A panel discussion on ‘Building new age brands with the omni-channel consumer’ at MediaNews4u.com Straight Talk 2022 moderated by Prakash Sankaranarayanan, Co-Founder & CMO, @The Idea Factory, featured Jahabar Sadique, Co-founder & CEO, Chai Kings; Mathew Joseph, COO & Co-founder, FreshTohome; Pravin Menon, CMO, Veranda Learning Solutions; and Vikas Bysani, Founder, Off & On. The event was hosted in Chennai on 18 November 2022.
The discussion started with the panellists speaking about their business journey.
FreshToHome: From strength to strength
Joseph opened up on his journey as entrepreneur in 2012 with SeaToHome, the first online fish market place in India and world’s first online fresh fish market. In 2015, when he joined hands with Shan Kadavil, the brand was re-named as FreshToHome. Kadavil is the current CEO.
“Later we added meat products to the brand. Now we have 2.5 million customers in India. We have two platforms FreshToHome and FTH daily, an online platform that delivers milk, milk products, vegetables, groceries etc. Around 17,000 people are working in these platforms in India. We have a factory in Dubai and are planning to expand to Saudi Arabia and other countries as well. We are a venture capital funded company; Google ventures, Microsoft, Facebook, US Development Finance Corporation have invested in FreshToHome. Dubai and Abu Dhabi governments have also invested in the company,” he explained.
FreshToHome’s product portfolio is still led by seafood, which contributes 60pc of its topline of around Rs.1,200 crores.
The founder revealed that he ventured into the seafood business as it was his passion. “I was born and brought up in a small village Alleppey district in Kerala. You can call me a fisherman or fishmonger. But do not underestimate the fisherman as the next year the brand ambassador for FreshToHome is Ranveer Singh. When we started the online fish market in 2012, the fishmongers in India did not have any glamour quotient added to their job. But today I am proud for the fact that the perception has changed,” Joseph added.
In search of a good cup of tea; pivoting from legacy
Two friends’ search for a good cup of chai (Tea) in Chennai led to the birth of Chai Kings in 2016.
“Our passion and interest, all of them culminated into Chai Kings which we have been running for about six years now. We are predominately in Chennai, with about 49 outlets in Chennai and the rest in Bengaluru, Hyderabad, and Coimbatore. We opened outlets in Hyderabad and Coimbatore just before the pandemic. After that we have not explored much into these cities, but we have expanded in Chennai. In terms of products, as the name suggests, we sell chai, very little coffee, snacks, milk shakes etc,” said Sadique.
Vikas Bysani’s Off & On specialises in premium kitchen appliances.
“I belonged to the Vivek’s (Vivek & Co.) family which is known for consumer durables and electronics – which we have been selling for approximately 60 years. I started the company three months back. During covid we saw a huge spike in the interest for premium kitchen appliances. It was also a period when a lot of people started spending more time at home and in the kitchen. Once they started realising how important the kitchen space really is, the appetite for premium kitchen appliances started increasing. There was no credible seller in Tamil Nadu. When it comes to premium kitchen appliances, people either used to bring it from abroad or buy it from unorganised players, there was no one to provide credibility, warranty, and service. Hence, Off & On was born. We will be opening stores next year,” said Bysani.
Rapid expansion across education
“Veranda Learning Solutions is an education company which is part of Kalpathi Group. We started at the end of 2018 and went public in 2022 – it is one of the best performing stocks in the market as of now,” stated Menon.
Within Veranda Learning, which is the education platform of the group, there are four verticals. Veranda Race addresses the competitive exams market which Edureka which was acquired and its offline business Edureka Learning Centre with 150 across India, is into software upskilling. There is also Veranda CA, erstwhile JK Shah, was acquired very recently.
“We are both an online as well as offline education company. Our business is predominately in the offline business and we believe in result-oriented courses at a very affordable cost and use technology to spread it across India,” said Menon.
Pandemic impact: Boom for meat delivery, disastrous for chai
When asked about the strategies applied by the brand during pandemic and post pandemic period to reach out to the consumer, Joseph said, “Though pandemic was a threat to humankind, it turned positive for the brand. Before the pandemic we were spending around nearly Rs.400 to 500 per customer for marketing. Without any spending during the pandemic period we witnessed 40pc growth in India and 80pc growth in the UAE. The Indian seafood market is valued at $75 to 80 billion, in that only 3pc belongs to the organised sector including online companies and supermarkets and the rest 97 pc belongs to the unorganised sector. During the pandemic period a small portion of the consumers in the unorganised sector started coming towards the online platforms as they didn’t have much choices, which resulted in the growth of online platforms including FreshToHome. The same was the state with the UAE and US markets. During the same period, we introduced contactless delivery which yielded good results for us.”
“It was a disaster for a retail food brand like us. By March 2022, we crashed right there. Our priority at that point was not marketing and branding, rather it was to keep the brand and store alive. We were concerned about the employees’ health. We didn’t even think of branding it and selling more. But once when things were sorted on that front, our communication at that point was more focused on letting customers know that we are open and alive. Our customers during pre-pandemic was 50pc from online and 50pc from offline stores. During the pandemic it was 95pc online and 5pc was offline. The numbers eventually changed. On the offline front, our struggle was with the corporation and other authorities to keep the stores open during the pandemic. We tried to reason out with the authorities and tell them that we had to continuously open the store and we belong to the restaurant category and not the tea shop category,” explained Sadique.
With distinct consumer segments to cater to, a multi-pronged strategy ranging from Linkedin for corporate users and Instagram for engagement is Chai Kings’ cup of tea.
“Our immediate expansion plans are to open four to five stores in Coimbatore and the next expansion would happen in Hyderabad and Bengaluru. In the last two months we opened two stores in Bengaluru to try whether the products are working and to see whether any changes are to be made in the snacks and food category and we have sorted that out,” he added.
When expanding into a city, the brand believes in setting up retail stores in the centre of the city and cloud kitchens in the outskirts.
On Veranda Learning Solutions’ experience during the pandemic, Menon said, “We came in at the right time. The Kalpathi Group wanted to get into online education and offline as well. When the pandemic hit and the shutdown happened, we were ready with the online content. So, the students could just switch to the online content. We had recordings ready, studios in place, our business started going the online route. At that point we had only Veranda Race as the brand. By the time pandemic were settling we acquired Edureka which has predominantly been in the online space. Today we see a dip in the online learning part of it. The online sales used to go at a rocket speed, it has dipped a bit but is consistent. We get a good revenue from the online business, offline has picked up very well for us. We are expanding.”
Asked who the nascent brand’s consumers are, Bysani said, “My demographic is primarily a cooking enthusiast who spends a lot of time at home and in the kitchen. Since it is in the premium space it is usually HENRYs (High Income Not Yet Rich) and HNIs (High Net-worth Individuals). They are mostly time-poor people who rely heavily on quality and the final output in a product. When it comes to appliances, there is a sudden increase in the demographic of people who don’t mind spending more and are getting frustrated with common products.”
In terms of marketing, the new brand is approaching Google ads ‘ads very aggressively’. “Word of mouth has worked out amazingly well for us mainly because people are curious to understand brands that are new. Google has started increasing our site traffic very well; a huge amount of what my website plays is the role of discovery and research,” he explained.
On leveraging the legacy of Vivek’s, Bysani said, “Vivek’s is ultimately my DNA. I have been serving the customers since I was 14 or 16 years old. It’s because of my parents that I was able to understand that the customer definitely comes first. You should start a business with the customer in mind, not business in mind. What the challenge is in the beginning before the conversion is the fruit after the conversion – they become the endorser of the brand and the product later on. Our present challenge is awareness, I am working on it. We have a lot to cover, but what we have done so far has given me incredible confidence in the market.”