In today’s times of VCs and funding, would you believe if we told you that India’s first Ayurvedic Store started 16 years ago, in the year 1999, is presently operational and has consistently been profitable! This is the story of Faridabad based Nirogam.com, an online Ayurvedic store started by a college dropout which has reached out to more than a hundred countries and thousands of customers across the globe. This is the story of how staying lean is still a foolproof method to ensure success. This is the story of how an e-commerce store braved not one, but two bubbles in its lifetime.
Puneet Aggarwal was simply helping a lady with sending emails at Rs 25 per email with his basic knowledge of computers and coding when the Eureka moment happened. This lady had a breakthrough in diabetic medicine and asked Puneet if he would like to help her sell this molecule ‘Gourdin’. The rest, as they say, is history, but one that you ought to know about. Presenting a Digital Defynd exclusive conversation with Nirogam.com Founder and CEO, Puneet Aggarwal.
Q. From being an engineer to engineering alternative medicines. How did this change of heart and career happen?
A. I am a college dropout. In 1995, when I had a choice to become an Engineer, I was more inclined towards pursuing something in Tech/IT/Internet space which would help me make money. Back at home, my dad had financial problems and his factory had just closed down due to a labour strike. So I had to do something quickly. Hence, the need of doing a vocational training which would quickly enable me to become the breadwinner for my family.
From 1993, in my school days, I got in touch with a few people who introduced me to the world of BBS (Bulletin Board Service). I used to connect to these BBSes in Delhi (Delhi Online, Synapse) and quickly made a great, helpful set of friends. Come August 1995, India got blessed by the World Wide Web. VSNL started its first TCPIP Service. As we were the early adopters of the Internet, VSNL had asked a few of us to take classes in their Campus for new Internet account users. This probably ignited the entrepreneurial bug in me. Within a few months, I started searching for avenues to earn money using the WWW. I did some search and quickly became a reseller for a Web Hosting Service provider in Mumbai. We started reselling web space to people who wanted a website. Naturally, they would ask — can you also help us design a website. So I learned basic HTML and used to offer 2–3 page basic website for Rs. 5000.
While doing this, one of our clients, SPYM (Society for Promotion of Youth and Masses) introduced us to Dr. Pushpa Khanna, saying that she needs a basic web page to publish her research work. In those early days of Internet, Dr. Khanna wanted somebody to communicate with the universities and interact with them on the research work. I used to charge her Rs. 25 for each email sent. That got me some money to survive. After I made Dr. Khanna’s single-page website, a lot of people started sending me emails to inquire about the new molecule she had managed to isolate from the seeds of Karela.
As a sincere communicator and mediator, I would pass on all those messages to her. She just used to keep them and tell me “Abhi Waqt hai”.(It’ll take time) One day, she called me to her place and said “Puneet, my product(Gourdin) is ready. Would you like to sell it?” You can read the rest of this part of the story here.
Q. It was selling ‘Gourdin’ that triggered the entrepreneur in you. How tough was it to find acceptability in the online market for niche products like yours?
A. In the toughest of times, whatever makes you money is the one you cling on to. Jo cheez aapko sabse bure waqt mein rozi roti kamake deti hai, wohi cheez sabse zyada bhane lagti hai. So selling Gourdin made us money when we most needed it. Gourdin was a revolutionary molecule discovered for Diabetics. Diabetes is a huge problem, so finding takers was not a problem. While Dr. Khanna was doing research, she was writing to all the Universities. When she finally launched the product, we had all the database of past email recipients to which we did a broadcast. In the current scenario, this might be called email marketing. In those days, we unknowingly did it.
We priced the product at US$35 for 1 month. Considering that it was path-breaking, we found first few takers for it, and then we started getting traction with word of mouth. I must say that in 2000, marketing on Internet was easy in the absence of stiff competition. The PPC clicks on Goto.com (later acquired by Yahoo/Overture) were very cheap with High CTR.
Q. From when you started to now, a host of products and services are now sold online. How have the trends changed in your industry? (Is there more acceptability from customers now)
A. When I started back in 2000, there was no e-commerce in India. We never had plans to sell Gourdin in India back then. So the obvious choice was USA. It was the e-commerce boom in USA (the 1st wave). Plus there were not many sites selling Supplements back then. Hence, I must admit, we met with early success.
These days, with internet penetration, faster connections, dispensable income, more credit cards and mediums to pay, there is naturally better acceptability from customers. However, in Ayurveda, people want to adopt it but don’t know how to. They fear to take the first step, because they do not have enough choice of Ayurvedic physicians and even when they trust a doctor and go to him/her, they fear the consequence. What we need to do is educate them on the basics of Ayurveda. Ayurveda wants you to understand your body and bodily humors (Doshas) which would then enable you to choose some common kitchen ingredients and herbs to correct/balance/regulate that Dosha.
Specifically, in Ayurveda, we are trying to solve the discoverability issue. These days, it’s easy to Google and after every clinical visit to the doctor, you google whatever he has prescribed. If during your search, we are able to explain you how Ayurveda can help, I think that will be our winning stroke.
Yes, there is better acceptability but it is still far from what it should be.
Q. Which are some of the most frequently selling products of yours?
A. We find many takers for our Diabetes Kit, which is quintessential for diabetics and a lot of people also buy Curegarden daily defense pills to boost immunity. One major ailment that affects around 40% women is PCOD, and unfortunately modern medicine doesn’t have a direct answer for it. Ayurveda provides a classical remedy Kanchnar Guggulu to prevent the same. Along with this, people often opt for our Organic Chyawanprash among a host of other products.
Q. Which are some of the most unique herbs and medicines available on Nirogam presently?
A. Well, as you know Ayurveda is a life science based on your body constitution (Prakriti / Dosha), so we have Organic Dosha-based products. For example, we have a spice mix for all Doshas which when sprinkled over your food can help you regulate the vitiated Dosha.
Apart from the regular products for diabetes, hyper tension and arthritis, we have a smoking cessation product called BIGCIG, and other products for unusual ailments like Ovarian Cysts, Sciatica and Cervical Pain, Psoriasis, Eczema, and Varicose Veins.
Q. Consumers of which countries seem to have bought most from you over the years?
A. Due to deep penetration of the Internet, it was largely USA and UK.
Q. Raising funds seem fashionable these days, but you seem to have been profitable for long minus any external investment. What do you think are the key ingredients for building a lean organisation?
A. Back in 2000, neither did I know about startups, VC, funding, fundraising, or LEAN. All I knew as a baniya(businessman) was how much did I buy it for, how much did I sell it for, and what did I make? Simple Maths. Buy, sell, make profits, invest back, grow.
We raised debt from banks whenever we needed money to leverage on opportunities. First month, we sold 12 bottles, next month we sold 18 bottles, and we took each day as it came.
On the way, we have done enough blunders and every time we did a blunder, the learning was to come back to the same old traditional method. i.e. to focus on NETT NETT kya aaya kya gaya. (net profit and loss)
- Don’t spend more than you have
- Maximize resource utilization within the given budget.
Q. So what’s next for Nirogam and what other developments should one look forward too?
A. When Gourdin started selling like hot cakes, we knew there’s a gap in the alternative medicine space, which is waiting to be filled. We were very clear from the first day that the power of folklore medicine needs to be brought to the fore. Nirogam (earlier known as “HerbsCanCure”) was aiming at impacting each and every household and getting them to adopt their own indigenous medicine i.e. Ayurveda. Ironically, people don’t know where to start, or whom to ask. They want to adopt natural medicine, but don’t have enough access to resources. We make their discovery easier by giving them access to a pool of Ayurvedic doctors where they can seek advice and unhesitatingly in a jiffy, ask whatever they have been wanting to inquire.
In addition to that, we are also trying to source carefully-researched and ethically formulated supplements which are backed by modern trials. Some of these supplements will address problems like Chronic Fatigue, Alzheimers, Hyperactivity, Tinnitus, Thyroid etc. We are also working closely with skin specialists to formulate safe Ayurvedic and rejuvenative topicals.
There’s also a lot of scope in veterinary space. We have already been supplying nutrition feeds for horses (equine-care). We feel that we can also promote Ayurvedic canine and feline products. In fact, in our early days, we had sold Gourdin to pet-owners for canine and feline diabetes.
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