In a manner similar to Google, Disney, Microsoft and Apple—some of the most renowned companies in the world today—Neeta Adappa, also began her entrepreneurial journey from a tiny garage 23 years ago.
She was accompanied by her college junior Anisha Desai, and the duo started with a meagre investment of Rs 10,000 and sustained on loans in the initial years.
Today, Prakriti Herbals, her Bengaluru-based beauty company, has a growth rate of 15-20 per cent and supplies around 10,000 kits comprising herbal extracts to clients including prominent hotels and hospitals all over India.
What’s more, close to 5,000 of the company’s retail products like shampoo, conditioners, hair masks, hair oils, face scrubs, natural face masks, aloe vera gels and so on are sold every month through e-commerce platforms, WhatsApp groups, domestic distributors and social media.
“I was not happy with my job, and so I quit. It happened around the same when I was engaged to my husband. He encouraged me to start something of my own. Meanwhile, Anisha was also keen on formulating a business. Things fell in place automatically, and we started working around 1993. Based on our research, we would make samples for our friends and family. And after a lot of overwhelmingly positive feedback, we formally launched our company in 1995,” Neeta tells The Better India.
Quitting a Job for a New Beginning
Born and raised in Mumbai, Neeta completed her Master’s in Pharmacy from SNDT University Mumbai in 1992 and started working with a pharmaceutical company. However, things didn’t work out as expected, and within six months, she quit.
“Quitting my job turned out to be a life-changing decision. I knew I did not want to work in a 9-5 set up. With encouragement from my family, I started exploring ideas that were around my profession,” says the 50-year-old.
The idea of starting something in the beauty sector struck Neeta after her wedding, when she developed dark patches on her face due to a reaction to a product. “Funnily enough, the allergic reaction that I dreaded the most, was my beginner’s luck in my professional and married life!” she quips.
By that time, Neeta had moved to Bengaluru and soon, when she found out that Anisha, too, had moved to the city, she got in touch with her.
The first year was spent in researching and making samples of shampoo and moisturiser, from aloe vera gels (it had helped her reduce the spots on her face). She even concocted an egg protein shampoo.
The duo had zero marketing background and no experience in customer relations. So they started with distributing their products to their immediate family and friends and gradually progressed to parlours.
“We did not wait for a big client or deal. We would visit parlours in our vicinity and give samples in small quantities. This proved to be a very crucial step as it helped us build a trustworthy network and eventually gave us a breakthrough in the bigger market,” shares Neeta.
Positive feedback from customers helped the company receive an order from Bengaluru’s Nahar Heritage Hotel for moisturisers and shampoos. With timely deliveries and authentic products, the hotel scaled its orders and demanded an entire range of guest amenities.
That is how the kits comprising 18 products such as shower products, pencils, combs, gels was formulated in the early 2000’s. Today, these kits are sold in hotels and hospitals.
Neeta learnt the principle of establishing a strong network through quality customer service early on, and that went on to favour the company in the long run. “Somehow, in the hotel industry, word-of-mouth is a powerful marketing tool. 70 per cent of our orders have been procured through low-profile marketing,” says Neeta
This transition from parlours to hotels was not smooth, especially when Anisha left the company as she had to move back to Mumbai. Neeta struggled in multiple areas including infrastructure, bulk purchases and packaging. More orders meant spending less time with her family and two children.
“I worked very hard—I was determined to strike a balance amidst chaos and continued to deliver orders on time while raising the kids,” mentions Neeta.
Gradually, the company received orders from prestigious names like the Royal Orchid Hotels, the Goldman Sachs Spa, The Park Hotel and Manipal Hospitals across India.
Around the same time, a phone call from a woman who was at a guest at one of the hotels, would lead Neeta to her next journey.
“The lady had used our shampoo and noticed that it had reduced her hair troubles. Seeing our name on the label, she got my number and gave me a call where she demanded a 500-litre bottle of the shampoo. At the time, we were not supplying retail products, but by the end of the conversation, I was determined to enter the retail market,” she says.
Neeta worked hard to expand her business and would regularly attend conferences, workshops and meetings on entrepreneurship like ISB Goldman Sachs 10000 Women Entrepreneur Programme. This significantly contributed to her and the company’s growth.
“For the first time in 15 years of running the company, I made a business plan for one of these programmes. My skills in finances and marketing improved. It motivated me to take the risk of moving to a bigger place. The rent was four times more, and the profits weren’t high enough. Yet I took the risk and it paid off,” she adds.
Banking on Social Media
Realising the potential of social media, Neeta started blogging about hair and skincare tips. She even created a Facebook page to increase customer interaction before launching retail products.
“Constant engagement, feedback and criticisms from people helped me understand what they needed. For example, I realised people do not have time to read my blog, and they are ready to take my tips in a bottle. That is how we started making face and hair masks and scrubbers,” she says.
More than her Facebook page, it was her inbox—where she gave free consultations on several beauty topics—that was active.
Sharing an interesting insight into how they scored an order in this manner, she says, “A lady asked me many questions, and I patiently answered them all. A few minutes later she had purchased all our products. She said ‘if this is the passion with which you are answering questions, then I can imagine the kind of passion you put in making every product’. It was very encouraging.”
Similar feedback about the quality of the products poured in.
“Just after the first application of the papaya hair mask, my hair was smooth, straight and manageable. Now I don’t need any of the electric gadgets after hair wash,” wrote Sujata Kulkarni from Bangalore.
Meanwhile, Janaki Srini from Chennai couldn’t stop praising the face pack. “The papaya-aloe vera face pack cured my acute acne skin problem and its pigmentation has reduced thanks to the aloe vera rose gel.”
However, the flip side to social media was that everyone was on it. So merely promoting a product was not enough.
That’s where Anusha, her daughter and a Masters student from the Manchester University in the UK came in. The 25-year-old, who grew up amidst business-related conversations, joined the organisation last year.
“Right from building a website, redesigning packaging to telling people why they should buy our products, we started thinking of ways to scale our brand in domestic and international markets.
As the mother-daughter are on the path of rebranding, they are incorporating the concept of sustainability. They recently decided to use biodegradable packaging for a few of their products.
“We realised one hotel guest wastes one kilo waste per day and toiletries are a part of it. So we started using recycled paper, coffee husk and jute as eco-friendly packaging options. We want to grow but not at the cost of the environment,” adds Anusha.
Like every entrepreneur, Neeta also faced several roadblocks—from sexism to finances, infrastructure, and gaining a strong market hold.
“Several banks rejected my loan applications as they felt it was just my hobby, and some even asked me to get a male member if I wanted a loan. Whether it was a competitor or investor, people did not take me seriously. Outsiders mocked my ambition. But all throughout, my family was my biggest strength, and continues to be so,” says Neeta.
So is there any advice she’d like to give to entrepreneurs?
“Believe in yourself, because if you don’t, then how can you expect the world to do so? Take the risk even if you think the business idea is not life-changing. Your venture is bound to succeed if it meets a customer’s needs. Stop hesitating and embark on your entrepreneurial journey,” Neeta concludes.
Get in touch with Prakriti Herbals here