24 Good Businesses 2012

Organic beauty

What started as a personal quest has become a one-stop shop for all-natural products 

Where would you go for bright lipsticks made with honey, ghee and kokum butter? Or mosquito repellent diffusers with peppermint, citronella and lemongrass? Do you have a source for laundry soaps without added chemicals, organic and natural honey and whole wheat pasta? Some net-savvy consumers do — they go to the Natural Mantra e-store to choose from its 2,000-odd eco-friendly, all-natural products across categories like body care, food, home care, kids products, eco fashion and gifts.

The site gets some 1,000 visitors every day and Nishant Nayak, who founded the company in 2011 and is its CEO, says he gets about 100 orders every month. “The average ticket size has grown to about₹1,000 and the number of orders is doubling every month,” he adds.

Natural Mantra is a result of Nishant and his wife’s struggle to find natural products for their daughter while they were in the US, where he worked with Ebay as a product manager. The infant had eczema and commercial lotions only irritated her skin further. Thus began their quest to find a non-toxic solution. The Nayaks began by carefully reading labels to identify chemicals, spoke with doctors and scoured the internet to make the right choice.

But when they returned to India in 2011 after a five-year stint in the US, they found that unlike the US, where natural products are easily available, there was no dedicated website or store here. “We had become used to living an organic lifestyle in the US as we found the products more healthy and clean. But in India it is very difficult to lead such a lifestyle,” says Nayak, who quit his job as GM of product and analytics with futurebazar, the digital arm of Future Group, last year to set up this company. 

Nayak has invested nearly ₹10 lakh from his savings in this endeavour and, given the current ₹1 lakh a month income, is targeting break-even by the year end. Margins for most products are typically 20-30% and expenses are kept to the bare minimum — an apartment in a Mumbai suburb doubles up as office and warehouse and the staff is limited to Nayak and four employees. The numbers have been good enough for India-based seed fund Fremont Partners to invest in the company.

The firm is unwilling to disclose figures but usually invests up to ₹50 lakh in new start-ups. “Natural Mantra’s founders bring an unrivalled passion for this business. Consumer preference for natural products is growing exponentially and the company is poised to tap this opportunity,” says Vivek Mohan, the founder of Fremont Partners. 

The initial sourcing was a tedious process — Nayak visited local farmers’ markets, exhibitions and sought out organic stores that had kiosks in malls, etc. Even now, he trawls the net actively looking for new suppliers, but as the site gains traction, enquiries have started coming directly from manufacturers.

Nayak says that he now finds many people writing to him to sell their products on Natural Mantra. “We often end up giving them advice on getting certifications. We also advise them on packaging their products and making them more user friendly,” he adds.

For now, each product sold through the website is first thoroughly checked by the Nayaks — in many cases, they test the product at their home before putting it up for sale online. “We read the labels carefully, try out the products and only then put it up for sale,” Nayak says. The priority now is to find more products that touch every aspect of a consumer’s natural ingredients-based lifestyle, from gifts and home décor to feminine hygiene products and laundry soaps. 

Social by nature

Apart from the obvious green angle, the less obvious social impact of Natural Mantra has occurred somewhat by default. Nayak says that when he started looking for makers of such products in India, very often they were made only by small scale enterprises, NGOs that tried to support various causes or farmers and entrepreneurs in rural areas. For instance, honey made by Under the Mango Tree was an offshoot of educating people on the importance of bees.

Similarly, Neev Foundation’s herbal soaps are a result of the NGO’s work towards creating rural employment and promoting a more sustainable form of living. “We have become a vehicle for educating customers, generating demand and developing the market for natural products,” says Nayak, pointing out that in a regular store a natural soap has to compete with low-priced regular soaps. When such natural products are displayed with other similar products, customers can make a more valid comparison. With demand, Nayak expects the prices of natural products to come down. “Many of the products are expensive right now because they are made in small batches,” he explains. 

The benefits are also coming through for sellers on Natural Mantra’s website. “After signing up with the site, we have seen a definite rise in the number of queries,” says Vijaya Pastala, founder and CEO of Under the Mango Tree. Shikha Jain, co-founder of Neev Foundation, feels that while there are many websites that sell natural products, a dedicated site definitely will pull more people. “Many of us want to use natural products. But to go and find them is a tedious process. And consumers do tend to take the easy way,” says Jain.  

For now, most of the site’s clients are affluent urban people between 25 and 45, the ones who are willing to try out new products or are looking for an alternative lifestyle. Many are expats. There’s no advertising — customers reach the site either through search engines or word of mouth (Natural Mantra is currently the only multi-brand seller of natural and organic products). Nayak’s also trying different ways to make his proposition stick such as free shipping for credit card purchases and a freebie in each shipment to induce the customer to buy more. The site also offers free returns but Nayak says that feature is hardly ever used. “People want to use these products as much as we want to sell them,” he says confidently.