Ganesh Balakrishnan Co-founded Flatheads, an innovative startup from India that created a buzz on social media recently for creating India’s first Bamboo sneakers. Ganesh is a serial entrepreneur with an IIT-IIM DNA and 15+ years global experience and proven track record of creating successful businesses, delivering business impact, leading and working with teams across functions and geographies. His earlier avatar was as a Co-founder of Momoe, a mobile payments platform that was acquired by ShopClues – an e-commerce marketplace and startup unicorn. He had created and led the merchant ecosystem as part of ShopClues leadership team. We caught up with Ganesh on his new venture.
Your business in a sentence…
Flatheads is a homegrown Indian brand of casual all-day sneakers for everyday wear.
Motivation to start the venture…
Personally, my co-founder and I love shoes. Utkarsh owns 100+ pairs of shoes and we’ve been trendspotting in footwear fashion for many years now. To top that, we found a modern, consumer-centric problem to solve in the casual shoes category. Mass market shoes are available below Rs 2,000 and premium brands above Rs 5,000. In the Indian context, we are starved of a brand that has a personality, and is both aspirational and affordable.
The premium casual sneaker market is a $1 Billion market and growing at 20%, where we see a clear opportunity to build a $100 Million brand in 7-8 years. That’s motivation enough to kickstart a direct-to-consumer footwear brand!
Flatheads is not the usual shoe company – we are designers with a passion for shoes and e-commerce. To understand our urban Indian audience, we spend time people-watching and poring through personalities, behaviours, environments, wardrobes and shoe closets.
When we began Flatheads, we researched the footwear market in India, understood trends, identified gaps in pricing and designs, spoke to potential customers and then arrived at the problem to solve.
In recent years, there have been significant lifestyle changes, and currently athleisure shoes are often worn as lifestyle shoes. We noticed a gap in the affordable premium market for all-day wear shoes. So we decided to change that with Flatheads, by creating a casual sneaker brand, suited for work, evening hangouts, late night parties, and more.
The idea behind Flatheads is to build the one sneaker that is perfect for your daily wear – that goes with everything in your wardrobe, keeps you comfortable for over 12 to 14 hours, keeps the feet cool, is light on the feet, and is quick and easy to wear. Flatheads is the one shoe in your closet that you’d pick 5 out of 7 times when you step out.
Top 3 challenges…
One of the biggest difficulties for an early stage startup is to find their first believers and get a good team together. People who believe in the idea and are willing to put in the tremendous effort to build a company are hard to find. Hiring was difficult in our first startup, but with Flatheads, a lot of our previous employees returned to work with us, and hiring was a piece of cake!
Another big challenge was for us to find a supplier ecosystem in India that was willing to work with new materials like bamboo. Fortunately, we were able to find the right suppliers and manufacturers across the country, and develop a smooth production process.
The third big challenge of course, was the Covid-19 pandemic hitting us when the business was just 4 months old. Our entire business came to a halt, deliveries stopped, and orders were delayed by months. When the lockdown opened in June, we defined our target audience sharply and experimented with different marketing approaches, and it started paying off. We doubled our sales in June and July, which also happened to be our most profitable months!
The day we launched Flatheads and got our first order definitely stands out as the most exciting moment! It is very satisfying when customers believe in a new kid-on-the-block brand, spend their hard earned money to buy our shoes, and tell us that they absolutely love what we have created. It makes all the effort we put into starting up worthwhile!
Advice for first-time entrepreneurs…
Successful startups have one thing that differentiates them – they are able to acquire customers with a fraction of what their industry or competitors can do. This is because they are extremely nimble and use guerrilla marketing to get their early customers. Also remember that you must strive to build a product that is not only bought, but also talked about. Customer advocacy is by far the most important factor in making a startup successful.
We covered TOMS Shoes in one of our earlier articles – a company that has created innovative business models that combines social good with profits.