Wednesday, 29 May 2013

A Conversation With Sonal Shah, Founder Of Koonik

My friend Sonal Shah, formerly a banker and marketing professional who worked for Kotak Mahindra Bank, was bitten by the start-up bug a couple of years ago. Turning entrepreneur, Sonal started Koonik, an online retailer of baby products. I met her recently and asked her a few questions:

Winnowed: Sonal, what prompted you to quit a secure job and start Koonik?
Sonal Shah: It’s funny actually. In 2011, my husband and I were planning to visit to California. It was going to be my niece's 1st birthday and I wanted to get her some awesome presents. I started searching for 'something good' and 'something different' but ended up dissappointed with every idea that we had. I looked both online and offline but most clothes for babies were very, very boring. Our options would start with 'Mummy's little boy' or 'Daddy's cutie' and end with a little butterfly. I went about looking for plain rompers which I could paint or print with something cool and awesome. And...well, I won't bore you with the rest of the story here. What started as a simple quest to get some awesome clothes for my niece is now, a year later, Koonik. Logically, I think I saw a gap and sat on it for a while. In fact, had my husband not supported me and been ok with us being a single income household till I set up and successfully run Koonik, I would have not been able to take the call. There were many ‘sinking feeling’ moments, but when you have family, friends and colleagues supporting you, things get relatively easier.

Tell us a bit about Koonik? What’s it all about?
Sonal Shah: At Koonik, we make & stock only 'Baby Safe' products. Our clothes are made from 100% soft organic cotton. We use nontoxic dyes and the entire treatment, from growing organic cotton till the final production is controlled, ensuring that nothing harmful goes onto the clothes. Organic cotton is the kind of cotton that we grew up with, much before chemicals and genetically modified seeds found their way to our farmlands. It is the kind of cotton that our Grandma would approve for our little ones!

Besides 100% Organic Cotton clothes, we also make toys. Our cotton softies do not use fur or embellishments that may irritate your baby. The wooden toys are made from Ivory Wood and are painted with natural vegetable, plant or fruit dyes.
At the heart of our efforts, is our simple philosophy – A Happy Baby and a Happy Planet! After all, this planet is where the little one will grow up in!

We launched Koonik in November 2012

Winnowed: Tell me a bit about yourself.
Sonal Shah: I have an MBA in Marketing from the K. J. Somaiya Institute of Management Studies & Research in Mumbai. Prior to starting Koonik, I had spent my entire professional life in the financial services industry; in marketing and digital media. After having worked for over 6 years in the banking industry, I decided that it was ‘now or never’ and decided to take the plunge and turn entrepreneur.

Winnowed: What are your hobbies?
Sonal Shah: I have many but too little time to follow all my interests actively. But I make time to go backpacking fairly regularly. I also love reading (in addition to shopping) about Indian textiles and weaves. I try and read when I find the time, but usually find time only for work related reading.

Winnowed: What would you have done if you hadn't started Koonik? Would you have continued with your salaried job?
Sonal Shah: Definitely. I loved working at Kotak and probably would have never quit had it not been for Koonik

Winnowed: Do you have any partners or are you on your own?
Sonal Shah: Am currently on my own but am now looking for a co-founder

Winnowed: Where's your office located?
Sonal Shah: As a start-up I work out of many coffee shops across the city! It’s just easier to have meetings this way. On a serious note, I have a warehouse office in Borivali and the registered office is Kandivali. I have a serious home office. So essentially I am equipped to work from almost anywhere.

Winnowed: How many employees does Koonik have?
Sonal Shah: We are a small team. 2 of us work full time on Koonik and we have a Man Friday. We have a few designers who work with us part time. But everybody loves to help entrepreneurs, so Koonik’s models are my niece Sara and my best friend’s daughter Fiana. My husband helped me with the logo, blog and photo shoot. Friends helped with design ideas and colours.

Winnowed: Who are your main competitors?
Sonal Shah: Honestly, Organic Cotton and Fair Trade are not buzz words and hence not many are in this space in India. There are a couple of brands that are doing adult clothing in the space. But in the infants’ space, other than a one off season line by Benetton (and likes) I haven’t seen too many established brands. India produces more than 50% of the world’s organic cotton but consumes less than 1%. But things are starting to change and now there are exporters of organic cotton clothing who are seeing potential in the domestic market and launching their lines. But if you look at them, they are still running print based clothing, where as Koonik is focused on the fun slice of a baby’s life designs.

Winnowed: Where are your products manufactured? Do you outsource your manufacturing?
Sonal Shah: Since we design and not just source the apparels, the products are manufactured specially for us. Our entire apparel range is certified 100% soft organic cotton. We work with manufacturers who follow a fair wage policy and have employee friendly practices.

For our toys, we work with NGOs, self-help groups and rural artisan communities. There is incredible talent in India which is wasted for the lack of exposure. Our toys come from small groups who provide livelihood, create employment and gainfully engage the community. And to top all that, these groups are incredibly professional. They are managed efficiently and are ready to scale up as the demand grows for their products.

Do you have a warehouse or more than one warehouse? Where are they?
Sonal Shah: I have a single warehouse at Borivali where all the inventory is stored.

How do you deliver orders placed online? Do you use third party couriers?
Sonal Shah: Customers can log on to, go through our range, add items to the cart and choose to pay via Credit Card, Debit Card, Net Banking, Cash Before Delivery and Paypal (for international orders). However, we don’t see Koonik as an ‘Online / E Commerce’ venture. Online is a great channel to make our products available in parts of the country where there is no easy access to physical retail. People are shopping online like never before and is already in place to address that market.

Our products are retailing in 10 stores across 6 cities. We have the list of stores on our site as well. We are working at increasing the number of stores so that customers can find our products at their favorite store around the corner.

Delivery is pretty straightforward. Once a customer places an order online, we ship the item/s via Bluedart or Fedex in Indian or through Indiapost internationally. The customer gets the shipping details from us enabling him/her to track the shipment.

Winnowed: Has Koonik been affected by the current economic climate? Do you expect the Indian’s economy to look up anytime soon?
Sonal Shah: We launched Koonik in November 2012, so in a way we launched in the middle of a slump. But I think it’s the best time to start a business. People are looking for innovative, different and value for money products. The key I think is to tide over difficult times as things only get easier. So in a way, if you can succeed in a slow market, you can be sure about your concept.

I can’t be really sure about the Indian economy, but like all entrepreneurs I too am hoping for a recovery soon. With elections around the corner, I think some exuberance will return as it always does in a pre-election year. However, the overall news flow still seems to be more negative than positive.

Winnowed: What are your long term plans for Koonik?
Sonal Shah: Immediate plan – we plan to hire some interns! We are having a tough time managing all the aspects of running Koonik.

We want to reach out to stores and start stocking Koonik products with them. We want Koonik to be in hundreds of stores, but we have limited stock to send out. We have a plan and a list of stores that we want to partner with and we go about that on an everyday basis. Our focus, for now, is on getting sales up so that we can reinvest the money in expanding the designs and products.

As for the future, we want to expand our range, designs and product categories. We see Koonik as a ‘sustainable’ kiddie brand and there is much to do in the category. In the long term, I want to see Koonik become the most exciting and fun children’s clothing brand in the country.

Winnowed: Would you say that your previous jobs and work experience have helped you in starting Koonik?
Sonal Shah: Absolutely. In fact it is like Steve Job’s famous ‘connect the dots’ anecdote. Every single thing I did at work in the past has helped me with Koonik be it understanding web technologies, vendor management, online marketing and even writing. Once I had decided to try my hand at entrepreneurship, I told my then bosses about my plan. All of them were very supportive and in fact encouraged me to take the plunge. A lot of people tell me that you need huge guts to give up a fairly successful corporate career and start out from scratch on your own, but I think more than guts, it needs a great support system.

In addition to this, having the jobs I did, helped me build savings that I have been able to invest in Koonik and also the comfort that ‘I do not need money for survival’ in the short term. This in turn gave me the ability to take a chance at being an entrepreneur.

Winnowed: Do you regret not having started Koonik even earlier in your life?
Sonal Shah: No regrets at all! Everything has a time and Koonik’s time is now. Ofcourse I do wish that I had started with a co-founder right at the beginning. But at that point, I think I was a bit foolhardy in believing I could manage on my own, plus finding someone with similar values would have been tough. (Koonik strongly focuses on Fair Trade)

Winnowed: Now that you are your own boss, have your working hours reduced?
Sonal Shah:I think the idea of working for oneself is slightly over rated. You need to be extremely self motivated to deal with all the mundane issues that crop up; the ones you take for granted while working at a corporate. According to me it’s tougher running your own venture – and I’ve seen both sides. Having said that, being a self funded start up, the most amazing thing is your company’s ability to be agile and make changes and move quickly to suit the environment. Also the amount of creative flexibility that your own venture can offer, I don’t think can be matched by a corporate job. Do the hours reduce – definitely no! In fact I have worked on almost all weekends and holidays. But being self- employed does offer you a degree of flexibility. I choose to have meetings during off peak hours so that I can avoid traffic, hence save significant amount of time. Overall I think I end up saving the unproductive travel time, but that’s about it. I am always at work!

Winnowed: Is there anything the government could do to help entrepreneurs like you?
Sonal Shah:Make everything a one window approach instead of having entrepreneurs go to various govt. agencies, offices, websites and people to get started. Also, I really would love to see all the filings become just one filing.

Would you be open to VC funding for Koonik?
Sonal Shah: At Koonik, we have many ideas but we are only limited by resources as I am investing our savings in Koonik. I know we will have to choose between slow and steady growth and accepting investors who will give us the money to expand the brand and the market. I want to make sure that we partner with the right people who share our vision and work with us to grow Koonik. We are evaluating both approaches.

Thursday, 2 May 2013

Could India Have Saved Sarabjit Singh? How?

Yes, I believe India could have saved Sarabjit’s life. India could have brought Sarabjit home before his brutal Pakistani gaolers cracked his skull and killed him.

Whether India admits it or not, Sarabjit was accused of being a saboteur, of having planted bombs leading to Pakistani deaths. Whether it was Sarabjit himself who carried out those acts or someone else, neither Sarabjit nor India has been able to offer a decent explanation for Sarabjit finding himself in Pakistan. I mean, the average India, even those living in border areas, does not saunter over to Pakistan for shopping and other R&R activities.

Never mind all that, how could India have persuaded Pakistan to release Sarabjit? By making loud noices and chest thumbing?

There’s usually only one way to obtain the release of someone in Sarabjit’s place – which is to exchange him for a Pakistani held in an Indian jail. A few years ago, I had written a hasty piece for this blog arguing that Sarabjit could be exchanged for Ajmal Kasab. With the benefit of hindsight, I don’t think I made a good case for such exchange. Kasab was openly acknowledged to be a terrorist. Pakistan had disowned Kasab rather than deny the charges against him. This was not the case for Sarabjit.

However, the basic logic behind my plea was sound. India should have exchanged Sarabjit for one or more Pakistani nationals held by India. This could have been an individual(s) facing espionage or terrorism charges, ideally someone related to a powerful Pakistani politician or someone else well-connected. It’s not as if such exchanges are unheard of. Israel routinely exchanges its prisoners for its soldiers and spies held by Hamas, Hizbollah etc. During the cold war, the US and USSR used to have such exchanges. India has released convicted terrorists to secure the release of hijacked passengers and abducted civilians.

In every civilized country, captured soldiers and spies are given great importance and securing their release is a matter of national pride. India does not seem to have imbibed this value and no one within India’s officialdom was particularly keen to bring Sarabjit home.

India let Sarabjit down. India’s inaction killed Sarabjit.

Wednesday, 1 May 2013

Book Review: The Twentieth Wife, by Indu Sundaresan

You can’t help but like Indu Sundaresan’s Mehrunnisa. Just like Maria in Sound of Music, Mehrunnisa is both mischievous and honest, revolutionary as well as dutiful. Far too intelligent for a woman of her times, we are talking late sixteenth century here, Mehrunnisa is her father’s favourite child though she is neither a boy, nor his first born. It’s love at first sight for Mehrunnisa as it is for Prince Salim, aka Jahangir. Mehrunnisa sees Jahangir for the first time at Jahangir’s wedding ceremony as he marries his first wife, Man Bai, a Rajput princess. Mehrunnisa is only eight and she thinks Jahangir is beautiful. She is a constant visitor to the zenana, thanks to fact that Ruqayya Sultan Begum, one of Akbar’s favourite queens, likes her. As she grows older, Mehrunnisa gets to know of Jahangir’s vices – he is addicted to drink and opium, but she continues to adore him.

Jahangir on the other hand sees Mehrunnisa for the first time after she is engaged to be married to Ali Quli, a Persian soldier. ‘Ya Allah! Was he in Paradise? Words from the Holy Book came unbidden to his mind………………………She was all that and more………………..The girl sat on the edge of a goldfish pond, her feet dangling in the water. It was a heat-smothered day, but the courtyard was cool. …………………………….Salim fell headlong in love with a pair of surprised blue eyes.

One of the best things about Sundaresan’s The Twentieth Wife is her depiction of the state of women in those times and how Mehrunnisa had an uphill fight on her hands at all times. Well-educated, thanks to her father, Mehrunnisa realises very early on that women in the Emperor’s zenana wield more influence than women anywhere else, though they face a number of restrictions too. The harem could play as much a role in influencing the Emperor as the royal court did, especially when the Emperor is the easily influenced, wine/opium addict Jahangir. If history records Mehrunnisa to be a calculating and conniving woman, Sundaresan’s Mehrunnisa is an impulsive girl who doesn’t hesitate to flirt with Jahangir in the hope that Jahangir would persuade his father Emperor Akbar to cancel Mehrunnisa’s engagement to Ali Quli and allow her to marry Jahangir instead. We even see Mehrunnisa intentionally spill a goblet of wine on Jahangir just to make sure he notices her – this happens at the time of Mehrunnisa’s neice Arjumand’s bethrothal to Prince Khurram, the betrothed parties were later known as Mumtaz Mahal and Shah Jahan. Mehrunnisa is very much married to Ali Quli when she does the wine spilling. When one finally gets to the kissing scenes, by this time Mehrunnisa is a widow and a lady-in-waiting to Ruqayya Sultan Begum, we see a proactive Mehrunnisa kiss Jahangir and seduce him.

To top it all, Mehrunnisa knows her price. After Jahangir finally succumbs to her charms and offers to make her his concubine, Mehrunnisa rejects him. No, a concubinage won’t do. Mehrunnisa wants to be a wife, though she’s gonna be the twentieth one. As we all know, Mehrunnisa did get what she wanted.

The story ends immediately after Mehrunnisa weds Jahangir and is bestowed the title Nur Jahan, with the result that we don’t see Mehrunnisa running the empire in Jahangir’s name, as Jahangir spent his days intoxicated with wine and opium, though Sundaresan does show Mehrunnisa dying to play politics and be an administrator even before she marries Jahangir – we see Mehrunnisa wondering why the Emperor doesn’t play the Portuguese against the English. I understand that Sundaresan’s subsequent novel The Feast of Roses is all about Mehrunnisa’s reign after she marries Jahangir. The third book in the Taj Trilogy, Shadow Princess, is the story of Jahanara, Mehrunnisa’s grandniece and Shah Jahan and Mumtaz Mahal’s daughter.

Wars of succession and rebellions by princes wanting to take the crown before the death of their father were common during Mughal times, a practice which actually started with Jahangir. Jahangir failed to win the crown by force and even as he revolted against Akbar, his son Khaurau was making plans to jump the queue and become King. Sundaresan’s book depicts these fights and the various schemes and plots that go with them, pretty well.

Sundaresan writes well, her language simple, but still elegant and even poetic at the right places. Sundaresan’s Mehrunnisa is a lovely lady, beautiful and honest, though impetuous. In one instance, we see Mehrunnisa, in a fit of anger, throw a gold bangle gifted by Jagat Gosini to her daughter Ladli, into a well. Other characters like Jagat Gosini, Ruqayya Sultan Begum, Ali Quli and Jahangir himself are equally well sketched, in depth. The rivalry between Jagat Gosini and Mehrunnisa is especially interesting, since very early on, Jagat Gosini sees a rival in Mehrunnisa for Jahangir’s affections. Mehrunnisa’s father Ghias Beg is another excellent portrayal by Sundaresan. At first we get the feeling that Ghias Beg is a noble and honest man, but later we see that he too has feet of clay.

If there was one thing about The Twentieth Wife that I didn’t like, it is the manner in which Jahangir’s interest in Mehrunnisa waxes and wanes and Mehrunnisa catches Jahangir’s attention time and again, only to run away like a frightened doe at the last minute, though she has been wanting to become his queen since she was eight. Of course, Sundaresan offers various explanations for such capricious behaviour, but I didn’t buy most of it. As mentioned earlier, Jahangir sees Mehrunnisa for the first time when she is already engaged to marry Ali Quli. Jahangir is bewitched and bedazzled by Mehrunnisa, but does not make any effort to find out who she is or pursue her. Mehrunnisa keeps hoping that Jahangir would contact her and arrange for her engagement to Ali Quli to be called off, but nothing happens. A few days later at a Mina bazaar, a veiled Mehrunnisa manages to catch Jahangir’s attention once again, when she audaciously frees two pigeons she was meant to be holding for him, but nothing much happens after that. A few weeks later, a third meeting takes place, this one arranged by Ruqayya Sultan Begum, who hopes that ‘some sense could be drummed into them’. I couldn’t figure out why Ruqayya Sultan Begum would think a meeting would make the couple come to their senses. This time they kiss, Jahangir tells Mehrunnisa that she smells of roses, Mehrunnisa tells Jahangir that her mother makes rose water for their baths and other silly stuff as may be expected in such circumstances. Finally Jahangir offers to send a proposal to her house through the Emperor. As I expected Mehrunnisa to jump with joy, she tells Jahangir that it wouldn’t work, that she is already engaged. Mehrunnisa is worried that breaking off her engagement will dishonour to her father!

Many years pass before Mehrunnisa meets Jahangir again. Jahangir has finally become Emperor, Mehrunnisa has become the mother of a girl and Mehrunnisa's husband Ali Quli has fallen afoul of the Emperor, having sided with Jahangir’s son Khusrau as he rebelled against Jahangir. Mehrunnisa’s neice Arjumand’s is getting engaged to Prince Khurram. Jahangir doesn’t even remember Mehrunnisa and Mehrunnisa needs to spill a goblet of wine on Jahangir to make him notice her. And notice her he does – ‘she had an aristocratic nose, rosebud lips and a slender frame. The court painters would die for a sitting. Her breasts heaved under the silk choli. She was blushing, the colour lending her charm.’ Jahangir is bewitched enough to invoke the Tura-i-Chingezi, the law of the Timurs, whereby any man could be ordered to give up his wife for the King.

We are told that the invoking the Tura-i-Chingezi is an honour for the man ordered to give up his wife and that it would be unusual to invoke it on a rebel like Ali Quli. Nevertheless, Jahangir goes ahead with his plan, though he is warned that Ali Quli would not feel so honoured and might resist. And resist he does, in the process killing the Governor of Bengal, Qutubuddin Khan Koka and getting himself killed. The soldiers who were with Koka ransack Ali Quli’s house and Mehrunnisa is nearly killed or raped! You would think Governor Koka would be properly briefed by Jahangir regarding the object of his affection and that some contingency plans would be made to secure Mehrunnisa, but you would be wrong. If a brave man named Haider Malik had not taken it on himself to protect Mehrunnisa, the Mughal empire’s history, as narrated by Sundaresan, would be different!

It takes Mehrunnisa six months to reach safety, with Haider Malik’s help. Once again she becomes Ruqayya’s lady-in-waiting in the zenana, where she stays put for four years, during which time Jahangir makes no effort to contact her. When a meeting does happen, it is fixed by Ruqayya Sultan Begum, this time because she wants Jahangir to meet Mehrunnisa and induct her into his harem as a rival to Jagat Gosini. We are told that Jahangir ‘was stuck dumb by the sight of her. Four long years. And every day he had thought of her, every night she had come to his dreams. He had known she was in the zenana, but had not gone to seek her.’ But once Jahangir sees Mehrunnisa, all caution is thrown to the winds and a courtship ensues, during which we see Mehrunnisa resist Jahangir, ask for a week’s time to decide and then finally accept Jahangir, only to reject him again when she is offered concubinage rather than marriage.

I was conscious of the fact that Sundaresan’s writing was constrained by history as it actually happened. For example, history does record that when Jahangir finally married Mehrunnisa, she had been in his court for four years. Thus, it is not possible for Jahangir to have married Mehrunnisa as soon as she got back to the zenana after Ali Quli’s death.

Amongst books set in the Mughal period, I would rate The Twentieth Wife much higher than the first two books in Alex Rutherford’s Mughal Quintet, namely “Empire of the Moghul – Raiders From The North” and Brothers At War. I think Dirk Collier’s The Emperor’s Writings is a much better book than The Twentieth Wife, but then, The Emperor’s Writings is a work of non-fiction and its air of authenticity cannot be matched by a work of fiction. It is not uncommon for fiction writers to take extreme liberties when writing fiction based on well known historical figures. For example, in Tariq Ali’s novel based on Saladin the Great, which is part of his Islam Quintet, Ali tells us that crusaders attacked and sacked Mecca. Sundaresan doesn’t take such extreme liberties with her narration.

To sum up, on the whole, The Twentieth Wife is a good read and gives the reader a genuine feel of life in the days of the Mughals.