Her small and delicate frame belie her potential. Her words ring with clarity of vision. Her confidence is infectious and she defines her path to entrepreneurship as a matter of “serendipity”. But, one can see the fruit of her perseverance in the online enterprise she has built. She dismisses the idea of being called a woman entrepreneur, just like she dismissed apprehensions about her product category. Meet Richa Kar, the founder of Zivame, who removed sleaze from lingerie and added a fashion element to it.
The 35-year-old always found herself inclined towards the business side of things, and the roaring success of her online enterprise is only reflective of that acumen. Right after her graduation from BITS Pilani in 2002, Kar knew that someday she wanted to be at the helm of a business. And that’s why she enrolled for an MBA at NMIMS in 2005. The placement round saw the young management graduate posted at retail chain Spencer’s in Kolkata, and two years later, she joined German multinational SAP as a consultant. It was here that Kar discovered Victoria’s Secret, as she tracked the online sales of one of her clients, Limited Brands. “It was around March when I realised that there is high surge in orders during the Valentine’s Day sales period. Almost a quarter of the lingerie maker’s sales were generated online,” she says.
That led to a few change in plans for the budding entrepreneur, who was all set for a food and grocery start-up. “I was already thinking about a couple of business ideas. The grocery start-up was not an online thing, but I had found a partner and my presentations were ready,” she reveals. However, a few phone calls to her then boyfriend now husband, Kedar Gavane about her new business idea and she found her first investor in him. Kar was all set to change the way an Indian woman purchased intimate wear. Not only did she strive to eliminate the taboo associated with buying the product, but also had an ambitious plan of enlisting the top six lingerie brands on her website.
Strap it on
Kar worked like a mean machine once her business plan was in place. She chanced upon the idea in March 2011 and by April she was serving her notice period at SAP. She utilised this time to visit retail outlets like Lifestyle and Shoppers Stop to understand the way this category was sold offline, how she could improve the experience and which brands she should stock on. By May, Kar had managed to get big names like Triumph and Jockey on board. All this began with an initial investment of 30 lakh from friends and family. She chose a Hebrew word ‘Ziva’ which means radiance and Zivame stands for a ‘radiant me’. And on August 25, 2011, the Zivame website went live, displaying all things sexy and lace. But, Kar had to smoothen a few apprehensive undercurrents before she began selling innerwear.
She recalls how her mother was visibly uncomfortable with telling her friends and relatives about what her daughter was selling online. And explaining it to outsiders wasn’t easy either. But Kar had managed to conceal without revealing. When she set out to rent her first office space, she was to share the workplace with a few classmates from BITS Pilani, who were setting up a social sector consulting firm. “While that sounded decent to the landlord, when he asked me, I wondered if I should tell him lingerie. If he then asked for more details, I would have to explain it to him. And will I then miss out on the place?,” were some of the doubts which were eliminated as she smartly introduced her brand as an apparel company much to the amusement of her batchmates.
However, convincing the payment gateway guys wasn’t as smooth, given that her product brief clearly talked about lingerie and accessories, which resulted in long delays to secure the required permissions. As for other business realities, Kar dealt with them in her own way. “I would often ask my boyfriend to come along when I went to meet people. I didn’t want it to look like it is just a one-man army, but a big company,” she recalls. And that was a goal that Kar was very clear about from the time she founded Zivame. She recounts how not asking her parents to financially support her, was another clause that she imposed on herself very early on. One of the other things that Kar followed was a hands-on approach from day one. While the site was developed with the help of friends who designed it for free, the task of listing every merchandise on the new website was her job. When her receptionist, who was one of the handful people employed then, quit, Kar didn’t shy from taking phone calls. “Her name was Sindhu and after she left, I would take calls under her name. I couldn’t tell the other person that this was Richa Kar, the founder, because that would have been odd,” she laughs. Even when Zivame faced a crisis a few days after launching its Address Resolution Protocol (ARP) system and orders were stuck for three days, Kar jumped right in with her team at the warehouse to help packing boxes. “It was in mid-2012, our ARP system was launched and had failed. Customers whose orders were delayed were lambasting us online. So for the next three-four nights, all we did was packing boxes, making excel sheets, ticking orders against it, making mistakes, re-doing it,” she recalls, vividly describing the scene at the warehouse that had replicated the proficiency and chaos of a restaurant kitchen during rush hour. And Kar has no qualms about chipping in for any such task even in the future as she believes, “If you don’t get your hands dirty, then how do you expect your people to do it?”
Finding the right fit
A strong belief in the power of a team keeps Kar motivated. She believes that as an entrepreneur, it is important to pass on the company’s vision to every employee in order to derive the best from each one of them. So, was it tough to hire people with this novel concept? “Your business is going to be looked at the way you project it. I have never been uncomfortable with the fact that I sell lingerie and I’d say the same for the men on my team. I have men in my operations team, the product design head is a guy, he’s the one fussing over curves and cups and fabric,” she proudly affirms.
Then, there is the other spectrum of people that Kar pays keen attention to and keeps bringing them up at every junction of the conversation — customers. Zivame, that began with one customer on day one from a small town in Indore, now delivers to over 20,000 pin codes. Kar has followed the very simple principle of ‘The customer is queen’ when it comes to altering Zivame’s offerings. Zivame began operations in 2011 by selling its own brands as well as others — including some of the top international lingerie brands. But in July 2016, they stopped selling other brands and focused on their own brands like Penny, CouCou and Rosaline under the Zivame label. And for someone who counted lack of experience in the apparel category as an issue while starting out, what gave her the confidence to go ahead? “For me, the biggest validation comes from my customers. Nobody but our customers keep us in business, not investors, not employees. As far as your customer is willing to pay for your product, you’re in good shape. That’s where the money comes from,” says the entrepreneur who closely tracks customer complaints and requests over e-mail every week.
It is this willingness to listen to her customers that has resulted in several of Zivame’s initiatives. In early 2015, Zivame launched a mobile fitting lounge in Bengaluru, Mumbai and Delhi that travelled to colleges with fitting experts, who helped women choose the right bra. While one might think that it isn’t such a big issue, a survey by the company shows that 82% of women in India have never received professional help in finding the right bra. Haven’t we all experienced that first time where overcome by awkwardness, we just picked the size that the saleswoman/man suggested? Well, Zivame sought to change that experience by introducing features like Fit Consultant, trials at home and even launched an offline fitting lounge in Bengaluru in December last year. This is a place where women can consult a fitting expert, find the right size and style and thereby place an order.
Show me the money
Apart from customers, Kar found even greater validation in her idea from investors. Just two months post Zivame’s launch, Kar realised two things — one, the site was getting a lot of traction and two, she was running out of funds. “With credit cards being maxed out, our only option was to find investments,” she confides. And so, she approached the search for investors with the same gusto with which she launched her site. Three months after the search, Zivame raised $3 million from IDG Ventures and Kalaari Capital Advisors, and this was followed by another $6 million in 2013, that also included Unilazer Ventures and finally the start-up was part of a series-C round of funding in 2015, where investors like Zodius Technology Fund, Malaysian sovereign fund Khazanah Nasional Berhad and existing investors pumped in another $40 million. This was followed by an investment of 10 lakh from Tata Sons chairman emeritus, Ratan Tata, last September.
“There were nights when I felt I would die, as I sat and thought about what would happen if we don’t get funding,” she recounts. However, now, she talks about the importance of mental strength and how to anchor oneself when one decides to be an entrepreneur. Kar says she achieves this by practicing yoga thrice a week and doesn’t overthink her decisions for too long. “Once you make a decision, just work towards making it right. Don’t be distracted by what everyone else around you is doing,” she cautions, as she stresses on the importance to be mindful of one’s goals, unique strengths and weaknesses. She shares how that is also something she tells her investors, “Don’t compare us, we are different people operating in different markets,” she adds.
Kar constantly stresses on the long and arduous journey of entrepreneurship. She points out that while not quitting is her motto, at times entrepreneurs need to review their model when things are not going right. Knowing when to pull the plug is a painful but crucial decision says Kar, whose brother sold his educational start-up when he realised it wasn’t working the way he wanted it to. So, what helped her stay on track? “While the founder and his/her team takes away all the glory, it is the family who bears the brunt of entrepreneurship,” says Kar, who attributes her success to her parents, in-laws and husband. She recounts several vacations abroad and family dinners that she skipped because of work. Even Kar’s wedding was conducted in a hurried manner with the groom showing more enthusiasm than the bride when it came to arranging the event. “I would chip in on weekends. One night before my mehendi, I was working on quarterly reports that I had to send the investors. And I was back at work the very next day after my wedding,” she says, as she elaborates about the shocked faces she encountered at work the next day.
While her employees may not always comply with this extreme sense of sacrifice, they whole-heartedly believe in Kar’s vision for Zivame. “In the next five years, we’re looking at becoming a global fashion-focused brand for women. Having understood lingerie, we have a very good chance of doing a lot more in the apparel space,” says Kar. So, as she moves from all things strings and straps to cuts and fabrics, Kar is cognisant of the one fact that she claims will keep her anchored, “Despite everything that happens, whether Zivame makes it or not, it is my responsibility and the buck stops with me.”