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How Upkar Sharma envisions CREA to be a global force in brand merchandising space Entrepreneurship is not easy, it's not meant to be, says CREA chief Upkar S. Sharma.

By Swadha Mishra

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

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Entrepreneur India
Upkar S Sharma, Founder, CREA

Brand Merchandising is often misinterpreted as just corporate gifting in India. Corporates treat merchandise in India as "Give Aways" and fail to understand that brand merchandise as a force is subliminal advertising and is essentially an extension of the brand itself.

According to various reports, the industry is growing at a constant speed of 20-22 per cent every year, with a turnover of over Rs 5,000 crore per annum. In West, the concept of brand merchandising has been taken seriously, but India still needs to understand its potential. In order to bring in stability to this highly unorganised sector in India, domain expert CREA is working hard to educate brands on the power of the brand merchandising.

CREA Worldwide is one of the only Indian merchandise outfit, which manufactures, imports, has global presence and interacts with International brands. A firm believer of "Make in India" initiative, CREA has proved that high quality products can be developed in India too. The underlying aim is to produce superior products so that global brands invest more in India.

Founded by Upkar S. Sharma, CREA Worldwide started as an apparel manufacturing and trading unit in 2008 in India and has witnessed revenue growth of over 60 per cent every year. It has served products in more than 67 categories sourcing from three continents, creating over 3,000 merchandising items and co-creating more than 30 new ideas per month.

An avid reader and an autodidact, Sharma intends to make CREA the biggest and the best name in corporate, travel and retail merchandise industry in India and in the Middle East. At CREA, he takes care of group strategy, expansion as well as finances. In his free time, he likes to travel to absorb new locales, cuisines, cultures. He keeps himself abreast with ever-changing knowledge landscape by delving deeper into the emerging trends in consumer markets around the world. Entrepreneur India interacts with Sharma to know more about his entrepreneurial journey:

How was the idea to start CREA conceptualised?

My entrepreneurial journey started with a quest to be self-reliant. Not willing to depend on my family, I started selling Privilege Cards after I wrote my last high school exam. Further, after 3 year stint in selling audio cassettes and managing production of audio cassettes for Plus Music, I started my first entrepreneurial venture with my friend. It was a web design company in Jaipur and we did quite alright. Then in 1998-2000, with the dotcom bust globally, getting business was tougher and I was getting restless in a small city.

Eventually, I got a chance to work on technology-based product for mobile operators in Delhi. It was semi entrepreneurial venture in the sense that I was paid as a retainer and I also had a small stake in the venture. But the venture never really took off and I decided to not stay as a retainer after a year, but I continued working along with my partner on the project. After 4 years of trying to make it work and dabbling in various businesses to make ends meet, which included a stint as a Marketing Management faculty at a Delhi-based MBA Institute, I finally decided to start CREA in 2005.

Why did you choose to get into the field of brand merchandising?

Frankly, it was the only business I could do with the kind of startup capital I had back then. I knew about the business, I knew that it was low entry barrier business and margins seemed to be good enough to try. It was rather serendipitous that a friend working in advertising wanted some t-shirts and asked me if I could help him source some.

So, in a nutshell, the only reason why I chose brand merchandising was that it required no special skills except a bit of knowledge on sourcing. That's been one of the reasons why the field of brand merchandising hasn't evolved much. There is no sizeable player and it's too easy to get in. It is something that we, at CREA, are now working on and we are focused on innovation, knowledge sharing and taking steps towards organising this industry.

What's the initial investment made to launch the venture?

I have bootstrapped CREA from day one and grown on internal accruals. We have survived tough times on short term loans too. The initial capital into the business was Rs 2.4 lakh and last year, we clocked a turnover of Rs 14 crore. We are geared to hit Rs 25 crore by mid next year.

We have, over the years, invested in setting up manufacturing units in India, sourcing office in China and sales office in the Middle East (Dubai). But the biggest investment or utilisation of money has been travel. Over the last 5 years, since the real CREA growth story began, I have travelled extensively. We are growing rapidly and are confident that CREA, in next 5 year, would be a global force in brand merchandising industry. It has given us tremendous insights into opportunities that exist in our space in India and abroad. It has made us connect dots and take bold business decisions that have paid in the past and will pay in future.

What are the growth prospects in brand merchandising?

The growth prospect in the industry is sizeable. It's already $2-3 billion industry in India. It's 10 times the size in the US and about 3 times in Europe. So viewing it from a narrow lens and saying the market is not organised is not necessarily the correct thing to do. While Indian market changes and becomes more mature, Indian companies can tap the potential internationally to grow.

We, for example, are not waiting for the Indian marketer and our competition to wake up and smell the coffee. We are going ahead and playing with the big boys in the big arena. We have already started targeting companies in Europe and the US. We intend to become a global player. Being in 3 international locations already helps us generate sizeable traction globally.

How is CREA unique from other merchandise players in the industry?

We are a manufacturer, international sourcing company and an exporter of bags and apparel with presence in 3 countries delivering to our customers in about 28 countries. We are a turnkey solution provider, when it comes to brand merchandising. Right from the ideation to design stage, prototyping, sourcing, logistics and then last mile delivery; we take over an assignment and complete it without leaving one bit for our clients to worry about.

Other brands today are focussed on their core function of sales and propagating their brand story and creating new markets. While it is deeply embedded in our organisational psyche to become stakeholders in the endeavour of our customers and not just concern ourselves to our invoices and payments. The evangelist approach coupled with dependability and sourcing prowess makes CREA a unique player.

What were the initial challenges faced by you and how you overcome the same?

My challenges were by no means unique. These are the challenges that every first generation entrepreneur faces – lack of money, naivety, and lack of guidance etc. Unfortunately in those days, entrepreneurship was not cool like today. A decade back, the avenues for a small business were quite limited.

Times were tough because I had to bootstrap the company using my own funds and by taking high interest loans. And I don't look back on those days as I feel I've done something special or been through a journey that was gut wrenching. Its part and parcel of the journey you undertake as an entrepreneur. We pay undue attention to an entrepreneur's struggle. Entrepreneurship is like life, it's not fair. It's a brutal place to be and Darwinian to the extent that only the fittest survive and thrive.

Who are your competitors? What's your long-term strategy to combat competition?

Since the industry in India is extremely fragmented, there is competition aplenty. Not only people from our industry, but consumer brands which sell directly to corporate or have institutional selling teams, and even e-commerce marketplaces is our competition.

Our strategy is simple – we have stopped competing with anyone. We believe that if we compete, we would be talking only prices, and that's not the conversation we are prepared to have. We don't sell products that are a cost centre. We are selling products that could be revenue generating source or are integral to the process of selling our customers' products.

A line of wisdom for those who wish to become an entrepreneur and explore this space…

Entrepreneurship is not easy, it's not meant to be. The world of business doesn't owe you anything and in the grander scheme of things you are insignificant. So don't take yourself too seriously. Be honest to your customers, employees and most of all to yourself. Eventually it all boils down to persistence, and persistence always wins.

Swadha Mishra

Chief-sub Editor,

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