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#2|Niranjan — Kirana Chronicles

I was taught the way of progress is neither swift nor easy — Marie Curie

“Madam, I am on my way, will be there in 2 minutes.” exclaimed the person over the phone, as we waited outside a shop which was bustling with the chitter-chatter of students in uniforms, all standing in groups while holding on their glasses of tea.
Located in one of the bylanes of Bengaluru’s oldest localities, nestled in a row of eateries serving sandwiches, rolls, meals, etc. made it an ideal spot for a tea shop.
As we were standing amidst the crowd of students, a young man in his early thirties alighted from his bike and started walking towards us. “Hello, I am Niranjan!” he said, as he gestured that we take our seats in the store across his.

Short Story

33-year-old Niranjan has been running a tea shop in Bengaluru for 3 years. The shop is located in a prime shopping area in Bengaluru; surrounded by colleges, small to medium-sized companies, motorists, and people constantly passing by, making it an ideal spot to attract and cater to a wide variety of people.

Image courtesy: iStockPhoto

A man who dreams tea:

Growing up in a small town in the northern part of Karnataka, Niranjan lived within the comfort of his small close-knit community. He later shifted to Bengaluru in pursuit of better education and a job. After completing his Bachelor’s Degree in Commerce, he worked as a consultant in an established firm for a few years. Through his years in the corporate world, he often dreamt of setting up a business for himself. The corporate life gave him an opportunity to gain exposure and save the money required to bring his entrepreneurial dreams to life.

A tea lover Niranjan wanted to open a store that reflected his relationship with tea, one that brought together other tea lovers like him. He soon opened a tea shop, which he often refers to as his ‘startup’. After months of iterating on the name, it was finally decided to go with one that would be relevant in cities beyond the south of India as well; the store was rightly named — ‘Tea Time’. However, opening a store of his own proved to be a test — of patience and perseverance.

One month into the stores opening, business seemed dull and the number of customers slowly started to decline. This began to cause a stir amongst his employees and family; questions like — ‘Do you think we should shut this down?, What if the business never picks up? The other places we have worked at had better sales, should we move to a different location?’, often came up. Niranjan knew that the quality of tea and the service provided would save his business from sinking — something the others failed to see at a time like this. His goals were not just big and exciting, they were also backed by strategy and long term thinking.

“The beginning few months were really difficult. The business was not picking up and people were doubtful about this idea. But I did not divert my mind. I suggested that we wait for a few days. Even if we do go on a loss it will be around 1–2 lakhs. But I was confident since we were maintaining our quality. We had to wait for the customers to come. We can’t sell 1 lakh in a day. We waited for 6 months, after that business started getting better.”

In an attempt to stand out from the mainstream eateries in Bengaluru that serve snacks and beverages, Niranjan strategically curated a menu for the shop while keeping in mind, not just the objective — of serving varieties of tea, but the prices of the items were decided based on the crowd that would gather at the shop — the majority of which would comprise of students from the nearby colleges. On a regular day of the week, 1000–2000 cups of tea are sold to customers.

Niranjan strongly believes in quality — the quality of the tea and service provided to the customers. He believes that quality is the deciding factor in the success of a business. Niranjan’s goal is to continue providing quality services to customers and creating an identity for the shop. He wants people to recognize his shop not just for the varieties of tea, but also for the quality of service provided. Only when this is achieved will he consider setting up new branches or collaborating with other franchises.

“We don’t use pulp or anything. Everything is fresh. That’s why more people come here. In front of them we do all this. Rate is also not too much. Students are a lot here, employees spend but students don’t have money. Keeping all that in mind we have set the costs.”

“A lot of people have asked for franchises, but I declined it. But in the future, after we have 4–5 stores in good areas, people should know about it. Already some people here in this area identify it. After it gets identified in other areas, we can think of investments and franchises.”

“There is a plan to make it big. But I still have set up this one properly. I’m still not satisfied with this, I feel like I can make it better. I want this to become like a landmark. Even if it is just 100 sq. ft. this should become like a landmark for people. It should be in all conversations — that is my wish. I don’t have a goal of setting up 100 stores. Even if it’s just 3 shops, they should run well.”

Payments

  • Niranjan accepts payments through cash and digital payment apps from customers. Although he wants to support the Indian players in the digital payments market, he mentions that he cannot persuade the customers into doing so. He even expresses his helplessness of having to use whatever payment apps the customers use most.
  • Tea Time has a customer base with 50% of them being students. Students are either given a debit card or their parents transfer them money on Paytm. Either way, more than 70% of customers prefer to pay through digital payment apps.
  • On a regular basis, he makes transactions with vendors who fall into various categories — the small grocery stores with whom cash transactions are made, to the supermarkets like Big Bazar where a card is used to make payments.
  • Niranjan has listed all his employee telephone numbers on the payment apps, thus reducing the hassle of them having to call him to confirm each transaction. Payments are verified through text messages; however, when messages fail to come, he checks the payment app for a record of the transaction made.

“We have a lot of students coming here. Their parents don’t give them money, they either have cards or they send them money on PayTM. Almost 70% of customers pay online only.”

Banking

  • The unavailability of financial assets in Bengaluru made Niranjan ineligible for a loan from banks. He resorted to informal lending sources for help — his family and friends.
  • He often uses digital payment apps like Google Pay to send money to his family. However, since his family is not able to regularly withdraw from ATMs, the money is sent to a friend’s account who then gives it to Niranjans family in the form of cash.
  • When faced with a financial crisis, Niranjan and his friends seek each other’s support. Digital payment apps allow them to borrow and lend money as and when required.
  • Niranjan has different accounts set up for his shop and one for personal use. The shop has been recently enrolled for GST.

“To take a loan in the bank you need to have assets like property in Bangalore or a Government job. I don’t have any of that. If you want a loan here, you should either be in a government job or have your own house or a site; they ask all this.”

“If I have to send money home, if I urgently need to borrow money from a friend; I take money through online transactions and pay back with the same.”

Accounting

  • Niranjan’s background helps him maintain and manage everyday accounts by himself. He manually keeps a track of daily accounts in an excel sheet on the computer at his store.
  • The store currently sells only tea to the customers. Niranjan mentions that tea orders are easy to remember, and does not need a billing system. However, Niranjan expresses that a change in the menu and the addition of new items would create a need for a computerized billing system. The recent registered/enrolled for GST also makes it mandatory to provide bills to the customers.
  • For business-related queries, Niranjan seeks help from a family friend who is an auditor. The auditor has been giving him advice since the inception of the store.

“I save daily accounts in the computer. I store it in Excel. Until now we did not have a billing system. But now after we got GST done, we have to compulsorily provide bills. Now because it’s only tea, we remember the orders made. When we change the menu, we’ll have different orders and the bill will be necessary.”

“Until now we did not have a billing system. But now after we got GST done, we have to compulsorily provide bills. Now because it’s only chai, we remember the orders made. When we change the menu, we’ll have different orders and the bill will be necessary.”

“In case we want to try a new location, we’ll have to get the CAs signature. I have a personal CA for that. He helps me with things. Initially, when I was going to open the store, he helped me plan things. He even helped me with registering for GST. Next time I have to file it, I’ll take his help.”

Customer management

  • Niranjan strongly believes in driving business by creating value for customers — value in the form of quality of service and the items sold. He is confident that a customer-centered strategy will help his business thrive, retain customers and create a brand identity.
  • With an average of 800 customers visiting the shop every day, Niranjan continues to strategize around providing quality services to them. His plans include changing the current menu, making snacks at the counter and many more.
  • Tea Time supplies tea to a few companies in the area on a daily basis. The companies place monthly orders with the shop, daily deliveries are made by employees using Niranjan’s bike.

“Sometimes we cater to events. Not weddings and all. We take up events so we can market our shop there. Otherwise we don’t cater. When we go to events we’ll need 2–3 employees there. That is the main problem. In case we go there for extra money, we’ll run into problems here. Because we’re a startup we only have 3–4 employees, it is a problem to do any additional catering. One or two people can’t handle this by themselves. It gets very crowded by 4 PM.”

“We don’t supply to customers who order just once, it needs to be a daily order — a company’s order. As in, there should be a delivery at a fixed time with a certain number of cups. Say, if you have an office with 20 employees, everyday you should take from us.We’ll change flavours everyday. You have to give us monthly payments.”

Vendor management

  • Niranjan chooses his vendors based on the quality of the items sold irrespective of the need to travel to the vendors’ place to pick up goods. Since he runs a tea store, he procures a wide variety of items starting from milk to tea leaves.
  • Vendors are paid through different modes of payments. Card payments are made at the supermarkets, while others are paid through cash. Niranjan prefers to pay the vendors as and when items are bought in order to avoid any dues.
  • The store previously sold snacks which were bought from a famous eatery. However, discontinued them due to low margins. But Niranjan is planning to start their own snacks section in the near future.

“We decide vendors based on the quality. If their quality is good and the price is reasonable, we will choose them even if they are far away from the shop. We will go and get it from there, if there is a supplier we will get it supplied from him. Even if it is a little far away, it’s not a problem, we will get the items from there.”

“Until now, we have not kept any dues with any vendor. Even if we buy less, we don’t keep any payments due. We don’t take new stock without settling it . We don’t take any credit. Even if we take half a kilogram we pay them back. Even the people who give us milk have told us that we will take milk every 15 days. Every 15 days they give us a bill of how much we have consumed and we also keep track of it. When they give us the bill we pay them. What some people do is take items till 30th and generate the bill on the 30th of the month. We don’t do that. Whatever we buy, we clear it then and there.”

“Earlier, one vendor used to supply snacks, but we would not get much margin because we had to sell them in the rates that they gave us. And if it got wasted, it would have to be thrown away. So we have planned to start our own live snacks.”

Employee management

  • Tea time is currently not listed on any of the restaurant aggregator platforms like Swiggy and Zomato due to the lack of packaging and employees.
  • Niranjan’s employees are also his friends who helped him set up the business. They have been with him — working and supporting him since the time the shop was opened.
  • The store comprises of 4 employees who work on a shift basis. This helps them run the store without taking long breaks.

“We don’t yet have the packaging ready to register on Swiggy or Zomato. We have a lot of crowd that gathers here at the shop itself. During peak hours serving here is sufficient. If we get orders during peak hours it will be difficult.”

“I do not have partners, I’m the founder and there are a few employees. They are all my friends. In all the agreements I am the founder.”

Technology

  • Niranjan is quite well-versed with technology and owns a recent model of the iPhone. However, due to limited storage capacity on the phone he often needs to make small decisions like — which payment app to use, which one to uninstall, etc.
  • Tea Time has a computer on which daily transactions of the store are maintained. Niranjan himself makes the daily entries.

“We have to maintain it since we have to pay GST. Also for us to understand what has been sold, how much sale happened last week and this week if it has reduced or increased, if it is improving, the expenses that have been made.”

All that was not told

Observations of the researcher that were not covered as a part of the research.

When was the last time you heard someone refer to a tea shop as a startup? Why did this come as a surprise? Isn’t a shop a newly opened business too? Our preconceived notions make us think of a startup as a grand scheme but a tea shop as a mere store that sells tea. Investing, setting up and running a store requires the same (or more) amount of entrepreneurial spirit as it does to run a startup.

When plans start to fail, money stops growing and the people who were once your backbone start to get skeptical, who do you turn to for motivation? Our social structures are the building blocks of our everyday lives. They govern the way we act, live, behave and take decisions every day. Niranjan not only had to stay focussed and work towards his goal but he also had to convince the ones who had placed their bets on the shop. In the midst of such a crisis, he had to choose between shutting the store or persevering towards his goal; he chose the latter. Guess that's what entrepreneurship is all about.

As we start to walk back, Niranjan yells out to the person in the counter — “Yerdu special tea madappa!” (Translation: Make two special teas). While it was being prepared, Niranjan enthusiastically shares the process of making this tea, its benefits and also on how the westerners have adopted it. As the conversations carried on, a man arrived on a bike. Niranjan greeted him with a nod and continued his discourse on the special tea, which we then held in our hands. After his brief but passionate conversation, Niranjan made his way to the man who just arrived. While we continued to have the glorified tea, Niranjan animatedly conversed with the man, pointing towards the computer expressing that it was broken. We understood then that this man was there to fix the faulty computer - the same computer on which Niranjan stores the daily accounts of his shop.

Credits:

Interviewed by
Apoorva Shetty and Puranjay Mahapatra

Analyzed and published for Medium by
Apoorva Shetty

About the research:

This documentation is a result of the in-person interview, along with the participants’ consent. The interviews might be conducted in their native languages and translated to English in the best possible way to reach a large audience.

Disclaimer: The identities of people and places in this documentation have been changed to honour the privacy of the participants.

About D91 labs:

This research was executed and documented by D91 labs. D91 labs is an open-source initiative by setu.co to help Bharat build great fintech products. We organise and publish user research, insights, and frameworks for fintech in India. Please follow us on medium for more exciting stories and insights on Bharat.

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