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Photograph by RA Chandroo

Outstanding Women

Queen of Quirk
Shubhra Chadda’s chic design and intuitive business sense is behind the magnetic pull of her India-themed lifestyle brand and souvenir store, Chumbak   

Laveena Iyer

 

 

There is something about the way she talks that draws one to her story. Her narratives are punctuated by innocent giggles and the faint ring of an anklet charm. She narrates with a twinkle in her eyes and the tone keeps going up by a few notches. The setting is complete for a storytelling session with a hot mug of coffee, a quiet corner and the house labrador, Hugo, snug at our feet. Shubhra Chadda goes on to describe how she set up the India-themed retail lifestyle chain and its design studio along with her husband, Vivek Prabhakar. While the story of Chumbak (which means ‘magnet’ in Hindi) began seven years ago, the inspiration for setting up a souvenir store was brewing right from the time Chadda was a little girl.

Being an Air Force pilot’s daughter meant that Chadda travelled around the country to lesser known places like Adampur, Kalaikunda and Bhuj. However, she was admitted to a boarding school in Delhi to broaden her horizons. Even then, Chadda was always on the lookout to satiate her traveller’s lust. So, for her graduation, instead of opting for a commerce degree, she chose one that included travel and tourism at Mount Carmel College in Bengaluru. That’s when Chadda experienced the joy of discovering new locales, with a backpack for company.

Down memory lane
One of her first such trips was to Kerala for a project on Ayurveda along with her sister. “I was just 18 and my sister was 20. It was for two weeks, but it was a magical trip. I don’t think I’ve had such a great holiday ever,” recounts Chadda. Such was the urge to travel and explore, that Chadda was seriously considering employment in the sector. “I even contemplated being a travel show host, but I am a very shy person. I found it very intimidating,” she confides. Chadda simply lined up at the end of her course for a placement round held by KPMG to make it to the top 15 candidates who were selected.

She attributes some of her work ethic to the professional environment she encountered at the accounting firm. “From the very beginning, you are given the opportunity to take on big projects. At the age of 20, you are interacting with CEOs and CFOs of top companies, it demands that you grow up fast, there is no time to act like a kid,” she avers. But at the end of one year, Chadda realised that this wasn’t something she wished to do for the rest of her life.

So, Chadda set out to spend a month and a half in the United States, where her aunt lived, and her self-discovery process began. While one would expect Chadda’s suitcase on the return trip to be loaded with high-end apparel from a shopping spree, the contents of her bag were quite different. “I mostly came back with what people would consider a lot of junk,” she adds. There were objects like fridge magnets, curios, wall art, a uniquely designed bottle that she picked up from a Mexican restaurant, et al.

Even her husband, Prabhakar, would do the same when he returned from work trips. The couple, who had purchased a house in their early 20s, had a cupboard full of their “travel junk” even before they moved in. It wasn’t just the love for travel but a deep desire to live among pretty things and decorate spaces around her, that formed the foundation for Chumbak. “Right from the time I was a little girl, I was very house proud. I would love to set the table, take care of the flower arrangement and imagine how proud my mother was to have me,” she shares. 

Juggling dreams
Surprisingly, Chadda, who heads product design at Chumbak's quirky studio, had no formal training in the field. But, as a youngster who switched jobs to find her true calling, she dabbled a little in creative arts. In 2001, while Chadda was pursuing a master’s degree in Public Relations and Advertising from Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, she also doubled up as an intern with production house, Nirvana Films. “I had approached the producer-director couple who founded Nirvana Films and confessed to them that I was confused and didn’t know what to do with my career. So, I offered to be the coffee-fetcher and just hang around to observe things,” she adds. Here, she ended up assimilating a lot about the art of film-making. “I was still depending on my parents for pocket-money to get through and that for me, was not a good feeling. Also, I was very hard on myself for quitting a secure job like KPMG,” she explains, reasoning why she applied to American data-storage company, NetApp, and became a part of its five-member sales team. At NetApp, Chadda’s leadership skills were moulded by her boss, George Thomas. “I learnt how to start small, the importance of profit, team-work, passion, how as a leader one must drive your team and strive to get the best out of different people,” she says. And Chadda deploys these metrics when she hires people at Chumbak now. “I make it very clear to the candidate that as a start-up, I don’t have much to offer. Work-life balance is something you are not going to get here as our policies are not yet where they should be. But, if you are in that space where career matters the most, then I can assure you a sense of accomplishment,” she shares. 

After a year at NetApp, Chadda again sensed the need to look for something exciting to do. The thing that was eluding her for so many years finally came beckoning on a Sunday afternoon as she marvelled at her fridge magnet collection. “That’s when I realised that we don’t have any such souvenirs in India that we are proud of, given their poor quality and limited designs. So, I decided I wanted to do fridge magnets,” she recounts as she travelled to Channapatna city in Karnataka, known for its wood craft, and approached designers there to get in creativity. Finally, she approached her boss, all set to clock out and start her own business when he brought the then-dreamy 27-year-old back to reality with his pointed questions. “He asked me all these questions like ‘Where are you going to sell them? Who will buy them? You don’t know anything about retail. You have just bought a house. You’re not ready, go back to your seat’.” And with that, her plans to start Chumbak were put on the backburner as she spent a few more years at NetApp and then joined Canadian telecom company, Nortel.

Designing destiny
But destiny came calling again when she was on a maternity break in 2007. “Even after my daughter Samara was born, I was itching to do something, but I was delaying going back to the same old 9-5 job,” she says. That’s when Prabhakar, one evening, surprised his wife with a colourful display of knick-knacks like keychains, fridge magnets, sippers, coffee mugs, notebooks, etc. that donned Chadda’s designs. She didn’t need him to say anything more, and with that Chumbak was born. 

Having decided that it was time to place the bulk order, the couple decided to sell their home. “We made a list of pros and cons. We knew that even if this didn’t work out, we could always go back to our jobs and earn enough to buy a new house. What I absolutely didn’t want to live with was a 'what if' scenario," she declares. Chumbak was launched as an India-themed souvenir brand in 2009, with Prabhakar joining Chadda in 2011. She began her lessons in retail marketing and sales. While she hoped to sell her merchandise at airport stores and hotels, she found more enthusiasm among smaller stores that skipped the questions on brand name and margins, focusing exclusively on Chumbak’s unique offerings, instead. Within six months of its launch, Chumbak’s designs were available in 12 categories such as fridge magnets, sippers, notebooks, keychains, bookmarks, mugs and cushion covers, across 60 stores and also online. “From day one, we started as an online-offline store, that was one of the best business decisions we made,” she says, as the young brand adopted Facebook and other social media platforms to spread the word and this explains why its strategy to use Google services was picked up by the search engine major, as a case study. 

Chadda was clear she didn’t want Chumbak to be a boutique brand, but rather one that was accessible and affordable to everyone. But, finding prominent retail space was quite a task. Chadda recounts how setting up the first pop-up store at one of Bengaluru’s biggest malls involved quite a lot of pleading and convincing. Though Chumbak eventually managed to get 20 sq ft next to an escalator, Chadda didn’t let the area deter her and designed a fun-filled colourful kiosk that shoppers simply couldn’t resist. And two weeks later, she received a call from the mall manager offering her 150 sq ft on the ground floor for the same price. Within two years, the company turned profitable and then, they were faced with the next step — growth, which required funding. The couple was clear on the need to take the brand beyond, to launch more products and set up Chumbak’s exclusive stores, but were apprehensive on how getting investors in would change things. Everything worked out well in the end when Seedfund’s Bharati Jacob, invested $2 million in 2012, put the founders at ease and reinforced their vision for Chumbak. 

And since then, there has been no looking back for the 36-year-old. Chumbak is present in 30-plus stores in India across 75 product categories including apparel, accessories, home furnishings, etc. It raised another round of funding in 2014 from Matrix Partners and Seedfund and is currently scouting for a series-C funding to implement its expansion plans in the United States. 

When you look around the brightly lit store on the ground floor of the Chumbak head office, it resonates with what Chadda shared about herself — desire to surround oneself with pretty things. Everything in the store screams Chumbak — the brand that made prints of inane things like owls and auto rickshaws stylish. Chadda reveals that apart from her in-house designers, she also follows a couple of design blogs for inspiration. And when it comes to inspiring future entrepreneurs, she has some ready advice. “While we all strive for perfection, it is important not to over-think things. Also ensure you know every aspect of what it takes to run your business and that comes only when you are willing to get your hands dirty,” says the woman entrepreneur who started one of India’s emerging lifestyle brands all by herself from one tiny room with her dream and perseverance for company.

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