Holy Cow! God's Own Startups
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33 million gods, around 10 lakh temples with more than double the number of priests, up to 40 lakh kilogram of gold treasures, annual donations worth above Rs 3,000 crore from India’s 10 richest temples, around 50 major festivals and probably less than 100 assorted pujas – performed daily to annual basis - for different good and bad occasions, right from birth till death, in fact even after death! Need to say more why Indians blindly splurge on gods?
No, but there’s certainly been a need to standardize the vast unorganized market that a handful of start-ups have already been doing, sitting on around $40 billion eye-popping pile of market opportunity.From home delivering ‘prasad’ of various temples to selling spiritual products and items required for different pujas, booking priests, conducting pujas, booking tickets and hotels to various pilgrimages etc., these start-ups are fast filling up the market wherein demand is immune from any price fluctuations all year round.
“There are around 80 crore Hindus in India that spend uninhibitedly in the name of god and religion. There are low-cost items like incense sticks, and ‘ghee’ used on daily basis and god idols that are often used for gifting purposes. From birth to death, Indians are engaged into spiritual activities of one kind or the other which makes it a huge market.
Also the market is recession proof. So, we are a niche platform offering services and products for any kind of spiritual needs,” says Tapas Mallick, Founder and CEO of Delhi-based Pujashoppe – an omnichannel store selling puja materials, puja kits, and offering services including vastu, fengshui, corporate gifting etc.
Started in October 2015 with offline stores, Pujashoppe has set-up WiFi in 20 major temples across Delhi, Gujarat, Ranchi, etc. The start-up makes products through contract manufacturing under its own brand called Arghyam.
In The Name Of God!
The market is fairly large given the presence of Hindu-community across the globe who wants to stay connected to their religion and motherland. “It is a high potential market given that Indians are present globally. For those who want to connect back to their roots,
these start-ups help bring that spiritual connect to these people. The demand is there but there has been a lack of supply of right content about different religious sites and products required for different pujas under one roof which is what these start-ups are enabling,” says Ajay Ramasubramaniam, Director, Zone Startups India.
Mumbai-based accelerator’s womenonly six-week accelerator program ‘empoWer’ that concluded in August 2016 had Shubhpuja, which organizes various online pujas and offers different astrology and related services on its platform, as one of its winners receiving Rs 5 lakh equity-free funding. The idea of launching one of its kind e-puja platform came to Saumya Vardhan (founder, Shubhpuja), Ex-KPMG and Ernst & Young transaction services consultant, in May 2013 when her best friend’s father passed away.
“I realized that 13-day post-death rituals were highly elaborated and technical. I had no clue how all that needs to be organized in such a situation. So I took the risk of leaving a high-paying job in London and launched Shubhpuja in December 2013,” recalls Vardhan, who put around Rs 10 lakh initially.
Religious tourism is another pocket of disruption hard to be ignored in the online space even though travel portals like MakeMyTrip, Yatra etc., have been offering pilgrimage packages. Religious tourism unaffected by changing travel market dynamics have helped online travel portals sail through economic slump. Rachna Gulati who launched operations for a similar travel portal only for religious tours and travel bookings called MyHolyTour in January 2016 says the content or information that it offers about various religious sites is a significant differentiator for them from MakeMyTrip and Yatra.
“These portals don’t provide you complete information such as the temple’s historical significance, nearby places to visit, how to reach, etc. So, the information is scattered online. This will be the big differentiator for us along with the fact that we offer flight and hotel booking services at the same price of Yatra and MakeMyTrip. The market is growing by more than 30 percent annually with lot of inbound travelers of different religions for e.g. Buddhists that come from countries like Japan, China, and Singapore,” says 42-year-old Gulati with 18 years of finance background. MyHolyTour offers information for more than 650 sites of different religions across India. It has divided states and famous temples in circuits like Ujjain circuit, Vaishno Devi circuit, Jain circuit, Sufi circuit, and Varanasi circuit.
Contrary to the belief that elderly people are more engrossed in spiritual and religious activities, these start-ups surprisingly have the younger lot as their ideal customers. “People who buy from us are all under 30, some of them are even college kids,” adds Mallick. Vardhan echoes similar numbers. “There are lots of mid 20s and 30s people who have relationship and career related problems.
In fact our ideal clients are between 30 and 48 years of age.” Shubhpuja even aims to invoke the almighty to sway away any sort of ‘negativity’ through pujas for black magic, ‘Kalsarp dosh’ etc. “People often come up for aura healings and healings through mantras if they feel bit negative within themselves. For this, they can seek spiritual help from us through respective pujas,” says Vardhan.
The challenges of bringing the spiritual market online is akin to what existing retail and travel markets went through in their early days – lack of awareness among people to buy and transact for such services online. While social media and word of mouth happens to be the way out for this nascent market, it is not easy to establish authenticity among people about such platforms for spiritual needs neither people are willing to swipe their cards online for gods to make offerings.
“Spirituality is very close to people’s hearts in India, so they would want to have the touch-and-feel factor in spiritual goods and making offerings in cash unlike in other categories,” believes Mallick. PujaShoppe gets 90 percent of its revenue from its 15 offline stores, out of which five are franchised.
Online spiritual market will certainly take time to take off. None of the existing players in the market have been able to raise any decent amount of funding (Bengaluru-based ePuja $3 million raise from Brand Capital in June 2015 was the largest deal announced).
Moreover another Bengaluru-based start-up OnlinePrasad backed by venture building platform GrowthStory founder and one of India’s most prolific angel investors, K Ganesh, is looking to pivot from its existing model of home delivering prasad from more than 50 temples after various temple authorities raised objection of the start-up collecting prasad every now and then, says one of the investors in OnlinePrasad requesting anonymity. Nonetheless, it does seem that these start-ups will have to seek some divine intervention for themselves to get their economics right even as they try not to succumb to heavy discounting.
This article first appeared in the Indian edition of Entrepreneur magazine (September, 2016 Issue).