Campus Sutra, the largest bootstrapped brand in the Indian apparel industry offers its customers “college stream-based” T-shirts, sweatshirts, caps, jerseys, bags, mugs, backpacks and a lot more. With a motive of becoming trendsetters, their unique idea is targeted at college students especially and caters to their fashion needs in the most quirky way. In conversation with Indian Retailer, Khushboo and Sonal Agarwal, Co – Founders of Campus Sutra, spoke on what it feels like having a sibling as a business partner.
Tell us your experience of working together so far?
Working with sibling is great; there is absolute trust, you can count on them when you need them the most. You have grown up with them so you know each other's strengths and weaknesses and hence the domains of work and the expectations are set accordingly. You can share your opinion honestly without mincing words and be sure that it would be taken in the spirit that it is meant.
A disadvantage that I would say is you have no social life outside your family.
Who conceived the idea behind this start-up and when? What is your USP?
The idea was conceived when all four of us went on a Goa trip in 2012.We believe Campus Sutra has challenged the conventional way in which an apparel brand is built here in India. The design philosophy of most brands in India is limited to showcasing the brand logo in an innovative manner or ending up replicating designs that are relevant to developed countries. We are out to create a brand that is an enabler of what a person wants to communicate. In line with this, our design philosophy is not based on aesthetics alone but on discovering insights about the target segment and creating designs that the segment can identify with.
Another key aspect we focus on is to ensure our designs are current and in line with issues that are ‘buzzing’ among youth. We can bring a design to market in under 21 days unlike other players who usually take months to do this either because of their internal processes or their limited ability to influence the supply and sourcing to quicken the pace. We want to be like the ‘Amul advertising’ of the apparel industry – ‘on-the-button’ when it comes to current issues, while building an immediate connect with the audience, thanks to the quality of the communication (design).The venture has scaled from being focused exclusively on custom merchandise to offering an entire range of apparel and accessories based on the slice of life of young Indians. We have a range of products for Men & Women including Sweatshirts, T Shirts, Caps, Jackets, Sportswear, Shorts, Tops, Hoodies, Bags, Laptop Sleeves, Mugs and Sippers.
Online fashion businesses in India have been excessively focused on the ‘ONLINE’ component and have paid too little attention to the ‘FASHION BUSINESS’ component of the venture. Fashion business world over are built predominantly on 2 platforms – back-end innovation and design differentiation. With the advent of e-commerce, the channel end of the business has become equally important. We believe that the competencies that we are building in back end design will be our key success factor. This we believe is the key differentiating factor when it comes to competition.
How do you cope with difference in opinions?
Difference of opinion is bound to happen when you are working so closely. We have a lot of debates that are ongoing on a daily basis. The most important thing is that a difference of opinion is just a difference in your point of view and not something personal. People sometimes take things too personally and involve egos just to prove someone is right. Working with a sibling gives you the advantage of having no and minimizing ego while taking decisions. You are from the same family background, the same upbringing and the same socio-economic conditions and this ensures that there are no feelings of superiority, which reduces ego clashes.
We have been very clear. Like a child cannot have 4 sets of parents, the business too cannot have 4 sets of CEO's. We have defined our collective vision from the very beginning and entrusted the execution of specific areas amongst ourselves. We perform all functions that are necessary for achieving the goal. Wherever there is a difference of opinion in the roadmap to be taken, we just see what would take us to our goals faster and smoother, and resolve all disputes.
How accommodating are you with mistakes in business by either one?
I think more than attributing failure to someone, it is more important to understand why there was a failure and make sure that we learn from it and plug that gap in the future. Being siblings help in this aspect. You are ready to work harder to make up for that mistake collectively. When you are founders and you make a mistake, it is your own sense of responsibility and your own conscience that will punish you enough; that’s your biggest concern. We are accommodating and we make sure we don't beat ourselves up over a mistake; and learn from it.
When you are with family after work hours, do you still talk shop?
Absolutely! It’s mostly talking shopJ, but with time, when the business has matured, we have realised that there is more time. You learn to do twice the things in half the time, hence there are days when we try to do things to relax. Business is a 24x7 job. We wish there was an ‘off-button’, but unfortunately there isn't one.
Since a blind spot with families is an obvious thing, who do you refer to for outside or third person perspective?
Yes, we have a set of mentors and advisors helping us. They are friends, colleagues, ex-bosses and teachers. Mr Rajeev Krishnan- MD and CEO of May Hypermarket is our Advisor. He was Dhiraj's boss when he was working with Walmart. Prof Yathinda Lakkana- HOD, NIFT Bangalore. He was Sonal's teacher in NIFT. Prof Rajeev Roy- Entrepreneurship Educator, Loyola Maryland. He was Aditya's teacher in MBA.
We also have a bustling community of students- ‘Sutradhars’. This is a community of our brand ambassadors and interns. All our focus groups, soft launches, polls etc., happen on that platform.
What potential did you see initially in working together and what do you expect from each other in future?
We were a unique combination with varied experience and expertise. Between us we covered the major critical functions on which a business is dependant.
Dhiraj was part of the startup team at Walmart in India and worked with them for 6 years. He brings in retail expertise and handles overall management and sourcing at Campus Sutra. Aditya has an engineering background and was with Tally for three years. He manages technology and marketing for us.
Sonal is a gold medallist from NIFT and takes care of design. Khushboo runs the operations and comes with a strong ops background with Northern Trust. As the business grows, your personal skill set grows. Our expectation is that we learn as much as possible and see each other applying those skills for the benefit of Campus Sutra.
Do you intend to pass this business down to the branches of your family tree?
It is too early to think about succession. We are a young bunch with an average age of 32. There is a whole personal journey ahead of us of taking Campus Sutra from 100 crores to $100 Million by 2020. We would like to believe that we have built a professional company and we run it like any organisation with the highest standard business practices and professionalism. Any business decision will be professionally-driven.
How do you intend to expand your business portfolio?
We have grown from a 1.65 crore revenue to a 100 crore revenue in 4 years. The current market size is $6 Billion and expected to be $ 20 Billion by 2020.There is a lot of growth that we will see in the online e-commerce space in the coming 3 years. Apart from this, we are rapidly expanding categories and now covering the entire casual wear range for Men and Women, we are adding categories every three months and scaling it up to add 10% of our business. The last 2 launches have been ActiveWear and shirts which have added approximately 25% to our overall sales. We are also planning our foray into offline with three company-owned stores in Karnataka and then about 25 franchised stores in tier-II cities next year, mostly in North-East India, and student cities like Kota and Indore. The stores will be located in areas with a high concentration of schools and colleges.
What advice do you have for other sibling duo/trio in business?
-Define your collective goal and give one person the responsibility of execution and be an enabler for that execution;
-Define your roles but also be ready to execute each other’s responsibilities. Think of it as personal growth enabler because you are doing something outside your comfort zone.
-Advisors and Mentors are very important. Identify them and brainstorm various ideas and roadblocks whenever you get time. It gives you an outsider’s perspective. Advisors can be friends, colleagues or anyone who you know will be honest and give you the best advice, even though it may be unpleasant sometimes or different from the path you were pursuing.
-This is not only for sibling-run businesses, but for any business. When you are hiring people initially, they will join your team only because of the passion you have towards the ‘Vision’. Your vision is very important and how much you believe in it is going to be the game-changer when you just start off.