CoFounder Mehul Agrawal shares his journey of making FabFurnish.com India’s leading online home retailer. Read on.
“I always knew I’d start my own venture,” says Mehul Agrawal – the young and bright entrepreneur.
After graduating from St. Xavier’s and attaining an MBA from IIM-Calcutta, Mehul joined Boston Consulting Group in 2009. He shuttled between Mumbai and Sydney for three years while consulting clients in BFSI, airlines, telecoms, retail, etc. Having observed the way the internet was influencing people’s lives, he realised that his venture needed to be powered by this escalating medium.
The actual idea of launching his own venture, though, was spurred by Mehul’s rankling experience of furnishing his own home. “I spent many a weekend surveying shops to find the right piece of furniture, at the right price. Travelling distances, facing parking issues – not to mention haggling for the appropriate price – were persistent issues that led me to furnishing my house minimally. I soon discovered that this was a problem that many of my friends also faced while doing up their house in India,” says Mehul. “It din’t take me long before seeing a huge opportunity of filling this gap.”
Now that he had set his mind on starting a furniture e-commerce venture, it was time to find himself a partner who shared his zeal and passion in building it. “I knew Vikram (Chopra) through his IIT-IIM network and discovered in him – a similar yearning to start something of his own. Backed by strong academia from IIT-Bombay, and consulting background with McKinsey and Sequoia, his interest in startups further meant that he knew investors who were willing to fund a new venture. This was enough incentive for me to quit my job and Vikram to drop out of Wharton and incept FabFurnish in March 2012—an online one-stop shop for all kinds of home furniture,” says cofounder Mehul.
Assumptions vs Results
The core idea of making online furniture purchase a simple and an exciting experience continues even today, albeit with multiple tweaks in the business model, based on market feedback. Mehul remembers having had many apprehensions when they began. They were in for a pleasant surprise when they were gradually proved invalid.
Since the biggest challenge was in building the category itself, because people were not accustomed to searching for furniture online, they thought of enticing customers with low cost items such as bed sheets and linen initially – so as to get used to buying online through FabFurnish and then coming back to buy more expensive furniture. “We knew that we had to change the basic buying behaviour and spend quite a bit of time in making the online buying experience relevant and practical. As time passed, we were surprised to see people buying furniture as their first purchase. This meant that customers din’t feel the need to purchase and try low-cost products first before buying the high-end ones,” says Mehul.
Not surprisingly, FabFurnish closed the first year with good revenue numbers. The other assumption the co-founders had made was that metro cities would be more open to buying products online as compared to Tier 2 and Tier 3 cities. However, they found that around 40% of their sales happened from non-metro cities.
Mehul adds, “I always believed that purchases would be done through desktops, as people might want to look at larger pictures to review the product. However, mobile purchases soon increased to around 50% of our total sales.”
Based on dynamic market changes, the online furniture e-retailer kept improvising and took many new initiatives to further boost its business.
Importance of Interface
Mehul and Vikram realised that the online platform is not a destination but an experience. “We wanted to make shopping through FabFurnish truly inspirational,” says Mehul. The duo worked hard to make the content more engaging and the interface look and feel more exciting. They provided accurate information about the product so that people could make an informed choice. “We wanted to make sure that consumers could find all the information they wanted on FabFurnish. To make the entire experience more exciting, multiple new elements were introduced in the market, like – 360-degree photo views, product videos and virtual reality mobile apps for people to discover how the products would look in their homes. The finer details like, the handle of a chair, depth of a sofa, multiple colours and the final look of the product at home, helped allay the concerns of customers in buying furniture online,” says Mehul.
Customer surveys revealed that FabFurnish’s buyer demographic was dominated by women, as they are the ones constantly exploring innovative home décor ideas. Hence, that soon became our main target group, and we curated our products keeping their needs, requirements and choices in mind.
Training the Unorganized Sector
Selection of vendors and their products was a hard nut to crack, as there were no big brands that existed some three-four years ago. Instead, there were thousands of non-established vendors, and identifying the right ones was a big challenge. It was quite easy to convince the vendors to come online. “We chose the vendors based on two criterion. Firstly the vendors should have products that appeal to our customer base and secondly finding vendors who would deliver premium quality that we commit to our customers,” says Mehul, adding, “Most of the vendors did not have any set practices and were doing things manually. However, we ensured that the vendors were chosen only if they were willing to invest in the practices set by the company.”
They found it difficult to convince these unorganised players to invest in some quality procedures and convince them of the opportunity to reach a wider Indian market through their platform. “Hence, we started with 10 vendors, trained them, made them succeed, and then scaled out with multiple vendors. On seeing the initial 10 succeeding as a closed market, other vendors also jumped in and offered to invest in the quality procedures,” acclaims Mehul.
The founders also went beyond the country’s borders to find exciting products – that suited the Indian market – at great affordable prices and imported those to their portal.
Right Marketing is the Key to Success
During the early stage of FabFurnish, we realised that digital marketing was the most effective way to reach out to our target audience in a cost-efficient manner. Our primary channels for user acquisition were Facebook and SEM due to the myriad targeting options. Email marketing helps us tremendously in user retention. We’ve also tried out traditional channels (TV, print, OOH, radio) for brand building and expanding our reach. Our success in marketing lies on the fact that we’ve constantly been experimenting, adopting new ads, designing great creative, and have a strong brand communication strategy.
Since the past 3 months, we’re focusing more on app installs and app user retention as India is increasingly becoming a ‘mobile first’ country. Digital marketing channels excel in app marketing with the lowest app install costs and most effective retention methods.
An Advice to Enterpreneurs
Mehul is enthused by the number of youngsters leaving their jobs and entering the start-up world, nowadays. His advice to early stage entrepreneurs is – “the core element in the idea created should be to solve a real customer problem and sticking to it. Keeping the channels of learning open, keep experimenting, taking risks, and evolving every day. It takes time to give shape to an idea.”
FabFurnish, today, has about 300 employees in their corporate office and around 1000 people on an outsourced basis. Mehul is proud of his team and credits it for whatever they are and have achieved so far. FabFurnish have won quite a few awards and titles – including Red Herring’s Asia Top 100 as well as Global Top 100 in 2014. Mehul has been featured in India’s Forbes 30 issue as one of country’s best under-30 achievers.
FabFurnish is clearly set on a path to serve its customers diligently by innovating ways to make their furniture shopping more and more enthralling, yet seamless. The furniture e-retailer is always looking to capture new trends in doing business as well as to enhance its product portfolio. As a brand, it is committed to the relentless pursuit of using technology to simplify the way India shops, backed by creative insights and new marketing mechanisms to win customer loyalty and aid long term retention. As Mehul rightly puts it – the idea was always to make the online buying experience, inspirational!