From the comfortable interiors of Jodhpur, Neerav Jain landed in the dynamic educational hub of the University of Delhi; where academics are kept at par with the extra-curricular caliber. The young entrepreneur takes us through his entrepreneurial adventure, CityFurnish, and the multi-faceted learning-opportunity the journey proffered after he graduated from Kirori Mal College back in 2013.
Starting a business is a mammoth task. Could you please delineate on the initial hurdles your start-up faced?
There were three major hurdles we faced initially. One thing was the age factor; I was starting very young and had just completed my undergraduate education. I had two years of work experience with my family and naturally it takes a little bit of time to understand things. Typically, if you see the breed of start-up coming in, they are filled by IITs and IIMs. When you are just coming up with a bachelor’s degree and scaling up, it’s challenging. It’s not just about funding, but about hiring too. When you are hiring someone who is smarter and more educated than you, you need to convince them to work for you. Secondly, having vision clarity. Furniture is nonstandard item. You can have categories in luxury, but in furniture this is a very difficult thing. We were clear that what we want to achieve as a company. We want CityFurnish to be known for furniture the way Uber is known for cab services in spite of the fact that they have started other services too. Establishing oneself in a particular category is a challenge. In short, don’t go for small money; create your own domain no matter how tough it is.
The third difficulty faced was creating a brand with limited resources like budget. Creating a brand needs investment. I learnt about this while I was in college. I was the Placement Cell and Commerce Society head. In a society, you need to pull up an event with very few funds. I learnt how to create a network effect and create a buzz. We started targeting customers near Chanakyapuri who weren’t much price conscious. They were very generous with reviews and sharing contacts. They acted as leverage for giving us publicity. It is a mammoth task creating a brand with limited resources. We wanted people to talk about our company.
Is there any entrepreneurial story that has personally inspired you?
One of my early investor was Mr. Jitendra Gupta, founder of Citrus, the payment gateway. His story is very similar to mine. Essentially, I am from a non-tech background. Whereas, he is a finance guy, running one of the largest payment gateway companies in India. His was the only start-up which was able to give a successful exit last year. Naturally, I was very motivated and connected with him due to several reasons. He has started with lot of challenges as in hailing from a non-tech background and hiring a tech team. Building the founding team will decide the next 50 teams in the company. He inspired me to be meticulous about choosing founding members. I learnt how to drive my co-workers with motivation as we weren’t paying much being a budding company. I learnt the concept of frugality from him and how it was important to chase investors with business matrix rather than the vanity matrix.
You were the Placement Cell Head and Com Soc President. How effective do you think DU’s placement and incubation cells are in grooming one’s personality?
For me, definitely very helpful. Coming from Jodhpur, till 12th Pre-boards, my highest percentage was 69, so naturally, I was never a topper. DU itself came in as a little bit of surprise. The first thing I got to know was that a lot Delhites, typically, were doing multiple things at once; debate society, drama society, internships, article ship, and then they were good in studies also. That was something I was never doing in Jodhpur. When I came to DU, the only two things I could apply for were the Placement Cell and Commerce Society, where the requirements were management skills and aptitude. For me, the whole process was extremely intriguing. the complete grooming, the street smartness, the management of the teams; because the fundamental idea was that you’re not paying anything to the team. But still they are motivated to work, to stay till 3 in the night and then turning up next morning to again do all the work. From brining something, getting something from the canteen to managing work; and you’re not paying them anything and yet they are so motivated. Even when you’re starting your own company, though you’re not paying anything, you can still motivate your team if you have the vision theme clear. That’s an important learning I got; salary is not everything if you’re building up your company from scratch. My experience with Placement Cell and Com Soc, that frugality that spend very less, a lot of these things were imbibed from this.
It’s going to be the 2-year anniversary of CityFurnish. Looking back, what do you think could have been done differently or could have yielded better results?
That’s a very retrospective question! As an entrepreneur, there was a scope for improving each and everything. But for something which always bothers me, firstly is the hiring aspect of it. When I started up, I hired just for the role: I need a finance guy, a marketing guy, I hired just for the sake of hiring to conform to the role. That was a major point. Secondly, you need to stick to your gut feeling. Because you’ve thought this is the team structure, this is the vision, this is how we’re going to be different from the competitors, and this is how we’re going to be in the long run. We would always prefer to compete on service level, rather than the pricing level. If you’re fighting on the pricing, it’s always a downward spiral.
When did you make your first breakthrough? What was your first milestone?
The inception of CityFurnish has not been done in India. I was in Netherlands at the time and was handling an export order. During that time I got in touch with Mark, founder of the company called Just Eat which is equivalent Zomato in India but on a global scale. He was running a program called startup boot camp. He asked me to be a part of it as I had nothing much to do after my work. We got incubated in the start-up boot camp and out of a 100 teams, our start-up was among the top 10. That was a huge validation. Then, I came back to India because Delhi-NCR, as it is itself a bigger market than Netherlands. On 20th September 2015, I got my first order, before we were officially incorporated. Receiving an order before officially launching a business is definitely something which pushes your morale.
You worked for your family business, Chandra Shekhar Exports. How did you decide to start your own venture and how supportive was your family about it?
My dad has been running his company for over 25 years now and naturally, he has his own set of rules and protocols to follow. I came from DU at that time, fresh of energy and innovation. I wanted to change everything about the business. At that time, I didn’t realize there is a thinking process working behind every protocol. My father was 58 at that time and I was 22 giving him suggestions like, “Aise nahin, aise karo.” And he would dismiss my suggestions which did hurt my ego, but it’s an important learning process. It was difficult for me at that point to understand that behind every set process there is an experience behind it.
How has your personal life changed ever since you grew out the reigns of your business?
I don’t think that I have achieved success yet, but yes, personal life has changed a lot. In DU, you have an amazing lifestyle. But once you start getting busy, you have to start saying no to plans made by friends. A lot of relationship equations change. Social life gets restricted; and some people understand these changes and some don’t. You have to forego a lot of short term pleasures which is actually quite challenging at this age.
Being DU students we realize that our lives are full of experiences. We want you to go back in the memory lane and feel nostalgic. Can you share some of your experiences with us?
When I came to Delhi, I really didn’t like it. Every two weeks, I used to go back to Jodhpur because of homesickness. I had made up my mind to discontinue studying in DU after a year; it was tough. But over time, it turned out to be different. It pushed me out of my comfort zone. Getting into DU was a slap in that mode. There was a cultural diversity, a vast set of people who won’t agree to your opinion just for the sake of it. The second thing that DU offered me was the human connect. I am still in touch with my placement cell juniors. I still know all the office bearers of my society. They still rope me in events they conduct, and thus, thereis a lot of connect still now.
I was involved in lot of extra-curricular activities and politics. It gave me an experience for life time. KMC and Ramjas are very famous for politics. Out batch was the first to churn out a President from B.Com after 35 years. That was the difference; politics has a notion of aggression around it. The violence is real. For DU, for first years, the gruesome violence is shit scary. Within college premises, hostel brawls, it is a whole issue altogether. At the exterior, it is a simple college election. Internally, a lot of things matter. Parties will come to societies and offer different services to garner votes. You obviously don’t want to get into their books but indulging in these unethical tactics is also not favourable. This is something which happens in the business world. The process of acquiring licenses and other procedures you will encounter people from influential backgrounds. If you’ve already experienced this in colleges, which DU offers, it gives you a wonderful understanding of self-confidence of your ability to handle it.
Had there been no DU, would there have been a CityFurnish?
Tough to say! I’ll quote an example from Amazon. When Amazon was started, it was an accumulation of events. The guys had to face challenges with regards to the products, social media changes. Similarly, DU has been an important part. So, I would say partly yes. Had I gone to Bombay, I would have landed in Chandra Shekhar Exports and would not have had the confidence to venture into new things with such aplomb. I would have been settled and devoid of the pressure. Everything under DU had a different role; commerce society, college politics, and so much more. A lot of insights and my actual experiences stem from my days at DU. How to run my team, how to build their morale, how to motivate them without giving them an adequate salary; it’s all there.
It’s a competitive world. How do you make sure that you stay at par with your competitors, especially with the advent of social media amongst other changing trends?
From the competitor’s perspective, we realized our strengths and weaknesses from an early stage which is very essential. Instead of having just one barrier to entry, our approach was to have multiple barriers. We divided it across spectrum. The prima facie was to build the brand. Out of our team of people dealing with customers, you will see our average response time and delivery time is 48-72 hours, versus our competitors which is 7-10 days. Wherever we could get the customer delight factor, we tried to focus on that; from the project and team level. Secondly, we realized from the technological point. My other two partners, Saurabh and Vineet, have an expansive work experience of 6-7 years, with education from IIM and DTU respectively. Earning highly, coming into a startup with no salaries for at least a year was a challenge itself. We have divided our roles, which has helped us build our own defenses. Saurabh is extremely proficient in the digital marketing field. At the end of the day, the customer knows us from the digital spectrum. Saurabh used the strategy of ensuring that CityFurnish was always amongst the top three searches. What Vineet brings on board is the financial and convenience aspect. He collaborated with important companies and adapted a payment model which suited our functioning method and was to our preference. Internally, the payment collection was happening on time and the team resources were handled. So, the customer delight, the online aspect of it, and customer convenience through the service and delivery is how we coped with the changes.
Any suggestion for the young minds ripe with the thoughts of venturing out into a business of their own?
In DU, there are lot of investors and mentors. People these days don’t share their ideas fearing plagiarism. I would say that in start-ups, idea is 2% and the rest is execution. I will suggest that talk to people, no matter how rubbish your idea sounds. The second thing is, don’t over think your idea. Every idea has more cons than pros. How you deal with the cons and establishing a business is what that makes you stand out. There were a lot of cons while I was analysing the business plan of CityFurnish. However, we were able to deal with things tactfully. We made sure that our business is customer driven and not competitor or investor driven. Another important thing is identifying the trend. Make sure that your idea suits the trend!
What are some of your immediate goals in the pipeline?
We’ve tried to follow along the lines of Amazon’s business strategy: always think from the perspective of customers, which would allow your misses to turn into hits inevitably. Our idea is to launch wall beds; so the idea is to uplift the level of competition. It is an innovation at the product level. If in one item we are able to provide a multitude of utilities, it obviously helps us. The second target is to try to integrate the internet of things in the furniture sector. We are integrating the Bluetooth speaker, phone charger set-up into the sofa set itself. It’s not something revolutionary, however, the utilitarian aspect enhances the customer delight. These small things are now being targeted at a proto-type level. Beyond that, we are focusing on brand building. To establish CityFurnish for what it should be known for; something which will set the narrative for the company for the future years to come. There are a lot of things down the line, long-term visions which we want the company to achieve.
CityFurnish is India’s third largest and a rapidly growing furniture, furnishings and appliances rental brand. Set upon the task to provide smarter lifestyle solutions, CityFurnish is revolutionizing the on-demand rental economy by making renting affordable and easy.
Neerav Jain is the founder and CEO at CityFurnish- India’s fastest growing furniture, furnishings and appliances rental brand. He holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Commerce from Delhi University, and Business & Enterprise Management from Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, Neerav landed his first job as an Export Manager with Pepperfry. He later went on to attend the Lean Launchpad and Business Innovation course at Utrecht University.
Feature Image Credits: Facebook