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How vegan brand Plum's Shankar Prasad put goodness in a tube

The CEO and founder of Plum on rooting his products in goodness, why the company obsesses over Instagram comments, and his love for the FMCG space

Shankar Prasad, founder of Plum
Shankar Prasad, founder of Plum (Priya Kuriyan)

Shankar Prasad, CEO and founder of Pureplay Skin Sciences (India) Pvt. Ltd, the parent company of the home-grown clean-beauty, vegan brand Plum, describes a familiar scene: early morning flight, pin-drop silence, engines full throttle. “When you fly out of Mumbai, there are times when for 20-25 minutes you don’t see anything around you. You just see white clouds. Though you trust the machine, trust it is safe to fly, you don’t really know until you see the sky,” says the 46-year-old. Once you do, the focus shifts to enjoying the flight.

Plum, he believes, is now beginning to get a view of the sky. “I think we are on the cusp of getting there. We are breaking the cloud cover,” says Prasad.

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Today, the chemical engineer who was drawn to the thrills and challenges of the cosmetics industry believes they are sitting pretty. Plum, which opened its first offline store in Mumbai earlier this month, reaches customers in over 220 towns and cities in India through 750 assisted and 10,000 unassisted retail outlets and hopes to add 50 more offline stores by 2023. Over the last two years, they have added two more brands: Phy, a men’s grooming brand, and Plum BodyLovin’, a range of bath and body products.

“We predicted that by last quarter we would be at an annual revenue of 200 crore,” says Prasad, adding that though covid-19 did slow them down a little, they are almost there. “The trajectory was good this year,” he says , adding that revenue was up 2.5x from the previous year. In November 2020, the brand raised Series B funding of 110 crore from investors led by the venture capital firm Faering Capital. “It happened right in the peak of covid-19,” recalls Prasad, adding that conversations began around the time of the initial lockdown. “The whole deal got done virtually,” he says, refusing to get into the details. He does add, though, that while capital is useful “when you are ascending”, it’s good to have investors who “are aligned to what we are as a brand”.

He sees seven-year-old Plum’s unique brand proposition as goodness. “Goodness is what is baked into the DNA of the brand,” he maintains. It helps that Plum is riding on a clean-beauty zeitgeist, a prominent niche in the about 6.5 billion-worth Indian cosmeceuticals industry.

“The one thing I am convinced about is the opportunity,” says Prasad, adding that he believes Plum can grow by six-seven times in five years. “But I would want to root it in goodness, in purpose, in doing something more than just selling more. That would be my dream,” says Prasad, who sees Plum as a bridge-to-luxury brand. “For just over a thousand bucks the Plumster can treat herself to a box full of goodies and a few extras thrown it,” he says with a smile. His favourite goody? ”It has to be the oil-free moisturiser,” he says. Though a hard product to develop—it is almost counterintuitive to have a moisturiser without oil—it went from idea to product in less than six months.

Creating a clean-slate brand

The seeds for Plum were sown in a flat in Thane, Maharashtra, that had little more than a chair, a table and an internet modem. The year was 2013 and Prasad, who had worked for over a decade with firms such as Hindustan Unilever, McKinsey and Everstone Capital, decided he wanted to strike out on his own. He spent a year thinking about what he wanted to do. An introvert, he admits that he enjoyed that year spent with his own thoughts, unencumbered by the pressure of office rent or salaries.

Working with the beauty brand FACES in 2009 had piqued his interest in that industry. “I realised how high-involvement a category it is,” he says. “To be able to decode the decision-making journey of the consumer and be a part of her life is actually a thrilling and fulfilling experience.” Once he was clear about the industry he wanted to get into, he began studying the market in India and abroad, meeting people, studying brands, mapping distribution strategies, figuring out the product range, packaging. “I used to test out my ideas with a bunch of ex-colleagues who were kind enough to put up with my questions and surveys.”

This was the time he came across an article on clean-slate brands, brands that do not have the baggage of heritage or history and focus simply on the product, often communicating directly with customers. “You don’t go in with any assumptions,” says Prasad. “You go in thinking that you want to be as fresh, as approachable, as authentic as possible.”

Also read: How Kama Ayurveda made Ayurvedic luxury skincare glow

Today it’s clear he likes to think of Plum as a clean-slate brand; their marketing strategy—a huge part of which unfurls on Instagram—reflects this earnestness. Think titbits of information, testimonials by young beauty bloggers and Instagram influencers and aesthetic shots of brightly packaged products that exude a studied wholesomeness. “Social media is central to what we do,” he says. “We obsess over our Instagram comments,” he admits with a laugh, adding that it makes the brand come across as approachable. “The truth is what the consumer is saying. If I don’t have time to listen to the truth, then I probably am not doing it right.”

Plum officially launched in 2014 with around 15 unique products, such as their Plum Hello Aloe Caring Day Moisturizer, which contains the juice of organically grown aloe, and a few products from their Green Tea range, all falling in what he thinks of as a “clean” beauty category, “ a set of reassurances to the customer that the formulator has been thoughtful in formulating the product and is transparent about what ingredient they are using and for what purpose”. And though Plum has always been vegan and cruelty-free, the logo appeared only in 2016-17, “when people began understanding what it meant”.

Plum started with a team of one, and stayed that way for almost a year-and-a-half, says Prasad, whose initial investment came from his savings; he prefers not to disclose the amount. “I was already exposing myself to risk and didn’t want to expose someone else to the same risk.” So he did it all, using other labs for research, applying for an import-export code, sourcing samples from China, packing and delivering orders. “I can pack faster than anyone else here,” he says with a laugh.

His first full-time employee joined in 2015; by 2017, the number of employees had gone up to 10. Today they have 150. “We didn’t have an office till 2017,” he recalls. In 2018, the startup raised an undisclosed amount in Series A funding from Unilever Ventures. “Post-2019 was crazy,” says Prasad. That year they added a second brand to their kitty—Phy—and in 2020, Plum BodyLovin’. Today the three brands together offer close to 150-odd unique products. “We have been fairly prolific in innovation,” he says. “We added close to 60 SKUs (stock-keeping units) in the last year.”

A culmination of experiences

Triplicane, one of Chennai’s oldest neighbourhoods, pre-dates the city, tracing its history to the Pallava period between 275-897 CE. The congested lanes crisscrossing an area of around 5 sq. km, home to nearly 100,000 people, are known for their culture of street food, music and dance, and the Parthasarathy temple built in the sixth century.

This is where Shankar Prasad grew up. “It was a very traditional upbringing…a typical middle-class background,” he says. He used to be fascinated with aerospace—hence the “breaking the cloud cover” metaphor—and wanted to pursue it. “But relatives told me that chemical engineering had more scope…whatever that means,” he says wryly, adding that he went on to pursue this subject at the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay in 1992. “It was a huge culture shock. These were the pre-internet days; you weren’t exposed to as much as you are today,” says Prasad, who now lives in Mumbai with his wife, a teacher, and two daughters.

In 1997, he joined Hindustan Unilever (HUL), working for four years in manufacturing and another four in R&D, experiences that continue to hold him in good stead. He holds up a packaged bottle of serum and points to the nozzle sticking out of the cardboard box. “Look, this is a circle, a perfect one,” he says. Then he flips open the top of the box and shows me the ellipse cut neatly in its centre. “Why do you think I made this an ellipse instead of a circle?” He explains, “When a line (in a factory) is running fast, and these things are coming at you, you need to tuck it in really quickly.” If the opening is a perfect circle, it will need to align exactly to fit: that takes more time. The extra space around the ellipse means that the nozzle simply slides in. “It comes from having worked in manufacturing, comes from understanding what happens on the shop floor,” he says, adding that his stint at HUL made him fall in love with the fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) space.

Eight years later, though, he was ready to “explore the world again”. So he did a master’s in business administration from the Indian School of Business (ISB), Hyderabad, taking an education loan to finance his “bold move”, “the best decision I ever made”. Campus placement took him to global management consulting firm McKinsey, where he worked for two years before joining Everstone Capital in 2008. It was at Everstone that he came across FACES, a portfolio company, where he helped raise capital, build a team, set up distribution, an innovation pipeline, manufacturer relationships, “pretty much what a COO would do”.

In many ways, the brand is an aggregation of its founder’s skills, experiences and philosophy, funnelled into those tiny recycled plastic tubes with bright labels that promise goodness. “The product you see in front of you is really a combination of small nuggets of experiences strung together,” agrees Prasad. He’s grateful to be where he is. “I think to me, being able to build a company that we as a team are all proud of, and making a positive impact around us, genuinely living the purpose of being good…those are important attributes to have" 

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