Founded in 2016, The Indus Valley is a brand that’s been on the agenda to make Indian cooking healthy. They are helping people switch to chemical-free cookware and offer a range of over 200 products made with iron and cast iron, bronze, brass, copper, clay, and wood.
A kitchen mishap with plastic cookware in the oven made the co-founders, Madhumitha Uday Kumar and Jagadeesh Kumar, look for healthier and traditional cookware. The options the duo was looking for were unhealthy, unreliable, or unavailable, which made them wonder why there were no reliable healthy cookware brands available in the market, and that led them to create the brand, The Indus Valley.
Abhishansa Mathur was in a conversation with Madhumita and Jagadeesh Kumar about their journey of starting The Indus Valley, challenges, and a lot more. Here’s the excerpt from the interview.
The idea of founding The Indus Valley started from a very personal requirement in Madhumita’s life. Madhumita, along with her husband Jagadeesh, used to live in Mumbai, and cooking is something that she really loves to do. It all began with a small kitchen accident. “I had used the wrong kind of plastic utensil in the microwave, which led to a molten plastic in the microwave. It made me realize that we obsess over recipes, follow chefs, and get new ingredients, but we lose the game on cookware.”, says Madhumita.
Most of the homes might have very battered non-stick cookware, asking for retirement, and she was looking for replacing cookware, too. Madhumita realized even though the market had good brands for appliances and non-stick cookware, she wasn’t able to find equivalent in traditional options like iron, clay, bronze, or wood. She added, “The options I was looking for were available but were all in a dusted corner of a utensil shop without any name or reliability. I even saw other people looking for similar options, but they didn’t have any answers too.”
The unavailability of traditional reliable cookware brands got stuck in her mind, and that’s where the seed of The Indus Valley was germinated. “I eventually ended up with the start-up and figured out the customer problems and their solutions. Somehow six months down the line, I convinced Jagadeesh to join in as well. I think it was the initial traction and the love of our customers that despite us being at a very nascent stage, they were very happy to give their feedback and help us improve it”, shares Madhumita U. Kumar.
Recalling the early days, she mentions that they used to walk into the homes of customers for their suggestions. “There was a very high involvement from customers because they were looking for solutions, and they were really happy that someone was looking to solve those problems.”, adds Madhumita.
Both Madhumita and Jagadeesh hail from Chennai, has worked as IT Engineers, and after their MBA, joined reputed corporates. On asking how their earlier background helped them establish their company, Madhumita says, “As an entrepreneur, you use any and every skill that you have in your toolbox. I see that most entrepreneurs either have money or time or a combination of both. When we started off, we were willing to invest a lot of our time in the first three years. So, I used my engineering background, which was all about technology, to do things in-house, irrespective of how good or bad they turned out. We decided that it’s a learning curve and let’s at least ensure that we’re putting in a lot of time to build our website and any other tech integration was handled by me.”
She also mentions that her stint with Deloitte predominantly was with consumer durable companies in their operation space. It was interesting for her to see how large-scale companies see the problems and how they address their supply chain and operations.
This naturally led her to understand and manage operations for The Indus valley as well. “With my HR background, I was able to figure out the entire HR policies, hiring, culture, and performance management from day one. So, it wasn’t that all of it was directly mapping, but we used all the skill sets, and I think Jagadeesh was able to bring in all of his sales and marketing expertise”, added Madhumita.
Awareness of Traditional Cookware
Talking about the traditional cookware in the southern part of the country, Jagadeesh said, “If you look throughout India, the kind of metals that were predominantly used in cookware was iron, clay, brass, bronze, and wood. These were commonly used across India, with different variations and different thicknesses for different purposes. But when we started out, we did focus on selling to stores. And us being based out of Chennai, it was easier for us to reach out to our customer base in cities like Bangalore. So our initial test base was these two cities where we got a platform.”
Jagadeesh agrees that there was indeed an acceptance of traditional cookware, but what they saw was a gap in the usage. According to him, there was a lot of hand-holding and learning that the customers needed to be onboarded. “If you were to buy straight out of a utensil shop, there are a lot of things that customers were concerned about like the quality, usage, and how they integrate it into their modern kitchens”, he further explained.
He doesn’t forget to mention that the awareness was already very high among the initial adopters of the traditional cookware. “They knew about products and how to use them. However, the biggest problem was accessibility, so the moment they found us, they were very happy. Once we started reaching out to more people who were not aware of the usage and maintenance, that’s where it became a little challenging.”, Jagadeesh adds.
The duo understood, that there is a need to generate awareness and customer education if they intend to reach a larger audience. So, they started giving out pamphlets and instructions on how to maintain the products with each order, along with building a lot of informative material on how to use and take care of the products on their website. He further shares, “We still get many queries, and so we are patiently helping them. Moreover, if someone buys something from the website, they get a call from our customer care team and then they guide them.”
What’s in the name?
“We understood that there is a lot of merit in the traditional wisdom and the way of cooking. Indian food is really special. Every time you cross a city boundary or even the boundary of your own home, the way of cooking changes, and that’s the fascinating thing about it. So what we understood is that we have to take a nod from tradition because it has got a lot of useful practices, especially from the health angle. We also understood that we have to re-engineer our products in order to suit our homes”, explains Madhumita.
Their idea was to bring the best of both worlds, and they tried a lot of names before finalizing the one. “The Indus Valley was something that resonated with us because it was a period in our history that you know we did really well in agriculture and livestock. We were driving on metals and science, so that was something that resonated with our customers too”, she further added. They even did a few quantitative and qualitative surveys, and that’s how the duo came up with the name. It’s a mix of tradition and science, just as they always wanted it to be.
Challenges and Learnings
According to Madhumita, the bigger challenge for them was the whole transition of shifting from a job mindset to an entrepreneur mindset. “When you are doing a job, there are a lot of external motivators, appreciation, and rewards that you fit in. But here, it’s very internally driven. You might have a board, vendors, and customers that you’re answering to, but a lot of the motivation is very internal, and that can be a very challenging and lonely place to be”, shares Madhumita.
She also adds that their challenges vary from managing cash flow to convincing people to join in. “You might have this grand vision, but we are nothing without a team, right? So, hiring and convincing people to join you is really challenging. There were also a lot of things that we had to learn along the way, such as how do we do better financial management, cash flow, and how we are able to attract the right kind of talent”, she further adds.
Madhumita manages a lot of vendors, and there have been times during vendor visits when the responses were not welcoming. “They used to say we don’t sell for home use. They would assume that I have come to buy for my personal use and I don’t own a company. Not being a recognized name was a challenge when we were the new kid on the block. There are a lot of challenges that you go through before you’re able to get any support from the peer network”, mentions Madhumita. She says it is a little lonely journey till you figure out how to reach out to people and get a lot of support. Now they think they are better equipped to handle them today.
Talking about learnings, Jagadeesh says, “As challenges are plenty, learnings are plenty too. It’s like every day from waking up till going back to sleep, it’s a sequence of learnings in one way or the other. The best part is you learn from everybody. You learn from your employees, vendors, customers, service providers, investors, and everybody around you.”
He further suggests to attain the best learning curve, when stuck, just start and do something, and you will get the most amazing learning experience. He also feels the learning doesn’t stop at any point because you will always encounter some sort of challenge. One of the important lessons is how to manage people because people are our most important resources. For him, learning comes everyday.
Thoughts on Kitchen Ware trends?
Jagadeesh feels today’s consumers are super smart, and so you can’t get away with making the substandard product. “The customer today has the power to ask why should I buy from you specifically. So, we have to be very close to the customer, and understand what is motivating them. Their needs keep on changing, and we have to adapt to their requirements, and change according to them. The customers do tell us that their grandparents or parents were using traditional cookware, but they need reasons and logic why they should buy them?”, states Jagadeesh.
The duo sees a rise in the number of people looking for products that are better for the environment and health. A lot of health-related changes are coming in the kitchen space, and they are super glad to be part of this journey. “We are doing a small part in helping our customers move towards this journey of a healthy lifestyle and making smaller changes in their kitchens to make every day cooking right.”, he further adds.
Initial Sales and Marketing Vs Marketing Now
Initially, The Indus Valley started offline and did not have an online channel, and neither did they back financial support to opt for large-scale advertising. So, at the earlier stage, they used to do marketing through printed papers, pamphlets, and posters. The duo also participated in a lot of exhibitions and used to put up the posters there. “Now it’s all digital. We have an in-house team that creates all the content, they do a lot of videos and images on a daily basis, so the marketing efforts have changed significantly. The way we communicate with our customers has changed phenomenally.”, says Jagadeesh.
Madhumita feels that social media is the best for a direct-to-consumer brand, as there are no filters applied, and you can directly engage with the customers. “I still remember, in the initial months, people used to contact us directly, and tell us that they would want to visit us. People from across the country, like Bangalore, Mumbai Hyderabad, Salem, and other cities, used to come to our small verandah, and buy from us. A lot of word-of-mouth publicity happened during that time, and now it happens on social media. So, if somebody likes the product, they share the photo and spread the word.”, says Madhumita.
According to her, social media has been a beneficial platform for The Indus Valley to show who they are as a brand and what they do to build a good community of followers.
Jagadeesh mentions that one thing any brand should always do is be honest with their customers. He further suggests engaging with them and coming up with newer solutions to understand different challenges.
USP Of The Indus Valley
Jagadeesh states what they do differently from other brands is the healthy cookware part, but what the brand does slightly differently compared to the competitors in the same space is that they do not try to restrict themselves to materials. “We try to understand the science behind the entire cooking, and try to make products and solutions according to the requirement of the customers and not the other way round. It is usually the case that the brands tells their customers that they have this product which is the best. But that’s not the approach we take. Instead, we go deep into the science of making cookware suitable for certain purposes. We don’t say that this is the best option as it’s not possible. Indian food is so rich that we cannot have one size fits all solutions. So you need to have different options that fit the customers’ requirements”, he further explains.
5-Year Plan for The Indus Valley
Jagadeesh mentions that startups typically tend not to look too much into the future as they try to take one step at a time. He says, “To be honest, It’s three months, and that too is the long term for us. For the next five years, we have a vision and a wishlist. We would be very happy to see millions of households considering healthy cooking in the kitchen as a very serious aspect, and we would want The Indus Valley cookware to play a major part in that wave.”
The husband-wife duo also plans to go offline, and are in the phase of figuring out the nitty-gritty associated with it. “We’ve always believed that we need to be channel-agnostic. We can’t say from where the customer will shop, and so our aim is to be available everywhere. Because the moment we say we are an accessible brand, we have to be where the customers are shopping from, and so, we will definitely make it offline”, he further adds.
Advice to Aspiring Entrepreneurs
Madhumita recommends always listening to your customer, and everything else will follow. “If you bring their problems they will be kind enough to lend their time, support, money, thoughts, and anything else. Customer love takes precedence over everything else and in case you make a mistake go back, apologize and fix it.”, she adds.
According to Jagadeesh, If you really want to start, just go ahead and start, because there is no right time than today. The rest will follow. In a year or two, you will figure out if it’s suitable for you or not. He further adds, “I would recommend people looking forward to build a brand to not think too much, just go ahead, and the rest will definitely follow.”
Partners in Work and Life
Jagadeesh believes there is no work-life balance but a work-life harmony. “You might have to think about work when you are in your personal time and vice versa. So, we try to set certain boundaries to keep ourselves sane. We ensure that we have mental peace otherwise it will become a difficult journey”, he further adds.
Madhumita agrees with Jagadeesh but also knows that it cannot be achieved overnight. She adds, “It has been a learning process for us, and It’s very important to understand that both of us have similar goals, especially at work. We have to be unbiased and professional.” She emphasizes treating each other as coworkers is really important not just for themselves but also for the team. “Prioritize what needs the most effort at that point in time, because there would be days when your personal life or certain errands might need a little more effort. There would be days when you have to give extra at work. But then that’s the luxury that we have as entrepreneurs, right?”, she further states.