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Arunabh Sinha is an alumnus of the Department of Metallurgical Engineering and Materials Science and is currently the co-founder of UClean, a startup aimed at finding a solution to household laundry worries. In this article, he talks about his journey from working at a job to becoming a job-creator and his future plans
Q1. What was your motivation for entrepreneurship?
Well, I belong to Bihar/Jharkhand where entrepreneurship is generally looked down upon and kids are encouraged to focus on academics and later on ‘settle down’ or grow professionally. There has not been a single entrepreneur in my family or even in the extended family. So, truthfully speaking, entrepreneurship was never on the cards. I would go on to say that entrepreneurship found me and not the other way round. Prior to starting UClean, I was heading the north India business for a leading budget hotel aggregation chain in India and the biggest struggle that we faced there was laundry. As we struggled to solve this problem, I realized that there is a huge demand and the demand is being fulfilled by service providers who are least interested in quality and professionalism. This prompted me to start UClean to solve this problem and soon enough, we realized that the opportunity is much bigger than we could have ever estimated.
Q2 .What were the Career options available to you while choosing to start your own startup?
As I mentioned above, I was leading the North India operations for one of the largest budget hotel aggregator start-ups in India and would have continued with the hospitality industry
Q.3 What were the skills, knowledge and experiences from IIT Bombay that helped you?
I think the most valuable skill that I acquired during my stay at IITB was to hold your own under pressure. Most of the students who enter IIT, are generally toppers at their own schools and come with high expectations when they walk into IIT. But the competition gets really intense in IIT and you feel the pressure of an altogether different kind. You are no longer the star performer and no longer held in high esteem that you enjoyed at school. IIT life helps you get acclimatized to this pressure. Startup life, is pretty similar and sees numerous crests and troughs. So, the IIT ‘training’ really comes in handy and helps substantially in coping up with the pressure that comes associated with professional life or entrepreneurship.
Q.4 Are you a visionary like Elon Musk who has talks about Mars colonization? Do you have a vision in your mind for your startup?
I would be lying if I said Yes to this. The cleaning business that we are building is possibly the most unglamorous business anyone can think of and you would rarely find takers for a business that is aptly labeled by many as ‘Dhobi gone professional’. At this point, I am really focused on working closely with my team on building the laundry business, one store at a time, and overall lend some credibility and fashion to a business that has generally been looked down upon. In some not-so-distant future, we aim to build the largest service and product focused cleaning conglomerate globally which would be built basis the franchise model. As and when Elon Musk colonise Mars, we would love to be the first people offering laundry services to the colonies ☺
Q.5 What are certain pre notion/ myths of the startup world that you previously thought?
The biggest learning is that there can never be ‘The Perfect Business Plan’ for any idea. While we did spend a lot of time initially on crunching numbers and working out ‘paper scenarios’, we gradually realized these only seemed true on paper. Once we hit the ground to implement these ‘genius ideas’, several of them ended up backfiring. So you can’t obsess over a business plan. Another very common misconception is that Entrepreneurship allows you to be your own boss. Nothing could be farther from the truth. You are technically going to be reporting to and listening to a large number of stakeholders, most importantly, your customers, team and investors. And the biggest notion which has been debunked, is that ‘you are going to be rich’. I really hope it happens some day and that some day comes soon enough 😉
Q.6 Take us through different phases of peaks and lows of your startup journey.
We’re just 3 years old as a startup and are still going through the startup grind. So, the peaks and lows are almost like a daily affair. Since ours is a largely franchise based business, so our highs and lows are directly related to the highs and lows that our franchises face on a daily basis. Weekends generally translate into good sales for the laundry business while mid-weeks are consistently the toughest. Similarly, since the majority of the cash flow for the company comes from selling new franchises, the months where we fail to meet our franchise recruitment targets, there is an extra pressure on the cash flow. As an example, we recently had the ‘Shraadh period’ in September which is considered particularly inauspicious for the Hindus and not the right time to invest in a new business. Hence our franchise sign-ups literally trickled down to zero making it a heavy loss making month for the business.
Q7.How do you keep your confidence and spirit sustained to tackle the challenges?
It is never easy regardless of how old or young your startup is. In fact, the nature of challenge also evolves/changes based on the age of your start-up. It is just impossible to not get bogged down or perturbed every time a new challenge comes up but then ‘This too shall pass’ always works. Keep your head low, focus on the end goal and work relentlessly on resolving the challenges
Q.8 What were your experiences being with the team, like making consensus, examining ideas and driving them for a goal etc?
Hiring the right team is the single most important job for any startup founder, specially when the startup is as young as ours. This is one aspect of the business that we tend to focus on and the effort is always to recruit people who are ‘culturally fit’. It is easier said than done and we have also made multiple mistakes in the past. It tends to be a continuous learning experience where you keep iterating. As a bootstrapped startup, we have never had the luxury of hiring ‘startup rockstars’ as they were always unaffordable. So, the focus has always been handpicking champions from the laundry industry who are looking for that big break, training them and upskilling them from a startup perspective. During this entire process of upskilling, we work on setting up goals, visions and targets at an individual level which are in turn aligned with the larger organizational goals.
Q.9 Please share some interesting experiences of your journey that can inspire students.
One interesting anecdote that in a sense also breaks one serious myths that people have about tier 2/3 cities and the potential they present. When started UClean, everybody questioned us on whether a concept like this would work in lower tier cities and that professional laundromat service would be restricted to tier 1 cities which are more globally exposed. Frankly, this skepticism had also created doubts in our minds. So, with a lot of precautions, we had decided to launch in the city of Ranchi. Within a few weeks of Ranchi launch, we felt fully vindicated when we saw women in Ranchi proudly flaunting UClean bags at Kitty parties. They clearly wanted to send out a message to their friends that “We get our clothes UCleaned and do not get them washed at our homes”. This was in sharp contrast to tier 1 cities where we have seen our bags primarily being used to buy daily need goods like vegetables or trash bags. It was then that we realized that for lower tier cities, UClean has already become an aspirational brand while for tier 1 cities, we are positioned as a daily need brand. Today, I am very proud to share that our fastest growing and most profitable city pan India is Guwahati. So, I strongly believe that as long as your idea has power and is relevant, it doesn’t really matter where you start from.