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.

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