Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Interview With Aparna Bhatnagar, GreenAndGood Store

Featuring Woman Entrepreneur

Aparna Bhatnagar
Founder GreenAndGood Store

[Category: Embracing Environment Level Challenges
Responsible Consumerism]

Green and Good Store was formed with a belief in the idea of ‘Sustainable Development'. A development, that ensures a pattern of resource use such that our needs are met in the immediate and indefinite future, while preserving the environment, the society and our traditional heritage.

The Green and Good Store is trying to facilitate inclusive and sustainable growth for all by developing a market for “socially and environmentally responsible goods and services”. Read the interview with Aparna Bhatnagar to understand more about her entrepreneurial venture.
Q. Let me start with a little about your background – education and past work experience. Do you have entrepreneurial roots?
I come from a Defense services background. My father, Gp Capt. Bhatnagar, retired a few years back from the Defense Services as a doctor and my mother is a homemaker. Due to my father’s nature of work we traveled a lot across India. Consequently, I did my schooling from schools all over the country. In 1998, I graduated with Economics as my major subject from Lady Shri Ram College for Women in Delhi and did a post graduation in Economics from Delhi School of Economics. From DSE, I got placed with a leading NGO called Seva Mandir in the field of rural Development.

I worked for a year with Seva Mandir and then decided to do an MBA so that I could learn to manage organizations especially those working on social issues. I graduated from IIM Ahmedabad in 2004. I joined ICICI Bank in the field of Micro Finance and later moved on to working with Citibank and Dun and Bradstreet. I learned a lot at all my workplaces and I think the experience has been very helpful in my own venture.

I don’t have entrepreneurial roots but it’s a coincidence that my brother decided to turn entrepreneur, around the same time as I did, after a successful corporate career of almost 12 years. He now runs a successful business in SAP implementation and consulting across India, Singapore and USA. Also, my father-in-law is a first generation entrepreneur from Hyderabad.

Q. Is Green and Good Store’ your first entrepreneurial venture? If no, then which were the earlier ones? Are you still involved in them?

Yes, this is my first venture.

Q. What market segment and industry are you addressing?

We’re an e-retail business.

Our customers are people who want to move towards a healthier, greener and a socially responsible lifestyle. Our products and philosophy appeal to people who are farsighted and can think beyond immediate gratification. They care enough about people and planet that they want their actions and lifestyle choices to reflect this responsible behavior.

Our customers are young, Internet savvy and understand the social and environmental challenges facing us. We have a lot of young people who identify with our philosophy as they have been more exposed to these issues and know that their generation will be witnessing the consequences in the future. People in tier 1 cities have been most responsive to our products. We have got excellent response from Mumbai, Delhi, Bangalore and Hyderabad.

Q. How would you define your business model?
We’re an online retail store that believes in leveraging the power of consumerism for social and environmental change. We work directly with small artisans, NGOs, green entrepreneurs who find it difficult to leverage the market on their own, especially via Internet. People order products online and we get the products delivered to their doorsteps.

Q. ‘Green and Good Store’ has a wonderful business ethos behind it. Every product supports at least one socially sustainable development. You have collaborated such manufacturers and buyers in a niche segment through an online platform. How did you arrive at this business idea? How did ‘Green and Good Store’ evolve and when was it formed?

Thank you Mridula.

My work at Seva Mandir, education at IIMA and other voluntary service made me realize 2 things. . Firstly, I realized that there was tremendous talent in the rural people, which was displayed in the things they made, the things they wore and used, the knowledge they had of their environment and yet they were so poor financially. They were unable to participate in the economy in a meaningful way. To actually participate in the economic process they often had to give up what they knew and take up small time unskilled jobs like road construction etc. It’s ironical that today most of us can identify car models but can’t identify trees and plants around us and don’t know what they can be used for. No wonder we don’t care if they’re cut down or removed…but for the village people, trees and plants give them medicines, food, rains, material for handicrafts that brings them income and sustains them. There were many other people on the fringes of society and economy, who with a little help, were capable of using their skills and talents for creating better lives for themselves and a happier and just society for all of us. They just needed a fair chance and a little support.

Secondly, I realized that consumerism, as it is now is not sustainable in the long run. We are ruthlessly exploiting our resources, polluting the environment, and almost trashing our planet. With the destruction of ecosystems, communities and cheaper machine made alternatives to handicrafts, people on the fringes of the society and the economy are getting further alienated.

It made me realize that there was an intricate connection between environment, poverty, livelihoods and social issues. I felt that we had to bring about development without taking people away from their roots in terms of where they lived, their societies, their environment and their skills.

During my stint with corporates, I realized that there were many people who had the money and wanted to make a difference and do more than just switch off their lights and fans but found it difficult to take time out from work and family pressures. Since, most were generally short on time, volunteering regularly with NGOs was difficult. Only if there was a way of making an impact with actions that people took as part of a regular everyday life!

And this is just where responsible consumerism fitted in. Responsible consumerism a pattern of consumption that is sustainable in the long run. It’s about buying products that are socially and environmentally responsible and do good to people and planet. They give a chance to disadvantaged people to participate in mainstream economy without giving up their traditional skills, or harming the ecosystem that supports them.

As customers, we are capable of exercising enormous power for the betterment of our world. Every time we handout your valuable money to the shopkeeper we are agreeing to everything that went into making it happen. Responsible consumerism is all about asking what went into it? Did it exploit the environment; were people paid fair wages, were their working conditions safe, did it threaten traditional rural livelihoods and traditional knowledge of communities?

Responsible consumerism is a win-win solution for everyone. Firstly, when you provide money in return for a responsible product, such as one made by members of an NGO, the NGOs get the much needed cash for their development programmes. You provide liquidity for the provisioning of services that make our society a happier place. Secondly, you encourage the development of a market for such products, which makes their production economically viable. So effectively you encourage people to manufacture products made from recycled paper, recycled plastic, take up organic farming, you provide economic incentive for artisans to continue making traditional handicrafts and pass on their tradition, knowledge, methods and culture to the next generation, you help sustain rural livelihoods which prevents people from migrating to cities in desperation. Lastly, the biggest benefit you reap is that you also choose a healthier lifestyle for yourself and your families as many of these products are healthier for you and our environment.

And this is how the idea of Green and Good Store came about. The thought behind the store was to leverage the power of consumerism for social, economic and environmental change.

Each one of us can make a difference by just improving our consumption choices. We don’t have to spend anything extra and yet we get excellent, unique products that make ours and others lives better.

Q. What is your revenue model? Are you profitable now?
Our revenues come from online sales and also bulk sales to a few corporate and international buyers. We have recently launched a set of products that corporate can gift to their employees and clients. We also have products that companies and institutions can use to make their events greener.

We’re a very lean company and being a start up its critical for us to keep our cost low so that we can pass on the benefits to our partners and customers. We have not yet started making profits but in a year’s time we should break even.

Q, Do you see high potential in online market for products in India? What are your plans with ‘Green and Good Store’?
Shopping online offers unmatched convenience and often gets you the better price for the same quality as the operational costs are lower and can be passed on to customers. Excellent payment gateways like CC Avenue have made it very safe and easy for people to shop online.

Internet will increasingly become a medium of choice for people to shop over the next few years. As more of Internet savvy adults enter the market they will be more comfortable shopping online and will know the convenience that it offer. Hence I believe, Internet does have great potential in the future.

For us Internet is an ideal channel. All our products have a story to tell. Internet makes it possible for us to engage our customers and take them behind the scenes and meet our partners and see how products are made. We believe that if people have to make smarter choices and switch to greener products they need to understand what they are buying and how it is better than what they have been using for years. This kind of information exchange and engagement is possible only with internet.

Q. How are you handling the competition?
At the moment our focus is on improving ourselves. We have just begun and we have lots to do to realize what we have set out to accomplish. Also, we feel that there’s plenty of space for everyone. It would be great to have many players in the sector and grow this concept together and benefit the world.

Q. What according to you is the potential of the ‘go-green’ entrepreneurship in India? Are there any issues regarding regulations and policies, which need attention?
I believe that today every business needs to consider its impact on the planet and people. An important power that will be exerted in the future which will drive business to be sustainable is the voice of the common man as a consumer. Not just final products but entire supply chains will be under scrutiny. Take the Vedanta case or the recent Nestle controversy. People are speaking up and taking stands on issues of environment and sustainability even where they are not directly affected. There is going to be huge requirement for people who can do business sustainably that can provide greener goods and services along the supply chains.

What I feel requires attention from regulators and government is a cost effective mechanism of certification of what is green and sustainable. It should be reliable and yet inexpensive so that it’s not beyond the reach of small farmers, artisans, manufacturers who are genuinely green and sustainable.
Several measures can be taken by the regulators in this space which will help consumers make greener choices such as making disclosure of chemicals and ingredients compulsory for many products such as detergents. We should also know what goes into the products we use and the toxicity level of difference chemicals in them.

Q. Did you start this venture alone, or with a co-founder?
Although I quit my job and started the store alone, I had a great group of friends and family that I could consult with during the whole process. They worked very closely with me and helped me critically evaluate my business plan and ideas.

Most of the members form this group are still associated with us and continue to provide their support.

Q. How did you manage all the work of a startup on your own? When did you hire your first employee?
I feel that the more rigorously envisioning, ideation and planning is done, the easier it is to execute the idea. I was lucky here as I had a good team that helped me thrash out the ideas and assumptions. I spent a lot of time in planning and working out the details of the venture, how it would begin, how it would be executed. Broke down everything into small steps and milestones, which I knew I had to achieve. Besides that it was a lot of hard work, like any other entrepreneur it’s 24x7 work. You have to do the work of almost 3-4 people. We hired our first employee in August 2009.

Q. How have you funded your business (starting from when it was incorporated)?
Our business is funded largely with own money and some contribution from family and friends.

Q. What have been the challenges – finding the business partner, financing, recruiting, selling etc. Which in your experience has been the most difficult challenge to overcome?
Since we’re a store that’s dedicated to responsible consumerism, the biggest challenge for us is to get people to switch over to responsible products from products that they’ve been using for years. It’s a major change that we want to bring into the way people make their consumption choices.

For a vast majority of us the concern for environment ends at turning off unnecessary lights and making small changes where they suit us. The biggest challenge for us is to get people to think beyond that. There are larger implications of our consumption choices as all products employ human and material resources for production. Impacting the way people consume will have an impact on how things are produced. A lot of positive impact can be achieved for a country like India, with 70% of our population living in villages and in poverty. Wouldn’t it be great if we created a sustainable source of income for people right there? By supporting artisans and rural producers we prevent them from leaving their traditional skills, they preserve the local ecosystems as most of the traditional crafts were very environmentally friendly. By buying fair-wage products we ensure that people are not exploited, children are not employed. By purchasing organically produced products we restore soil fertility, reduce ground water pollution and get a healthier product. To actually get people to consider, buy and use these products often enough to have a substantial impact and be part of their life is the biggest challenge we face. This is not easy for us or for our customers as it involves changing a lot of things, including buying habits. Although responsible consumerism means that you just replace what you usually buy with a smarter alternative and not necessarily spend more! For example organic cotton t-shirts on our store are priced at par with non organic cotton t-shirt of similar quality.

Q. Last, but very important, a little about your family – how did you manage to strike a balance between the home, kids and the new venture?
Frankly, an entrepreneur cannot afford to think of balance, even a woman entrepreneur. You will have to prioritize work and your business till it is reasonably successful, that’s a fact. You have to give it whatever it takes. I think the question of work-life balance comes when u are doing something that you don’t madly love. For entrepreneurs, their work and life fuse. They just love working on their ideas and so it doesn’t feel like it needs to be separated.

I’ve been married for 5 years to my ex-classmate from IIMA – Vinay Choletti. We don’t have kids yet. Fortunately for me I’ve been very lucky in having a supporting family and spouse. I need to often travel and stay away for long durations from my husband at times. My parents, in-laws and husband have been tremendously understanding and supportive in this.

Thank you Aparna for sharing your wisdom with us.