In this episode of The Balls Of Steel Show, our host Sarthak Varshney gets in a candid conversation with Anirudh Rathi, founder of Sofa Clinic. He gives us an insight into his startup and how the business runs in his blood. In this conversation with Anirudh, he gave The BOSS an overview of the traditional Indian societal norms and how he carved his own niche in the business world.
WHAT BUSINESS ARE YOU RUNNING BECAUSE OF WHICH WE CAN SAY THAT YOU HAVE GOT THE BALLS OF STEEL?
We started this company called Sofa Clinic and right now we are undergoing a change in terms of branding, so we’re calling it Lit-up Space. So, we are into refurnishing of home and home improvement services. We are into refurbishing of various products like sofa furniture, wardrobe, bathroom and kitchen renovations. We are organizing this sector and doing things which are not done by other companies.
LET’S DIVE DEEPER INTO OUR CONVERSATION ANIRUDH, WHAT HAS YOUR JOURNEY BEEN LIKE TILL NOW FROM THE POINT YOU STARTED?
I am born and brought up in Bangalore, and I’ve done my engineering in the electrical and electronics field. I started working in my family business, which was a textile export and import house. So, I learned the trade tricks there and went to IIM Bangalore for a management programme. There’s a saying in our peer group at IIMB that, “Ideas are cheap, inspiration is everywhere; initiatives are rare, but implementation is everything.”
One of my schoolmates came back to Bangalore from Thailand, and we had this idea of furniture refurbishing. At Lit-up Space, we go with the mentality that a customer should not go through any hassle while renovating their homes.
SINCE YOU COME FROM A BUSINESS BACKGROUND, IT’S EVIDENT THAT BUSINESS IS IN YOUR BLOOD, MR. ANIRUDH TELL US MORE ABOUT YOUR CHILDHOOD EXPERIENCES.
Being from a Marwari family, business runs in my blood. Once I started working full time in my family business, I had many ideas for marketing and how to increase sales.
During the summer holidays, I used to go to the office sometimes. Although I wasn’t interested in accounts, I still had a knack for it. I used to have a casual chat with the employees and was friendly to them. We treat our employees very well and ask them to take the initiative.
During my engineering, I realized it wasn’t my cup of tea. I didn’t see myself as a technical guy, working in some big factory; instead, I understood that being an entrepreneur is the journey that I can now fulfill. I wanted to have my setup, to understand bringing new processes, procedures, and categories. So what we are doing now is getting a new type onto itself in this unorganized industry. We are organizing it from scratch.
PLEASE TELL US THROUGH THIS CONVERSATION ANIRUDH WHY DID YOU GET INTO ENGINEERING? WAS IT FAMILY PRESSURE?
I would not say it was family pressure or peer pressure but generally, there is an unsaid rule that you either chose commerce or sciences. I wasn’t inclined towards commerce because I was inspired by my elder sister who was an engineer and was working with a software company. However, engineering wasn’t my thing and I had to start from scratch to know my passion.
ANIRUDH DURING YOUR FOUR YEARS OF ENGINEERING, HOW DID YOUR FRAME OF MIND INCLINE TOWARDS ENTREPRENEURSHIP?
My family went through an initial struggle when I was just born. My father ran a biscuit factory; he used to work from 6 A.M to 2 A.M. The way he set up the business, inspired me to take our business ahead. During my college days, I used to sell stocks of garments to my classmates at a higher price than what I paid for- at the factory. I used to make a profit and understand the customer’s intention and the market. I saw my father staying up all night and understanding the requirements of his customers. This made me understand that anything could sell; it’s only a matter of how you sell it.
DID YOUR PARENTS TELL YOU TO LOOK OUT FOR JOBS AND SIT FOR PLACEMENTS?
I did sit for placements and interviews, but my mindset was already inclined towards getting into the business. It was like a written rule that I had to do business even if I did a job for a year or so. Rather than waiting for a year to start my business, I started it before I got comfortable in a job.
HOW WAS THE PERIOD OF TRANSITION BETWEEN YOU BEING A STUDENT AND THEN STARTING YOUR OWN BUSINESS? ANIRUDH, DID YOU FACE ANY GENERATION GAP WITH YOUR FATHER WHILE TAKING A DECISION?
When I completed my engineering, one of my sisters was already in the business and was handling all the designing and procurement. My father used to do all the marketing once I joined the business, I was seeing each and every Department.
First two years, I was learning from all departments. After two years, my entire focus was on marketing. I used to travel to exhibitions. In 2012, my first exhibition was in Las Vegas, and it was pretty frightening to do it all alone in a different country. Even though it wasn’t that successful, I got to understand what the customers wanted. I picked up sales after this the next year I did a very successful show in Frankfurt. Due to these learning experiences, we started our journey in Europe as well. Now, I handle my family business, along with my own venture.
WHAT REALIZATIONS DID YOUR PAST EXPERIENCES INSTILL IN YOU WHEN YOU STARTED YOUR OWN VENTURE?
I understood one aspect that if you don’t work, starting from the grassroots level, then you won’t know what the customer requires. Because understanding what the customer requires is the basics and if the customer does not know what he requires then you have to show them what they require. This experience made me grounded. Businesses are changing and we have to understand the very core aspects of it.
PLEASE TELL US THROUGH THIS CONVERSATION ANIRUDH, WHY DID YOU FEEL THERE WAS A NEED FOR YOU TO GO TO IIM?
I decided to take up this course because I realized that the textile industry was going towards another recession. Many companies and even our buyers were showing respite and weren’t performing well. Our orders started declining. I could have gone to a business counselor as well but what I thought better was to take up a course in executive MBA.
During this period, I learned that being a businessman was different from being an entrepreneur. The gates of entrepreneurship opened through the NSR cell of IIMB. It was like incubation for many entrepreneurs who thought that they could benefit from the expertise of IIM Bangalore and their wonderful professors. This inspired me to start something of my own. I also had lengthy conversations with one of the professors as I was starting my venture. He was impressed with our idea and its execution.
WHAT WAS THE REALISATION THAT YOU HAD WHEN YOU SOMEWHAT FOLLOWED THE TRADITIONAL INDIAN SOCIETAL NORMS OF DOING ENGINEERING AND THEN MBA?ANIRUDH, WAS THE REALISATION WORTH IT?
Doing a course, understanding the professors and the peer group was a unique experience. Looking at so many people excel also gave me an inspiration that the business environment is not bad but the way the business is faulty. I learned that failing is not actually a bad thing. However, it’s not okay to give up after failing. You have to keep trying always, and only that will show your leadership.
So we started off by talking to the customers, then we used to get the sofa to our factory to do the refurbishing work and then we delivered it back to the customer. Talking about our initial days, we used to carry out all processes by ourselves. So initially I learned for two years at each and every Department and in a very short time, we rose from two people, my co-founder and I, to ten people. We started building processes, got a new factory, new machinery and today we are in five cities.
TELL US MORE ABOUT YOUR PARTNERSHIP WITH YOUR CHILDHOOD FRIEND AND THE STRUGGLES YOU BOTH FACED.
My friend worked in his family business, and he wanted to come back to India and do something here. He had a jewellery business back in Thailand and wanted to continue in that business here too. He started an online jewellery website when it wasn’t a prominent business in India.
Around 2015 he started customising jewellery, but somehow he lost a lot of money, and he didn’t pursue it further. Around the same time, I was looking for a business idea wherein I could start something. So after school, we reconnected again, and over lengthy chats, we discussed the possible ideas.
Once, he told me that he got a sofa redone by a local carpenter and posted its picture on social media. That post got a lot of attention and we immediately thought that this was the business idea we’ve been looking for. Hiring a carpenter who does not take you for a ride in a city like Bangalore is very difficult.
Many people in Bangalore are migrants because it is the software capital, and they don’t know about the local vendors, so trust was one factor we thrived on. In this space, recognition and branding are required. We went ahead with the plan, and we started with a small place initially and gradually expanded it.
We as partners fight almost every day but what keeps us going is that we know each other’s strengths well. I know that he is an excellent salesman and can sell almost anything. What I realised is that my strength lies in operations and finance. So we have set verticals, and we handle them. This makes the friction come down, and we function smoothly in a partnership.
TELL US MORE ABOUT THE INITIAL FUNDING OF SOFA CLINIC THROUGH THIS CONVERSATION ANIRUDH
The company is still bootstrap, we’ve not taken any loans. We have put our own money and the good part is that the business is debt-free till now. We want to continue this way. Our business does not require much capital too. More than capital, we have put our efforts.
WHAT WAS YOUR MINDSET WHEN YOU HAD REALISATIONS AFTER EXPERIENCING FIRST-HAND STRUGGLES?
The basic is to understand the processes, what the customers want, and the general industry for a business. Initial struggles are a must. You have to understand the industry, the customer, and your own strength.
TELL US WHAT YOUR BIGGEST FAILURE WAS AND WHAT HAVE YOU LEARN FROM IT, ANIRUDH?
We did have our share of failures. At one point in time, we increased our marketing budget to a great deal. However, our supply was not so robust, and due to that, we had a breakdown. We had a good run of orders; the only thing is that our supply chain was hindered due to a shortage of labour. There were a lot of delays. Initially, we thought our USP to be the hassle-free, timely delivery of furniture, but this was not happening. Our complete system suffered a breakdown. After this, we made a few radical changes in our company. We segregated the responsibilities and roles of the co-founders, and we saw positive results next year.
WHAT WAS THAT MOMENT IN YOUR JOURNEY THAT CHANGED YOU ALTOGETHER FROM A BUSINESS PERSPECTIVE?
Like I told you, we grew from 2 to 10 co-founders, so we hired interns fresh out of college. I learnt more from their fresh energy than they learnt from me. They had this zeal for learning which I had lost. It was pretty heartwarming to see their growth as well as the companies’ growth.
We used to cut cakes for the interns and have small celebrations every two months. This did not happen at my father’s company which was more like a traditional style. The journey that we had with the interns was pretty fun, and I learnt a lot from them. It was heartwarming seeing people getting inspired by me.
ANIRUDH PLEASE TELL US VIA THIS CONVERSATION THAT ARE YOU A MONEY MNDED PERSON?
If you would have asked me five years back, yes I was, but right now, I’m not exactly a money-minded person. I’m still handling the finance part of my company, so it’s in between, I think.
In this conversation, Anirudh Rathi shares his journey of getting the ball rolling and starting his own venture. Learning from his father’s business and incorporating values and beliefs mixed with his ideas, he now successfully runs Sofa Clinic. We hope you would have taken something insightful from Anirudh’s entrepreneurial journey to add it to your Dhandho Ni Soch.