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Their 5-crore T-shirt venture started with 25 lakhs

Last updated on: May 28, 2010 12:29 IST

Their 5-crore T-shirt venture started with 25 lakhs

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Abhishek Mande

The quiet western suburb of Goregaon in Mumbai is a very unlikely place for a yuppie clothing company, which is changing some of the age-old rules of garment designing.

Inkfruit is into making T-shirts for the young and restless with smart designs, eye-catching colours and cheeky punch lines. It is also making its presence felt in places where it should be -- at Planet M and Lifestyle stores across the country, as well as a few upscale malls.

What makes Inkfruit's designs different is that they are created or suggested by the company's customers -- young Internet users who log on to Inkfruit.com and submit or suggest design ideas.

A visit to the site reveals the high level of user interactivity and the mind-boggling ideation on what the next line of T-shirts should look like.

This is a far cry from the age-old system where, for the longest time, all you could settle for were plain tees or striped ones. It is also a revolution of sorts, in an industry that is run by practical-minded traditionalists who have believed in mass-producing garments.

The men behind this venture are two young IIT grads -- Kashyap Dalal and Navneet Rai, both in their 20s. Inkfruit, which started with an initial investment of Rs 25 lakh now boasts a turnover of Rs 5 crore. The following pages document their story.


Image: Navneet Nair (top) and Kashyap Dalal

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'The concept of user-generated content fascinated us'

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Navneet Rai, my friend from IIT Bombay and I had been itching to start something on our own. I used to work with Hindustan Unilever and Navneet was with a garment company in Delhi where he was handling the sales and supply chain.

As it happened once, I bumped into someone in a movie hall wearing the same T-shirt as me. It was a pretty innocuous thing to happen, but the incident stayed with me. I thought, not many people might like to be seen in the same T-shirt as theirs.

The T-shirt range in India has been pretty limited -- for the longest time, all you got was plain and striped tees and then the ones that international brands brought in. We believed that if we offered consumers a wider variety in terms of designs we could successfully tap into this nascent segment.

However, the actual momentum was gained when we came across the concept of involving users. This idea was backed up by some of our designer friends who complained that there was no platform to present their talent.

The concept of user-generated content fascinated us and we started off. Currently we have over 450 designs in the market, which are created and voted for by users of Inkfruit.com


Image: An Inkfruit t-shirt design

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'Today we have a dedicated base of over a million users'

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Getting the initial bunch of people online was extremely critical. So we targeted designers first and visited design colleges like NIFT in Delhi and Mumbai and the JJ School of Arts among others to create awareness. Once the site took off, we kept making changes on the run. Today we have a dedicated base of over a million users.

Some of these people are designers, while most others are just buyers. Interaction between users happens on various levels.

On the one hand designers interact with other designers, send messages to their peers, get inspired and share their designs, thereby building a micro community through scraps and online messages. They also interact with non-designers who give them feedback about their designs.

Engaging non-designers was a bit tricky. For this, we decided to empower them by encouraging them to vote for their favourite designs. If the design they vote for is chosen they get special incentives like goodies and discounts on Infkfruit tees. This way they get to be part of something bigger -- of deciding the upcoming line of T-shirts.

We also allow them to submit their ideas in a text box. If the idea is taken up they can win prizes worth Rs 3,000. A graphic designer could win anywhere between Rs 5,000 to Rs 25,000 for a design, along with his/her name on the T-shirt's tags.

Users also get the opportunity to interact with their favourite artists and give them feedback about their latest designs. Whatever they do, they earn reward points that can earn them freebies and discount coupons.

However, the biggest draw for non-designers is that they get a range of T-shirt designs that is unparalleled.



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'We realised we couldn't stick to selling online only'

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Initially, we started off with the vague idea of making creative merchandise based on user participation. Soon enough we realised we couldn't stick to selling online only. We had to have an offline presence and tap outlets from where we could retail.

Scale was another issue. A lot of things become available when there are volumes. But when you are making just about 25 pieces of a design then things get tough -- be it with manufacturers, packers or even retailers.

We had to sell these people our vision. Two of the stores we first tapped sounded excited with the idea, although there was some amount of scepticism. They were not sure of the ability of the company to deliver quality goods on time.

The biggest problem for any retailer is getting stuck with dead stock. This was where our model came in handy. Whatever designs we were making had been ones that were created and selected by a group of customers. Therefore, the chances of our clothes being dead ducks would always be slimmer.

Today we stock at Planet M, Central Mall and select Lifestyle stores and are selling about 15,000 pieces every month with a turnover of Rs 5 crore.



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'Strategising a lot doesn't help start-ups'

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The next step for us is to consolidate our offline figures, which contribute to almost 75 per cent of our sales. So we will plan to set up exclusive Inkfruit stores and eventually invite franchisees too.

We are also in the process of starting what we call the Inkfruit Caravan, which will visit not just colleges but also BPOs, IT offices and places where we can reach out to young (18 to 30-year-old) consumers.

Although we have already done it before, we hope to engage in more brand tie-ups where we can get corporate houses to sponsor prizes for designs around a particular theme. Recently we tied up with Kingfisher for our 'Beer and Friends' theme.

Tips for young entrepreneurs

While it is important to have a plan, it is just as important to execute the idea. Strategising a lot doesn't help start-ups. The idea is to simply get into action mode.

The second and most important advice I'd give is that it is pertinent that you get good partners. When your business grows, you have to let go parts of it to other people and trust their vision. You need to understand their way of doing business and help them make a profit too. That is the only way you can survive too.

Inkfruit tees can be purchased online from Inkfruit.com or though select Planet M and Lifestyle stores, as well as certain branches of Central Mall. They are available in three price ranges: Rs 399, Rs 499 and Rs 599.



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