Monday, November 8, 2010

Interview With Unnati Narang, Serene Woods

Featuring Woman Entrepreneur

Unnati Narang, CoFounder Serene Woods

[Category: Emerging Market Segments & Trends
Web 2.0 and Online Collaboration in Vertical - Publishing & Photography]

SereneWoods was formed to provide a platform for the emerging authors and photographers. Unnati has very neatly picked-up two gaps - in publishing and in photography - both of which needed faster delivery of their respective products to their customers. She has provided a platform for many wannabe authors [who would otherwise find it very difficult to publish their piece of writing] and for many photography enthusiasts who can do much more with their hobby. Read more in my interview with Unnati Narang, to understand what SereneWoods is all about.

Q. What is Serene Woods all about?
‘Serene Woods’ is an online publishing portal aimed at providing a launching pad to emerging authors and photographers, through ‘Words’ - our world of books and ‘Memoirs’ - our world of photographs. We believe that every book has a reader out there and deserves to be given a chance. Thus, ‘Words’ gives new authors a platform to publish easily without going through the hassles of traditional publishing channels. Our authors range from a 13 year old kid to working professionals, culminating into a myriad collection of books for children, for management students and for the common reader. Recently, we’ve tied up with the ‘Anyone Can Write’ initiative run by Ms. Dheera Kitchlu, a children’s author. This is a unique one-to-one mentoring programme for kids so they can start writing. We will be publishing the final compilation to encourage these children. Serene Woods has also gone international with our books in the Library of Congress, and publishing of international authors.

Q. What prompted you to leave your job career and become an entrepreneur?
When I started Serene Woods in March 2009, I was still in my second year at Shri Ram College of Commerce (SRCC), Delhi. I have always loved writing. I had written a book of poetry and had approached many publishers with my work. The response was disheartening as they said poetry is not saleable. While I did self-publish with a US-based self-publishing portal, I felt there were many authors like me who wanted a platform that served their needs better. Hence, Serene Woods was conceptualized as a solution to their problems. As for leaving a job and career, I worked as a Derivatives Trader for two months but the 12-hour job didn’t give me enough time to pursue my passion. Hence, I left the job for the simple reason that I wanted to do much more with my time and make it a better world for authors out there.

Q. Tell us something about yourself – your strengths and weaknesses/family background/educational background and work experience. In short, I would like to know about Unnati as a person. Do you have entrepreneurial roots?
Entrepreneurship and writing are my core interests in life. I completed my schooling at St. Xavier’s, Delhi in 2007 as the school topper, got admission at SRCC, one of the best commerce colleges and was exposed to entrepreneurship in my very first year of college. I attended a programme conducted by NGO Dhriiti for entrepreneurship development. I remember I was so enthusiastic that I took up projects like sourcing chocolate-coated peanuts from Gujarat and trying to find a market for it here! I even tried baking chocolate muffins and selling them on campus. Clearly, there was an entrepreneurial bug in me. Yet, after college, I did take up a job. But I soon left it. Currently, I am studying at Delhi School of Economics. The flexible college timings give me almost the entire week to work on Serene Woods. At the same time, I write for Times Ascent, HT Edge and The Better India positive news portal. I have also written two books – Drenched Soul (poetry) and If At All (fiction), both published with Serene Woods!!

The entrepreneurship angle does not really come from my family because my parents are both Doctors. I think it’s also got to do with the opportunities I received early in my life; Excellent education and participation in activities outside the college such as my part-time jobs with Dhriiti, Times Ascent, TOI and other writing portals. I could network and understand my options better. I am good at spotting opportunity, taking things to the next level and I never compromise on quality. I am also very motivational when working in teams and make sure that others achieve to the best of their abilities. As for my weaknesses, I can sometimes pay too much attention to short-term goals. I have to constantly keep myself abreast of the long run vision.

Q. Is Serene Woods your first venture?
Yes, it is my first venture. Earlier I tried starting a social venture called ‘ARC’ – Association for Rehabilitation of Children, as I was working with slum kids for 3-4 months to teach them in a fun manner. However, the venture could not be sustained, for want of dedicated team members.

Q. How did the idea of Serene Woods incubate? What were the motivating factors behind starting Serene Woods?
As I explained, I was already published with US-based self-publishing portal, but I felt that we needed something similar in India. While I was fiddling with these ideas, I met Swapnil Chugh, an IIT-IIM alumni, who had the same vision. He proposed the idea of Serene Woods and I couldn’t have agreed more! It was perfect timing.

Most of our motivation comes from being writers ourselves. We’ve been there, done that and we want others to have it the easier way. Why should someone who’s written a good book be discouraged just because a panel of ‘experts’ thinks it won’t sell? Even though we screen the manuscripts too, we work with the author to improve it rather than disregarding it.

Q. What exactly is the business model of Serene Woods?
Serene Woods runs on the Print-on-Demand (POD) model, wherein we print books using digital printing in short-runs. As and when demand arises and we receive more orders, we order for more prints and then sell. This saves us inventory hassles even though print costs are higher. As for sales, we are majorly selling online and have also tied up with bookstores such as Midlands, Oxford, etc and online store Rediffbooks. We are exploring further tie-ups.

Q. What has been your strategy to build-up user base?
The first and foremost element of creating user base is to have a good website. By having a very creative and appealing site design, we are able to attract audience. Secondly, we’ve been promoting our work both offline and online, be it through events such as Book launches, Workshops, Writers’ Meets, etc or through our online presence on social networking sites such as Facebook and twitter. We have attracted a lot of media attention and found place in leading newspapers like ET, Times Ascent, HT, Mumbai Mirror, etc. Our tie-ups with organisations like BNHS in Mumbai, WWF, leading bookstores, etc have also spread the word and attracted members. The core of our strategy is to build a brand first, a brand that stands for giving wings to people’s creativity. Once the name is out, user base is hardly a worry.

Q. Are you profitable now? Would you like to share the information on the turnover?
Yes, we are profitable.

Q. What are the typical entry barriers in this industry? What are the success barriers for your type of business?
In the publishing industry, the distributor-retailer margins are such that to make considerable profits, you have to play on volumes to reap benefits of economies of scale. That, in turn requires a lot of investment to back every single title you publish. Thus, investment is one entry barrier. We try bypassing the distributor margin by tying up with retailers directly. Digital printing with Thomson press, gives us competitive pricing, even if it's slightly higher. Existing competition is also another consideration; hence unless you are adding something significantly new to your offering, the business won’t make sense.

Q. There are other platforms, which offer emerging authors to publish their work. How do you differentiate yourself as far as ‘Words’ is concerned?
Serene Woods is different because we majorly emphasize on creativity. Whether it is our website design, our cover pages of books or the kind of books we print, creativity is our forte. Another differentiator is our print quality. We have a tie-up with Thomson Press India for printing of books. The paper quality and binding make a lot of difference. Every element that goes into the book is given special care, especially our cover designs. The second differentiator is that we follow a genre-based approach for marketing the books. Lastly, ‘Words’ is not just about publishing books; it is about making sure that those who want to start writing do not feel constrained or inhibited. We go out of our way to help people with writing tips, personalized feedback, etc. Besides the ‘Anyone Can Write’ mentorship programme, in our recent event, a story-writing contest on the theme Seven Deadly Sins, conducted at IIT-Delhi we sent out personalized feedback to our 15 winning entries. This feedback was given by Dark Fiction Writer and HT journalist Mithun Mukherjee. An approach of ‘care’ differentiates us.

Q. What prompted you to start a platform for emerging authors and photographers together?
A lot of people ask this question. Truly, it happened because it is what appeals to us and it is where we saw gaps. I think in India, photography is still not looked upon as art. Its value is highly undermined. Hence, we wanted to pick up this aspect and help photographers sell their work.

Q. What has been the toughest obstacle to overcome during the earliest days of Serene Woods – building a team, generating revenue, funding, generating user base?
We’ve been lucky with a strong team. Revenue and Sales have definitely been slow but steady. One of the major challenges for us is the Indian reader’s mindset. Since we are promoting new authors, mostly first time writers, it is very difficult to convince the buyer that the books are actually well-written. But I guess that’s how every new author starts off. Those of our books that have been reviewed by newspapers like HT, Mumbai Mirror, etc have received good response. It’s ultimately about building trust.

Q. Did you form Serene Woods alone or with a co-founder?
Serene Woods is founded by a team of six individuals. Besides me, there is Swapnil Chugh, an IIT-IIM Alumni, Manish Sachdev and Akshay Bhardwaj, his friends from IIM-Lucknow who are now working with corporate houses as well and help us in advisory matters. Aparna Chugh, an MCA from VIT who helps with the technology related dimensions and Ishaan Chugh, a student at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

Q. How did you fund Serene Woods during its inception? Have you received any funding till now?
No, Serene Woods is self-funded. Swapnil worked at Goldman Sachs as an Equity Research Analyst before starting Serene Woods. Savings formed the major pool of our funding.

Q. What are the plans for future business expansion for your venture?
Aaah.. Too many! You will have to wait and watch. But all our plans are centred on promoting our authors and taking up writing initiatives in a big way, through more and more tie-ups. We also plan to take our venture international. We have signed up an international author already and will be reaching out to international book-fairs soon.

Q. Do you consider your education to be an important part in turning you into an entrepreneur? Which is that one thing that you think made you an entrepreneur?
Definitely. The one thing that made me an entrepreneur is my passion! When I am passionate about something, even if just an idea, I can’t stop myself from implementing it. My environment and education also nurtured this trait in me and gave me the right opportunity.

Q. How did you manage to strike a balance between home, family and your new venture?
I get to spend enough time with my family as we have a very flexible work culture. Serene Woods is more about self-discipline rather than rule of thumb.

Q. What message would you like to give to fellow women entrepreneurs?
Go out there and do it. There’s never a better time than NOW!! If you are worried about personal and family life, entrepreneurship is actually the best way to balance it and to achieve what you want. A job can bog you down, but your own venture will never do that.

Thank you very much Unnati, and wish you good luck!