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How I grew my business in the pandemic

By MEGHNA SARAOGI
December 21, 2020 11:02 IST
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Meghna Saraogi, founder of the fashion tech start-up StyleDotMe, reveals how she turned obstacles into opportunities during the pandemic.

How my start-up grew 10X in the pandemic

IMAGE: Meghna Saraogi is co-Founder and CEO, StyleDotMe, a company that uses Augmented Reality to help customers try jewellery and accessories virtually. Photograph: Kind courtesy Meghna Saraogi

The Indian start-up ecosystem has seen exponential growth in the last decade.

As per the Confederation of Indian Industry, the total capital raised by start-ups in 2019 was USD 14.5 billion which constituted 1,185 funding rounds.

Like every entrepreneurial journey, the Indian start-up ecosystem had its share of challenges in its kitty.

In spite of functioning in the world’s third-largest start-up ecosystem, no entrepreneur would have imagined the impact Covid-19 would have on business.

Clearly, we were not ready. The pandemic took a massive toll on businesses -- layoffs, pay cuts, and the closing down of operations.

As per a TiE-Delhi and Zinnov report, there was a dip in overall funding by 50% during the lockdown as compared to pre-COVID levels, around 40% of start-ups were negatively impacted, and 15% of Indian start-ups were forced to discontinue operations due to COVID-19.

While we were one of the few start-ups that had started building tech for a new age of consumerism and retail, we saw Covid acting as a catalyst accelerating behaviour and processes.

As 21st-century consumers seek convenience 24*7, helped boost the businesses of jewelers and further aided in speeding up digitization in the Industry.

Today, at the end of 2020 when I look back at how the start-up ecosystem survived, I think the one word that would describe our journey well is resilience.

As a homegrown start-up, innovating in a relatively nascent space of retail tech in India, we acted upon the need-gaps presented by the global pandemic really early on, and that foresight, and agility helped both us and the 220 retailers we work with thrive.

Our already existing business model was focused on moving ahead in digitization, and in times that changed swiftly with the onset of the pandemic, and adaptations took place on a much faster and larger scale in a short span of time.

As an entrepreneur in the Indian start-up ecosystem in 2020, I have learned some incredible and valuable lessons that I would like to share:

1. Acceptance is key

There was chatter about Covid but it never really felt like it was going to impact us. It felt far away.

So, for most entrepreneurs preparing for the crisis was never a part of the to-do list.

A lot of businesses suffered disruption in their supply chains worldwide till about the end of February on account of the Chinese new year.

We were still not ready to accept as whatever ripples were felt were attributed to the Chinese new year rather than Covid. It struck us hard and the magnitude of the reality was realized when the Government announced a nationwide lockdown on March 24th. Starting 25th March, the entire Indian start-up ecosystem wasn’t sure what the next step should be.

2. Be agile and proactive: Hard choices had to be made to decrease the degree of impact

It was either embracing the challenge and taking actions amidst lockdown or waiting for things to get better and maybe shut down the business.

In the interest of business, the start-up ecosystem saw entrepreneurs making some hard choices to maintain liquidity.

Retail-oriented businesses like us were worried about piling of inventory and the sudden disconnect with clients owing to social distancing and stay at home norms.

This is when technology and e-retail took prominence and pushed start-ups to move out of their comfort zones.

3. Don't be afraid to experiment: Digital presence no longer a choice

By May, everyone was building or enhancing their digital presence. It was where the consumer was.

They still needed products, services, and support. So, there was an opportunity to build a direct channel of communication.

Digitisation in the jewelry industry was a long time coming.

Social media chatter, insights from our clients, and analytics further gave us an idea of the market size.

4. Power of vision and people: Focused and goal-oriented employees an asset

Often crisis makes you lose sight of the vision you set out with.

Unfortunately, several start-ups ended up shutting down for the very same reason.

One might have to adapt to the changing landscape and change routes, but the vision and passion cannot.

The pandemic helped many entrepreneurs including me realise the power of people who share your passion.

Undeterred teams who worked with business leaders to help keep the company afloat were the biggest growth drivers.

The start-up ecosystem was finally showing some signs of working its way back to recovery and employees had a huge role to play in this.

Entrepreneurs were now hiring and paying pre-Covid salaries motivating people to keep going.

In the last quarter of 2020, we saw the Indian start-up ecosystem bounce back.

As per the TiE-Delhi and Zinnov report, India is expected to be home to 60,000-62,000 start-ups, including 100 unicorns by 2025. And that the sector has seen a quick turnaround as the pace of funding has nearly recovered to the pre-Covid levels led by seed and late-stage investments.

The resilient attitude of the Indian start-up ecosystem I spoke about earlier I believe was the reason it rose up to the challenge and tide over.

We still have a lot to do, but 2020 was definitely a learning experience for start-ups.

We realised the importance of a digital ecosystem, teamwork, consumer-focused communication, the power of working with less, and a local or make in India approach.

We don't know how long the pandemic will last, or what the new normal would look like but it is time for entrepreneurs to embrace this masked opportunity, enter 2021 with a cautious yet open mind and re-imagine business in a post-pandemic world.

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MEGHNA SARAOGI