Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
Hi! My name is Pragya Batra and I am the co-founder of Quirksmith, a design company that creates handcrafted jewelry and accessories.
Quirksmith, as a brand, is much more than just creating pretty jewelry. We create designs that are inspired by our values and beliefs. Several of our designs incorporate Indian languages (like Hindi, Urdu, and Bengali) as well as inspiring words and poetry. One such example is the “Aham Brahamasmi” earcuffand thumb ring. Aham Brahamasmi is a Sanskrit phrase that means “I am the Universe! and I am responsible for what I become”. In essence, we create designs that people around the world can relate to. They are not just decorative pieces.
I started Quirksmith with my sister Divya Batra, who is a jewelry designer and graduated from one of the most prestigious design schools in India (NIFT, Gandhinagar). We started Quirksmith about 3.5 years back in the year 2016. From a weekend passion project for 2 sisters, it soon became our full-time passion. We now process orders worth $40,000 every month and work with artisans across India, to keep the silversmithing craft alive!
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
Growing up, I was the nerdy one in my family. I loved my books (especially mathematics!). My parents saw all the signs of a budding “science” lover. And so, I was shown the path to Engineering! I studied at the Indian Institute of Technology in Delhi (IIT Delhi) and graduated in the year 2007 with a Btech and MTech in Biochemical engineering and Biotechnology. After that, I appeared for campus placements and landed myself a job at Bain & Company. I spent the next 8 years in strategy consulting, working with some of the smartest people across organizations in India. I also took a break from work to study at INSEAD (2011-12), before coming back to corporate life.
In the year 2015, for the first time in 15 years, I was living in the same city as my sister, Divya. She is a jewellery designer and she had moved to Bangalore in 2015 to head a design studio for her then-employer. It was at this time that Quirksmith sprouted as a passion project for the two of us. For almost a year we spent several weekends making appearances at pop up markets across Bangalore, showcasing our limited (and super quirky) range of silver jewellery. It was in these times that I saw the potential for Quirksmith to shape up as a brand that had something unique to offer. Our customers soon became our brand evangelists. Women would seek our pop up stores at these events. I was excited about the number of repeat customers we started to get on such a small base.
In 2016, I decided to quit my corporate career and focus on Quirksmith. And so I started to build a website on Shopify. We took help from our friends to shoot and model for the first version of the website. Thank God for talented friends! :). Within a few months, we launched our website quirksmith.com in November 2016.
Since then Quirksmith has been a self-sustaining business that offers us a lot of room to be creative.
Don’t try to create a perfect website with all features on day one. As website visitors start growing, new features can be added.
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
The first step to creating a piece of jewelry is sketching the idea on a piece of paper. As someone working on the business side, I provide inputs on price points, categories, past designs that do well for us, etc. Based on these, we agree on the boundaries of the collection (What category to focus on - like earrings, rings, etc., what should be the price points - say between INR 1000-2000. The price points give Divya an idea about the size she needs to focus on).
Based on these broad outlines, Divya sketches a few rough ideas over the next few days. Once a collection of 10-15 rough ideas is ready, we go through them together, discussing every idea in a little bit more detail (on wearability, production constraints, uniqueness, etc.). During this process, we select the ones that move to production.
At the production stage, every design sketch is converted into the first sample by a master craftsman. Divya engages in every stage of this sample creation process to ensure the first sample is good to go.
Once the first samples are ready, each design is tested out. It is worn for a few weeks to test for comfort, breakage, or any other issues. Once the sample clears its quality test, the specific design is then produced in small batches, to launch on our website
Describe the process of launching the business.
We had already tested Quirksmith in small pop up markets in Bangalore (between 2015-16). So we had a few hundred women who were following us on our Facebook handle by then.
When I quit my job in July 2016, I started to do 2 things:
Start to build our online website (on Shopify). The plan was to launch the website in 3 months.
Attend weekend pop up events in other metro cities (like Chennai, Delhi, Mumbai) and grow our customer base. This also helped to ensure that we were generating some revenue while building the website.
Website development was a slow process. The starting point was to buy a domain name. And then came the actual set up of content, images, etc on Shopify. At this stage, we took a lot of help from our close friends and family.
A friend who is an amateur photographer kindly agreed to shoot the first set of website images for us. Some other friends became models and yet another one started to write our website content. In all of this, Divya focused on creating more and more new designs - so we had at least 50+ designs to launch the website with. While I focused on putting all of this content together on the website, setting up the backend processes - like getting a payment partner for checkout, getting a shipping partner for deliveries, creating various policies for shipping, returns, etc.
The 3 months of setting up a website were a lot of fun! For the first time, I had the time to do something I truly loved. And in the process, I learned so much!
In Nov 2016 we went live with the first version of our website quirksmith.com. I say the first version because since then the website has seen several avatars. We continued to add several features to help improve customer experience even today.
The one important thing we did right from the time we launched our website, was to leverage digital ads through Facebook and Instagram. That enabled us to get 200 orders in our first month of launch! Since then, our order volumes have doubled every year.
Biggest lessons learned:
Don’t try to create a perfect website with all features on day 1. Create a basic website with reliable payment partners on the checkout page. As website visitors start growing, features like recommendation engine, out of stock notifications and others can be added.
Leverage digital marketing from the start. This is a huge factor to help you grow continuously and also to keep getting that revenue every month and sustain your business.
Take up free lessons on Youtube or paid courses at Udemy (these paid courses also are very affordable) to learn several new skill sets or to just get answers to your questions. Know that whatever problem you are facing, someone has already faced it and probably has a solution out there. All you have to do is google it!
Leverage Shopify chat support. If you are building your website on Shopify, then their 24/7 chat support and their support content are super helpful. Any problem you have while working on Shopify is already asked by someone and answered by an expert on Shopify support.
The more customer pictures we shared, the more comfortable women became posting online because there were so many like them who were posting their pictures wearing our designs.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
We have been selling primarily through our website for the last 3.5 years. Our biggest source of traffic remains digital ads using Facebook and Instagram. Here are a few things that we learned:
Try lots of things, fail fast, and prioritize
One of the best things about being a small business is that there is immense room to test and fail. In our case, the cost of trying something new was not very high. So we did a few things fast and prioritized:
Stocking at physical stores: While our owned sales channel was only the website, in the first year we also stocked a few designs at several stores across the country. Soon we realized that model was not a fit. Here is why - we would need a partnership to fulfill one of these two things (or both, if we are lucky).
First, to get good sales, which is driven by footfalls, and second, to get good marketing/ branding at scale. We soon realized that stocking at physical stores did not bring either of those to us. There was limited control in ensuring stores used our branding with its customers. These were multi-designer stores stocking lots of designers and often insisting on using their own packaging for branding.
Secondly, a physical store will not garner as much traffic as an online business. Hence, after learning this reality of the brick and mortar store partnerships, we withdrew our inventory from all stores and instead used it on our own website.
Picking the right online platform to work with: Apart from our own website, we also decided to list on several other fashion platforms. So in the first year, we listed our designs on 5-6 portals for about 6 month intervals (in some cases longer). And we realized that only 1 of them worked for us (it gave us new customers because we didn’t ship internationally, it had high-value purchasers in their audience, it gave us consistent sales with low return rates- i.e. the return of products). We withdrew from all other portals that weren’t giving us the returns vs the time investment we were making.
Design fast and learn: The cost of producing new designs is not very high in our business. Economically, it is fairly easy to launch a 5 design collection (with small quantities). So we did just that. We tried a few finishes, design price points, design categories, etc and learned very fast on what works and what doesn’t. It is hard to always predict what categories will do well. So we designed a lot and learned. Whatever categories did not do well were often sold at a discounted price in pop up markets, or melted back into silver sheets/bars which were again used in creating other designs
Leverage digital marketing
This is one area I do not see small businesses utilize that much. It was a new area for me when we started. But taking up basic courses on Udemy really helped me learn quickly and apply these learnings in running Facebook and Instagram ads. It is also important to slowly keep increasing budgets in online marketing and to not be scared of doing so. Because after increasing the spending, your sales will also increase and will cover up for these increased costs.
Make customers your brand ambassadors
This was a very important learning for Quirksmith. From the start, we used our digital platforms to share customer stories. And within a few months, we noticed that a lot more people were posting pictures wearing our designs and tagging us.
Soon Instagram became a place where there was a lot of user-generated content and reviews, which in turn helped spread the word. In hindsight, this was the best way for us to use our social media. The more customer pictures we shared, the more comfortable women became posting online because there were so many like them who were posting their pictures wearing our designs. It is intimidating to post a picture on social media and tag a big brand, but not so much on the page of a small brand. In summary, create a social media presence that is more relatable to your customers. Pretty pictures with the best models look very professional but they aren’t relatable by the people who purchase your brand.
Be aware of the primary reason you want to be an entrepreneur. Decisions and trade-offs (especially trade-offs) become very easy if you have that clarity.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
Today, Quirksmith is a sustainable and profitable business. We get over 100k visitors on our website every month, 1/3rd of these are returning customers - this is a metric we are proud of. It is an indication that people like what we do and keep coming back. We have grown at 60-70% every year for the last few years.
Over 95% of our sales are driven through our own website.
Today we work with over 15 artisans in India, who convert our design ideas into the final product. The rest of the team is fairly lean - Divya heads all things creative (new product designs, new techniques, and crafts), I head all things business (sales, marketing, and finances). In operations, we have a team of 2 and 1 person in customer service. We intend to stay lean and use technology and tools to improve efficiency. That has been the mantra all these years.
Over the next few months, we want to start shipping internationally, create a B2B business vertical - where we can work with corporates for their gifting needs and with wedding planners for wedding give away gifts.
On the product side, we recently launched our home decor series with poetry wall art. These are mostly Divya’s own poems, parts of which have been converted into inspirational wall art in engineered wood and hand-painted. This line has shown some promise, and we’ll continue to expand this.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
Like I mentioned, we are built on Shopify. Apart from Shopify’s basic features, we also use a range of other applications. Judge.me is one such app. It was a very effective way to consolidate all the social proof our brand already received. Within a short span of time, we were able to collect over 1000 reviews from our customers, along with lovely images. This has further helped in building credibility amongst new customers.
Searchtap is another great tool that has helped improve our search experience considerably.
On the order management front, we use Orderhive. We were looking for a tool that is a one-stop solution for inventory management, order processing, label generation and allows coordination between various team members on fulfilling orders. And Orderhive serves all of those functions and much more.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
I am a huge fan of podcasts lately. Especially those that are long-form and go beyond the surface on a variety of topics. In recent times, I have enjoyed Seen and the Unseen by Amit Varma. This podcast has enabled me to broaden my point of view on several topics on Indian economics, politics, and human behavior.
My all-time favorite book is Consolations of Philosophy by Alain de Botton. It was one of the first books that made me define “Happiness” for myself. I go back to it every now and then.
On business books, The hard thing about hard things by Ben Horowitz was very inspiring. It was refreshing to read a business book where the author focused on mistakes rather than their company’s glory. A must-read!
Another inspiring book was Shoe Dog by Phil Knight. Shoe Dog is the story of Nike by its founder Phil Knight. What stayed with me from this book was the way it ends, and Phil Knight emphasizes the importance of building genuine relationships - something we tend to forget in the hustle.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
As an entrepreneur, the biggest challenge I have faced while making decisions is the trade-offs associated with each one of them. Most decisions (personal or professional) we make in life have an associated trade-off. For e.g. revenue growth vs profits, Get that job in City A or City B, marketing campaign A vs B...And the list goes on!
So my simple advice is this: Be aware of the primary reason you want to be an entrepreneur. Is it the passion to solve an existing problem, or to create a multi-million dollar enterprise, or to have a life that you can control. Decisions and trade-offs (especially trade-offs) become very easy if you have that clarity.
Where can we go to learn more?
If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!
Hey! 👋 I'm Pat Walls, the founder of Starter Story.
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