In the land of roadside barbers, a startup wants men to spend big on a good shave

Grooming them all!
Grooming them all!
Image: Reuters/Rupak De Chowdhuri
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In a country of roadside barber shops and ubiquitous Gillette razors, a former McKinsey associate has traveled all the way to China and back to give Indian men a classy shave.

Bombay Shaving Company started in August 2015 by Shantanu Deshpande (28), wants to sell razors, shaving gels and balms online in India’s Rs7,500-crore male grooming market. His competition includes multinational and homegrown behemoths such as Gillette, Emami, and Godrej Consumer Products.

It’s a tall order. But Deshpande, who spent some four years working with the country’s leading consumer goods companies in his consulting days, is convinced that more and more Indian men want to look good, and few brands are helping them do so. “They are on Tinder and matrimonial websites, and they are taking more selfies than ever and they need to look well groomed,” he explained.

So the Bombay Shaving Company has floated a nifty shaving kit that is exclusively sold online and currently costs about Rs3,000. It includes a shaving cream, pre-shave scrub, balm, blades—which should together last around 60-75 shaves—and a razor and brush. The latter two are being pitched as a one-time buy.

That’s not a cheap upfront cost when compared to Gillette’s razor, which is priced anywhere between Rs22 and Rs500 or more, plus the additional cost of blades. Nonetheless, since it first began selling in July 2016, the company has picked up 1,350 subscribers online. In the next six months, Deshpande hopes to add 25,000 subscribers.

They’ve also managed to line up a group of investors. Last August, just after Deshpande quit McKinsey, two dozen individual investors backed him with seed funding of Rs4 crore.

Shaving off the monopoly

For years, Indian men were mostly ignored by consumer goods companies. Those days seem to be over.

In fact, male-grooming is one of the fastest-growing consumer segments in India, Nielsen said in a research report in April 2015. The big drivers are the emergence of men’s fairness creams, sunscreens, and beer shampoos by companies such as L’oreal, Emami, and Marico.

The boom isn’t simply because Indian men want to appeal to the opposite sex. “Good grooming, they (Indian men) believe, is conducive to boosting self-confidence,” Nielsen suggests.

Amid this boom, the Bombay Shaving Company is looking to close the gap between cheap brands and high-end products, especially for consumers in urban markets who are willing to pay more. ”Yes, it is a premium brand,” said Deshpande, adding that his target consumer is the “discerning Indian male, who has an inclination for doing things right or being mindful in all his activities.” 

Except there’s one problem: Gillette, owned by American multinational Proctor & Gamble, controls majority of the Indian shaving market. “That’s a huge, huge monopoly by one brand. We can enter the shaving market and be a second or third best,” said Deshpande.

The right razor

The idea of men’s online grooming brand isn’t entirely new.

With more men around the globe spending more time and money on looking better, new-age brands have emerged. Take, for instance, the Dollar Shave Club in the US, started in 2011, which was recently bought over by Unilever for $1 billion. In 2015, the American company clocked a turnover of $150 million selling low-priced razors as an alternative to Gillette and Schick.

In India, however, building a similar male-grooming company isn’t easy.

One of the biggest challenges that Deshpande faced was finding the right razor. Gillette manufacturers most of the razors that it sells in India. So, Deshpande spent eight months looking for the right option to manufacture the razor—designed by the team in-house, which he chanced upon in Guangzhou, China, after posting a query on Chinese e-commerce website Alibaba.

In a segment dominated by mass-market products, “niche brands or products like these can become popular but it is not to say that they will replace or become very dominant in the market,” reckoned Ankur Bisen, vice-president, retail and consumer products, at consulting firm Technopak Advisors.

“So they will have a restrictive model or consumer base at last as they start out, but there is a market for consumers who are well-traveled and understand global trends who are willing to experiment,” added Bisen.

Deshpande understands the importance of being more accessible. “We will go down the value chain, not just yet. We want to build aspiration around the brand,” he  said.

Bombay Shaving Company eventually plans to convert online sales into a large off-line business. Deshpande, who is ready for a series A, to secure a larger tranche of funding post the seed capital, seems prepared for a long battle with the big consumer goods companies.

All this for a well-groomed man.