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'In business, the name of the game is innovation'

March 26, 2008

From a three-man army to a company with four offices in Mumbai [Images] itself and over 1,000 employees, the Unisource Group has grown in leaps and bounds in the short span of seven years. This is, in no small way, credited to the vision of its 33-year-old founder Avirat Sonpal.

In an email interview with's Shifra Menezes, Avirat talks about how he started off as an entrepreneur and what it takes to make it big.

Tell us a little about your background.
I completed my schooling in Greenlawns, Mumbai, and further went on to pursue a degree in Fashion at FIT, USA. For sometime thereon, I ran my own business in the US when I met with Andy Todd, the now President of our affiliate brand, Steve & Barry's, who spoke to me about the core concept that makes Steve & Barry's, which engaged me then, and to date engages me.

My family has been involved in the garment business for four generations, with this common link being the binding force that has brought generations together. Our main line of expertise was primarily textiles and fabrics, and then was later diversified into the garment business as well. Export of fabrics to Africa formed the primary business function.

How did 4004 Incorporated - The Unisource Group come about?
In 2001, Steve & Barry's had approximately 10-15 stores across the US.  I was in the US pursuing my degree and running my business, where I happened to meet with Andy Todd, the President of Steve & Barry's.  The Steve & Barry's concept was extremely challenging, and the philosophy of retailing merchandise at affordable prices was fascinating.

4004 Incorporated - Unisource Group was set up with a three-man army -- two assistants and I, and we began sourcing basic tee-shirts from India and neighbouring countries. 

We now have over 1,000 employees, and are procuring merchandise ranging from apparel, footwear and accessories; and performing all allied functions including quality, logistics, design, product development, social compliance, to name a few. We have certainly come a long way since inception and hope to grow a lot more in the near future.

Setting up the Unisource Group from ground level up, was my real first career stint, as I was previously involved in running my own clothing business in New York. I started out my career as an entrepreneur in the beginning stages, and then went on to set up the Unisource Group from infancy, my greatest and proudest achievement yet.

Tell us a bit about the early days of the company
The Unisource Group now serves as a one-stop resource for sourcing, quality assurance, logistics, merchandising, technical audits, etc right from inception. It wasn't this case from the start.

The small team initially primarily carried out negotiations with our vendors with regards to the pricing and quality of our products, within a 9 am to 8 pm time parity, and I would then have to liaise with our affiliate brand by night, keeping in mind, the time difference factor, which would work out to be an 11 pm to 3 am shift.

The initial years were indeed, a challenge, but the gains from the hard work and sacrifice were more than I hoped for, and so, was worth every minute.

Do you believe in the 'lucky break' factor, or do you believe that an innovative, new idea is all you need to guarantee career success?
I do believe that it has to be a combination of both innovation and luck. Innovation forms a core criterion for guaranteeing success in any field, be it business, a specialisation or a trade of any sort.

My strong philosophy is that it is a person's creativity that allows them to stay ahead in the game with groundbreaking ideas and creativity, and it is this crucial factor that defines success.

What kind of challenges have you faced in the course of your career, and how have you learned to deal with it?
All companies have challenges of their own to face, and challenges to me, form the spice of life, as real victory is based, not only on how many targets one has managed to achieve, but also on how many challenges one has managed to overcome. One of the primary challenges when the Unisource Group came into being, was putting across the groundbreaking concept that formed the basis of our ideology -- that of affordable pricing keeping in mind high quality -- and educating our business partners on the same.

In the beginning stages of our inception, it was quite a challenge negotiating with our vendors, and getting them to believe in the company as fiercely as I do. Effectively running a business means facing at least one (if not more) challenge a day, and coming to terms with that, and taking away something positive from every challenge has been and still is my key learning.

What do you think is the most common mistake newcomers make?
Newcomers today are extremely bright, and the evolving education industry, globalisation, access to information and the worldwide web have made them more aware and informed.

The future generations are very promising, the one concern I have is that youngsters today seem extremely keen and eager to grow very quickly. This may sometimes be a trade-off to enriching one's experience through tenure and time.

Has your success impacted your personal life at all? 
do feel like one has to prioritise what's important in one's own life, and in order to achieve great success of any sort, compromise is inevitable. The measure of real success is one where one has mastered the art of balancing both, the personal and professional life.

Once a person has identified what really matters to them, everything else falls into place. I personally do not view 'work' in the sense that most people do, as work to me is about pursuing my passion, so work to me is like pursuing a hobby!

What tips do you have for today's youngsters looking to set up their own company? Other than a good idea, what is required from them?
The name of the game for any business to thrive in this day and age is 'innovation'. With the way the world has and is still advancing, competition has never been at a greater high than in current times.

However, it isn't only important having a concept, what is vital is to have knowledge of the industry, competition, and an estimate of the overall expected growth in the industry. 

A budding entrepreneur must ideally have a healthy mix of both education and experience and information to make it big, and should be able to creatively combat challenges and hurdles that he would come across in his professional life in as creative a manner as possible.

I also believe that it's important to master your art, and know each and every core aspect of one's business. Knowledge is thus, another important requisite for any leader.

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