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For most middle-class parents, having a studious son seeking a career in professional services would be a source of pride.
But this was not the experience of Vivek Agarwal, whose parents both came from a long line of entrepreneurs and wondered why their child would not follow suit. “When I was doing my chartered accountancy exams, I was the black sheep of the family,” he recalls.
Agarwal grew up in Mumbai, surrounded by aunts, uncles and cousins who ran their own businesses, mostly in construction. Shortly after Agarwal obtained his professional qualifications, his father’s younger brother enlisted him to help with a residential property in Mumbai, but at the time Agarwal was only interested in working in investment banking or professional services.
He was pursuing a career as a consultant when he started his MBA at Iese Business School in Barcelona. Although the school has a reputation for nurturing entrepreneurial talent, this was not a consideration for him, he says.
Agarwal was more interested in its reputation for an international student population, which it taught using case studies, and its smaller average class sizes compared with similar institutions on the continent.
“The choice was not about the city — it was about the school,” he says. “I knew nothing about football. I didn’t even know who Gaudí was.”
The “eureka” moment for his business idea — selling luxury Indian men’s and women’s clothing online — only came years later when he had moved to London. “I realised buying Indian designer clothing was extremely difficult, even in such a large, cosmopolitan city,” he recalls. “The only real options were to visit someone’s living-room studio on the outskirts of London, paying multiple times the prices in India, or to shop during trips to India. Neither option sounded reasonable to me.”
He did learn of other suppliers in London, but these were also inconvenient to use. In fact, some people would even ask relatives in India to send them products from local stores.
Agarwal then discovered what he calls “the entrepreneur in me” and his online shop, Strand of Silk, was born. He says his target market is the 7m Indian expatriates in Europe and North America as well as those in need of culturally appropriate clothing when visiting the subcontinent for special occasions.
He describes a typical female customer as “living outside India, between their mid-20s and late 40s, and looking for a unique product. She values quality and appreciates the rich heritage reflected in the products, either in the form of the age-old embroidery or prints and fabrics. She might shop for a contemporary dress for an evening out in London or a traditional lehenga for a wedding in Jaipur.”
Agarwal employs a handful of people in his London office, mainly for marketing and sales, and a similar number in Mumbai, who deal largely with logistics and operational matters.
The business has been largely self-funded, but he has raised nearly £1m from family and friends to accelerate growth over the past two years.
Agarwal says his biggest challenges have been potential customers’ awareness of contemporary Indian fashion, their general perception about clothes from India and persuading Indians to switch to buying online.
“If one has not been exposed to contemporary Indian designers, it is easy to assume the clothes would include only very ethnic products that are only worn by Indians,” he says. “This is certainly not the case, and most customers who try our contemporary products love the quality, craftsmanship and uniqueness.”
Indian shoppers’ reluctance to shop online has been changing as they become more comfortable with the medium, but the market remains behind most in the west, says Agarwal.
“Families still make expensive shopping trips to India, especially for weddings. Once they are in the country, they hunt for the best stores, try to arrange fittings and deliveries, then once the product is sent to them in their home country, they try to find people locally to solve problems such as fitting.” All these expenses add up, which makes Agarwal confident people will come round to buying online.
The biggest challenge, he finds, is in conveying the quality and heritage of products to customers, given that the brands are often niche. “The popular perception about products from India tends to be that they are cheap,” he says. “But craftsmanship and quality demand value, no matter where in the world they originate. This appreciation of value is sometimes difficult to communicate to new customers online.”
The short-term strategy is to grow sales of clothes aimed at the Indian wedding market, but Agarwal hopes to expand his offerings as more Indians feel comfortable shopping online.
“Over the medium term, I see us becoming the go-to place online for high-end, luxury products from the Indian subcontinent, including but not limited to clothing and jewellery.”