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This Entrepreneur Duo is Rewriting the Future of Grooming

Here are the two-bearded men from Ahmedabad, who are getting you attuned to keeping a beard as the norm of neo-civilization.

Ask any man about his grooming ritual, the question at hand would be – to shave or to grow a beard. As Christopher Oldstone-Moore writes, “the history of men is written on their faces.” Facial hair styling is the new index to showcase what it means to be a man. From the periods of the Romans, to the Renaissance men to the 19th century folks to the present age celebs, politicos, millenials, all are enthused in the cultivation of the facial geography.

After big brands taking the first call on how to get the best shave, the present day start-ups are all geared up to assist you to keep a beard wellgroomed. Here are the two-bearded men from Ahmedabad, who are getting you attuned to keeping a beard as the norm of neo-civilization. And guess what, even big brands are buying into that.

For Ashutosh Valani and Priyank Shah, entrepreneurship was a tryst that just happened with time. They knew each other since college days and used to hang out with a similar set of friends. Ashutosh further went to Brunel University in London and came back in 2008-2009, when Priyank was in his final year of MBA. Those were the years when the online industry had started booming. Both of them looked at it as an opportunity to grasp for the next ten years and started their venture, Aajkiitem.com, a website which dealt with deals.

Unfortunately for them, around 2011-12, companies like Flipkart, in the same sector, raised huge money and International giant Amazon entered the Indian market, crushing opportunities for others to grow. “The best thing was to convert ourselves into merchants with the same vision but on their websites,” shares Ashutosh. They soon expanded themselves into 12 different sectors. By 2013-14, they became the biggest deal vendors online, having about 50,000 plus transactions a month.

Simultaneously, they started analyzing data, tracking where the demand is. Between 2013 and 2015, they noticed a huge gap in the men’s grooming sector. “Shifting from the habit of using product bought by their mother or wife, Indian men started looking for products which are exclusively for men, never a trend before,” shares Priyank. That is when the duo realized about the growth potential in the sector. “If the industry can grow this much in two years, think what potential it holds for the next 10 years. It can be at par with the women grooming sector,” adds Ashutosh.

They decided to stop focusing on trading and put their energies to build this new venture. After doing much research, they found female grooming brand or general FMCG makers are the only companies which are catering to men, there are no company which are thinking about them. That’s when the idea clicked of building a brand, exclusively for men. “We realized that India needs all men brand that they can relate with and would only cater to their needs,” shares the duo in chorus.

But now, here was the challenge. How should they launch a brand? That’s when they realized that they have to choose a niche market which they can capture very quickly. “Once we make a name for us, we can expand to the bigger categories,” shares the visionary Ashutosh. Around this time, keeping beard was slowly becoming an international trend. Ashutosh and Priyank saw huge opportunity in the market as India was still to catch up with the trends and there were no companies catering to this niche sector. They duo started manufacturing products like beard oil and beard wash under the brand name Beardo.

Its All About The Beard !

The next challenge was how to tap the market for beard oil, study demographics, and find the right users. The duo spoke to people about what products or fragrances they like. “The most liked product was launched first,” shares Ashutosh, in sheer honesty. On the product and formulation side, Priyank was the buff. He visited laboratories and convinced scientists to formulate oils. It took them four to five months to come up with the first variant because beard skin is very different from the scalp.

On how Priyank found the right formulations, he says, “We used problem faced by the bearded men as our use cases. We went back and forth to those problems, so that our products can be the solution to those.” The next challenge was formulate ‘the product’ that would be suitable for various climatic conditions. It had to cater to not only the customer’s problems but also deal with the pollution rate in Delhi, the humidity of Mumbai and the environmental conditions of the South. As per Priyank, whether its hair wax, wash or shampoo, the same R&D goes into all.

As a startup, initially, they got the product formulated, tested it out in the market and then immediately went back to the lab to get changes done and launch the improvised version. Being a consumer product company, they knew the major task would be building a community that buys into the whole idea. What Beardo started selling was an experience rather than just being looked upon as a brand. Beardo started promoting itself on social media, as most of its customers are online.

To popularize the brand further, their experience of working earlier in the online space came useful. Owing to this, they remained bootstrapped for the first 10 months. After the first year of expansion, the brand expanded into hair, body and face. Once the right product was in place, it was now time to reach to a much larger audience and let the world know what Beardo stands for. The brand started looking out for a face, who could create an immediate connect with the masses and put across the brand image well. That’s when 90s popular actor Suneil Shetty came on board, not just as a brand ambassador but also as an investor and mentor.

Sharing the interface with the celebrity, Priyank remembers, “He visits many stylists in the industry so his inputs were really great, which further helped in making the brand what it is today.” The next big focus was to think scale which required money. That’s when Beardo raised half a million dollars from Venture Catalysts in September 2016. As a New Year goal in 2017, when Beardo was contemplating another round of funding to scale up its operations with a term sheet almost on the verge of closing, they received an email from FMCG major, Marico. The email indicated a meeting with the Marico people.

Remembering the email, Ashutosh answers, “They were also exploring the competitors and wanted to know what we were doing differently. I think on the first call, they got so interested that on the second call they took this on a serious note and by a couple of months we had closed them.” In March, Marico acquired 45 per cent stake in Beardo. When asked that it will make them not the majority shareholders in the business, Ashutosh replies, “If you control the vision of the company, then it is a different ball game altogether.” Marico has been a great support to them placing their vision to the right direction.

On the two strategic additions it made, Ashutosh shares, “So Marico taught us two very important things. One was the regulatory factor to keep the books up to date, so what we used to do quarterly is now done on a regular basis. And it is very helpful for us also, because now we can also keep a track of our data. The second thing was to explore the importance of technology in an FMCG company.”

The Omni-Channel Model

Almost eight months back, the company had started thinking about offline penetration. To ramp it up, they partnered with most of the premium salons. So far, they have spread their operations across 2000 salons in 14+ cities. Today, the brand entails its 60 per cent revenues from the online model while offline has started contributing the rest. The success story has been built on very lean operations of the start-up.

Six months ago, it was hardly a team of 10 people. Post Marico came on board, the team expanded to 50 people. Out of the two founders, Priyank handles operations while Ashutosh handles online sales and branding. When both of them have an argument, they leave it on the user to decide.

Grooming The Future

From charcoal face wash to caffeine shampoos, the company has kept itself high on innovation. For the less than two-year-old start-up, international expansion has also begun with 150 salons tapped in UAE. The aim now is to enter the USA through the online medium. To this Priyank adds, “We are looking to expand our online operations zone wise, and spread our offline presence through exports. We are also looking to eventually launch our individual stores across the country.”

With a population of over a billion people, wherein half the population is male, there is a lot of scope for Beardo. For 30-year-old Ashutosh and 28-year-old Priyank, the vision is set to be the leading men’s grooming brand. After close to two years of operation, with Suneil Shetty as the face of the brand, investors like Venture Catalysts and Marico becoming a majority shareholder in the company, how does the company stand in terms of heated competition, the founders say, “So all these combined we are a force rather than just a standalone brand that some other brand can crush in no time.”

(This article was first published in the  August issue of Entrepreneur Magazine. To subscribe, click here)