A brave, innovative, and cheerful personality, who quit a comfortable corporate job to start her own business. She gave us an insight into her life, her hurdles, and how she overcame them.
Meet Koel Dutta, entrepreneur extraordinaire in conversation with Icy Tales.
Q) The pandemic has changed the course of many lives and businesses. How has it impacted you personally and professionally?
Koel Dutta: The pandemic itself was like a boon, curse, I don’t know how to phrase it as but it came like a bolt from nowhere, suddenly. So personally, it affected in good and bad ways, to be very honest. Good ways in a way that you got time to yourself, suddenly you felt that you were not running around from morning till night. Because everything was shut, you were forced to spend time with yourself and your family so that was one good thing.
When you have time for yourself, you structure a lot of things, you think a lot of things, what you have done, what you have got to do, not only in terms of work, career but even in terms of relationships, friendships, so many things. So it is a time for retrospection and then again thinking about what to do, how to go about it.
So there is time, the clock is not ticking and you don’t have to jump into the next work schedule. Personally, in bad ways, I think after a point of time it starts getting on your nerves of not meeting people. I am an extrovert, I like meeting people. So that is something I have always liked.
I like travelling a lot, so when I am free I either meet friends or travel. I don’t like spending money on shopping, dresses, and jewellery. I love travelling, so that was stopped. So, you are unable to meet friends for coffee visits and you know traveling out.
Professionally, I had time to think over, because this was my second venture, and I had started it in July, the baby was born in July. Halfway through, before I could even step to the second year, the pandemic came so it gave me time to structure and understand the requirements of how to go about it.
Initially, it was very difficult and I thought it was going to crash now. I got time to think over it, structure my way forward, understand a lot of things about the business, sit down and jot down points, so this was a good part of it.
Q) What do you enjoy the most about running a business of your own?
Koel Dutta: I have been in the corporate world for seventeen years. And then I quit and started my own venture, I ran for six years and then I exited from it and this is my second venture. With my second venture, a lot of learnings have come, especially from the first one.
Basically, my first venture was into men’s accessories and there also we used to do a lot of gifting so this is more like graduating from a gifting platform to a very specific gifting platform.
So I personally like gifts. I like giving gifts to everybody, small, big, any size of gifts. And, I always like making something which is very specific to that person. Keeping their taste in mind rather than buying any run-of-the-mill or, just a random gift. That is what always excites me and whenever I think of a gift, I think of what that person will really like. The second thing about gifting that I like is the unboxing part.
So there is a joy in unboxing a gift and if it is specially meant for you, in terms of product, I am not talking about personalization in terms of your name being put on it or the box or something, but the product-wise.
If you think someone likes green tea more than any other tea, then making green tea a part of it, in a hypothetical situation, or someone is really fond of baking, and you try and incorporate something baking-related, so your thoughtfulness reflects in your gift.
So the curated gift box I do, is a combination of four-five gift items which are all assorted, different kinds of items and so when you are taking up one and you are opening one and there is one more inside the box, so it is not just like you are opening one and there is just one thing inside the box, so that always excited me.
I have seen my child enjoying it because when he was a kid, I used to do a kind of a treasure hunt with him. So, this is your thirteenth birthday and there are thirteen gifts, or it is your eighth birthday, so eight gifts in your house and you go find them.
I think even if you are old, you just love that child-like feeling. So, that is the magic and that’s how we make the magic because it is the magic of unboxing and the smile that you know goes with that.
Q) How was the experience of transforming your idea for your platform to reality?
Koel Dutta: So you know the first step was obviously, you cannot just go ahead and start a business just because you feel like it. So you need to do some research, find out what’s happening in the market, what are the trends, who are your competitors, find out whether it is economically viable or not.
It is not just a passion or a hobby, it is a passion and a hobby combined with some economic viability. That’s how a business is, you can’t just run on passion.
So, first step was to you know, find out what’s happening, how is gifting market as such, and when I did my stats, it was amazing, gifting overall, worldwide obviously is on a hike and in India, it was like really growing multifold, and in the pandemic it became even more higher.
Social distancing, not being able to meet others, not being able to travel, suddenly, you feel the importance of relationships, so it started seeping in, so the emotion although how much ever hard we don’t want to show that we are emotional, hide the emotional part of it, internally I guess, all of us are emotional and the pandemic showed the way that yes, you are missing.
For example, it is your best friend’s birthday who is not even blood related, maybe your bestie is in your office and you are missing your office premises, you are missing samosa in the cafeteria. Now, maybe that friend’s birthday would have been just a birthday, where you just go to office, wish her or him or whatever, and maybe buy something or go out for a dinner, but suddenly that is totally different, so how do you express it?
You are for sure missing and suddenly from a Whatsapp message to a random gift you want to give something to show that you know you are thoughtful and missing that person and the person who is receiving it is touched by your emotion, touched by your thoughtfulness.
So the pandemic actually kind of showed that gifting is here to stay and the market started expanding more so kind of structured our how I wanted to go about it. There were players in the market but then the market is too huge so it can accommodate a lot of players in it.
So basically doing a structure of how to do it, what all to involve in it, what are the parameters, which segments to cater to, how to manage the costing structures so that was put into place.
So I first started through a social media, I didn’t hop on to a website right in the beginning. It was like a little test, a trial run. I wanted to understand and once I got a hang that yes, people are looking out, social media is very strong nowadays, so it was not that you can’t do business, there are many people who are doing business through social media.
Website is like having your own address. So then the second step was getting into a website and reaching out to individual clients, then corporate, bulk orders, event planners, so it was like baby steps forward. Like one step tried at a time.
Q) You curate a lot of gift boxes catering to so many different needs; how do you manage to curate unique options for all your customers?
Koel Dutta: That is the most interesting part I think of curated gift boxes. We try and you know speak to the clients even if it’s not a telephonic call, even if it is a message or a chat. So basically, there are two-three ways that we devised for the clients to understand their gifting.
So one, we have created a pre-curated gift box section where we kind of have already made some boxes on the basis of experiences of what type people like or they are looking at on different types, different budgets, so it is an aesthetic curation, not a random mix some assortment put together.
So you put together things which are based on some theme, or some activity that they like, so it could be a coffee lover’s gift, it could be somebody who loves to read books, it could be somebody who loves gardening or somebody who loves traveling, so you know different types.
Or it could be color-coordinated, lavender theme or a floral theme. So we have pre-curated boxes, so most of the people who could relate to these boxes will buy, cart it. Then there is a section which we created, based on experience, create your own box.
We listed various kinds of products, you can choose right from maybe a pen, or a notebook, or a coffee and tea, or sweets to chocolates to socks, different things so whatever whoever wants can cart it accordingly, and get a gift box, you pay for the gift box, you cart it, you put on a message that you want to put on your notecard, and you buy it.
Once you buy a gift box, we ensure whatever you have carted, we will put them all nicely together. Package it into a gift box and ship it out. This is the second way.
The third way is people just reach out to us, saying that this is my budget. I want something very special and this is what their hobbies are. We have a particular set of things we ask, what your loved ones really likes so, something or the other obviously matches with the products we have, so we incorporate those.
Along with that we maintain some aesthetic into the gift box, so it doesn’t look like a haphazard chaos. We ask the clients what your loved ones like, what is that they enjoy, what kind of activities they do, whether he is formal, or a very fun person, who likes quirky stuff. So we ask small things and we put them all together and make a box for them.
Q) Any two things that you have learned through all your experiences in life?
Koel Dutta: I think the first one is nothing comes easy, what you see in a web series or a magazine of a very successful start-up is only the last showstopper of the fashion show. But what happens in the background is a lot of sweat, hard work, several emotional, mental, physical, setbacks. A lot of self doubt comes up, a lot of happy and sad moments. It’s a mix of a lot of hardships.
Having your own business, being a lady I would relate it to having a baby. You conceptualize, you have a thought, you put it together, you nurture it, then you have a baby. Then you see your baby performing everyday. One day he is crawling, then walking, talking, falling, one day he has a new tooth, which is a very small thing but you are very happy about it. Things like that, but at the end of the day, you feel very happy that something that you thought of has come to shape.
So I think a lot of hard work has to go into it and there is no easy way out of it. Second, you have to be persistent, not give up, because it is very easy when things are not going your way to give up. When you are in a job, you can go and say that I am not achieving my target, I quit, I resign, but nobody does that.
In your own business, you think you will do so many orders this time, but if I do a tie up with somebody and the collaboration fails, I can’t say I resign.
That’s very easy to kind of feel very sad, very low and a whole lot self doubt, whether it is right or wrong, am I wasting my time, these are not happy things that people say but all of us go through it so, it is necessary that we change a little as per how the market requires.
When my business started, I had some thoughts in mind, a lot of things I have changed in the due course of time. There is a difference between your passion and your passion being economically viable. So at times, what you think is the best scenario is not the best scenario in terms of monetary.
I think we should not hold on to something and think oh god, this is what I thought and now I am digressing from the path. It is okay to digress from the path and try something new as long as you are not deviating completely from what your thought is, but you are trying to find a different way to reach your goal. So being a little flexible with your thoughts, persistence, and keep going the rock and roll way.
Q) What or who inspired you to start your venture?
Koel Dutta: As a part of the research, I had spoken to random people, I had gone to a café, into streets, markets, malls asking them about gifting and what they want. Their thoughts kind of inspired me a lot. So what I gathered from that is people want to gift something thoughtful but they don’t know what to give.
So there has to be someone who is facilitating their thoughts. They either don’t have time to go from shop to shop, because you can’t get all things under one roof, so you have to go to five different shops to buy things, then put them in a gift box, then pack them, they either don’t have time or they don’t know how to do it or what to put into it.
So this was something that told me that there is a scope of gifting. So their thoughts and words inspired me and of course you have your own family, your friends who keep inspiring you and telling you that you can do it. It is the combination of your own loved ones and customers.
The prospect customers or the customers who are already buying. So the thrilling journey wherein your customers become your repeat customers, the moment you get a repeat customer, you know you have done something right. That becomes another inspiration for you to keep going.
Q) As an entrepreneur making strides in your chosen field, what advice would you give someone who wishes to venture into entrepreneurship?
Koel Dutta: I think being an entrepreneur is an interesting portfolio for all challenges that comes along with it. Everybody showcases only the businesses that have glorified, only those who have achieved something. They have got funded, they are on the cover page, there are several others who are still struggling.
If you are ready for the grind, then it is fun because you have your own flexibility, your own creative juices flowing, you can mend and blend things here and there as per your requirement. And the satisfaction that this is what you wanted and this is what you achieved. It is not just a number on your excel sheet.
There is so much emotion attached to it. But it is a lot of good, bad emotions. When I quit and started my first venture, first few months were bad. Bad in terms of no results immediately. It is not like you start a business and next day onwards everybody knows you or starts buying from you. It takes time, and that phase is difficult especially if you have quit a corporate job where you are getting a handsome salary every month. And here you are only putting in and nothing is coming to you, so this hits you.
It is only debiting, nothing is crediting to your account! Today you are buying supplies, then you are putting some money to marketing, what is coming in return? Nothing! Then you are all alone. You can’t have a team right from the beginning, unless you are funded. Suddenly missing out on people, meeting people for me these were big emotional setbacks. It is a lone journey, we have to be geared for all this. But at the end of the day, it is a very satisfying feeling.
Q) Would you like to tell us something about your plans ahead? Anything you want to pursue further?
Koel Dutta: So there are two interesting things. One is a concierge service, I would like to reach out to people, I have started doing but it hasn’t structured. We take the gifting game from the person’s head, hypothetically if you are my client and you are very busy, and you find it difficult to remember. Day after tomorrow is the birthday and in the nick of the time you remember and you want to buy something specialized, all of us do a lot of gifting for a lot of occasions, birthdays, anniversaries, house-warming, there are a lot of different gifting scenarios in our lives.
Why not reach out to people, like we are your gifting concierge, this is our model, and this is how you sign up with us. You give us the dates in advance, these are the people, you may have just one event one month, but five the next month, you may want to just give someone a bouquet, or specify a budget for another, 5000 for one or if for your boss, maybe 15000.
So we do two meetings with you, understand the personality of that person, try and give you gift options, you give a tick mark that you are okay with that, so your headache is over, we take care of your gifting calendar and we ensure that the gift approved by you reaches the person on the date approved by you and your stress of not remembering the date, not knowing what to buy is all gone.
Then, what I would like to see I want to translate that, this is improvising on my make your own gift box. So right now, this is a result of my thoughts and customer feedback. Customer is king, not just in pampering the customer but also in terms of feedback. It could be a good or bad feedback, but take it because it is valuable. You will know where you have to improve upon.
In your make your own box, I would like things to be nicely coordinated, not a chaos. That is how we make pre-curated boxes. So even for make your own boxes, I am assuming people would like the same thing. Even if I try to color coordinate, when you go towards the end, you forget what you had selected.
For somebody to visualize how it would look, I would like to do it sometime in the future that do something that is more AI. Have a gift box there, you put in your stuff and it shows in your gift box. So the overall, gift box with the products can be visualized in AI that these products have been put and this is how it looks. So inside the gift box, you put the products so you know how your end product is going to look like. Also, obviously expand business and do more corporate orders.
Koel Dutta has wondrous ideas to expand her already flourishing business. She has created a niche for herself in the industry, and has been kind enough to give pointers and be completely honest about her struggles and her misgivings. For a unique, heightened gifting experience, visit her official website, and for regular updates follow Koel Dutta on Instagram.