During the first two months of the pandemic, I decided to try out Zoho Commerce and built my ecommerce website myself. Since then, our sales have more than tripled, and I see them scaling up even further in the months to come
- Ravichandran Balakumar, Founder, Thulam Foods Pvt Ltd
Ravichandran Balakumar bootstrapped Thulam Foods Pvt. Ltd., along with his wife Mohana, within their apartment community four years back. Today, Thulam Foods is on the path of growth, built their own ecommerce website, streamlined their operations, and is serving their own daily fresh batters and other grocery items to more than 1,000 families, across 35 plus gated communities in Bangalore, India.
A few years ago, Ravichandran Bala had an epiphany. He had already been a part of many early-age startups, worked directly with many founders, and was now pining to build something of his own and write his story. Working on everyday challenges of starting up had given him the confidence to build his business. As for the idea, it was there right in his backyard, waiting to be discovered.
“I come from an agricultural background," says Bala. "Our family owns estates in Kerala and Tamil Nadu where we grow cardamom, pepper, clove, paddy, coconut, and cashew. I realized we had all the resources and knew this had potential. At the end of the day, everyone wants good quality food products, and we could give exactly that. That is how we started in our apartment in Bangalore, and we began selling spices and dry fruits within our residential community.”
Soon, word spread about their products, and in three-and-a-half years, they crossed 1,000 customers. Bala's story and the growth of Thulam is in tandem with the rise of online retail in India.
The growing internet usage in India has had a direct impact on ecommerce. A report by MMA India (Mobile Marketing Association) and GroupM India says that the number of Indian internet users will expand from 622 million in 2021 to 900 million by 2025. Interestingly, the report sees a shift from electronics to grocery in online retail. Perhaps it's because of Indians buying their daily requirements online due to lockdowns and social distancing norms during the COVID-19 pandemic. Another report said the online grocery market in India has witnessed a growth of more than 70% in the last one-and-a-half years. Thulam Foods is a testimony to this growth. That said, Bala had his own reasons to get into the food industry. There is something about food that makes it a winning bet.
“Food is a basic necessity. But the problem with those who provide something as basic as food is that people only think of it as a business but we choose to see it as a service. That way, we can enjoy what we do.”
In the consumer's mind, organic produce is the holy grail of grocery. But coming from an agricultural background and having seen organic farming up-close, Bala knew how difficult it actually was.
“Around 70% of our products are organic and the other 30% aren’t," he says. "So, right from the beginning we were transparent about it. But we ensured we sourced our materials only from the best suppliers.”
The initial two years were thus spent learning and experimenting on sourcing the best quality from suppliers. Over the years, Thulam has been able to keep the quality of their produce consistent.
“Online grocery shopping today poses a problem of plenty for the customer with unlimited options," he says. "We give them what is best for them and this is appreciated by the customer.” Bala wants Thulam to be the obvious choice when it comes to groceries.
As a founder, one has to decide right at the beginning the course one has to take – whether to go for funding straight away or build the business brick by brick and grow over time. We have been self-funded right from the beginning. We kept investing and reinvesting the profits.
Grow and let grow
The name Thulam refers to the weighing scale in Tamil. The brand seeks to balance the suppliers on one end and customers on the other.
“Many companies which enter this market white label the products and release them under their own brand name," Bala says. "But we know that these manufacturers are also small start-ups like us. They should also grow and build value in the market.”
Another rule Bala follows is a policy of "No Credit."
“As soon as I get the stock, I pay," he says. "When payments get done on time, the manufacturers get ample room to work around their business. Also, all customer queries are addressed without delay. Until the lockdown began, I had met all my customers. Even today, I ensure I have a call with them all and explain our brand and USP.”
Placing the spotlight on both manufacturers and customers keeps the fine balance of Thulam going.
Thulam has not spent any money on marketing. "Your product should speak for itself and the customer should promote it,” he says. “In a team of founders, at least one should be a marketing or sales guy. Knowing how to sell is quite vital for any business."
Benefits and ROI
The pandemic caught everyone off-guard. The early months of the lockdown saw a flood of food products in the market, and this was when Thulam decided to make their big switch to ecommerce. Bala decided to build a website for the brand to make things easier.
“We used to do our business via WhatsApp," he says. "In the first two months of the pandemic, I began building my website on Zoho Commerce. I did it myself, and, since then, our sales have grown by three times. I see it scaling up further in the months to come.”
With the pandemic also came a new set of unexpected problems. Some of the urban customers moved back to their hometowns. To counter this dip, Thulam Foods worked to add more residential communities to their clientele.
Today, farming has a new set of takers among young educated entrepreneurs who are increasingly getting into the business of organic farming. But there is something that they are all getting wrong, according to Bala.
“Most of them quit their jobs, buy a piece of land, cultivate some crop and try to sell it in the market," he says. "But it is not as simple as that. You need to find a customer base that will buy your produce. Also, you cannot sell it directly to the consumer; you have to sell it at a small margin to the wholesaler. You need to choose your market as an entrepreneur. You cannot sell everything to everyone. Be careful in choosing your space and the products you want to sell.”
While quality remains significant in any business that seeks a long-term relationship with its customers, it is all the more important in F&B. To provide the best, Thulam was careful while choosing their suppliers.
"We handpicked our suppliers who ensured that the quality remained consistent and pricing was reasonable," Bala says. “We located our manufacturers in Tier-2 and Tier-3 cities who sold us products at the MRP for their location. This helped us sell at a reasonable price as when we got those products to a city like Bengaluru, it turned out to be quite reasonable for the urban consumer.”
A word for startups
As a founder, Bala doesn't want to invest time at the moment in building tech by himself.
“I'd rather go with a third-party tech solution that is available in the market and focus instead on my core business," he says.
" In that sense, Zoho saved us from investing heavily on the tech side with a site builder which was quite easy for me to build by myself. When you work with an engineer to build your own website, there is a tug-of-war between two minds that are at work. All that hassle can be avoided if an entrepreneur can opt for Zoho Commerce.”
He also has some advice for those who plan to start their own business.
"Every startup has two sets of vision," he says. "At one level, there is the vision of the company and the second one is the founder’s vision, which he has for himself. Companies which succeed are those where the founders’ and company’s vision travel together. Sadly, many founders speak about the company vision but work for personal vision."
Thulam is the story of a brand that started small but stuck to its values to grow organically. Over time, it has managed to combine ambition and sagacity in equal measure to build a successful ecommerce business.
visit Thulam foods at: www.thulamfoods.com