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Urban Ladder
Behind the scenes.
ENTREPRENEURSHIP 101

Five crucial things Urban Ladder’s founder did in the year before launch

By Itika Sharma Punit

Does a degree from the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) or Indian Institute of Management (IIM) set you up for startup success? Not always.

Even in the world’s third-largest startup hub, 90% of such firms fail within the first five years. The country has produced less than 20 unicorns so far as compared with over 200 each in the US and China.

Urban Ladder
Learn from a veteran.

Besides battling red tape, understanding and catering to India’s diverse consumers is a task.

So, Quartz India spoke to Ashish Goel, founder & CEO of Urban Ladder, an online furniture and furnishing seller, about how he prepared for his venture’s launch. An alumnus of IIT Bombay and IIM Bangalore, Goel has been running Urban Ladder for almost eight years now.

Here’s what you can learn from his starting up story:

It’s alright to wait for the right time

Starting up young has its benefits. But often, first-time entrepreneurs come from middle-class families and have financial responsibilities and constraints. So waiting for the right time may not always be the worst idea:

The idea to do something of my own was very clear to me since I was in engineering college. I wanted to create something that made a difference to the consumer’s life, and at the same time have an office where people felt excited coming to.

However, I did my engineering and MBA and then worked at McKinsey for a few years. That’s because even as I was clear about my choice, I knew you have to be more comfortable financially. I come from a middle-class background and had made a choice early on to be financially independent.

Meet everyone, talk to everyone

Learning from others’ experiences can go a long way in hedging against risks and pitfalls:

I had a chance meeting with Maya Hari, now a vice-president at Twitter. Back then she was the head of the digital business at CondeNast. A friend of mine told me Maya had done some interesting work in the home furnishing space. So I thought I might as well see what happens.

A couple of years before that, Maya had set up an online business called Stylkist, which had shut down by then. At Stylkist, she was doing small decore, furnishing, and small products. At some point in time, she ran out of money, but towards the fag end of her venture, she had started furniture. She told me, “Ashish, when I started furniture, things slowly started turning around.” But by then, she had run out of money and she was expecting a baby around that time. So, she said, it became impossible for her to continue. But she could see the opportunity. I came out of that meeting and messaged Rajiv (Srivatsa) that we have a clear answer: Furniture is what we will go after.

Look for ideas close to home

There’s a reason why the proverb “only the wearer knows where the shoe pinches” is so popular. The best ideas are often the ones that come from personal experience:

The core need to think about furniture and furnishing came from the fact that I was setting up my home in 2011 and it was just so challenging. As a customer, it was really difficult to buy the right furniture. I don’t want to talk about the details of my experience because my intent is not to make some other brands look bad. But the opportunity was very clear. There was a need-gap.

You can find the right people just about anywhere

Having the right team is one of the most critical decisions in an entrepreneur’s career. It’s also often the toughest task. Going beyond your immediate circle and trying innovative ways to connect with a wider talent pool could go a long way in successful hiring:

We began looking for somebody who knew something about furniture. It was like quite a crazy hunt. I basically reached out to pretty much anybody who had written “furniture” on their LinkedIn profile. There were around 300-400 such people. I would write to them and hope somebody would respond. Not too many did. But one chance encounter led to another.

One of the few who responded was Pawan, a furniture agent based in Jodhpur. He asked how he could help. We spoke on phone and he told me he was coming to Bengaluru in 10 days for a furniture exhibition. I didn’t know anything about him but I told him I’ll come and see you. It was towards the end of January 2012 that I went to Kanteerava Stadium in Bengaluru to meet him. We began chatting and I sat with him at the exibition to understand what customers were saying, what they came for and asked, etc, because I did not know anything. Later that evening, we went for dinner.

During dinner, he got a call from somebody, and between the conversation, he covered his phone and said, “Your friend Mr Hitesh has called.” I wondered who was “my friend Mr Hitesh” that Pawan knew? Then he asked me to speak with Mr Hitesh. I took the phone, and didn’t know what to say. But then I remembered I had added one Hitesh on LinkedIn, who had now become “my friend.” These two gentlemen had spoken to each other about me. Hitesh had spent 12-13 years in furniture sourcing with Fab India.

Hitesh Solanki ended up being our first employee.

If you see the place where I made a job offer to Hitesh, you will be amazed. In Rajasthan, they have super tiny tea stalls, which are basically one shed with four or five drums placed upside down in front. There’s dust all over the place but they serve very good chai. So Hitesh and I were sitting there during my trip in February 2012. I told him what we were trying to do, and asked him to come work with us. I don’t know why, but for some reason, he thought it was a good idea and by the end of March he joined us.

There can be an opportunity in the ruins

Widening your scope can help you come up with innovative ways to build your business that could go a long way:

In February 2012, I went to Jodhpur.

For a couple of days, Hitesh and I roamed around the city and met a few factory owners. You should have seen some of these factories. The first one I went to had one human being and some 10,000 pigeons with pigeon crap all around, and some 20 tonnes of dust. I met the owner and the factory manager and learned they were technically very sound and had all the machinery, but the factory had run into bad times. They used to largely supply to Spanish buyers earlier, but during the economic slowdown in 2008-09, their clients went bankrupt. So they ran out of money and had to shut down. Now, at that time, I didn’t know any better about furniture than them. Also, why would anyone have worked with me at that time? So that was the first factory we began working with. We sourced from this factory for almost six years after that.