The business of dreams

Mainly based in the power of ideas and problem-solving, the start-up ecosystem thrives in India. Here are its four star examples
Last Updated 25 August 2018, 19:30 IST

Once the start-up bug bites you, you’re bound to itch. The entrepreneurial itch, as it’s called. The symptoms often include the strong urge to start out on your own over holding a mundane job. You’re constantly on the lookout for business opportunities in unexplored spaces and are found obsessing over the success of each worthy one. In short, you just want to scratch the entrepreneurial itch. The good news is — you’re not alone. There are countless other start-up soldiers who are waiting to charge in and conquer today’s rapidly evolving markets and the start-up ecosystem in India.

Sunday Herald profiles four young businesses that are making a mark in this thriving ecosystem. We get them to share their growth stories — the teething issues and the growing pains that come with raising a healthy start-up. Read on and be inspired...

Munaf Kapadia, founder of The Bohri Kitchen, with Nafisa Kapadia, his mother.
Munaf Kapadia, founder of The Bohri Kitchen, with Nafisa Kapadia, his mother.

The Bohri Kitchen: A recipe for success

What does success have to do with samosas? Nobody knows the answer better than 29-year-old Munaf Kapadia, who says, “In three years I’ve gone from being an account strategist at Google to someone who sells samosas and biryani for a living.” Munaf, who recently won the reality TV series ‘Grilled’ — a show for aspiring food entrepreneurs on Fox Life, also made it to the cover of the Forbes magazine. So, for someone who can barely cook to save his life, what’s the secret behind his super successful food start-up, The Bohri Kitchen (TBK)?

Well, his mother, Nafisa Kapadia holds the secret, and the recipe to her smoked kheema samosas, the legendary raan (leg of lamb) in red masala and the dum biryani, which have taken Mumbai by storm.

The idea of TBK took off in late 2014, with Munaf wanting to keep his mother away from addictive soap operas, and get her a “fun hobby” instead. So one weekend, he invited a few friends over for a paid three-course meal, which turned out to be a runaway hit.

Over the next few weekends, Munaf tested the waters by inviting more people home, and continued to receive rave reviews from diners, the press and prominent food critics, making TBK the ultimate home-dining experience for traditional Bohri food in the city. That’s when the Kapadias realised that they were onto something big. Finding the idea of a restaurant “capital heavy”, they slowly expanded to a central kitchen in Worli, which caters to the takeaway business. The home kitchen still operates over the weekend, and has hosted Bollywood celebrities like Farah Khan, Ashutosh Gowarikar and Sanjay Leela Bhansali for a meal. Recently, TBK opened its first retail outlet at Kamala Mills.

Sounds easy? Apparently not, reveals Munaf. “The entire experience of setting up and running a kitchen is very challenging.” Standardising Nafisa’s recipes for the staff to cook at the central kitchen was equally difficult. But with a lot of trial and error, Munaf and team made it work. Following its success, TBK has also raised an undisclosed amount of seed funding, which will help them upgrade to a bigger commercial kitchen and a larger work force.

While Munaf jokes about hogging most of the limelight and press coverage, he’s quick to admit that it’s only because of his parents, who got the food quality under control, that he could focus on building a brand that is synonymous with authentic (and tasteful) Bohri food, a cuisine that is rarely found outside of the community. His efforts have paid off, and how.

As for his mother Nafisa, cooking and feeding guests gives her immense satisfaction. And if it brings Rishi Kapoor over for a meal, that’s always an added bonus.

Rohan Rehani, Moonshine Meadery
Rohan Rehani, Moonshine Meadery
Nitin Vishwas, Moonshine Meadery
Nitin Vishwas, Moonshine Meadery

Moonshine Meadery: The new reason for a toast & cheer

It takes immense courage to foray into uncharted territory. And the story of Moonshine Meadery (Mm) — Asia’s first, and India’s only meadery in Pune, is a fine example of that grit.

Nitin Vishwas and Rohan Rehani are both mechanical engineers-turned-commercial mead makers. They’re the first in the country to brew mead — an ancient alcoholic beverage that not many have heard of, at least in India. Interestingly, it is believed that som ras, mentioned in the Vedas, is mead. Till about a few years ago, the duo themselves hadn’t heard about the elusive drink, before Vishwas came across an article on meads in an inflight magazine.

To top it all, mead wasn’t even a recognised category of alcohol under the Indian law. It took Vishwas and Rehani more than a year just to convince the officials at the Maharashtra Excise Department, (making Maharshtra the first state to recognise mead as an alcoholic beverage, under the category of wine) before they were finally granted a manufacturing license in 2017.

For the uninitiated, mead is made by fermenting honey with water and yeast, with the infusion of fruits and spices. It is believed to be the world’s oldest alcoholic beverage,
dating back to 7000 BC, and is currently undergoing a worldwide revival.

In India, with Mm being the only licensed meadery, there is practically no other expertise in the country. So initially when Vishwas and Rehani looked around for help, they only had the Internet and some craft beer brewers in Pune to turn to, for advice. “This resulted in a lot of mistakes… we’ve also had 1000-litre tanks going bad, resulting in the draining of an entire batch,” reveals Vishwas. “A bulk of our learning happened through reading, and experimenting. But the real sharpening of our mead-making skills came when Rohan travelled to intern with a meadery in Pennsylvania in 2017,” he adds.

While the first few trials were nothing to write home about, with each new batch, Vishwas and Rehani’s efforts began to pay off. “Couple of experimental batches down, we started realising that the friends who tasted it came back for more… and they were even willing to pay for it,” says Rehani. Very recently, “We’ve had customers landing at the stores with a photo of the bottle, asking for more,” grins Vishwas.

With only three styles — Traditional, Apple Cyder and Coffee Mead — currently available in restaurants and retail stores in Mumbai and Pune, national expansion is next on the cards, say the founders of Mm, with Karnataka, Goa and the NCR as their top three markets to expand into over the next two to three years. Mm has also raised a round of seed funding and has the backing of a small group of angel investors.

As for newer variants, one can look forward to experimental flavours like chilli guava, pineapple ginger, bourbon oaked apple mead and jamun Mead, sometime soon. Did we just hear you go “Mmm…”?

Ajay Naik, Letcetra
Ajay Naik, Letcetra

Letcetra Agritech: Hi-tech farming

Ajay Naik calls himself a “problem solver”, and says that he’s always been interested in solving real-world problems. His innate desire to help people made him quit his job as a software engineer to start his own company, which developed spiritual apps, to help people get through difficult times. He later sold his successful start-up and turned to farming in 2016 to grow healthy, pesticide-free food. And that’s how Letcetra (short for lettuce etc.), India’s first vertical hydroponics indoor farm in Mapusa, Goa, came to be.

With traditional methods of farming being susceptible to unpredictable weather conditions along with the scarcity of arable land and dwindling water resources, Naik believes that using modern agricultural technology to grow healthy food is the need of the hour. His quest for solutions led him to hydroponics — the science of growing plants without soil, using only mineral nutrients and water.

But starting out wasn’t as easy as Naik had expected. It took a few months of intense research, a visit to a plant nutritionist, besides importing setup material, before he could begin reaping the yield from his indoor farm, spread across 150 square metres. However, one of the biggest challenges, as Naik admits, in his case, was that of high capital expenditure required to set up and run the facility. For instance, Letcetra uses ACs to control the temperature and humidity, while LED lights are used to compensate for sunlight. Then there are automated systems that monitor and control water temperature, pH and nutrient level etc. With these systems in place, the cost of production does go up as compared to traditional farming.

But again, on the plus side, hydroponics requires very less land, water and labour. Plants are grown in a controlled environment, which also reduces the risk of them dying out due to weather anomalies and disease. In comparison to traditional agriculture, hydroponically grown plants are said to grow faster and yield top-quality pesticide-free produce, thus making hydroponics a viable commercial venture, which offers good returns in the long run. Letcetra has expanded to include two more farms with an overall area of 2,300 square metres. The combined fresh produce from all three farms put together is about 6-8 tonnes of different varieties of lettuce and other leafy greens, per month. However, “the market for vegetables is always volatile,” warns Naik, who currently supplies to hotels and retail customers across Goa.

Recent investor funding has made further expansion possible for Naik, who is looking at setting up farms in other cities. Dismissing the challenges that he faces as an entepreneur, he says, “Entrepreneurs are passionate people. Even with all the difficulties and hurdles, they don’t stop, they don’t give up. And that’s the key to success.”

Revathi Roy, Hey Deedee
Revathi Roy, Hey Deedee

Hey Deedee: Women empowerment all the way

They say when the going gets tough, the tough get going. And that’s exactly what Revathi Roy did. She got going — or rather driving, “because that was the best skill I had,” she says, despite holding a Masters degree in economics. Plus, “It was my need to survive that led me to start driving for a living,” she adds. With a husband in coma, and mounting hospital bills, Roy borrowed a tourist taxi from a friend and got on the streets of Mumbai to ferry passengers.

From having to deal with the emotional pain of losing a spouse, to facing an impending financial crisis, Roy has seen it all and emerged much stronger. Dubbed as a serial entrepreneur, she went from being just a taxi driver at the Mumbai airport to pioneering Asia’s first, all-women taxi service — Forsche (2007), then setting up another all-women taxi service, Viira (2010), and more recently, by founding Hey Deedee (2016), India’s first all-women instant parcel delivery service.

When asked if she always possessed an entrepreneurial streak, Roy says, “Yes, but it came to light at a time when I needed it the most.” The driving force behind Hey Deedee is Roy’s ultimate aim of training and employing 10,000 underprivileged women by the end of 2018.

Hey Deedee offers a 45-day two-wheeler training programme and currently has 100-plus women riders operating across Mumbai, Nagpur, Pune and Bengaluru delivering food, medicines, grocery, gifts, couriers etc. Roy has also made it possible for the women to buy their own scooters by arranging for soft loans, where the money gets deducted from their monthly salaries.

Having recently raised pre-seed funding of Rs 3.3 crore from Metaform Ventures, Roy is closer to her vision of making Hey Deedee one of the largest players in the logistics arena. And while we speak of expansion, the serial entrepreneur has already announced an entry into the four-wheeler warehouse-to-hub deliveries sector, again with women drivers.

Having made a difference to the lives of hundreds of women from lesser-privileged backgrounds over a decade, Roy’s efforts have won her a host of awards. Her first start-up Forsche also features as a case study at the Darden School of Business, Virginia, USA.

However, clichéd as it may sound, Revathi Roy sure has come a long way — up. After all, as she herself says, “…after hitting rock bottom, you can go nowhere but up.”

(Published 25 August 2018, 19:30 IST)

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