Dhaval is a serial entrepreneur with 11 years of wide-ranging experience in marketing, advertising and e-commerce. He has chalked out successful strategies, managed large-scale campaigns, created champion ventures, and built winning teams from scratch. His previous stints have been with ecommerce ventures and most recently with Indigo Consulting (Leo Burnett) managing digital marketing mandates for brands like Bajaj, Axis Bank, Amazon Prime Video. He has now stepped into the world of IoT and automation with Smarthome NX with like-minded people who share his vision to make homes better and smarter with technology.
This is his reflective essay.
Start-ups are exciting. I remember my first start-up when I got my first project for doing SEO for an accounting outsourcing company in Mumbai. The director found my business card from a book about internet marketing that he had bought from a local bookstore. It was a classic guerilla marketing tactic (and free) that I had used – find books related to your area of business and plant your business cards into them. Offline contextual marketing at its best! I pitched and bagged the project and that was the first time ever I made money as an entrepreneur. It was a profitable project with minimum costs and that money paid my bills. Later, I built Webventurous (an agency) that scaled to about 35 pax at its peak and 1.5 crores in revenue. Scalable? I am not sure. We invested incremental capital in the business, hired more people to scale operations to service new clients (retainers) that we won. That’s how more money was being made. However, was it an idea that could dominate the world? I am not sure. There are enough and more agencies in the world who do essentially the same thing – hire great talent, brainstorm communication ideas and execute a kickass campaign. That doesn’t mean that they are all good but the business model is validated and it works. With advertising and marketing requiring a keen understanding of the target audience (most often local to its market) and proximity to the client being an important factor for servicing (for the client and agency both), agencies mushroom up in every region catering to small businesses and large brands alike. No wonder that acquisitions are the way for the larger communication agencies to enter local markets and eventually have a global presence.
However, this article is not about marketing agencies and how other traditional businesses have scaled; it’s more about how we should be nurturing new-age start-ups when they are still young – which is what I have been doing at Smarthome NX, a year old startup, it’s a marketplace for Smart home solutions. I started my journey with Smarthome NX as a consumer. I hated the way Smart home solutions were being sold in India. There are way too many different products and solutions with even more complicated underlying technology. It’s difficult to find the right one that would help serve my lifestyle purpose. I needed specific products that would help me monitor household help and give them remote access so that they can do their chores and left. I remember struggling to find useful guides to help me take decisions about smart home solutions. You see, there are way too many brands and products available in the market and it is very overwhelming. Most sites would tell me product’s features but no one really told me how that product could be used – in whats scenarios in my day-to-day life. There was ample information about the technology but not much in context with our lifestyle.
Moreover, consultants who I spoke with were specialised in only a limited set of products or brands. Therefore, this led to several challenges: 1) I would not know what is the right device for me without doing an endless research online and speaking to multiple system integrators 2) Because of limited online resources which were ‘jargon-heavy’ – most resources were focussed on techies and early adopters – like CNET and others. (Moreover, most Indian websites are focussed on selling Smartphones rather than any other consumer electronics category.) Where does a layman without any technical background go when he wants true advice without having to go through this enormous research exercise? Smarthome NX was conceived to solve this problem. We help the customer in this journey by 1) helping him discover products through interesting content, 2) consulting him (for free) with unbiased advice on the solution that is right for him, 3) connecting him to multiple vendors who can help him set up his Smart home.
On the other hand, our services help solution providers and manufacturers reach out to an evolved audience that is continually looking for new ways to find unique ways to build a better, more functional home. When you build something to scratch your own itch, generally it’s slightly easier to validate if your product or service works. However, monetization and market fitment is something that only your customers can teach you. We validated ourselves based on customer feedback – people like the content we write and are always asking more questions about the solutions we offer. Moreover, there was always something more that we could do that was a direct value addition to the customer journey (which we learnt as we became more popular as a go-to resource for Smart homes) – in the form of information, product sales, connecting them to the right vendor and so on. This meant that there was indeed a need for a platform to exist to simplify the Smart home adoption process. This was also echoed on the supplier side with the 200+ solution providers who work with us.
I have always been customer focused with my approach. It is also probably because of the nature of business that I have done over the years that pushes me to think about the customer before anything else (you know what I am talking about if you have worked in advertising). To me, ‘value addition’ is the other side of that same coin of customer focus. Customer centricity with value addition helps us build something that users will pay for. I think more startups, especially at an early stage, need to think hard about this before they build their investor pitch decks. Most of all, they need to get innovative to go to market faster and learn from the market i the most inexpensive ways possible. It saves the promoters money, the investors money and all other types of ‘funds’ being deployed in the business.
We are now ready to raise capital but most of all we are more sure about what we are doing than we were months ago. We are still doing some small pivots based on learnings from the market and I think that will continue as a process. I think of funding as a means to an end. The end goal being to be a profitable company that provides exceptional value for its customers. Today, hundreds of startups are taking their bets on an internet business to become well – the next Amazon or Uber in one way or another. However, it seems that there is a lopsided vision about funding which is quite distracting – like it were the ‘ultimate’ milestone. I think the journey starts with the customer and to evaluate how well the startup is serving it. That’s your north-star to follow.
With so much media attention around valuations, million/billion dollar funding news and the over-exploitation of the word ‘disruption’, somewhere the term ‘customer centricity’ is lost. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mean that Uber and Amazon are not customer focused. All I mean to say is that a lot of entrepreneurs seem to start their journey right but end up taking detours that lead them to taking up the wrong investors onboard or probably even the wrong pivots which end up being fatal for them. In my journey to raise funds, ‘Scalability’ and ‘Total Addressable Marketing (TAM)’ has been haunting me as investors diss the “Smart homes” market as being too small. However, interestingly we found a larger market in this journey of helping building ‘smart homes’: a more evolved consumer base of new homeowners in India that is under-served even by our competitors. As we move into this next pivot, we are moving from “Simplifying (just) Smart homes” to “Reinventing Home Living”. This was taught to us by the market and therefore we will continue to follow our north-star.