The Retail Disruptors

Serial Entrepreneurs on the art of Starting A Business, Selling, And Starting Again
The Retail Disruptors
Image credit: Villain And Renee

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Deputy Editor, Entrepreneur India Magazine
10 min read
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ASHUTOSH VALANI, 34 & PRIYANK SHAH, 32, CO-FOUNDERS AND DIRECTORS, VILLAIN & RENEE 

Beardo began when two boys who loved their beards were looking for solutions to make it better. And when they couldn’t find enough of them, they took the task in their hands and started creating a host of products that they knew any beard-lover would enjoy. From understanding the potential of a sector that largely was non-existent to creating a new category, Beardo founders Ashutosh Valani and Priyank Shah have truly come a long way and have outgrown not just their beard, business too. Talking about the friendship both of them share as business partners, Shah says, “We work together as a unit and share a common vision: not to just make big money, but to leave an impact in everything we do. What also helps is our understanding of each other’s strengths, individual roles, working styles, and respect that empowers each other to grow more and more.” Beardo was their inroad to the world of men’s lifestyle. The goal was to introduce men to the potential of the world of grooming and all that it has to offer. As this upstart took the industry by storm soon came external funding from various quarters including corporate-like Marico buying in. Last year saw the founders’ complete exit from the brand when they sold out 100 percent equity to Marico. From a Rs 3 crore startup to a Rs 350 crore exit has truly been a blockbuster in the making. Sharing the enthralling experience as a founder, Shah says, “It was a momentous occasion for us to have had one of the most successful exits a startup can have. People congratulated us, celebrated with us, and thought we were ready to enjoy the break. But we didn’t even take a day’s break! We had already carved out bigger goals and strategized roadmaps.” Next on the cards were two new brands ready to unfold their potential Villain & Renee Cosmetics.

THE JOURNEY HAS JUST BEGUN

Predictions suggest that the beauty industry of India is expected to reach approx $2.6B USD by 2021 and online sales have more than doubled since last year. There is an increased consciousness and demand for products in the space of self-care and styling. Gen-Z has changed the game from what it was. According to Valani, “As we delved deeper into the psychology of men and grasped the tricks and trades of the market, we realized the great potential of beauty and lifestyle in the country.”

Witnessing this new segment explode, the duo began a new chapter in women's beauty space and lifestyle space. Talking about being a disruptor always, Shah says, “When we went out looking for funding for Beardo, we faced a lot of backlash from the industry. Many didn’t understand the brand, someone actually went ahead to say ki “Dhaadi ka tel kaun khareedega!”. We think it was our confidence in our products and our passion for the brand that made the most impact.” The D2C market is expected to reach a whopping number of $100B in the next five years. If there’s a time for new players to experiment with their ideas, it is now. Consumers are open to experimenting and are encouraging new ideas. The market too looks promising with most sectors expecting a boom.

The greatest factor to make or break any young brand in the digital space. There are approx 700 million digital users already and the number is only going to grow. The reach promised is something that’s never been seen before, and when coupled with offline - it’s a game-changer. Delving further on brand strategy, Shah says, “With Villain, we have managed to introduce the brand to over 40M men of the country in the last quarter. With Renee, the number in the last quarter looks equally exciting - approx 50M+ women have been introduced to brand Renee.”

With Renee, it’s a whole new ballgame with many established players already in it. But the duo knew that the way to consumers’ hearts is innovation. The products are based on what the market is lacking and looking out for. Both the brands have been built in partnership with celebrities. For Renee they have Television actress Aashka Goradia as their co-founder to constantly experiment and innovate to provide class, colours, and quality that has never been seen before. Talking about the brand’s growth so far, Valani says, “In one year of Renee, we have already managed to create a community of 100K+, collaborated with nearly 200 Renee faces. Come 2021, we are already planning an offline presence in key retail stores and bringing new innovations.” Renee has always been about celebrating bold, unapologetic women who believe in expressing themselves with colours and confidence. While Aashka gave birth to the brand in 2018 with her vision, the brand took a turn in 2020 when all of them came together and gave this vision the direction it required.

Having a celebrity onboard definitely adds a lot of credibility to a brand. There is increased trust, targeted influencer,s and a larger audience to communicate with. They count themselves lucky to find someone like Superstar Yash to have started with Villain, as he perfectly embodies the persona of the brand. When asked how Yash came on-board as partner Valani quips, “It was a dinner conversation with Yash, when the three of us sat down and spoke about how there’s not a single brand telling an antagonist’s story. Given the state of transition at that time, the idea came to us out of nowhere but made complete sense. Yash did not even have to be convinced! He embodies the persona of a Villain perfectly and was sold that very moment. We somehow knew exactly what we wanted to create, what we wanted it to sound like, and what was the promise Villain was about.” Even as a startup, Villain’s range of perfumes, apparel & sunglasses has the premium appeal of any big brand.

So far, they have a community of 100K+ on both Renee & Villain, and have partnered with some of the biggest celebrity faces in the country, and have had so many people who resonate with the brands’ ideology. “We’re now sitting in the face of a 100cr target for both Villain & Renee combined in the coming year,” claims Valani. While Beardo was a category creator, with Renee and Villain they entered a competitive market. On tackling these challenges Shah mentions, “With Villain & Renee, we knew we were getting into a market that’s heavily populated with competitors but there was yet to be a brand that also offers the promise of premiumness and self-expression. Hence all our key offerings were built keeping that in mind. Now as we expand further and bring in greater innovations, we of course have several challenges from manufacturing, marketing & managing perspective, but we know that our differentiators will let us emerge victoriously.”

Going into 2021, they have big plans for both Villain and Renee. The offline chapter has already begun for Villain and they are looking to map footprint across all zones by mid-year. “We are also going to be introducing many new fragrances, apparel, and accessories,” shares Shah. After already creating one of India’s biggest digital brands in the past, the expectations from the second stint are even bigger with hopes to reach approx GMV of 100 crores within the first year itself. For Renee, experimentation will only go up and women of the country can expect many trend-breaking innovations from us, something which is much needed in the saturated beauty industry of the country. Talking about their learning from 2020, Valani says, “A big learning from 2020 was the dependency on trade windows, where the procurement is dependent on international vendors. We realized that our customer needs were changing so fast that it was important to Make in India, for India. And this is what we will continue to do.”

The duo has always been a digital-first strategist, going forward they would like to make a very strong online brand and then move to offline channels. As their experience goes building a brand online first and strongly always helps in pushing sales when launched offline. Giving some insights into brand-building Shah says, “The first part is always ideation and listening to what the people want. We then visualize it in the form of a product, work with experts to formulate the same, and finally choose a manufacturer who can bring it to life.” This time again the duo seems to have made an early entry soon after an exit and ready to create a space for themselves in these giant markets.

The Long and Short of Brand Building

CONSUMER IS KING: You can only be a successful brand if you are constantly listening to, studying and analyzing what your target audience wants. Whether it was Beardo or today Villain & Renee, their constant pursuit is to sell products that solve the needs, create content that they relate with and build a brand that’s made on trust. “We speak their language, tell their tales, track their trends and are constantly building & rebuilding our offerings based on what they like,” says the duo.

BUILD ON COMMUNITY: For them, both at Villain and Renee, the purpose was to provide convenient, comfortable and stylish products. They reworked their strategies internally, constantly communicated with the community and built strong partners to help them in the journey. The community saw this and today, they share a strong bridge of trust that will continue delivering on.

DIGITAL FIRST: It is much easier, faster and economic for a new brand to start online and reach more targeted consumers than to directly start an offline business model.

ALWAYS START AFRESH: It’s true that they had so much learning from their earlier venture, but each brand has its own story to tell and they are ready to tell both Villain’s and Renee’s with the same enthusiasm. They have seen ups and downs, worked hard to find a space in the market, build and sold companies and are now standing in the face of competitors with two new companies that are shaking the industry. The energy has only gone up and so has the passion to rule the lifestyle space with the brands.

STAY TRUE TO THE CORE: With Villain, they had to tap the nerve of the country by providing them products that are unique, stylish and trend-breaking.

(This article was first published in the February 2021 issue of Entrepreneur Magazine. To subscribe, click here)

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