How did the founders of iBahn reach the point where they decide to launch the startup?
Chopra: This startup was born out of a conviction that visualises the way in which the domestic lighting market is evolving. The lighting industry had been holding steady for the last 80-100 years with its incandescent, metal halide and fluorescent technologies. When I joined the industry in 2003 I saw it being transformed by CFL technology, which remained the number-one item for every company till 2010. Later, some of our industry members introduced LED technology. This event marked pretty much the exit of CFLs. After the LED entry, a lot of us believed that another transformation that would shake up the LED lighting landscape was ‘smart LED’. So, we thought let’s come together and set up a venture that gains us the first mover advantage by bringing the right proposition into the market.
How did you come together as a team?
Shahani: We have been colleagues, working together for donkey’s years. Rajeev joined Philips in 2003 and the following year I moved on to the company’s lighting division. Our co-founder Kunal has been working with the Philips for the last 30 years. So, the idea of a startup had been coming up frequently.
Chopra: We incorporated iBahn in May 2016. We have been fine-tuning our thoughts, developing proof of concepts, and tinkering with the prototypes right till September. Then, we actually concluded that we had something serious on our hands. Later, we raised private equity funding from Sequoia Capital India Advisors. We moved into our offices around January and started hiring people to build our team.
“We don’t think we would ever wear a T-shirt to office at Philips”
How are you building up the new organisation?
Shahani [laughs]: We don’t think we would ever wear a T-shirt to the office at Philips. In that sense, we think that we have broken the shackles of large MNCs. We are not trying to build an MNC-like hierarchy; rather our management structure would be such that it would encourage contact with any member of our core team. We’re also performing multifunctional roles. I am handling HR besides the sales and marketing. I’ve never handled HR before! We have doubled our team to 38 people recently and are still expanding it.
What’s your manufacturing philosophy?
Chopra: We design and manufacture our products in India. We have our own R&D and develop the product ourselves. We keep a close eye on components used in the product and specify them to the dot. We keep control over a few critical components, and then we get them contract-manufactured at Manesar near Gurugram, Haryana and in Nagpur, Maharashtra.
Many of your peers are contract manufacturing or sourcing from China? What’s your rationale for going ‘make-in-India’ rather than manufacturing in China?
Chopra: I have spent two years in China during my stint with Philips, and I’m aware of the pluses and minuses of manufacturing in that country. I think that China is good when it comes to offering standardised products in high volumes. But, our products are not standardised ones; Svarochi smart LED lights are about offering experiences to customers. We have to build our products on technology. We have to keep control of quality and make quick changes in our products. Besides, it’s much more efficient for supply chains if we manufacture in India.
Have you filed patents?
Chopra: No. But we are looking to file a patent at some stage. At present, our focus is on getting the company off the ground.
“We want to appoint 1500 retailers in ten cities”
What’s your marketing strategy?
Chopra: We have established a channel that comprises of distributors and high-end retail shops and top lighting stores. Since Svarochi smart LED lighting products to need to be demonstrated, we have set up our unique demo units in these outlets for the benefit of end-users. Our company has also formed a business development team that reaches out to architects, interior designers, and builders to be able to show the functionality of our products. We want to appoint 1,500 retailers in the NCR, Ludhiana, Jalandhar, Chandigarh, Kolkata, Mumbai, Pune, Hyderabad, Chennai, and Bengaluru by the end of this calendar. We are promoting these products through social media including Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.
Channel partners are regarded as the backbone of a company’s distribution network. As a startup, are you facing any challenge in appointing them?
Shahani: Our core team has been working for decades in the industry. Our national sales head has over 18 years of experience in channel and institutional sales. So, it was not very difficult for us to build a channel. In fact, we haven’t taken a single channel partner from the Philips network.
You guys have global experience, particularly in Europe and US markets. Do you plan to tap your experiences for launching smart LED lights in these markets?
Chopra: We would definitely like to emerge as an Indian MNC. We would love to sell our products in the US and Europe. But, we will have to establish our company in India first, and then plan for the overseas foray.
What’s your revenue target? When do you think that you will start making profits?
Shahani: We want to be an Rs 500-crore company in 4-5 years. Though we will have to get to yearly revenue goals, at the moment it’s too early for us to determine that. But we’ll make a profit by the time we reach the turnover mark.
How would you measure the success of your startup?
Chopra: As a startup, we want to change the world of lighting. We want our consumers to believe that we have made a difference in their lives with our products, and want that they keep coming back again and again to buy our products. This we believe has started to happen, as we have seen repeat sales in the cities we have launched. So we believe that we are absolutely on the right track!