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How to brew a ‘global SME’ the Vahdam way

The tea startup CEO Bala Sarda’s office is a reminder that functional workplaces exist for a reason: they get work done

Bala Sarda’s cabin is composed of clean lines: simple geometry that repeats itself in the design of the desk, the carpet and the storage units.
Bala Sarda’s cabin is composed of clean lines: simple geometry that repeats itself in the design of the desk, the carpet and the storage units. (Priyanka Parashar)

Bala Sarda’s cabin is composed of clean lines: simple geometry that repeats itself in the design of the desk, the carpet and the storage units.

If it wasn’t for the laptops and facemasks, this could pass off as a centuries-old office. An assembly-line of office workers is seated in rows of open-plan desks, watched through a glass partition by the boss, Bala Sarda. He’s the founder and chief executive officer of Vahdam teas, a six-year-old startup with revenue of 160 crore in the financial year 2021. The scene reminds of black-and-white images of office workers on stand-alone desks with typewriters, in clear line of sight of their employer.

Also read: Lavanya Nalli is taking a 90-year sari business digital

But Sarda, 30, says the design is intentional, to promote collaboration and accessibility. “All our cabins, meetings rooms and conference rooms surround the open-office space. It’s more approachable and conversational this way. I can go and talk to anybody in the team, an intern or the CXO, who can walk in and speak to me anytime. That’s how we operate.”

An analogy with a manufacturing facility is perhaps not coincidental. In-house manufacturing, with a large team, and substantial facilities, is an integral element of Vahdam’s value proposition. Sarda says he spends “almost 30% of his time on product and manufacturing,” a higher figure, maybe, than his peers.

Vahdam teas exude glamour. A fast-growing digital consumer brand, it has been shipped to over 130 countries across the world, with the majority of its sales from developed markets, and a digital-only presence in India. Celebrities such as Oprah Winfrey have endorsed it. E-commerce titan Jeff Bezos has felicitated it for being a “global SME”. Sarda is a rising talent, having raised 290 crore to date.

Yet, both office and occupant seem modest and unassuming, in contrast with this exciting image. Sarda’s cabin itself is composed of clean lines: simple geometry that repeats itself in the design of the desk, the carpet and the storage units. It looks new, through the camera, and is sparsely populated, with just a globe, some books and awards and a few boxes of tea for decoration. Sarda and his team moved into the 100,000 sq.ft space, a six-floor facility in Noida, few months ago. While some functions, such as manufacturing, worked through both lockdowns, in another facility in Okhla, “functions such as marketing, sales and finance were working from home for the last 16 months. Our team size grew by two and a half times during this time, so a lot of these folks had not met each other in person. Getting an opportunity to be together, with a bigger team has been super fun, more than anything else,” he says, adding that the company is following a hybrid model.

The explanation for the incongruity in brand image and workspace reality lies in Sarda’s leadership and entrepreneurship style. As his workplace design suggests, he is hands-on, with a pronounced back-to-basics approach, aligning fundamental business elements such as strategic vision, entrepreneurial instinct and consistent execution. Sarda’s answers to my queries seem straightforward, almost as generic as his workspace, but they reveal the importance of the alignment of three success factors.

The winning formula

What does it take to be a youthful, profitable and “global SME”?

First, strategic vision, backed by lineage and market insight. Sarda drew on an 85-year family history of tea retailing and exporting to learn more about the market, after he graduated from Delhi University, and decided to work with the family business. During this time, he identified “white spaces” in the market, especially for a homegrown tea brand. India is one of the world’s largest suppliers of tea, but it exports the commodity at low margins to global markets, to be packaged under global brand names. Sarda was determined to subvert this paradigm, formulating a vision “to take India’s finest tea, spices and superfoods to the world under a homegrown label.”

To do so, he relied on the next success factor: entrepreneurial instinct. “I started two companies in college, a digital marketing company and a youth marketing company. After college, I didn’t sit for an MBA, I didn’t want to go for placements, even though I was heading the placement cell. I knew I would do something on my own.”

But passion, intellect and a risk-taking appetite, while necessary for entrepreneurship, are insufficient. Sarda has been able to fortify them with consistent day-to-day execution. For example, he speaks in detail of how he has been able to gain customer insight to penetrate developed markets like the US and Germany.

“Intrinsically, the consumer is very different. What we are selling to them might be the same product, but how they perceive the product is different. How Indians think of a cup of tea is very different from how an American or a European think of it. The reasons he buys a certain cup is very different. What is his driving force? How does he have it? How does he prepare it? Understanding that can only be done by deep consumer research,” he says.

“You can set up the supply chain, you can get the dollars you want to invest, but if you don’t understand the customer, and market to him or her the right way, business becomes very tough,” he continues. “That is one thing as a business, and personally, I spend a lot of time understanding. And the internet gives us that power. You don’t need to necessarily be an American or be there to understand these markets, and then make a strategy to penetrate them.” Rather than relying on conventional focus groups, the company, he says, reaches out to thousands of online consumers for a soft launch, to understand product-price-market fit.

“It’s not only just the taste which is a big part of a product launch. It’s small things like, how does your zipper pack open? How does your box open? Does it have plastic? Does it have an aftertaste of a certain ingredient? Once you do that, your chances of failure diminish by a certain percentage, which I think is powerful,” he adds.

Hands-on execution is reflected in his leadership style with his internal team too. Before the pandemic, he spent three months a year in the US, to be closer to customers, but during the pandemic, he adopted a 50:50 hybrid model, between home and office.

“As a leader, you need to be present. Sometimes you don’t even contribute, but you need to be present with your team, you need to be physically available, wherever it is, whatever day of the time,” he insists. “The team was struggling, a lot of people were down with covid, a lot of their family members were down. For manufacturing, I think just the fact that I was there, helped. I do these daily factory rounds, chatting with my team leaders, our supervisors, and the leaders who are running the manufacturing part of the business. I end up seeing what’s happening on the shop floor.”

Consumers and team members are critical stakeholders for any entrepreneur. Sarda has also been able to bring in vital investors, such as tea industry veteran and venture capitalist Kanwaljit Singh of Fireside Ventures, who admires not just his passion for building a global brand from scratch, but “his ability to listen and take advice at board meetings.”

Call it generic or back-to-basics, Sarda exemplifies a straightforward approach to work. His office is a reminder that functional workplaces exist for a reason: they get work done. And it is these bare-bones offices, with simple rows of desks, that have outlived many global crises, including a pandemic.

Aparna Piramal Raje meets heads of organisations every month to investigate the connections between their workspace design and working styles.

Also read: How to prepare an office for the post-covid world


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