"We focused on service over rapid growth": Rajiv Srivatsa

After a tryst with IIM (B) and the corporate world, Rajiv Srivatsa co-founder of 'Urban Ladder'decided to venture into a home décor and furniture start-up. In this interview, he talks to Swetha Amit about the challenges in setting up the online business and its future plans

Rajiv SrivatsaHow did the concept of Urban Ladder come about?
The concept of Urban Ladder came from a very personal pain-point for Ashish and me. After having moved to Bangalore, our houses were devoid of any kind of furniture because of the lack of a trustworthy furniture brand. We noticed that there wasn't a single brand, online or offline, which had the reputation of being a one-stop shop for every kind of furniture need. Hence, seeing a market opportunity and customer need in this category and the quick adoption of e-commerce in India, we started Urban Ladder in July 2012.

From the world of IIM B, Mckinsey, Amar Chitra Katha, Yahoo, Infosys and Cognizant, how was the transition from being an employee to a start-up business which involved creativity, innovation yet a certain element of risk?
Initially the transition was tricky. We were out of a job, out of an income and had nothing more than ideas and a vision. But as time progressed, it felt like this is what we always wanted to do. As the idea stabilised and as we made inroads into our suppliers, recruitment and financing, it helped in bringing in a great deal of excitement.

Both of us were the kind who could jump from ideation to rolling-up our sleeves to get things done. That helped in moving along everything, right from the business plan at one end to taking tons of print-outs for all the statutory company formation items on the other. Since we had worked together prior in IIM B on multiple campus events, we could complement each other to get things done and moving.

What were the challenges you faced while setting up this venture?
Among the initial hiccups, the biggest challenges were the sourcing of high quality furniture products and the reliability of the logistics infrastructure across the country. Furniture is a product that needs to be handled carefully across the entire geography of the country. The logistics system is not yet geared for it.

There were tons of breakages. The service levels that a person from a logistics company provided - go to the door of the customer, just try to give the product off and exit the place quickly - versus furniture requiring installation, assembly, cleaning the place at the customer's place, etc. These were services that only a trained internal team could provide.

Scaling up to other cities then became a challenge. The third-party logistics providers are present throughout the length and breadth of the country. Investing in our own team, training it well to handle the products and the customers well, making sure service levels were exemplary, etc, took time. Even today we have limited our presence to only 6 cities.

It also meant saying no to business from the other cities - which at that time was 30 per cent of our business. Saying no to any business is difficult - especially if you are just a start up, new to business. But we had to take that important call to ensure the service levels didn't suffer.

Covered in the above two points - we feel it is extremely important for the customer to have well-trained delivery service personnel to assist them with the product installation and delivery. The customer has a question - which our folks can answer. They can tell the customer how to take care of the product and more such things. Those all are important in our category compared to many other e-commerce categories.

We are now planning to expand to another five - 10 cities in the next 12 months.

 What category of furniture does Urban Ladder focus on? Is there any particular theme or can it be customised as per customers' requirements?
Urban Ladder lays great emphasis on quality and design of the products. The design selection is done keeping in mind the needs of an urban home which requires smart, space saving and contemporary furniture.

All products are made with the best quality raw material and solid wood. They go through several rounds of quality checks to give customers reliable and durable products. We offer a wide range of cushion choices and fabric options on our sofas to ensure customers have a variety to choose from. We don't specifically customise any of our products at present.

Currently Urban Ladder caters to metro cities. Do you have any plans to expand  to other major cities and the second tier towns?
Currently we deliver our products in Bangalore, Delhi, Mumbai, Pune, Chennai and Hyderabad. We have plans to expand our reach to at least 12 cities in India by the end of March 2015. That may include second tier towns as well.

You primarily reach out to customers via the online medium. What are your key challenges in spreading awareness, creating brand equity and ensuring customer loyalty?
Given our target segment is highly digital (Facebook, media sites where Google advertises, etc,), there is no major challenge in awareness through these digital mediums. Offline and mass media do help in reiteration of the brand for new customers but we are yet to dive into that space. Among repeat customers, we have seen immense loyalty and repeat purchase by doing the basics right such as great products and great service to our customers.

At present you are focussing on the B2C space. Any plans of venturing into the commercial segment?
Our focus is on the B2C space. We will look at the B2B space opportunistically where there is a demand fit on our product range or service experience.

You have recently secured $5 million funding from venture capital firms like SAIF Partners. What are your expansion plans to utilise these resources?
This round of funding will further help strengthen our customer service experience, technology platform and expand our reach and product range.

There is this general trend of organisations growing more sensitive to the ecology and environment. Do you see Urban Ladder promoting the concept of eco-friendly furniture?
We spend a lot of effort in minimising wastage and working very closely with the starting point of the supply chain (at raw material procurement). Plans are afoot to include specific lines in different and other eco-friendly materials as well.

Lastly how do you see growth of Urban Ladder in the near future?
We expect to be in the top three furniture brands in the next 12 months. We also aim to  be the number one home décor brand (online or offline) in the country in the next three years. Urban Ladder will be known as a brand that is spearheading millions of Indian homes to become beautiful, with a range of exciting products backed up by the highest customer satisfaction score in the country.