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The Dynamic Duo: Vineeta Singh and Kaushik Mukherjee The Remakers of Beauty Industry

By Punita Sabharwal

You're reading Entrepreneur India, an international franchise of Entrepreneur Media.

KAUSHIK MUKHERJEE Co-Founder & COO, SUGAR Cosmetics and VINEETA SINGH Co-founder & CEO SUGAR Cosmetics

What's the secret sauce behind a perfect partnership? It's a clear match between the values and thoughts both of them have and who better than your spouse acting as your perfect partner. When you are talking to Vineeta Singh and Kaushik Mukherjee you know you are talking to two individuals who work as a team and who have a mission of building together a global beauty enterprise out of India. These two self-aware people know what drives them and that their core missions are complementary.

When I tell Vineeta and Kaushik the theme of the story, both of them take it sportingly and happily relive their moments of building it together. I take them back in time when both of them rewind back to the past.

In an interview I did at the start of my career with Sudha Murty, she shared how Mr Narayan Murthy, her husband and founder of Infosys Group, would gift her the best of books instead of a new sari. Those words spoke to me tons about how understanding and thoughtful the gift can be for your partner. Couple of years down the line, I'm talking to Vineeta Singh, now a household name as a Shark on Shark Tank India from the last three seasons and also the Co-founder of SUGAR Cosmetics, who said Kaushik had gifted her the autobiography of Steve Jobs as the first gift as Kaushik knew Vineeta's inclination towards entrepreneurship. Vineeta Singh is not new to the world of startups. She has been among the most celebrated names of IIM-Ahmedabad for ditching the INR 1 crore salary package and taking the path less travelled.

She Was Moving Out Of Her Startup And I Was Completing Two Years At Mckinsey, We Thought This Is The Right Time To Start Before People Start Asking When You Are Having Kids

Kaushik and Vineeta met at the business school, where both of them were in different batches. Kauhsik was there at IIM-A from 2006-08, while Vineeta was a batch ahead of him. The two met each other for career advice. Vineeta began her entrepreneurial journey in 2007 and Kaushik in 2008. Both shared similarities in terms of the music they would listen to and the books they would read. When Vineeta moved out of campus, both started chatting and seeing each other. Vineeta's previous stint ended on a very abrupt note. There were four partners, who headed different ways. There was a lot of heartburn and unfinished business.

Talking about how both of them started together post their marriage, Kaushik Mukherjee, Co-founder & COO of SUGAR Cosmetics, shares, "She was moving out of her startup and I was completing two years at McKinsey, we thought this is the right time to start before people start asking when you are having kids." At the start, both of them had the opportunity to look at everything but as founders Kaushik mainly looked at marketing, technology, operations, and e-commerce. Whereas everything about product creation, finance, retail, sourcing was Vineeta's purview.

Over the last 12 years they have actually stayed within their domains of business. Remembering the early days, Vineeta says, "In just six months of knowing each other, we started dating. But we were both very clear that we want to be entrepreneurs and build something. All our role models were Richard Branson and Steve Jobs. Both of us used to listen to rock. During college we even travelled together for a concert. We both shared the same value system of working hard, making our parents proud. So it was ambition combined with gratitude. We hit it off more as friends and started dating each other."

In 2007 they started dating each other and got married in 2011. 2012 is when they decided to build something together. From 2007-12 Vineeta was building another business with some other co-founder from IIM-A and Kaushik was also building something else with another of his batchmate. Before marriage both were running their own business. Talking about their learning from the previous ventures, Vineeta says, "The fact that in the past, I have tried my hands at business and I had another co-founder for five years and Kaushik in his startup for two years brought in lot of clarity. Due to our previous ventures, it was super clear to mention that it is important to know from day one and really abide by it so that you end up spending a lot of time at decision making and not arguing."

We Feel That Our Greatest Wealth Will Come From What We're Doing With Sugar Cosmetics. It's Something We're Not In A Rush To Encash That Wealth And Convert It Into Money. So We're Not In A Rush To See That Wealth Become Liquid

There's nothing called a perfect partnership and the sooner one realizes it, the easier it becomes to accept the other person's views. On managing conflicts, Vineeta says, "We are very different personalities in terms of how we operate, and the way we make decisions. But I think in the first three years while we were still figuring it out, I think a lot of times the problem happens when the ego gets dragged into it, and things are said which become personal. And there can be personal attacks, or things that you regret saying, all of those, I think in the first couple of years while we're just figuring this out, we would have sometime showdowns in the office, which would really stress the rest of the team out. But I think over a period of time, just being a lot more professional about it, knowing how to keep our ego at the door, continuing to not react rigidly or knowing when it is not the right time to continue in on an argument, I think that's what both of us learnt."

THE POWER OF TOGETHERNESS

In a startup build together both are responsible for the success, here's what Vineeta and Kaushik had to say about each other. Answering it Kaushik says, "There was a time back in 2015, when you're really just trying to get the company from one month to the other. And at that time, because we are aggressively looking at cutting costs, it was a long way out, because SUGAR was just launched. So one thing we had proposed was to give up, was our warehouse, and half our office. The team size was less than 20 people. And in one of the chats she had very vehemently argued that, this is the one last thing I think we should hold on, even if it is an office with just, a couple of desks and a couple of chairs, because that whole routine and discipline of getting up waking up and go into the office with a purpose to do something, winding down for the day and coming back home. I mean, that discipline would really help us stay focused on the purpose why we were doing this while we were trying to tighten our belts. And I think at that time, initially, it struck me and it took me a while to appreciate that."

On one decision of Kaushik, which she admires the most, Vineeta mentions, "My previous company was completely bootstrapped. And before I actually met Kaushik, my experience with fundraising was always challenging, because I always felt venture capitalists are not going to be interested in consumer led businesses, where women are the core customer, because they don't find it relatable. I would give up very early on in all our fundraising conversations, and be tempted to go back to the drawing board and say how do we make our money last and, build it slower. But Kaushik had raised some money in his first startup, and he has seen some good ones out there. I think this is one thing that he pushed even before SUGAR launch. And in hindsight, without that kind of support that we had from all the investors that we've got on board in our journey, we wouldn't have been able to build SUGAR the way it has been. In hindsight, I'm very grateful because that was one thing that I didn't know how to do."

Vineeta and Kaushik have also invested in stratups started by couples. Talking about one of their investments in Zouk, Vineeta says, "People used to talk about relationship risk, how relationship becomes a barrier. Women and men bring their own traits to the table, and, just the kind of trust that a couple have on each other, I personally feel that couples do make a great team as far as the startups are concerned. So I think this sort of complementary skill set, I've seen a lot of couples and I do feel that investors really refuse to consider such deals till eight years back, and I feel d2c brands, and not just us, but a lot of the other brands have changed that. And the challenge which investors used to see around building teams that, couples will sort of run it like a family business, and they will not delegate, they will not be able to hire great people. And I think that's the one thing that I would as an investor will look at, very early on saying that, it's a couple of relationships as co founders. So it is technically a family business by that technical definition. But are they running it like one or are they running it like a professionals. Business where the co founders are there because of their merit and not just because they're married to each other. And the leadership respects both the co founders, the leadership is given enough authority, decision making. Because at the end of the day, great businesses are built around institution, institution comes from the teams. So if they see early signs, which was there in a lot of these successful brands, have a second layer of leadership that is empowered as well as that is high quality and that the leadership has respect for both co founders."

A SUCCESSFUL BUSINESS RELATIONSHIP

After they crossed 100 crore, COVID happened and then the revenue was back to zero in April 2020 was one of the toughest time the co-founders at SUGAR saw. "And that was probably our fourth or fifth near death experience. But I think the hardest one was the pivot because it was very lonely back then, when we decided to pivot from FAB Bag to SUGAR, we literally had the last INR 25-30 Lakh in our bank account, which we had to keep aside because we had to refund the subscriptions of consumers we've taken money from. So we were actually down to almost zero bank balance. And when you're pivoting, it's also very lonely and scary, because you try to, put in efforts and energy behind something new. And at that time, there was no example of a single consumer brand built out of India in the last few years. And there were no examples of there being a possibility of even building 100 Crore brand in a few years. But somehow, I think those were really hard days, because it was impossible to raise capital, it was very hard to even retain our team, they were working for no increments for a couple of years. And, I mean, from all of that pain, SUGAR was born, so it was also, like, beautiful," concludes Vineeta on her sugary sweet journey, which they further plan to make public in 2027.

Punita Sabharwal

Entrepreneur Staff

Managing Editor, Entrepreneur India

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