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Dharti Desai: From French teacher to CEO

February 12, 2008

I started out teaching French at the Alliance Francaise," says Dharti Desai, co-founder of three companies.

The years since have been a rollercoaster ride for the entrepreneur, who is now busy establishing her latest venture -- Finewinesnmore (one of the country's leading distributors and marketers of imported wine) as she juggles managing her direct marketing business (Regency Direct Marketing) and raising her nine-year-old daughter.

In a telephone interview with's Shifra Menezes, this go-getter shares her success story and a few words of advice for budding businessmen and women.

Tell us a bit about your background
I've lived in India for most of my life. I then moved to New York in 1992 after I got married. I lived in New York for 14 years, and that was where I began my business in direct marketing. I did my university here (at Wilson's College) and my specialisation in direct marketing in New York at NYU.

I started Regency Direct Marketing back in 1995 in the States and set up base in India in 1996.

What does Regency do?
Regency specialises in providing consultancy services to domestic and international companies who are looking to outsource work to India, but who are directly connected to the direct marketing skills and to companies looking to enter the Indian market. So we basically help companies launch their products in India.

For instance, in 2001 we helped Bose launch its products in India, we handled the entire media launch for them.

That's how the direct marketing business started. We work with all the top banks in India, we have an exclusive contract with them where we do 'insert advertising'. Like when you get your credit card statement, there's usually a pamphlet that comes with it, an ad. That is what we do, we sell that ad space so to speak.

Today, Regency has offices in New York, Canada [Images] and the UK.

How did you go about setting up Regency?
Honestly, when I started the company it was just to get myself legally protected. In reality, I was self-employed but had a registered company. Around that time I started thinking about doing the same thing in India.

Even though it was premature, I though the time was right to start doing some research and see what we could do here. That's when I discussed it with my family (which is based in India).

Basically, we brought in similar concepts from the US and Europe and adapted them to local needs. We started off as a small concern, it didn't need a large amount of investment or anything like that. It took a long time for us to turn the corner, it wasn't very easy, because direct marketing at that time was hardly known. In fact, we pioneered the concept here as far as bank inserts etc go, back in 1997.

In around 2000, we turned the corner and we started becoming profitable. The company grew and we started another company which was Mail Order Solutions, which does print production work for the mail order business.

How many people do you have working for you?
In India we have about 75 people and worldwide we have about 120 people. If we focus just on India, Regency is worth about Rs 20 crore in India alone. At Finewinesnmore there are about 20 of us now.

What drew you to direct marketing?
Actually, the way it started was this. I have a Master's degree in French and used to teach the language at Alliance Francais. One of my students at the time was working with a direct marketing company and one day they asked if I could do translations for them; they had some catalogues in French that they wanted translated to English. I had always had a fascination for writing copy, and so I said I'd do it.

That's how the interest in direct marketing began, in 1993. While working on it I was really fascinated because I had never really experienced direct marketing, I had never heard of anything like that while I was living in India. Although my family has a very strong marketing background, the idea of going directly to the consumer caught my attention. It was just something that I wanted to learn more about. That's when I ended up going to New York University.

I was then able to tie up with the same company (in France [Images]) and began doing a lot of work for them. One thing led to another and work kept growing until finally the company (Regency Direct Marketing) was set up in India.

What is direct marketing? What exactly does Regency do?
We look into concepts. So say you have a product. To sell the product we design the creative aspect, which is we come up with the whole concept of what the idea behind the promotion should be, what the written material about the product should say.

The focus in direct marketing is that you are going directly to the consumer. So whatever the communication form you use, be it direct mail through a letter, or an email or an SMS -- the whole effort is designed around the fact that you are going to be talking to the consumer directly.

Like I mentioned, we work with banks and as a result we have access to a database. So we have at least in 73 cities in India a profiled database of prospective clients, mainly sourced from banks and we know what they want, which is spending pattern and lifestyle habits.

So we do the concept, we do the designing, we do the printing as well (at Mail Order Solutions), we do the mailing. Once the responses from the mailers come back, we do an analysis of the entire effort and present it to the client -- this is what you invested in your direct marketing effort and this is your return on investment.

It's a very detailed effort, and gives you returns on investment to the penny, which when you do mass marketing is very difficult to gauge.

What are the skills one would need for a career in direct marketing?
You would need to understand your consumer. It's all about lifetime value for the consumer, that's what the strength of direct marketing is. Once you have a customer, your relationship has to be a life-long one.

For instance say a customer buys a wine from you. Your have to nurture the relationship to a degree that anytime he thinks of wine, be it at a party or dinner, he should only be thinking of your company.

Did you have a mentor while starting out?
I had two mentors. One was my dad who is a marketing genius and the other is now my partner in another business, who is a direct marketing guru in the US.

How did Finewinesnmore happen?
Officially a year ago and unofficially two years ago. It basically came out of the fact that I love drinking wines, I'm not a connoisseur but I definitely know my wines, and I thought the time was right for India. Unfortunately there wasn't much in terms of an education for people to buy wines or pick good wines, a lot of stereotypes existed and still do exist, so we wanted to do things differently and that's how the whole idea came about.

We started to do research after that. We had a database from Regency Direct Marketing. We sent out a survey to find out how much people knew about wines, how much they were willing to pay, what people drank and other information. The response was really good. That was where we started.

We then set up a business plan based on the information that we had and what was available on the market. I then went about looking for a partner and that's when it began, in January last year. It's been a good ride! We're now in the top 5 companies in India today and close to the top 3, in terms of total sales.

What has the response to Finewinesnmore been?
The response has been very positive and encouraging. I just wish that the government would support us more; the excise laws are pretty tough. But in terms of the trade it's been very good, and from the consumers also. People are reaching out to us through the portal we just launched. Again our USP is the direct approach, it's the dialogue. It doesn't matter if they don't buy wines from me as long as the education is complete.

Today if you go to a wine shop, there are more spirits and liquor than wines. The shopkeeper will ask you your price range or whether you want white wine or red, and that's about all there is to it. People are slowly waking up to fact that there's more to wines than just that.

How easy/difficult has it been juggling work and family, given that you're a single mom?
You do make some sacrifices but you also realise that as far as children are concerned that more than the quantity it's the quality of time you spend with them. So I've made it a point that when I'm with her, I'm only with her and I don't do anything else.

Again, when she was little it was very tough. There were times where you just feel like giving up, especially when your child is sick. But I've been through all that, and we've both emerged tougher from the experience.

What were the challenges you faced as an entrepreneur?
For Finewines the challenges were more government related given the regulations that we have, which everyone in the business faces. As a woman, there were challenges because it is definitely a male dominated industry, so at times I did feel that there was this perception that 'Here's this woman, she's got 'American' thoughts, we don't know what she's all about.' Eventually, as they realise that you know what you're talking about, they start to thaw. Initially it was difficult.

As for Regency, when we started it in India it was an entire behaviour modification we were looking at, so that was very very tough. For example when we went to a bank, we had to really convince them of the concept. Today, banks actually come to us.

What would you say are the skills budding entrepreneurs require?
Business is a huge challenge. It's not just about being successful, more than that it's about maintaining the success that is very tough.

What happens is when you start off you might be the only player in that sphere, but eventually other people start coming in. Specially in India, people grab concepts very quickly and before you know it there are 10 other companies doing direct marketing. So it is maintaining that success that is very important, and that comes from a single-minded focus and discipline.

You have got to keep at it. Just keep doing what you know how to do to the best of your abilities every single day and things fall into place eventually.

We have a strong team with us, some of whom have been with me for over 10 years now. As the company grew they grew with us, and that's another important aspect. You must remember that it is a two-way street.

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