Given his educational profile (bachelor’s degree in Statistics, Economics and Maths; post-grad in Marketing and Finance) and the things his peers and colleagues often say about him – “a data wizard”; “an attention for detail”; “a great ability to envisage the use of data science” – the first thing that strikes you in talking to Avnish Avnand, co-founder of India’s first and largest online jewellery store CaratLane.com, is just how unnerdy he is – and how refreshingly down to earth.
Invited to reflect on what made him want to become an entrepreneur, he readily confesses that the main reason was plain boredom: “The first and foremost thing was that I was actually getting bored on the job. I was working for a big US company, doing a nice, comfortable job and I was completely bored.”
Doubtless it is this honesty – and refusal to cast himself as the heroic pioneer, triumphing against all odds – that saw him win the Masters of Reinvention Award 2017 in the People’s Choice category, which is determined solely through online voting – fitting for a brand that transformed the traditional jewellery business model entirely to make its products available to a much wider market.
Of course, it wasn’t just boredom. The fact that his wife and best friend were already working for a consumer internet company “and I thought their work was really exciting” had begun to make him consider forgoing the cushy salary for something more challenging.
And meeting Mithun Sacheti, who was to become founder and CEO of Mumbai-based CaratLane, was the final piece of the jigsaw – not, it seems, out of a shared love of jewellery retailing but because of a shared love of sports: “He is a major sports fan and so am I and in fact the first meeting we had, we talked more about sports and less about jewellery and e-commerce.”
Not that it was all plain sailing from then on. Although he had a grounding in business planning and developing market-entry strategies when he was with Dupont India, Avnish’s experience was in the automotive and manufacturing sector and when he and Mithun launched CaratLane in 2007, e-commerce was very much in its infancy in India; as a result internet start-up culture was almost completely lacking.
Moreover, there was no tradition of entrepreneurship or business in the Anand family, who were supportive but clearly sceptical: “What has got into you that you want to go and sell jewellery online?”
But Mithun brought his background in jewellery retailing in India, his experience of working and studying in America and his conviction “that we could really disrupt” to the table and – without too much further ado – CaratLane was born.
It helped that, as in so many business success stories, the founders realised that “a lot of things were not being done very well” and that, if they could get the fundamentals right and “do this thing properly”, they had every chance of being able to compete in the emerging e-commerce space in India.
They grew the business carefully and incrementally, establishing early on that the ethos would be to “work prudently and spend money wisely”. By resisting the temptation to try to scale up the business fast, they also crucially avoided the need to raise cash quickly: “From the beginning, we never built up an organisation where there was tremendous pressure to raise cash. As a result, we were never in a situation where we desperately needed money.”
They had their fair share of start-up problems to overcome, but they were not necessarily ones they could anticipate. They knew the lack of an online consumer culture in India 10 years ago was a barrier, but other problems stemmed from the wider lack of knowledge of and trust in the internet: “Initially it was very tough because it was difficult not just to find consumers to consider the product – it was also difficult to find employees to work for you.”
But challenges were met with a winning mix of tenacity, optimism and high energy and in 2011 CaratLane’s success attracted the attention of hedge fund giant Tiger Global, who invested about Rs 302 crore (US$52.22 million) in four tranches to acquire 62% of the business, before selling its stake to Tata Group’s watch and jewellery retailing arm Titan in July 2016 for Rs 357.24 crore (US$53 million).
If, as Avnish freely admits, “the early days were the hardest”, does he feel the pressure is off now to some extent? Absolutely not: “The day you start feeling that you’ve become successful, the pitfalls start.” So, if boredom initially was the spur that took him to where he is now, how does he safeguard against complacency? “Paranoia – we’re all very paranoid! I can say that for myself and for Mithun and a lot of the other people [at CaratLane] that I think the paranoia keeps everybody alive to the fact that we need to keep pushing ourselves and keep pushing the business ... there’s a long way to go and we haven’t become profitable yet – we have to keep pushing ourselves.”
He has obviously come far since the early days. What advice does he have for anyone looking to tread a similar path today? “Building a business is hard and it takes time and it takes a lot of blood, sweat and tears. It has to be done the hard way. Anyone who wants to become an entrepreneur needs to realise it’s going to be a long and hard toil. Nobody becomes successful overnight – unless you discover the new Facebook.”
Then again, as he pointed out in a 2016 blog (until comparatively recently he was a prodigious blogger, writing on all things from sport to poetry, psychology, history and logic), a University of Michigan study showed that high Facebook usage was correlated with “lower self-esteem and higher unhappiness”.
Given his talent for data science, how would he use his abilities to reduce the world’s unhappiness in the internet age? Not, it would seem, through the application of algorithms: “Reading. No one reads books any more. If I could, I’d do something that makes people love reading again. Definitely.”
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