“A few years ago, while I was trying to set up this business, I was told that for an Indian woman who has lived out of the country for so many years, trying to set up a new company was going to be next to impossible. That is just the sort of thing that eggs me on with greater conviction,” beams Suchi Mukherjee, the founder of online lifestyle and fashion curator, Limeroad.
Limeroad is an e-commerce platform where its community of users can not only mix and match accessories and dresses to create their own styles or what it calls the 'scrapbook', but also buy products curated by other users. “The scrapbook is one of our distinct features that also symbolises our business philosophy that fashion and lifestyle will be run on "freshness" of trends and on discounts,” explains Mukherjee. Limeroad's vendor and scrapbooking community ensures that "freshness is on steroids" with new, unique styles updated every 30 seconds. She adds how scrapbooking has increased customer engagement considerably, with users coming back for more.
Road to discovery
The idea to launch such a platform dawned upon her during her second maternity break, when she lived in London. One day, Mukherjee found herself flipping through a magazine and falling in love with a great piece of jewelry featured there. But having been sourced from a small-time artisan in Mumbai, there was no way she could instantly reach out to the seller and get her hands on the piece. She realised that a reliable consumer technology, which made discovery and purchase of such products available, was missing then.
She was amazed that despite India being a land that produced millions of engineers, it hadn’t yet churned out a global product brand in this category. What also struck her as a surprise, was the fact that India’s textile dominance had been ignored and forgotten. Globally, India accounts for 21% of textile manufacturing at the factory level. “It’s a big deal,” says Mukherjee emphasising the opportunity India's textile heritage had in store. “Here is an industry which is our strength. All I wanted to do was to use technology so that manufacturers, designers and sellers could flourish and users could source beautiful products, which currently they were not able to,” she adds. It was almost serendipity, given that Mukherjee and her husband were already preparing to move back to India after the birth of their son, and were keen on raising their children here. That’s when Mukherjee began acting on the blueprint of setting up a business in India.
Building a small enterprise into a flourishing business wasn’t something new for the economics student. After graduating from the London School of Economics in 1997 with a masters degree in finance and economics, she began her career as an investment banker with Lehman Brothers. Post a five-year stint in corporate finance, she joined Virgin Media and later became a part of US e-commerce giant, eBay. “I joined eBay UK when it was a very small team of just 25 people, and we built it into a very large business. After that I joined Skype and had the opportunity to witness the biggest product design change, where we went from being a small interface to a large one. I then went on to run Gumtree, UK’s largest classifieds business. When I joined, we were at number three and I managed to take it to the number one position,” she proudly says.
Clearly, Mukherjee knew her way around running a successful enterprise and that gave her immense confidence to finally start out on her own. “Joining eBay, taking Gumtree from a distant third position in key jobs and car sales classifieds to the top of the list in the UK market — arguably one of the most competitive markets in the world — the question was whether I could do something much bolder? And the answer was yes,” says Mukherjee.
Taking fashion online
Once there was clarity and conviction, it didn’t take long for Mukherjee to pack her bags and make her way to her homeland. She returned to India in 2011, with a vision of creating a global brand in the country. “With a passion for driving change and innovation, which is also the core element of Limeroad’s culture, I got together with my co-founders to build something transformational,” she recalls. Limeroad’s founding team also includes Prashant Malik and Ankush Mehra. Malik, who worked at Facebook, returned to India to start something on his own and Mehra, who was heading the supply chain at Reliance Hypermarkets, was introduced to Mukherjee by common friends, when she was evaluating the market opportunity a year prior to setting up Limeroad.
But the journey towards building something transformational was a bumpy ride. Mukherjee’s decision to come back to India, did shake up her otherwise stable family life in London. Her son was less than a year old and she ended up travelling to India every month for 15 days, while her husband and daughter stayed back in London. Though the family stayed apart, they stood by each other and Mukherjee acknowledges it admitting that she couldn’t have done much without the unconditional support of her loved ones.
Securing the support of investors wasn’t hard given her, and her co-founders' track record. Limeroad needed no seed capital or angel funding. It raised $5 million in its very first round of funding in series-A from Matrix Partners and Lightspeed Venture Partners in 2012, and then another $45 million in the next two rounds in 2014 and 2015 respectively, where Tiger Global joined the existing investors.
However, the typical struggles while doing business in India did await her further on. “Complexities with basic infrastructure, including things such as reliable internet, complex bank processes, Registrar of Company filings were a struggle,” she recounts, while adding that these however, were tiny obstacles. Mukherjee feels that what makes or breaks a business are its people. “I always lay emphasis on finding the right talent. Experience, for me, is secondary,” she says. Mukherjee looks for a great can-do attitude and a desire to build high-impact outcomes in her candidates. “As a result of this, we successfully make the most of even the junior-most teams. For instance, customer support is a great selection ground for future team leaders. Nearly a dozen agents, who started their lives on the floor answering calls, are now leading teams across various operation functions as well as recruitment,” she says with pride.
Google India estimates that fashion e-commerce will grow to $35 billion in India by 2020 (or around 35% of total e-commerce revenue). It is the largest and most profitable online retail category globally. More importantly, the segment lends itself to experimenting with business models. When Mukherjee returned to India in 2011, the e-commerce space was already getting crowded. “When we started, Myntra, Flipkart were already present; Jabong, too, was quite big. There were quite a few other brands as well. Everybody was trying to sell discounted brands and we didn’t feel the need to that,” she avers. “During the first three years, we barely sold any brand. The vendors we had were all small garment manufacturers. We chose the best of the lot. We created a product, which was very different,” she describes.
Social fashion network
Today, Limeroad boasts of a 50,000-strong women community. Many of them create their own mix-and-match designs based on products in the platform's inventory. Mukherjee feels that being a social fashion network helps them stand out in the crowded fashion e-commerce space. “We started it this way from day one. We are very different from the rest,” she says. But vesting power in the hands of its users and sellers can have its own set of challenges. So, how does it regulate? “We give them technology tools. We have a big technology and scoring platform. So there are star stylists with high scores which ensure that their updates come right on top of the feed. Look how 24 fashion updates have appeared in a matter of few seconds,” she says, while pointing at the user-generated style mix on the app.
When Myntra acquired Jabong in July this year for $70 million to corner 70% market share, doubts were raised over the fate of smaller players like Limeroad. But Mukherjee isn’t worried. “Shake-ups are always good because they separate the women from the girls,” she giggles. According to her, consolidation is good because it creates an environment for good businesses to thrive. “It brings back the focus on fundamentals. Two, it takes out a lot of competition,” she points out. Does the fact that funding taps are drying up fast worry her? “The reality is good businesses always get funded, a lot of money is still waiting to be invested. I think the issue is not that there is no money, but that there isn’t money for everyone,” she says. Mukherjee is confident that Limeroad’s growth rests on sound unit economics. “Unit economics at Limeroad has been healthy (double-digit percentage margins) since the start, and it keeps getting better with scale,” she adds. Mukherjee is also relying on the “network effect”. “This means that with time, the platform will generate more and more value for the individual user,” she explains.
But, building a business in India is always a challenge, especially with competitive pressure increasing each day. Again, that doesn’t deter the 44-year-old entrepreneur. “I think I’ve inherited my mother’s fighter gene that has always helped me battle all the challenges that came my way. My husband has seen strong women in his family and has been my biggest support system throughout this journey,” she shares.
Rather than fantasising about her dream, Mukherjee is living it. And she partly attributes her ability to convert her dreams to reality to a role model whom she finds inspiring — Steve Jobs. “I believe every day is day one. One should stay hungry, stay foolish and stay focused. It is very important to have a strong focus on what you are building and learn to cut out the noise around. I strongly believe that everything is possible. I motivate my team to be problem-solvers too, to take up tougher problems and bigger challenges. The focus should be on building an insanely delightful customer experience,” she says. For now, it looks like Mukherjee’s philosophy has put her on the road to success.