Ashish Goel, the CEO of Urban Ladder, is a design geek.
Early in our conversation, we start talking about bookshelves. His eyes light up.
“Bookshelves are unique. There aren’t too many manufacturers who get it right. Especially in India.”
“Yes. One thing people always miss is that to design bookshelves properly, you need to understand books. People always design for the western market—where people predominantly buy hardbacks over paperbacks. In India, it’s the other way around. So you should adjust accordingly. You need to have bookshelves with shelves 9.5 inches tall. People usually make 13 inches and try to sell them. Wasted space.”
We are at Urban Ladder’s office in Bengaluru. It’s late in the evening, but the office is frenetic with activity. It’s been a long day for CEO Ashish Goel. He excuses himself to get a coffee.
Goel’s office is located above the retail store at Domlur. It’s an imposing storefront with signage that you cannot miss, especially when you travel on the Ring Road from Indiranagar to Koramangala—two pockets of modern affluence in the city. I am informed that they will be celebrating the store’s one-year anniversary this week. With cupcakes. Urban Ladder has seven other stores, but the one in Domlur was the first. It’s a special day for them.
All the attention will be elsewhere though. In the same week that Urban Ladder celebrates its first anniversary, IKEA—the world’s largest and most iconic furniture retailer—will inaugurate its first store in India, in Hyderabad. Finally, after decades of effort, IKEA will officially enter India.
The Urban Ladder store in Domlur is about 640 sq. m. If you are watching the football World Cup, this comparison is more topical—that’s the size of a penalty box.
In comparison, the IKEA store in Hyderabad is the size of five football fields.
As early as June 2012, a month before Urban Ladder was founded, IKEA applied to India’s Commerce Ministry with a proposal where it committed to invest Rs 8,200 crore ($1.2 billion) and open 25 stores in India. Ashish Goel and Rajiv Srivatsa, the co-founders of Urban Ladder, knew this day was coming from the start. So did Pepperfry—another furniture retailer that was founded a few months earlier. Both companies had a head start of six years, and have raised a combined funding of over $300 million since then. And both adopted the same initial approach—set up e-commerce companies to sell furniture and home decor on their websites. The idea seemed to be: Let’s stay online and avoid IKEA on its home turf.
Now that plan lies in tatters.