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Opinion | Blending cultures, branding tampons

Visionaari founder Gauri Singhal merges the traditional approach of a family business and the modern thought processes of a startup to drive her feminine hygiene care business

Visionaari founder Gauri Singhal. Photo: Pradeep Gaur
Visionaari founder Gauri Singhal. Photo: Pradeep Gaur

I am in a neighbourhood of low-rise buildings with street-facing retail shops, trying to locate the office of my interviewee, one of the most forward-looking, feminist chief executives to be featured in this series. This is Model Town, a nondescript part of north Delhi, where I’m meeting Gauri Singhal, 26, founder of FLOH feminine care products, a brand marketed by her startup, Visionaari.

The office is finally located, distinguished by an unassuming signboard in an equally unassuming building. Visionaari is being incubated in the office of her family’s agricultural commodities trading business, The Sharp Group, a 70-year-old enterprise. The work environments of the two businesses could not be more different.

Spread over three floors, the Sharp Group office is traditional—partitioned workstations, overloaded with files and boxes. Traditional furniture, such as an imposing wooden conference table, sets the tone for the senior leadership. “We (the family) have been in this office for about 20 years. It’s expanded gradually. It grew from a very, very small office into a corporate office for a bigger group, which itself grew over time," says Singhal.

Her cabin, on the other hand, is compact, with one of the smallest desks I’ve encountered. Décor consists only of a couple of small statues of her favourite deities, a family photograph and a product display. “We haven’t focused on doing up the place. I want to, but I feel it’s too early, like you don’t want to get into the glamour world before you achieve it." The idols reflect her faith. “I am a god-fearing or god-loving person, I don’t know which category. Often we hide our spiritual or religious beliefs in a work setting; here we don’t."

She is quick to acknowledge the mix of two cultures. “Working in a family business has its own charm. Everyone’s a little old school, not just the senior management. The language is very traditional, hierarchical, respectful. Everyone is a ji or a ma’am, sir or a bhaiya, bhaisahab. It’s very different from a startup culture," she says.

The Visionaari team, however, is different. “We have a young, vibrant team of dynamic women who are strong-willed, have a lot of energy and dynamism, and a bit of a crazy streak. A lot of them find it hard to adjust to the working culture here. But it’s a great mix. I try to balance it out."

Reflecting her personality

Both cultures reflect twin sides of her personality. “I am very traditional in my approach, in a lot of ways, yet I adopt modern thought processes whenever they are beneficial," she says.

Singhal’s approach to her tampon business captures this blended outlook. A long-time tampon user herself, the entry into the tampon business in May 2018 came from a realization that the product category has minimal retail presence in India. “It’s not easy to buy tampons. If the store has it, it’s hidden in some corner. A lot of chemists don’t know what they are selling. The one downstairs told me I will only get it in south Delhi or Gurgaon," she says.

Her attitude towards branding reflects her tempered personality. “Our (branding) is very real. It’s relatable. Some call it bold. I call it honest. You have to call periods ‘periods’ and stop whispering about it. They find it young, millennial, not rebellious. I don’t want to go the rebellious route. I want a mother to be comfortable to introduce her daughter to tampons."

For Singhal, tampons are one element of a bigger plan. “If we can play any part in letting women be unstoppable, that’s what we want to do. That’s the whole idea of FLOH. FLOH is equal to fem-care, anything that makes a woman unstoppable. If it’s a different kind of pad, if it’s a different kind of menstrual cup, I wouldn’t mind. It has to be anything and everything that solves a problem and if I can add value to it," she says.

Business of consumer goods

The product display behind her desk suggests she knows the importance of focusing on distribution to achieve her vision. Having graduated from the London Business School, she worked for three years in Sharp Group’s nascent consumer goods division, which sold a range of pulses and staples. “I enjoy FMCG, I love building brands and I enjoy learning the stories of challenger brands… and I am fascinated by supermarkets. I can spend a day in a supermarket and enjoy myself."

Her goal is to build a 100-crore company. With 50,000 users so far, it’s a stretch goal, but two factors fortify her resolve. First, brand loyalty. Tampons can be a tricky sell for first-time users, but their comfort and convenience result in tremendous loyalty.

“There are some cases where women in their college years or growing years find the right mix and then they never switch till menopause. It’s about how many users we can crack in a short amount of time and get them as loyal customers," she says, adding that the current customer retention rate is 50%.

Second, low existing penetration rates. “This market is going to grow multifold. MNCs are in it, family businesses are in it, venture capitalists are in it, private equity is getting into it, startups are getting into the space, movies, NGOs, government. Every stakeholder is very bullish on this category, and I am going to grow because of being in this category with innovative products," she explains.

She’s aware that cracking distribution in the offline space with the right branding is the only way to achieve her goals. She says that 50% of current customers come from small towns as an indication of latent demand and unmet needs. For all her prescience, she is reluctant to move home.

“We’ve been wanting to move our office but there is also an emotional attachment. It will be difficult to move to another office. That’s been holding us back. If I want to move the Visionaari office to a cooler startup place, I can, but I’ve held myself back." Now that’s an unusual statement for a startup founder. Hopefully, it will hold her in good stead.

Aparna Piramal Raje meets heads of organizations to investigate the connections between their workspace design and working styles. She is the author of Working Out Of The Box: 40 Stories Of Leading CEOs, a compilation of Head Office columns published as part of the Mint Business Series.

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