Hailing from a humble household in Kanpur, Mebelkart co-founder and CEO Rahul Agarwal was always told to follow the familiar route taken by every IITian. “All we were told was that you should study very hard to become very big in your life and that’s what I did.” At IIT Kanpur, where his seniors were getting hired by lucrative MNCs for handsome packages, Rahul saw himself smitten by the startup bug.
After a 45-day internship in Delhi in the very first year, Rahul started making mobile games and also ended up selling these games to Dominos and Pizza Hut.
Rahul wanted to make this big, hence he started conducting workshops at IIT Kanpur and started picking the best people out of these and went on to form Young Engineers, which conducted workshops across the country in about 150 colleges in three years’ time.
It was during this phase that Rahul learnt important industry tricks; from negotiating with people, money and people management, to understanding the value of documentation in business and how to let go and adjust to certain things.
It was during his college days that Rahul learnt how to take people along with him. Prior to this he was under the impression that if the input was the best, output should be the best. But this opinion changed over the years as he understood that there are a lot of variables involved in between.
After ditching campus placements, Rahul continued to run Young Engineers post his graduation but he craved for more.
Rahul, who idolized his college alumnus Narayana Murthy, packed his bags for Bangalore and joined a startup called PicSean Media in late 2011, where he met his partners Ranjeet Vimal and Nikhil Saraf, came with tremendous amount of industry experience and knowledge.
Brainstorming and bonding helped in the formation of Mebelkart , an online furniture solutions provider, aiming to provide a total home solutions package to customers .
Initial rough days
When the three of them had first approached a vendor asking whether he would sell a bean bag online, he refused saying “how can a bean bag be sold online.” Three of them would travel on bikes from one vendor to vendor, sometimes getting mocked by some of them.” “I remember there was this dealer in Mumbai who made me sit, have two or three meetings and he made me come back again and again and eventually we could not get him onboard.
First customer and office
On getting their first customer six days after going live in 2012, the owners themselves delivered the product at HSR Layout to a customer who was himself starting a company of his own. The initial office of MebelKart comprised of a single room which also acted as their warehouse. “The room was filled with bean bags to the top.. and a lot of times we filled the bean bags ourselves.” The three of them did the initial set of 100 deliveries all by themselves.
Peer pressure and an unaware family
Throughout this period Rahul’s family was under the impression that he was working full-time at Ola Cabs, where he was employed for a couple of months before he started MebelKart. Rahul decided to keep that as a secret. Rahul had no answers to questions from friends who questioned his ambition.
He recalls this incident where a friend from Goldman Sachs had come visiting and asked if Rahul was staying at a servant’s quarter. “Personally I had taken a bet on something I wasn’t very sure of, there were a lot of threat of being killed by Flipkart, Amazon in sometime.” “ At that time our competition Pepperfry, Urban Ladder, Fab Furnish were industry veterans.”
“you get competition that is making you almost unknown, you have an office space which is nowhere, you come out of a high paying jobs, you don’t tell your parents you are doing business..at that point maybe I was crazy. Why I took that step, I would say I was crazy, it was not a thoughtful mathematical decision” But still they went ahead with it.
For almost two years they worked on an anonymous basis, the marketing methods were done via SEO operations, there was no promotion and recognition of any sort. There continued to be questions from friends about the feasibility of this business and on the personal front the three founders were losing money.
In August 2013, when they realized they were running out of cash they had even thought of taking up night tuitions during to keep the money flowing. They pumped up the number of calls to customers and asked them for new orders, ideas which led to the inflow of new orders and venturing into high margin orders.
Keep the basics right
The three of approached investors of every size, while competition around them were getting loaded with funding. “We kept doing the basics correctly, that was very important for us. The basics of business was keeping costs low and do maximum sales.
Keeping costs low was a very simple process, you implement as much technology as you can. The order processing should be handled automatically, the sales was handled by Google.” The trio also kept their personal costs very minimal, from travelling by the bus, simple hangouts and other sacrifices helped them survive the turbulent period.
When MebelKart launched a virtual reality app Funterior grabbed some eyeballs so much so that they even got some acquisition offers which gave them a much needed trust in their vision. When the company closed its funding with Askme.com in 2015, Rahul took the next step of informing his parents.
“See what happens is when a son from a small town comes from an IIT Kanpur, he is very bright, he studies in IIT, IIT Kanpur is giving 50 lakh-package, a lot of expectations get set that my son will have a change in lifestyle whereas the son is actually losing money.” I didn’t want to give them anxiety for all these years, that was the only intent.
Rahul says that a team with complementary skills has been an advantage. Rahul is aggressive by nature whereas his colleagues are calmer and this has been a very helpful factor.
Rahul believes adversity teaches you who your real friends are and said he could pass through the storm because of this team. The team always kept their basics correct, a trait he inherited back then at IIT – keep costs low, value customer feedback.
Advice for young, aspiring entrepreneurs
Rahul said one was start being true to themselves. He sees a lot of people when who see this wave and tend to follow it. Firstly, one should think from a value perspective, is the business solving a problem.
Second, nobody is perfect! You need a fantastic team with complementary skills. He also said that entrepreneurship is not for the weak hearted. “ You have to be crazy and a lot of times illogical in your journey to be able to make it big. You have to crazily believe in your idea.” Also, keep your basics right.
Why the name Mebelkart?
‘Mebel’ in many languages mean furniture. Hence ‘MebelKart.
USP of Mebelkart
Pepperfry, Fabfurnish entered the market at almost the same time with us. Pepper fry was a marketplace selling everything when it was launched. Fabfurnish was focused into furniture. However, both of their focus was not into local supply of furniture. Our model is aggregating the local supply of furniture which makes our model scalable and not inventory dependent. This way we ensure larger product assortment and more efficient and seamless transaction.
Mebelkart has about 3.5 lakh products on their website and it plans to scale up further. Mebelkart currently earns a business of 96 crore a year and Rahul sees that grow into 1200 Crore/year by Sept 2016.
Rahul says he is still learning certain managerial qualities and spends whatever time he gets in hand to indulge in a game of poker with his flat mates and learn swimming which helps him cool down briefly with very minimum effort.