This month, Exhibit met up with the Founder of the popular e-commerce Fashion site Voonik, Mr. Sujayath Ali, to trace his journey and learn about his thoughts on Technology. We also got him to share his business mantras and other trivia that sure make for an interesting read!
Exhibit: Hello Mr Sujayath Ali, can you trace the journey of how you came up with the idea of starting Voonik? Also, can you elaborate on the process that you followed?
Sujayath Ali: My journey into retail, rather fashion began when I was a boy. I had grown used to my dad commenting on my dressing sense or lack thereof. Gradually, after I got married, my wife picked up from where he left off. I thought luxury brands and paying more for clothes would be the key to my external transformation but that strategy didn’t seem to help. That’s when I asked myself, “If I don’t need to be a geek to buy a laptop, then why should I know about fashion to buy clothing?” So, my co-founder Navaneetha and I decided to start our company, Voonik which caters to the real women of India who are not brand or fashion conscious, rather variety conscious. This truly changed my insights of retail by creating a new way of shopping that enables customers/users to buy what suits their build, lifestyle, and budget.
Exhibit: What was the greatest reason that pushed you to start your own business?
SA: This was in 2013, when the economy was shaky and the business outlook uncertain which made it a less than ideal time to turn entrepreneurial. But that’s when my co-founder Navaneetha and I launched our company, Voonik. I pitched my idea of creating a new way of shopping that enables users to buy what suits their build, lifestyle, and budget and he was convinced. I returned to India in 2013 and Navaneetha quit Freshdesk to jump into our venture. The retail industry is a very stimulating and fast-paced environment which leads to accelerated personal and career growth. It’s a great feeling to be able to play a significant role in understanding what truly customers need. There is always a constant change in the retail industry, which only means that there are more opportunities, challenges and excitement.
Exhibit: Tell us about the obstacles you had to overcome in the process of setting up Voonik?
SA: I think there are endless professional challenges one faces. My only concern with my company Voonik was that it initially lacked the focus of concentrating on one segment and tried to be everything for everybody. Gradually, I learned that we have to offer a single solution to a big enough market where there is no alternative for that solution. That learning is guiding Voonik through every decision the company makes.
Exhibit: How did your experience help you in starting and running Voonik?
SA: I come from Tamil Nadu where I did my engineering from Mepco Schlenk Engineering college. I started my career as a Senior Software Development Engineer with iNautix Technology. After completing my MBA from ISB Hyderabad, I joined Amazon as the Product Manager and worked there for 7 years as Senior Product Manager before joining as VP at Visa. I then quit Visa to start Voonik in 2013. I believe in the power of technology for solving customer problems. Voonik is born out of the vision that technology can address even the fashion and style needs of people by connecting them with the right products at the right price. I co-founded Voonik with my friend from engineering days, Navaneetha Krishnan, who is the CTO and the force behind Voonik’s advanced technology.\
Exhibit: How do you tackle competition looking at the number of eCommerce websites that are operating? How do you try to set Voonik apart from the competitors?
SA: Before Voonik, the Indian fashion eCommerce market was dominated by e-tailers who focused on bringing well-known brands to the fashion-forward, brand-conscious and relatively affluent online shoppers. They did not address the mass women segment who were not brand-conscious and had limited budgets. The only online shopping options these women had were horizontal players such as Amazon and Flipkart, who sold clothing as one amongst hundreds of categories, along with mobile phones and kitchen mops.
At Voonik, we believe in making fashion personalized and accessible to all, thus moving away from the discount led brand fashion that other players are talking about. To help our real woman shop with confidence, we created an AI-based, curated feed. This ‘insanely relevant’ feed is based on an algorithm that factors in her body shape, lifestyle and skin-tone, amongst other parameters. Our engine takes into account stylist recommendations in creating a personalized feed. Proof of our concept is a massive following in tier 2 & 3 cities of India, where customer’s best fashion shopping option is to sieve through crowded offline stores. More than 70% of our customers’ hail from non-metro cities. By eliminating the middlemen, we are able to deliver very competitive prices, thus eliminating any need for discounting etc. Also, we keep feeding market intelligence to our sellers thus helping them in knowing latest fashion trends and in creating styles accordingly.
Thus, we are moving rapidly towards our dream of becoming the country’s largest online fashion company. Voonik is among the top 3 most engaging Apps for women.
Exhibit: Currently, India is witnessing a great boom with regards to the Startup scene. In your opinion, what are the positives and negatives about India as a Startup hub?
SA: This is the best time for startups in India. With Government initiatives such as Startup India and Make in India, increased internet penetration and an overall high technology adoption by the large youth population of the country, the stage is set for some breakthrough ideas and companies. As long as the execution of initiatives are in balance to maintain the pace of growth between the Government and companies, everything will go well.
Exhibit: On a personal level, how big a consumer of technology and the internet are you? Which are your go-to sites and apps?
SA: I am a gadget lover! I like reading on my Kindle, watching Netflix through Chrome-cast, browse using my iPad, listening to songs through Gaana, playing games using my play-station and xbox, using VR through Samsung Galaxy Edge and shopping mostly on Mr. Voonik.
Exhibit: How would you chalk out your greatest strengths and weaknesses with regards to your personal and professional life?
SA: My strength is that I can be patient, be data-driven, and maintain my composure through turbulent times. My weakness is that I am a bit soft and introverted.
Exhibit: What changes do you envision in the various payment options and emergence of the many payment gateways?
SA: Post demonetization, we have seen a steady increase in cashless payments across our platforms. We have noticed that consistently prepaid orders result in higher order delivery percentage, deeper customer engagement, richer shopping experience and better economics. Most of the new e-commerce customers are from non-metros, tier 2 & 3 cities of India. We expect more payment gateways to make inroads within these cities by creating light and fast platforms for a massive enrollment.
Exhibit: What are your Business Mantras?
SA: To have a vision like Steve Jobs and execute it like Andy Grove. I also pick the fights worth fighting!
Exhibit: Which are your favorite influential and inspiring books that you would suggest readers to get their hands on?
SA: “The Hard Thing About Hard Things”, “Great by Choice”, “The Outsiders: Eight Unconventional CEOs and Their Radically Rational Blueprint for Success” and “Only the Paranoid Survive.”
Exhibit: Describe a quintessential day in the life of Sujayath Ali.
SA: I wake up in the morning, drop my children to school and head to work. At work, my day typically starts by reviewing the previous day’s sale, revenue and operation efficiency. I also spend a lot of time with my technology team to understand the progress and roadblocks in our key tech projects.
Exhibit: What do you like to spend time doing when you are not working?
SA: I like spending time in reading, browsing through news and technology articles, watching some of my favorite TV shows and spending time with family.
Exhibit: What is next on the cards for Voonik?
SA: We are focusing on expanding categories on Voonik. We are already seeing good leading indicators in western wear, footwear, lingerie, skin care, makeup and Plus Size categories. In the coming weeks, we want to scale each of these categories to be at least 50 % of the current size of our ethnic main categories. Mr Voonik, is already growing at a fast pace, being the men’s only fashion app that was started out in 2016. It became an overnight success as we crossed 10,000 daily shipments within six months of operation. If we believe the initial data, Mr Voonik will be bigger than Voonik in a few months.
- Best piece of advice given to you: Keep fighting…the distance between huge success and failure is often one payroll cycle for startups.
- Most unique gadget you’ve come across so far: Alexa
- Most useful gadget that’s not a smartphone or laptop: Chromecast
- One thing on your bucket list: Meet Elon Musk
- One thing that gets on your nerves: Egoistic People
- Business Guru: Andy Grove
- TV shows you ardently follow: Game of Thrones, Silicon Valley
- Describe Voonik in a statement: Everyone’s Personal Stylist
- Luck or hard work: Hard Work with Planning is called Luck
- If you had to make your own gadget, what would it be like: A VR video calling device that simulates as if I am speaking to the real person.
- Recipe for a perfect business: Always be asking, “What are we not doing?”
- If you could dirty your hands on any other industry, which would it be: Automobiles
- Advice you’d give to budding entrepreneurs: Believe and don’t quit.