If I were to tell you that you can get a better quality t-shirt as compared to more expensive brands wouldn’t you buy it, I did. I was also proud that the t-shirts I just ordered supports organic cotton farmers and is fair trade, made by a young startup No Nasties that’s creating quite a stir in India. The case Apurva Kothari, Founder of No Nasties made for his t-shirt was so compelling and true that it made me instantly grab my laptop to order a couple of tees from his website. No Nasties is a mission driven e-commerce startup from India that has done extremely well over the past years. Started with an idea to create awareness and a market for organic cotton within India, the startup is now selling tees worldover through its website. They’ve grown purely through word of mouth, creating a brand that makes people feel extremely good and proud of their purchase. From the farm to the people who makes the garment, No Nasties has carefully put together its supply- chain to make sure that every bit of their product is fair, organic and clean. The tees are made from organic cotton, produced in a factory that pays and treats its workers fairly, the dyes used are eco-friendly and even the label that goes on the t-shirt is made from recycled paper.
The brand has always inspired me, and I’ve written about them previously on Dutiee. I finally had the opportunity to meet the Founder to learn what it took to create such a lovable brand.
Deepa Chaudhary (DC): Tell us about yourself and how did you come up with the idea of No Nasties?
Apurva Kothari (AK): My background is in computer engineering. I’ve spent 12 years in technology management, working around the world, leading teams of startups and Fortune 500 companies. While I was in New York, I came across an article about farmers suicides in India. That article really got me thinking and to learn more about the issue. I started visiting India more frequently to understand the cotton farmers issue. I would meet with farmers, farmer co-operatives, factories, NGOs working with cotton farmers. I researched this topic for almost 5 years before I started No Nasties. What I realized is that there is a lot of work being doing on the ground level and an export oriented market for organic cotton but there was not much awareness and products for Indian consumers. So finally when it came time to move back to India, I decided to start a really cool conscious apparel company that would be based on the foundation of fairtrade and organic.
DC: You were an UnLtd India startup, what was that experience like?
AK: I met with Pooja Warier Founder of UnLtd India through a common friend and she opened a whole new world of social enterprise to me. I had just launched No Nasties then. UnLtd helped us formulate our vision, our theory of change and made us think about sustainability at every level. I’ve benefitted a lot from UnLtd’s mentorship and network. They’ve helped us with marketing, proof of concept, scaling up. We also received two grants from them.
DC: How big is your startup, could you share some growth numbers?
AK: In our first year we made Rs. 12 Lakhs, in our second year Rs. 20 Lakhs. This year our projection is to make 60 Lakhs, almost 3x the previous year. Our core team has grown from 3 to 8 people, most of the hiring I’ve done is in the past 9-10 months. We are now selling our t-shirts world over through our website. People love our t-shirts, the softness, the fit. I often get emails from customers that says, “I wear No Nasties or nothing”
DC: What was it like when you just started and what did it take to grow the idea?
AK:I launched No Nasties at Mumbai’s organic farmers market as I wanted to introduce the brand first to a community that valued organic and fair trade. From there we’ve just grown through word of mouth. We started selling through 8-9 retail stores as well as through our website. I wanted to grow the brand slowly and steadily, building a tribe as we grow.
My goal was to make the switch for shoppers really small. We wanted to meet the consumers where they are in terms of style, design, quality, without they having to give up much to adopt organic or fair trade.
Social Media has definitely helped to get the word out to more people. I’ve used Facebook, Google ads as an experiment, I haven’t really gone in for paid advertising. So far I’ve avoided selling through large online retailers like Flipkart and Amazon as I didn’t want to commoditize the brand. I wanted people to buy from our website, learn about the cause, and how their purchase is going to make a difference. We also haven’t actively tried to get press coverage but fortunately we’ve been blessed by press, with coverage in Economic Times, Indian Express etc. What’s really helped us besides our tees selling for itself is our honesty and transparency. We share our supply chain even with our competitors. Every order email has my name and my cell number for customers to call me directly. In the beginning we faced all the problems you can expect from a small startup. We had limited funds at the same time we had to invest in building a team for growth. Just the supply-chain continued to be a big struggle, as most of the fair trade, organic cotton suppliers were used to large export volumes. Creating a name in retail apparel, we had to make sure we had our story right.
DC: How did you fund your idea initially? Was it bootstrapped or you had an investor?
AK: I funded it myself. I did get a small grant from UnLtd India twice, INR 80,000 for the concept stage and INR 2 Lakhs for scaling up. The grant money kept us going for a while but wasn’t enough for us grow the way we wanted.
DC: What are some of the tech tools you use in your everyday work?
AK: We use Shopify to power our webstore, we’ve customized the template quite a bit though. Shopify has been great for us, I even consult others in India on how to use Shopify. We use Google Apps for key communications – Email, Calendar, Doc sharing. We use Workflowy a simple list management tool for managing projects. In the past we’ve tried using Basecamp and Asana but Workflowy has worked best for us and the traditional way of using post its and whiteboards always works the best. We were using Do.com tools but now we use excel to manage all our leads and customers. For inventory management we use Stitch Labs. Buffer for Social Media. MailChimp for Newsletters. Google Analytics to learn about our website activity.
DC: You do a fantastic job at presenting yourself on the web, everything from design to photos to copy. What’s your team composition like?
AK: Our core team comprises of 8 people – we have Felix managing Operations and who also doubles up as our Model. Vishal for Marketing and Customer Development. Chiara to measure impact and sustainability. Shweta is the Fashion Designer and Product Manager. We have Anushka and Nilofer as Graphic Designer and Photographer. We have Henning in Germany to help us expand internationally. I’m responsible for overall management and directly involved in design and branding. I write my own copy, 98% of what you see on the website is written by me. I write what is true to me. We do our photo shoots in-house, the models that you see on our website are our staff or friends and family.
We have a community of 14-15 independent designers who contribute T-shirt designs, we share 10% of the revenue with them.
DC: Which are some of the brands you look up to and would like to emulate?
AK: There are many brands that inspire us. We look for lot of inspiration from Patagonia. We love what Toms has done for community building and buy one give one movement. I love the story of Body Shop on how to become a successful business on strong values. Nudie Jeans for their amazing transparency. Pants to Poverty from UK does a fantastic job of creating awareness around farmers issues in India through their products. We take a lot of inspiration from them, on how to do serious work in a fun way.
DC: What advice do you have for entrepreneurs who are just starting off?
AK: Be true and do what makes you happy. As an early stage entrepreneur, you are going to put so much time and effort in your startup, your personal life is going to take a toll, you better make sure what you are doing makes you happy. This is one single metric that defines our success. Get started and figure it out as you go along. I was having a blissful life in Sydney, staying at Bondi Beach, traveling around the world. I had been thinking about starting an organic tshirts business for 5 years, I had notes after notes of design, marketing slogans but I wasn’t doing anything about it. Then one day while crossing a church at Bondi I saw this message that said, “First step to realizing your dream is to wake up”. That was a waking call for me, I left everything and came back to India to start No Nasties.