Sujayath Ali, the CEO and founder of Voonik, has nerves of steel. He seems unfazed. Any other founder in his place would be looking at the next three months with dread. But not Sujayath. This is not his first rodeo. Voonik is going to pivot. Again. For those keeping track, this is the Bengaluru-based e-commerce company’s fifth track change. And Sujayath thinks this is the one.
Voonik, an e-commerce apparel startup, was founded in 2013; it raised $35 million (Rs 223 crore), became a household name for just a bit and then dropped off the radar. It has impressive investors—Sequoia Capital, RB Investments, Times Internet and Seedfund—and they have backed the company, Sujayath and his vision, until recently. Talk to some and you’ll learn that they all have nothing but love for the founder.
The Ken met Sujayath a few weeks ago. He was sitting in the first office Voonik took on lease, the floor was buzzing with the customer support team trying to track down customers away from home when the delivery boy came looking. Sujayath takes pride in the motley set up. He is dressed in a casual violet shirt and Voonik’s in-house label denim, he maintains a steady tone throughout the conversation and measures out what he has to say. Not once does he lose his cool.
His quiet confidence is not the least bit strange because he has hustle. Sujayath started the company as a recommendation engine, then pivoted to e-commerce, which was a hybrid marketplace where it sold unbranded merchandise from small sellers and other popular companies such as Soch, Lavie and Sparx. It then brought in-house brands into the game, manufactured by others. After this, it started a subscription service just like Amazon Prime. And now Voonik wants to be a retail store in tier 2 and 3 cities, selling everything from shoes to innerwear branded by Voonik and a handful of other brands.
This, Sujayath believes, will make the company profitable, and, in turn, would bring Voonik into the consideration set.
It is not difficult to see the allure. Online retail is set to be valued at $14 billion by 2020. The entire retail market in India, of which a majority is offline, is set to be valued at over $850 billion by 2020, with fashion forming almost 8-10% of that. Simply put, a significant part of India still shops offline. Voonik wants them on their platform. Sujayath believes the company is ready to wean shoppers away from companies like ShoppersStop, Lifestyle and foreign companies such as United Colours of Benetton. The company wants to take over local mom-and-pop garment stores, which have been catering to tier 2 cities for decades and turn them into Voonik franchisees. The first store, a ‘pilot’, is now open in Thiruthuraipoondi, a small town in Thiruvarur district of Tamil Nadu.