Challenges in scaling a women’s health start-up
Challenges in scaling a women’s health startup: Toilet – A Love story – but of a different kind. In the movie Toilet – Ek Prem Katha, Akshay Kumar builds a toilet for his wife who refuses to live with him because his home lacks a toilet. Deep Bajaj went a step further and helped not just his wife but millions of women.
Deep realized on a road trip with his wife the complications women face with personal hygiene and toilet cleanliness or the lack of toilets. Deep’s start-up Peebuddy and Sirona- hygiene products for women is a result of several bad experiences women around him faced including his mother, wife & female friends. What’s even more interesting is that he gave up his successful events business and helped his wife with stabilizing the business of making Handmade Carpets before he took the plunge.
Listen to Deep Bajaj explain his product development challenges and the thousand days scaling strategies for an innovative product designed to help women avoid dirty toilet seats. You haven’t heard all about the challenges in scaling a women’s health startup until you’ve heard this.
Here are some excerpts from the Episode
Initial scaling challenges
If you look at the kind of products that we have, they’re all habit changing products.
When you speak to 10 women in your life and ask them if they face dirty toilet situation when they’re traveling by railroad, Metro or long haul flights and answer will be? Oh, yes, there are no friendly toilets for women.
You ask them during pregnancy and arthritis, is it difficult for you to stand in to find a toilet which is where you know, you can sit and standing easily and the answer will be no, there are hardly any toilets available like that.Deep 4:18
There are women who have PCOS, PCODs, who were tired of just scouting for pads at the last hour, our cups helped them.
Then we also heard from some waste management agencies saying the way to go forward for India if possible should be the cups than the pads.Deep 6:28
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Challenges in testing initial product and selling
Initially, it was all the more difficult because not only was the concept new, it was coming from a team of men trying to solve it. There were other questions – How do you sell ? where do you sell? I took it to certain stores who just thought it’s a gag product but they shooed us away.
Obviously, there were a lot of jokes. I remember once of this leading publication did a story on us it was BBC, actually. So on the English version, I got a lot of praises.
Because it reached out to all the millennials, and I would say, the urban India. The Hindi version of had the best of gaalis (expletives).
They said, you know, what kind of privileges you’re giving to our women? This is against our tradition, this is against our values, and what not.
So, it came to a point where, you know, first of all media was not writing. The media that wrote the Hindi one backfired, I won’t say backfired, but it was not in good taste, right. I was just trying to solve a problem.
Then there were stores which were not willing to keep it. The team was finding it difficult to get by sales which were very, very lowDeep 14:52
Distribution challenges in scaling up
Now I when I talk to some smart people who want to start-up; I tell them that you know, in my case the theory that has worked is I have these three rules that I follow…Deep 21:23
Anybody who has toxic bosses. Or if you’re trying to start something up. Or if you have a lot of people giving you advice, read more about this concept of energy vampires….Deep 33:17
So, we initially thought this will start selling from stores. So made offline distributors and, and that backfired? Online, there was no category, so there was no category for female urination devices. So Amazon, Flipkart, Nykaa didn’t know where to put them..we had to make them create a category for our productDeep 50:40
Deep Bajaj on Linkedin Deep Bajaj – Founder – Sirona Hygiene
Follow on Twitter Deep Bajaj (@DeepBajaj)
Deep’s Blog on Medium https://medium.com/@deepbajaj
Follow Maharajas of Scale on Twitter @maharajaofscale
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people, product, women, india, menstrual hygiene, hygiene, initially, years, solve, day, couple, talk, pee, events, fact, marathon, toilet, energy, case, challenge
Nida, Krishna Jonnakadla, Deep
Krishna Jonnakadla 00:01
This is Maharajas of Scale, a podcast where we go behind the scenes and talk to founders who are demolishing the myths around building and scaling a big business in India. These are the stories that have shattered the assumptions around Indian consumers and are changing the game completely. I am Krishna Jonnakadla, serial entrepreneur, co founder of FLIT, the Fashion Locater In Town and start up mentor bringing you the stories. Hey, everyone, hey listeners, this is Krishna from Maharajas of scale. Today we have Deep Bajaj with us who's done or rather doing a terrific job. It's something that's a taboo amongst all of us that has got to do with personal hygiene. For the world of me when I go around in India, this is a question that I constantly keep asking myself, how do people really take your personal hygiene and if I have to be a little more clear, how do people really go pee? So it's a big problem. It's one of those elephants in the room kind of question which Deep has taken head on and solving it big time. Deep, welcome to the show.
Thank you so much for having me. Krishna its a pleasure to be here.
Krishna Jonnakadla 01:06
Awesome. So Deep tell us about yourself a little bit and what you're working on right now.
I have start up by name Sirona hygiene. If I could say, you know share what we do in one sentence, it will be that we are a startup which identifies and solves those intimate and feminine hygiene issues faced by women which are unaddressed or partially addressed in our country. We do it with our three solutions, we have in the toilet hygiene because toilets are a huge issues for women when they're out. We have pee buddy, which is India's first female urination device using which women can stand and pee. We have in the menstrual hygiene space Sirona, the mother brand, where we have taken on issues like lack of you know, sustainable menstrual hygiene products, menstrual cramps, rashes in intimate areas with our products listed on our brand and the family hygiene range under bodyguard by Sirona. So sirona, as a startup stands for solving hygiene issues for people in India.
Krishna Jonnakadla 02:05
What's behind the name?
So Sirona means Celtic Goddess of hygiene. So she is a deity for healing and hygiene. And so, when we were thinking about how to name this, you know, this is something where we wanted to become synonymous with innovation in the space with when it comes to healing, you know, and then menstrual cramps, rashes, pain, all of those things equated, you know, in a way to a process where I think some sort of divine intervention was required. So we thought, let it be Sirona as the mother brand, and she will take on all the healing and hygiene related issues faced by women.
Krishna Jonnakadla 02:42
Interesting. In which mythology is this goddess, a goddess for Hygiene?
It is Celtic, Goddess of hygiene.
Krishna Jonnakadla 02:50
Celtic. Okay, interesting. How much did you have to research to find out that Goddess.
Not much you know, when you're married and all these innovative things can come from your wife. So from me, in my case it just came from her. I just told that I want to do something which became synonymous with hygiene by then Peebuddy was already born. And you know, we were looking to say that we want to take on the bigger spectrum of the space. So, I mean, she did come up with about 8-10 names, there was Hygeia and whatnot, but I think Sirona was something that just that was home run for us.
Krishna Jonnakadla 03:24
Yeah, it sounds great. Have you heard of kamakhya?
Krishna Jonnakadla 03:28
Krishna Jonnakadla 03:31
Krishna Jonnakadla 03:32
Yeah. So funny, that I think in Assam, there is a temple and menstruation and everything around it is considered taboo. Yeah, in India, but that temple actually celebrates that event on a regular basis. Go figure. I guess, you know, our ancestors knew a thing or two about why we should not make these issues. Such a taboo, isn't it?
Sure. Sure. Yeah. See these things, which I think in the last few decades, things have gone a little bad earlier we were, they were parts of us, which are very forward thinking when it comes to our women of flight. I don't know what had happened. But we thought we'll try to do something about it rather than just to be.
Krishna Jonnakadla 04:11
Sure. So we'll get into that a little more. But in terms of numbers, what sort of numbers. what sort of scale have you achieved Deep?
Well, you know, if you look at the kind of products that we have, they're all habit changing products, you know, when you speak to 10 women in your life and ask them is do they face dirty toilet situation when they're traveling by railroad Metro or long haul flights and answer will be? Oh, yes, there are no friendly toilets for women. You ask them during pregnancy and arthritis, it is difficult for you to stand in to find a toilet which is where you know, you can sit and standing easily and the answer will be no, there are hardly any toilets available like that. But when you tell them when you can really stand and pee, there is always that you know a little bit of that. Yeah, the idea sounds exciting. It's excellent, but will I be able to do it?
Krishna Jonnakadla 04:52
So it's a habit changing product, but still, I think Indian women have surprised me. They have been swept off feet because till date about 2 billion units of Pee Buddy have been sold. And today who women are runners, marathon runners, strikers, joggers, swimmers, a lot of doctors prescribe it for during pregnancy and arthritis. So in India, I would say about 2 million units in the last three and a half or four years of our being.
Krishna Jonnakadla 05:18
And that is fabulous. More power to women.
Yeah, well, thanks to ton. Yeah, it's all because of them only. And similarly, if you look at the menstrual hygiene range, you know, there are these countries how've always spoken about pads as a product. While we were one of the first one of the strongest advocates for usage of menstrual cups as a product. Again, it's a habit changing product, you're used to pads which just you just slap them on on your panties and keeps absorbing the blood. Women are also some of them are used to tampons, but menstrual cup is a different ballgame altogether. And in Sirona,we have converted about 300,000 women to our cups in India alone, which means tons and tons of non degradable waste saved from going to landfills. And at the same time, so I mean three lack women have chosen, you know, like I would say a better alternative to what they are already using. So those two, I would say appeals wherever I feel proud of. And other than that, yes, we sell about 45,000 or ship about 45,000 orders every month. And that also with just one order, so so all that skill is okay. But I would say the two numbers, which I would feel really happy about, because this is where you've actually made a difference.
Krishna Jonnakadla 06:28
This is the impact.
This is yes, I would say this is the closest to impact as a word that we get,, I mean when we don't use the term much. I mean, what we say is, how many lives are we able to touch. Yeah. So if lady is pregnant, if there's somebody who's suffering from arthritis, if there's somebody whose immunity is deficient, and they don't want to contract any sort of infections, while on the go, and if Pee Buddy comes to the rescue, I mean, our day is made and we've had a lot of testimony that's coming go through that route, and there are women who have PCOS, PCODs, who were tired of you know, just scouting for pads at the last hour, our cups helped them. Then we also heard from some waste management agencies saying how, because of, you know, I mean, the way to go forward for India if possible should be the cups than the pads. So yeah, that's how that's how we look at how, what people have been able to do.
Krishna Jonnakadla 07:21
That's awesome. In fact, my wife is one of the earliest adopters of the cup. And a couple of years ago, she discovered it, and there was obviously a bit of a learning curve. And she loved it so much her father's village, which is 100 odd kilometers from Bangalore. She said, You know what, this is something that women struggle with. In fact, the taboo is so strong that obviously women are supposed to be confined to a space and not come out, right. So those are some beliefs around it. So when you go to the villages, it takes on a completely different meaning some sort of an untouchable kind of meaning for those four or five days. She said, there is something I want to help with, would you support us donating a few hundred cups? So we did that we sponsored that a couple of years ago. Yeah. And the funny thing is, sorry so you were saying something.
Please go ahead, you finish that, it's a beautiful loop.
Krishna Jonnakadla 08:13
Yeah, I was saying my wife is not a very outspoken lady, but for her to come forward. In fact, you should have seen her being out there talking to all these young, high school girls and women and telling them and giving them confidence, saying that, hey, you know what, I'm a little bit of an introverted shy girl like you. But that should not stop you from doing anything of this sort. This is highly hygienic. And she shared her own experience. And then I was elated. So to see you do this at scale is really truly rewarding. In many ways. I believe, we underestimate the kind of inconveniences these sort of things cause so yeah.
You know, you should thank her on my behalf, infact on the entire teams behalf, we have 50 of us who would love to speak to her, you know, and get her feedback, because we also do our, so, you know we have three tenets on the company side like we go after problems which human face intimated mensurational hygiene unaddressed on the product side. Good for her, good for environment, good for society. Now why I have brought this up is, when our good for society we work with, what we do is we take money out of every product that we sell, and we use it to fund our own paid forward campaigns. And one of the campaigns which is the closest again, I would say to a heart is when we work with traffic sex workers, and we give them pads, oh sorry, we gave them our cups at no cost to them. And we do it in a Delhi and we had a project done in other parts of the country. We're also doing a project in Malawi right now as we speak. And this is all that we've been telling so many policymakers at least whoever we are in touch with that, you know, cups is the way forward on the space specially for the marginalized and the ones who are you know, at the bottom of the pyramid, so, I'm a hats off to her to have done this on our own and we would love to maybe if she has any more villages or any more unique communities which she feels she can impact. We'd love to donate it because we do it we anyways do it.
Krishna Jonnakadla 10:07
Absolutely, I'm sure we can facilitate that and help you take this forward a lot more. It's an impact product. It's not necessarily an exciting product for the one that is solving it is definitely exciting because I can imagine the kind of freedom, right, there's freedom, in fact, being liberated from you know, this monthly event that women go through the kind of exhilaration that they may be experienced, they must be experiencing in their lives. How did you hit upon?
See it all started with the Peebuddy as the first discovery for us, I come from events as a background 2006 to 2010 it was events. 2011 to 2014, I was into handmade carpets with my wife. And it was at the end of 2013 that I started talking to her saying, you know, I want to do something which is a little more than just now selling because events also all throughout. I was in the sell selling side of the business. I exited it that was 2010 for the reason that I was unable to create any IP that I was proud of. So I've been my partner 10 years my senior, I still love the guy, you know, he was he would always think that why, why, why you want to do something else while the business was doing very well. And I told him, you know, this was just wasn't exciting. And then I got into handmade carpets because I had to do something and I had to run the house and, and that opportunity came along and she was anyways planning to start it started international hospital division. It stabilized in a couple of years. And towards the end of it, it was at a stage where I thought now it's time for me to do something for which I actually left events. So it was on a road trip in 2013 meant four couples were traveling together. And I was having fun with everyone saying seem so blessed. We can drink whatever, do whatever. And the girls can't even drink on road trips, because they're always where are you finding an unfriendly toilet on the way. So that stage of friends by Stacy that she'd seen someone in Europe use a plastic makeshift contraction to stand and pee. In fact, I think if I remember correctly she said there was a bottle that she saw being cut in half and that woman stood and pee. So it's it's not that men are any superior women can also do it. So that joke somewhere I think it like the great Steve Jobs said you can it's only in hindsight that even joined the dots. This must have happened so my days at events where we would organize large scale concerts, and because I was in sales, disinter Luqman, conceptualizing stage, customer experience was very close to me and one could not no matter how hard you try the porta potties can never be getting after half an hour or one. Right then I'll during our pregnancy that you know, and we had we'd had one miscarriages before that. So it was a very sensitive, second attempt at it. And we had to travel in her eight month and that's not a month where you suggested to travel too much. You're scared of infections, you're scared of any emergency but we had to travel. And I remember, you know, we couldn't do and afford back then. But I upgraded a flight from Delhi to Dubai for this particular meeting and toilet again, it's common toilet, they got bad. And my mother had arthritis. So in the knees, so when when she just said it, and it appeared in the realm of possibilities, while everybody laughed it off, I thought, well,if this is a possibility, what why is it not here? You know, what, why can we not have it here? Why cannot, I not do something about it. And so that's how the whole the first thing started, Pee Buddy came into being, I decided that I'll exit whatever else I was doing. I had committed to another project, which I exited, registered the company in 2015, when we got a design patent, and 2016 onwards started scaling this business, and from one product lead to another to third to fourth to fifth. So that's how it evolved yar. And period pain, for instance, was something that Rashi would experience. And now that you've solved one part of the problem, you know, you would get a lot of happiness if you know customers started sharing great feedback. A lot of customers started sharing what other issues other facing and how they wanted us to solve. So that's how one thing led to another, as they say is a history in the making still.
Krishna Jonnakadla 14:06
Man that's heady stuff. So let's dive in a little more into the product development itself. If you watch Batman or while that is a dramatized version of Arunachalam Muruganantham, the real here, real Batman, the first time I watched his talk was on this platform calling talks we maybe about a decade ago, and I literally had tears in my eyes because of the amount of misunderstanding that came about between him and his family and his mother and when he was accused of being a pervert and things like that. Yeah. So given that this is such a touchy and a sensitive topic. What challenges did you face in the design and actual creation of the initial product itself?
So you know, when I started about this, there was never a blueprint business plan available. I think because events also from zero to whatever we are doing was scale and carpets also I started from zero, they were always that part of me which knew that things will take time. So that unsaid acceptance to the fact that it is difficult it is very, very challenging that acceptance was anyways there. So there were no there were no eggs, and that's where they're going to expectation to say this will be overnight success. Yes. They were hopes that people would be more open to this, because when I did my focus groups, initially with hundred women and we asked them, is this a problem? It was availment hundred percent? Yes. Not even one said, it's not a problem. And I proposed a solution. They said, oh, wow, Yes, why not? But when it came to trying, there were still innovations and they still are, you know, because it's something that you're not used to. So and initially it was all the more difficult because not only was the concept new, you know, coming from a team of men trying to solve it was there. How do you sell where do you sell, I took it to certain stores who just It's a gag product shoot us away and and then things started to up to get better with time when doctors and some of these event companies started to see value in it. But challenges Yeah, and so media was initially shy to write about it because it had the word pee in it. Obviously, there were a lot of jokes about, you know, I this is some I remember once of this leading publication did a story on us on BBC, actually. So on the Hindi version of the story, on the English version, I got a lot of praises, you know, because it all I reached out to all the millennials, and I would say, the urban India, and the Hindi version of had the best of gallis. They said, you know, what kind of privileges you're giving to our women, this is against our tradition, this against our values, and what not. So, it came to a point where, you know, first of all media was not writing the media that wrote the Hindi one backfired, I won't say backfired, but it was not in good taste, right. I was just trying to solve a problem. Then there were stores which are not willing to keep it and team was difficult to get by sales were very, very low. So yeah, and it shows obviously in India, it's challenging when you're trying to do something really habit changing. So the list is long, my friend, I mean, I can't really pinpoint one. But those were some of them.
Krishna Jonnakadla 17:15
Interesting. But the product development itself right, Deep, this is not a product, one creating products in India, designing them, 3d printing them and then trying out various versions. It's not exactly India doesn't have a huge ecosystem of things like that, while there are successful companies that is on the one hand, right. So on the other hand, obviously is, you know, a product of this sort needs more than one person to try it on and then tell you, Hey, you know what, this works, there is no leakage. I don't feel any of that. So that's the initial part and then comes when the product really goes out into the wild. How does the world perceive it? What sort of initial established notions does it challenge so looks like you make it look like you know, like Hanuman you just flew all over those, all those challenges, but we'd love to for you to take a deep dive and see how you solve them. How did you come out on top of that.
See you know, I think that's why you There is a reason why you would not get a lot of negatives or you know, sad stories from me because I don't really keep a track of it as a habit, you know, we need one good thing of the day that happens. And the organization level also that's a habit that when are you sending a report every day has to have a closure, which says one good thing of the day and it doesn't need to be work related. And and that's how we've been we've I would say designed ourselves or, or coded ourselves to, to not really look at things which pull us down because for every 10 things that pull us out there two to three good things that you know, change our orbit. So I would really have to deep dive into bad, it has been many I mean, you know, it's obviously financially, it gets training at the customer level initially it was about because you know, you were still doing it with friends. I had about 10 old friends, you know who I mean these are women who have who are happy to try the pilots we took we made a lot of shapes we initially took you know the freedom if you remember back in the days when have you ever ran out of fuel on your bike?
Krishna Jonnakadla 19:08
Yeah many times.
Yeah so I have I think so many times that has happened so that funnel is there because see the minute it entered in the realm of possibilities that it is a possibility through a funnel, so bottle was always there as an inspiration right? Boats were there you we had ship I mean though the boats that we used to make right, many shapes. So once it came to shape, initial few lots were you're right, there was no 3d printing. They distill the ecosystem is I would say rather poor there to be able to develop something from scratch or at least I'm not very well still connected. So initially it was about all the cardboards and paper cuttings that we did. And then we did we do a regular printer to say you know, this is cardboard and when if you can print out the cartons and boxes just printed, cut it, paste it in the shape and give it to me and a lot of dresses soiled, lots of friends who initially, you know, gave their feedback to, for the final shape to be what it was and then and then rest rest followed. So at the initial stage yes, there were challenges on developing the product getting them to try it. And every failure in the design meant that you're going back to the drawing board. And so it took about a year, year and a half before this final shape was was zeroed in on and at the business level I already shared that media would not write because it had pee stores initial days. I'm saying after that I think media is the only thing which has built us into what we are today. And stores had problems, themes, all of those issues I've already shared here, but it will be very difficult for me to pinpoint some more gory stuff.
Krishna Jonnakadla 20:47
Well, their intent is not to force you to relive those memories. It's anything but that and it's awesome that you have such a terrific attitude that when you have a bunch of things that happen to you the average reaction needs to remember the bad thing that happened and forget all the good things that happened. But as opposed to that true to the saying that you should count your blessings looks like that's what you've done. So all the more power to you. But you just said that when you initially conceptualized this your wife was carrying so along new product new child at that time must have been pretty challenging.
So yes have you know when you're trying to do something which is so much extreme in nature, you know, your revenues don't come so for the first few years, it was all our savings that we lived off or or the business you know, the carpet business that took it, it takes its own set of toll on your mental health. So yeah, I mean, that's thanks to great family that one has that one was able to see through and today there are you know, investor interest coming from there and then we are picking. So, you know, like I said, because I write these some of these things down. So bad days, I don't put them multiple good days. That is something that you know whenever one I would have a not so good day you know whether it is about people copying the products or people leaving or you know other stuff happening I would I would think of like you said the blessing so I remember one day we were just sitting there thinking how much more money will this take? We are not making any money we're just investing it's gonna sell, is it too ahead of its time that we have we had customers no two ways about it, but were they enough to sustain an organization where they were enough to just make it into a business No, they were not many. So one fine day we got a call from this organization which organizes large marathons I had written to them, spam them but there was no reply. And the CEO of the of this organisation called Pro cam international DJ, I remember him categorically one of the few people who helped us initially and he flew me down to Bombay at a day's notice. And he bought Pee Buddy and give it to all the women, complimentary who were running the marathon. This is Standard Chartered Bombay Marathon and then Airtel Delhi marathon happen, TCS Bangalore marathon happened and stuff like that. Yeah, I mean, it is something which makes it worthwhile. Also in my case, because now when I when I talk to some smart people who want to start up, I tell them that you know, in my case the theory that has worked is I have these three rules that I follow and I don't know if I can take if I've if I have overstepped on that do you want me to share those or?
Krishna Jonnakadla 23:17
Do ahead please do.
So So when they asked me that what kept us going so I said when I when I started one thing that I had realized by then was anything in my case particularly takes about thousand days before I cracked it. And I'll give you an example with events first couple of three years it was like it was blood pot. Last two years we made good money I was able to buy a house I had enough money to invest into the carpet business and started carpet to do the same thing happened first couple of years, bloodshed, you know, it was a lot of tears, a lot of ups and downs. You know, your relationships take a toll because husband wife in the same business. I started another startup in the home healthcare space, which tanked so by the time it was time to do Sirona hygiene, by the time it was Pee buddy, one thing was clear on the, on the wall that you know anything that I gave thousand dedicated days, anywhere when I was able to brave it all to say, everything will happen, you know, there'll be no funds will be no funds to pay salaries, you'll have to take a loan and use travels, people will copy, everything will go wrong. But if you're able to see first 1000 days you will too. So I had somewhere that you know, established by them. So that is the first advice that I give to anybody who comes to me to say, what does it take to startup and I said 1000 day commitment is the first, second is a commitment to yourself to say that, you know, no matter what happens, I will try to stay away from analysis, paralysis, and I'm not God I will not get all the decisions right now. Just you take decision, some of them go right, some of them go wrong. And that's the only thing as long as you do it with your best interest with the best intent and give it all that you have. You're good. So thousand days, you're not God, things will go wrong. Don't be too harsh on yourself. Unfortunately, in our country, failures are not celebrated. It's only success. So that's your second pack with the devil to say, I will take decisions, I will not be married to the outcomes. And honestly, third is to keep yourself positive no matter what, no matter what that's, that's your biggest role as an entrepreneur. So in my case, those three because that is so deeply entrenched in the system, I tell it to my team members, and trying to implement it by saying their daily reports need to have good thing of the day, if they don't send it, I don't count it as a day work days work done, no matter what they've achieved. And all of that is made us into, you know, this organization, which tries to look out, look out for good things that happen. And that's my advice to anybody who's trying to start up.
Krishna Jonnakadla 25:35
Terrific, terrific. This is awesome stuff, I guess without this sort of temperament. I don't think you would have gotten this far. So let's switch gears a bit and talk about the initial scale journey itself when you launched, how was the initial launch? Obviously, you talked about the marathon already? What sort of acceptance beyond what the media said? What sort of acceptance did you see what sort of initial reactions do you see? And there is always this hype cycle and a death valley sort of thing, right? Initially it generates some momentum some interest. And then you see a fall in the interest eventually, the until some solid interest picks up. Did you see that sort of thing happened with your products as well? Or Peebuddy?
Yes, in the case of Peebuddy that had happened. So with the marathon, we thought that whenever we would be at these marathon, the sale would go up, and then it just died out because even those people are talking about for a while, it became very specific as a case to say that, you know, during running or when you're stepping out you use it, the pregnancy and arthritis side of it was not coming out. So we took it to the doctors in Delhi NCR and they also solve more merit in it, and they started prescribing but yes the numbers were low. So in the case of Peebuddy, though, the writing was clear on the wall that this is a big issue. Because Rome wasn't built in a day. Even this product wouldn't be. So we kept at regular intervals, tried activities, to keep our customer's reminded of a bigger concept. And because we didn't have a lot of money, we still don't. And it's all a customer built organization. Last two years we've been back there. So the focus has always been trying to use elements where we know it will, it'll reach the right audience at the most affordable rates possible. So we've created a lot of viral content, I would say we have created content that has gone viral. And that has resulted in those spikes. Now first year, it was very, very drastic, like whenever we do something in the digital world, the sale would go 10X and then it will just fall down. And now and now it has become a little more stable. I'd say that I'm happy with the way brand has been growing year on year. So our yardstick is year on. I have been done better year on year on PeeBuddy as a concept are we adding new customers are we adding new markets similarly for you know, Sirona and bodyguard.
Krishna Jonnakadla 27:48
Interesting. In fact, first time that I actually heard of your product was last year and when we were about to go on a Europe trip, and I have two kids, I have a 12 year old daughter and a son who's seven year old, right seven years old now, but he was six years back then. And when we googled and researched about Europe, toilets, and the fact that you need to pay and maybe occasionally they may not be accessible was something that came up. And that is when we actually discovered the product PeeBuddy. So at that point in time, I never imagined that I would be speaking to you and then having you on our show. But there you go.
Thank you so much.
Krishna Jonnakadla 28:26
So when did you hit 10,000? When did you hit your next hundred thousand? What were some of the first few milestones that you hit and gave you the confidence that this is not going given the size of a country and the problem that exists? You definitely have, you know, miles to go, but otherwise, for you to say that, hey, this is a real thing. This is going to be a stable business. This is achieved some sort of breakout when did that sort of realization happen?
I'd say first year wasn't even 10,000 units and second year must be 30,000 odd units. It was only after I would say the third year, by third year was half a million for instance you know and after that it just kept going the realization came in at a point where I when we took it to our so we were not you know looking to raise any capital in this business to be honest speak and in one of the events we pitched at this show called Tie the knot, it's called CNBC Young's young turks tie the knot, and that's where we got the investor interest active investor interest, you know, we pitched like we were amongst the top five. And once more and more people came in, you know, in the deep is when, you know, the confidence started to rise. In some cases, a lot of influencers started writing about us on their own. So that was, I would say, the second milestone for us. And yet there's been plenty of you know, events where we have put up our stalls and I've had crazy response like in the case of Pinkathon, which is an all women's run. In eight cities, we created standing urinals and every, every city we've had 700 to 1000 women who just use those washrooms to stand n pee with Peebuddy. And so, so some total of, you know, all these things put together has helped us you know, realize that this is just not a product it is it's something which can become a part of your lifestyle. And similarly for other products like every year, it's just going from strength to strength.
Krishna Jonnakadla 30:27
Awesome. I wanted to say this a few minutes ago when you talked about the thousand days and I totally agree with you. That's been something that has happened with me as well. If I'm working with something embarking on something, the first two years almost nothing happens and all the magic only starts happening in the third year maybe towards the end of the third year. The most famous story is that of Airbnb, which and YouTube has a video saying the first thousand days of Airbnb in fact their own breakthrough came out after being in existence for thousand years, sorry 1000 days.
Yeah. And then there is no other way at least, you know, if we were that lucky, maybe would have born in, not lucky, I would say if it was supposed to be that money would not be a challenge. And you can do whatever maybe would have been born in those investor families. But in my case, it has been these three and even on staying positive, you know, it is that's another thing you know, during these three years, so three years so it will take that's a given. But during these three years, how you do what what do you do to ensure that you know, at the end of the day, we are all energy? So right we all made up of energy. And and your team members, your employees, your family members, everybody can sense when there is tension there. So it has to be a sum total of it has to be like a combination of these three things, always to say, thousand days decisions, right wrong, positive positive and positivity to what lengths I want to stay positive like.
Krishna Jonnakadla 31:55
Yeah, you should maybe maybe a couple of instances where your whole belief system about staying positive was truly tested or maybe pushed to the limits. Can you share?
Yeah, well, it is. I wouldn't say that it was it was challenged, but I would say where it brought me out, maybe I could share those experiences. One was at the time when it started, there was a there was another co founder, who left abruptly and we learned later that he was trying to do something similar and that was a huge, huge blow was you know, not only you lost a friend, and you also lost a partner, right. And at that stage, also, it was this fact that, you know, I need to not let this get to my head, which which kept me going then there were times when somebody copied the product blatantly, there was time when an investor who took out all the information will went ahead and invested in the competition. And, and like, it's like I said, it's not one, and the word is more important, how do you deal with it so and then there were times when there were some advisors who would get to just get too toxic buying trying to draw a comparison. And in all these things whenever I would be faced with it, the third thing, which is just to stay positive came in. And one of the ways how I learned to deal with it was when I met this monk in New York named Dandapani, have you heard of him?
Krishna Jonnakadla 33:16
Yeah, of course.
Yeah, he talks about this concept of energy vampires. Right. And, and that I've read it, I don't write, I don't do anything. But for this, I actually wrote an article on medium too, which had that, you know, do you have energy vampires in your life? Because that concept resonates so much with me, anybody who has toxic bosses, or, you know, if you're trying to start something up, or if you have a lot of people giving you advice, you must know, you know, read more about this concept of energy vampires. And I just keep going back to this to say, Is this my wellwisher or is this an energy vampire? If it's an energy vampire, just step back, and because you just cannot deal with them. So that's the that's the mantra that I try to follow as a part of the three rules that categorize people if possible in as vamp as energy vampires or people who would positively impacted.
Krishna Jonnakadla 34:12
That's awesome. There's only so much you can do. You know, you'd rather spend your energy on something that matters to you. And instead of fighting someone that you shouldn't even be doing in the first place, right?
Don't realize, it could be your cousin. So again, to lose stress upon because this is something which, which I feel very strongly about is it's I all energy, right? Its a way you just enter and you instantly light up, there are people you speak to you feel positive, all the energy consciously, subconsciously, your energy is aligning with their energies, right? And an example of this for a fact that in my very close cousins face, it's his mom who keeps on talking about him, you know, getting married and 10 other expectations and whenever he would talk to her, he would just come down the drain. So, so similarly, you might not even realize that in your life, there might be somebody who is saying things for your benefit. But it doesn't align with yourself and an example of this could even be in Mahabharata if you've heard about it. So, there was Krishna, Arjun and there was Karan and King Shalya, there were two warriors. So, Arjun was on one side and Karan was on the other side and Arjun had Krishna as his charity and Karan, who was a more decorated warrior or a better Archer, or more potential everything had King Shalya as his Archer as his charitor. And whenever Arjun would be in any sort of doubt, Krishna would bring him out in a very good way by saying, you know, I know you're so blessed you're so good, you're doing great you will be fine, is just to draw an example. And on the other side, in the case of Karan, King Shalya would always tell him about places where he was lacking. And it's all energies. So, very important. You know, no matter what you're doing, to have that list, ready and keep referring to it. They say let our energy not yet negatively impacted no matter what it is.
Krishna Jonnakadla 36:04
That's a terrific example. In fact, are there people that actually lift you up or put you down? Right? I think it comes down to that.
Yeah. Absolutely, absolutely. There are, am full of them. There are couple of people in my life who I can't avoid, but I have to take, I have to take their call and you know, but now at least after I have been exposed to this concept, I know where to put them. You know, it's not it's, it's the difference becomes in reacting and responding, right. I mean, you do not need to react, you do not need to engage. I still err at times, I would still react, I would still, you know, retaliate. But I would say the episodes have come down to seven, seven on 10 like seven times, I'll be quiet three times, I will retaliate. Earlier it would be 10 on 10 and then it will give me a headache for three days. So yeah, and the people who lift me positively, absolutely, my team does. So if I'm having a bad day, I'll just sit with some of the, you know, people in the team and, and they're great. my kids too I have two daughters one is eight and the other one is two, great for me my wife, for instance, my co founder, who's also my brother, these are people who lift you up positively. And there are some, I absolutely who are the bones in my life.
Krishna Jonnakadla 37:19
Good to know that you're surrounded by a set of people that you can rely on when you're down. I in addition to avoiding toxic people, I personally follow another piece of advice, which is, I call it the fruit on the tree principle, or rather, it's not what I call it to someone else that I used to know call it the fruit on the tree principle. It just goes like this. If you want an orange tree, you go to an orange. If you want an orange, you go to an orange tree. And if you're ill you will go to a physician or a doctor right so many times for instance, my mother has been a big source of encouragement and then big influence in my life and she has inspired me to do great things. But when I started up in India several years ago with my brother, and there were some misunderstandings that crept in, my mother came up with all sorts of advice and that at that point in time, I realized that she doesn't understand what we are working on. And moreover, she doesn't have the fruit on the tree. So I just plainly told her, see you don't understand what we are doing. So one aspect is getting advice from the right people. And I check whether they have the fruit on the tree. So if they've done something that I think I'm doing right now or attempting, and they have some experience, then that advice is a lot more valuable. And the second thing is, are they my well wisher or you know, energy vampire metaphor that you used. So when you combine the two, that can be a great filter for you to stay focused and make sure that you only get the right people and the right advice in your life.
Absolutely. There's no other way and you know, I mean, the second one also when I say that one thing that I realized that we are not God, we will take this in we'll go right and wrong. This if you can even implement this to a certain extent, and I still struggle to do it, there are times when, you know your insecurities would come in what if this goes wrong? What What if? What if? What if? What if it's really get down to what is? What is our only? You know that they aren't you to arch, our social network that we have around us. If they tell you go ahead, take decisions, they will go right they will go wrong, no problem. Imagine how confident will be they know that is the reason why no innovation, if you really look at it beyond a point, we've stopped innovating as a country I think or at least I believe I feel so because we just don't we are risk averse. We are so so risk averse. You know if something just keep doing this and because you know the minute it goes wrong, there are 100,000 people who would come and tell you see I told you so. So the thing here is that if you have to actually there are the days hey listen to I told you so because you also cannot get everything right all the time, might as well do stuff which gives you happiness. Yeah.
Krishna Jonnakadla 40:03
Totally, totally. I definitely agree with you that we are far, far away from what we call as innovation. And LinkedIn is all the rage now about how Jio may have seems to have copied soon. Yeah. But you're absolutely right for a nation of 1.3 billion people for the challenges that we face on a regular basis. We aren't doing nowhere near enough. And the funny thing is, I lived in the states for more than a decade, and I have always had an opportunity to contrast between the two, the economic system in the states is very, very unforgiving. You will very rarely find people loitering around you know, sitting and not doing anything. Whereas in India, it's just the opposite. But I for one feel maybe we have too much security, and I don't know in which class of people because the insecurity is what forces them to go out and look for things, and then we have so many classes of people that have some degree of security, you can live by with so little money that people don't even have the basic encouragement to innovate. I totally agree with you. So let's talk about your employee side. And the culture side of it, was was it ever a challenge to attract people? Because this is more of a mission, right? One is a product. The other thing is, whether you like it or not, there is an impact aspect built into it. And in order for that, to continue until it becomes mainstream and no longer a taboo, it will in some sense, take on the tones of a mission. Was attracting people ever a challenge or if not, how was the journey of attracting a good team of people?
So I think this is getting the right guys on board is an ongoing process. There is no one day where everybody came together. But in my case, I would say that I've been again, very, very lucky. God has been extremely kind to have sent people who, who are somewhere aligned to the vision more than what, you know, our company is usually seen as you know, we're just not a product company. You know, we're here when we talk, we talk about bringing a difference. We talk about breaking taboos talk about, you know, having responsible products, paying it forward. And I think some of those things when you start when you talk little early in your life, in the journey, not many people buy it, because what they can see is what you've done. Now, you know, there are a lot of people who join us because of the journey, what we've covered, but initially people were only joining because of whatever I said so I'm glad that some of them took that leap of faith. And you know, six, seven of them have been there from day one. And those are the guys on which this whole organization is built was a difficult yes it is. Because when you look at good talent, it's very difficult for you to afford them initially. The talent which is coming with you with a lot of passion might not necessarily have the right experience. So you start afresh. And as you start going so now hiring is not a challenge, to be honest, earlier days, it was a challenge because it was a story, it was a story to say. So, you know, there was so many things which were just not in line with the regular is taking appetite of a person, a new concept sold by a man who has no experience in this. There is no money in the sense you know, we were not funded, we bootstrapped it for the first couple of years and working out of a not non office like the first office was at Rashi's office, my wife's office was the office and then the second was in a village, we are still in a village area, but now the office at least is a little fancier. So there were challenges but I think somewhere people saw that, you know, what he's trying to do or this team is trying to do is just goes beyond selling the product. So initially, that is the thing that attracted people. Then slowly and steadily the fact that you know, media also started to talk about us we touchwood last three, four years was have been very, very good for us in terms of recognition that we bought, whether in terms of awards or coverages, and now people are seeing that it's not about the product, per se, it's about the mission of the organization. So now it's not that bigger challenge. But like I said, we still look at the good things. So good things were that we were, we were able to hire and build this thing. We're about 50 of us, so super proud of each and every one of them.
Krishna Jonnakadla 44:26
Interesting. The story and the conviction with which you talk about in the beginning is what attracts some people, do you have a hiring philosophy? What sort of people do hire?
So the only philosophy there is you know, I mean early or even now, the thing that we say very upfront to people is that except for I mean, you know, we can tolerate anything but lies you know, so here, the culture says that even somebody is going on a date. They tell me Listen, I'm not going home because I'm unwell. But because I have a date you know, so that's clarified in the first, before we give an offer letter that clarify that listen, unless there is absolute faith and trust on each other, this is not to be called off no matter how good a performer you are, if he catch you lying, this is it, I mean, this will be over. So and we've and we have set many examples like that. So that's the only hiring philosophy we don't really look for you to have any experience on the field. As long as you feel about what we're doing. We genuinely are here to solve issues with the products or with the services that solve that issue not might not necessarily be a big money spinner for us. So if you're align to that if you're aligned to go on field so to give you an example, this girl who joined us as an intern, came back and joined us full time and today she is the one who takes care of our paid forward campaign. She goes to GB road which is a traffic light area. Before COVID she was regular, now she's not going but she loved what we have doing so much that she would go brothel to brothel and speak to these with didi's and get them to come on to get out to cups instead of rags and everything else that they were using, imagine for a city girl parents in Delhi or expect she did her BCA and after that she's doing this on the field. And these people then sell their stories to their parents on their own. And that's the only thing we look for. We look for common common values system to say, come back with products that will help so yeah, that's the philosophy and hiring, please never lie. And second, do you also believe that we need to do something about the space? If the answer is yes, we have a game on.
Krishna Jonnakadla 46:43
Interesting. How do you uncover the value alignment? Is there something that you follow or is it a trial and error?
It is as of today trial and error. Also, we don't hire till we meet. We meet we look for certain things in the in the profile like I love to know about passions, I'd love to know about the hobbies. That's what we discuss. We usually do not discuss work. But yeah, it's just trying to understand if the alignment is there in something. So if you're passionate about anything, it could be music. How often do you practice? Do you keep going back to your you keep quitting. So small, small hints from there to there is no one formula though the psychographic text and all those other tests. I don't know how much so, you know, they work the headline team now does all that. But in my case, it is. It's more gut driven than, you know, any sheet talking to me.
Krishna Jonnakadla 47:33
Interesting, I like the no lying and the absolute trust policy. I remember, I think four years ago, we were recruiting a bunch of tech developers for our tech team. And we had shortlisted, we had already given online tests, we had shortlisted a bunch of people, we called in all of them for a face to face and you won't believe me, all of that those face to face communications were sent on a Thursday, on Monday morning, we get two calls from two separate people, we know for a fact that they are not related. They're not connected. One is from Kerala and the other person is from somewhere in Maharashtra. And both of them say, you know, my grandmother has passed away, and then we won't be able to make it to the interview. So I keep joking that in India, if only real grandmothers and grandfathers died as often as their grandchildren killed them, we would have possibly had a much lighter population right now. So, but the no line policies is that's the first time I'm hearing that and I totally agree with you that trust is such a bedrock of great performance. You can, having a great performer but untrustworthy or somebody who breaks your trust is definitely way way damaging, not then having an average performer who's trustworthy, right?
No. So we say this on day one, like I said before, once we hire that's the last thing I tell them. Earlier, there was a lot of melodrama in the dialogue. And I would say that because we are back then we were Salman Khan fans. So we would say that "hamein sirf do cheezon se nafrat hai ek jhoot or dusra jhoot". So as a joke, it wouldn't be said that, that spirit, but it has become a reality yar. So what I usually tell them is that I'm not a principal here. My job is not to keep an eye on you and see what you're doing. You are, you're helping me take this journey forward. So you are more accountable than I am on this one. So I have 100% trust and faith in what you are saying you're doing. They are no cameras, there are no bugs here, you know, to understand what you're doing. And eventually performance shows here. I think we've also gone wrong with this philosophy. Our trust has also been taken for a ride a couple of times, but we have gotten it right more than we've gotten it wrong. And because that's the philosophy we live by, we stick to.
Krishna Jonnakadla 50:00
Great. So two things I want to talk about one is the distribution part. Obviously this is a physical product and many times while online has definitely caught up, it has helped maybe a product of this sort, which is possibly more Metroish. While it is required by everybody but more Metroish. For example the outdoor while it doesn't obviously solve the defication problem to a great extent a lot of the outdoors can definitely be clean as a result of this people can have personal hygiene, how did your scale happen whether any distribution hacks that you did what was that journey like?
So we initially thought this will start selling from stores. So made offline distributors and, and that backfired? Online, there was no category so there was no category for female urination devices. So Amazon, Flipkart, Nykaa didn't know where to put them. So we got that category created and early on, I think 15 - 16 it was scared that e commerce was growing. Some of our customers are there and most of the issues that we were solving both for you know women who were stepping out of the house so because they're stepping out of the house they might have to change their pads at office so how do they throw it so we came up with disposal bags, for hygienic disposal. She might be at work might get down might get periods or might get pain so we came with the herbal period pain relief patches if she gets any sort of rashes and yes first natural anti rashes cream was created. So because they were all the product that made life for urban women easier we took the online route and that day also happens to be one of the major roots for us that's the distribution for us you buy the products on obviously PeeBuddy.in on the Sirona.com or obviously on marketplaces like Amazon, Flipkart, Nykaa and we still going strong, even internationally. In USA, UK, we were sticking to online as the primary mode of outreach for our pure B2C business. Now we also for our while, we do this we have not forgotten our, our promise to ourselves that we will not only impact lives of those who can afford our products but also those who cannot. So, we have three paid forward programs if you go to our website, the Sirona.com. And if you go to cause the three projects we done for traffic sex workers for the underprivileged, women and for adolescent girls and they are called Aan adya and you know, some and for all these programs, we take these to rural India and we talk about menstrual hygiene. A part of the core team, we have Dr. Diksha was part of our core team when she takes these classes on menstrual hygiene management and how to take care of it. We've done it in Rajasthan, Nepal recently in Malawi as well. So that's where the rural link is so there we are saying we will reach out to them through our own budget through our own pay forward to our own products. And for urban we will keep it online. We are there in some stores in NCR as well. But we are purposely not expanding offline as of now. It's a very expensive channel to grow.
Krishna Jonnakadla 53:04
Right. And from a funding perspective, how many rounds of funding have you raised so far?
Well, so like I said, first couple of years bootstrap. Then we raised one Angel round from Indian Angel network, which was for around $450,000, which was in Jan 2017. And in Jan 2019, we raise another 250 k round from that.
Krishna Jonnakadla 53:25
What sort of numbers were you showing when you raise these two rounds?
Oh, well, the first time first one we were not doing anything. I think we were doing the first round when it came we were doing around a crore a year. Then next time when we went to them we were doing that year I think we were on around of about seven crores Yeah. So now we're again, we're talking to a few funds for our series A we just deciding which , where do we have the right alignment with the investors?
Krishna Jonnakadla 53:50
Right. Awesome. You know, in our pre interview prep, I mentioned that I will talk about a product in Chicago O'Hare Airport usual commodes. Obviously in India, people, a lot of people don't pay attention on it, they don't even know how to use them. Because the airport gets so much traffic and Chicago airport being what it is the second or the third busiest airport certain points in time, there is a device that is attached to the seat. And what it does is it flips over a plastic covering. So when somebody finishes they have they just wave their hand at a sensor and then it flips over a plastic covering, which takes the hygiene to a next level. So I see that in India, even when there are toilets accessible, most of them are not hygienic at all. And they are very poorly maintained. God knows when we are going to realize that this is an area that requires a deep amount of support and commitment, shauchalaya campaign and all of that not withstanding, I don't think we've even solved this problem in any way meaningful. Your partially meaningfully even in urban areas yet, you know, forget the villages. So more power to you guys.
Thank you so much like I said, whether it's toilets or any femine hygiene issue, we are trying to constantly work on products to solve it. And that's why we exist. Yeah, that's the whole reason why the whole organization today is working.
Krishna Jonnakadla 55:19
So reflecting on your journey Deep, is there anything that you would change? I know you are a bit of a philosophical man, you know, I can tell, would you change anything? If there was something that you could change or do differently? What would it be.
It won't be anything to be honest.
Krishna Jonnakadla 55:34
I thought so.
I will take it the same way. Because again, we are, we are here we are, wherever we are, it could have been 10 X of this, it could have been, you know, 10 x minus of wherever we are. It's all the decisions that we've taken and these decisions I know, wherever they bought us and I'm you know, I'm in a happy state. Obviously, we have miles to go. We won't change anything here.
Krishna Jonnakadla 55:56
So what would the next five years look like now that you've established a firm footing what do you see in store for your journey ahead?
Well, I'd say an IPO in five years, presence in four countries, wherever we are selling small revenues in the neighborhood of about 150 to 200, crores that's all. We are able to reach that.
Krishna Jonnakadla 56:16
Awesome. Well, Deep I can definitely tell that you are an amazing blend of business acumen and product expertise and then impact as well all rolled into one you're multi talented, multifaceted personality and your philosophical underpinnings have obviously kept you going, brought you this far. It is one thing to do something for personal success but a totally different thing to positively affect millions of lives so awesome. It has been a fabulous conversation we enjoyed learned a lot and more importantly your demeanor and your positive attitude. Any closing thoughts for the listeners of Maharajas of scale in terms of entrepreneurs that are contemplating starting up doing something what would your advice to them be?
No. So on your first thought, thank you so much for being so kind with your words. It is actually a great conversation. We didn't plan it to go this way out of the things that we've picked on. So, so thank you for this. And the only piece of advice is guys, just stay positive and go for it. This there are no businesses, which are built on Excel sheets. Excel sheets never lie. So just go for it with a positive frame of mind. If you can find some good advisors or like I said, non energy vampires, find them embrace them. Go ahead, give it your best things will fall in place.
Krishna Jonnakadla 57:39
Awesome. Maharajas of scale, I'm sure we'll see PeeBuddy and Sirona scale greater heights post episode, I think we will kick off a couple of initiatives at a couple of villages. We will be there to cheer you and come back and interview you again to see what that vantage point looks like. And what new set of learnings and then experiences you have to share with our listeners. So have a wonderful day and we'll we'll talk soon.
You too. Thank you so much. It was an honor. Thanks a lot.
Nida 58:12 We hope you enjoyed this story. If this story made a difference to you, tell us by leaving a comment on the website or our social media channels. Help us spread the love by subscribing, liking and sharing our show. We welcome speaker suggestions and collaboration. Write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org