of $260K USD.
The website/store went live 4 weeks before the press conference and we had a lot of support from some friends and family in the initial shopping blitz.
We used all inhouse colleagues to shoot (models, photographers, etc were all amateur enthusiasts).
The biggest lessons learned in the process is that sometimes you need to go all in to win the pot. Holding and waiting for the right cards does not always win you anything.
Also, we realized you can easily shoot with real people and still make the clothes look good. We designed the whole site inhouse and used cookie-cutter platforms like Shopify to get our business up and running in minutes not days, weeks, or months.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
Tips for aspiring entrepreneurs. Speed is key. We wasted nearly a year and that costs us a lot of money and hassles. Remember don’t try to perfect the product. Like they say, “if you are not embarrassed with your first product you are already too late”.
Get a mentor who has been there, done that, and pay a fee. Don’t expect people to eat, breathe, sleep, and dream of your business for free.
Since the launch, we did some things very differently. We didn’t look to scale instead every time we sold some product we got the design team to call the customer and say Calling from Milind Soman’s office (and Milind being a celeb we usually got the customer willing to speak). And we took feedback on the product.
We used the feedback to improve our product and address all customer needs of the future.
For marketing, we went to the micro-influencer route. We already had a celebrity co-founder and now we started enrolling yoga teachers as brand ambassadors to use our product and also share with their students. Each teacher had their own unique code that got discounts on our site. So we were able to track the effectiveness of each influencer.
For paid marketing, we tried Google, Facebook, and also Amazon. FB was the key channel in terms of ROI. On average we got 1:3 returns from FB while Google was hardly 1:1.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
However, this year has been tough and the pandemic and the lockdown have pushed us near bankruptcy. So we have had to let all our staff go and make it a zero employee company. I have automated everything from social media posts to order fulfillment.
We have outsourced everything from manufacturing to storage to shipping to even influencer marketing. I have managed to save the company from closure and kept it alive to fight another day. The message I would like to leave is resilience, is the most important quality needed in entrepreneurs, to build a sustainable business.
Margins are actually great. We work with close to 75% gross margin. However, with the pandemic, we have severe cash flow issues and are unable to keep pace with demand. I guess for a lot of small businesses this next two year is about surviving.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
Well, I made plenty of mistakes I starting Deivee here are the top three:
Raising too little money – I used to think that we should not dilute too much, too early, so we didn’t raise much money. Big mistake, you never know how quickly money runs out and every small mistake costs a lot of money.
Hiring the wrong team – If there is one secret sauce to success its people, people, and people. The right people can get you to great success and the wrong people can pull you down. I noticed we wasted a year to get the first prototype, as we did not have the right people with the right connections.
Scaling too fast – I sacrificed profitability for growth and grew way too quickly. From one product to 3oo pls SKUs took less than 3 months. In another 3 months, we launched a designer range with a celebrity designer. All big and expensive mistakes. If we had just stuck to core products and scaled slowly we would not be in the bad financial stage.
We have now scaled down from 20 member staff to zero and are still functioning just as good. We have now come down to 4 SKUs and are still getting some business with zero marketing. So you begin to wonder why did you waste hundreds of thousands of dollars?
This pandemic has been an opportunity to reflect and refocus the business towards profitability. Like they say “Top line is Vanity, Bottom line is Sanity but Cash flow is reality”. If all entrepreneurs reading this article can learn this mantra they will all be successful.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
We use Shopify for our store. We use an awesome service called social bee for all our social media automation.
We use Klaviyo for email and we use Easy ops for order processing and inventory management.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
I do read a lot and usually stick to biographies of business leaders. So have read everything from Phil Knight’s Shoe Dog to Amazon’s everything store. These are books that will give you insights into how they think and overcame situations.
A good podcast I listen too is Mixergy by Andrew Warner and Eventual Millionaire by Jaime Masters.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
I repeat the mantra – “Top line is Vanity, Bottom line is Sanity but Cash flow is reality”. If all entrepreneurs reading this article can learn this mantra they will all be successful.
Get a mentor who has been there, done that, and pay a fee. Don’t expect people to eat, breathe, sleep, and dream of your business for free. Pay them and they will open doors and show you how to do it in seconds which you may not learn in years on your own.
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
Am not hiring right now but happy to hear from anyone who thinks they can add value to what we do.
Where can we go to learn more?
Email me or follow me on Twitter or connect on LinkedIn (https://in.linkedin.com/in/darshanm).
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