Rohan Mirchandani, CEO of Epigamia on Building India's Leading Consumer Food Brand!

In this Episode, I (@Jivraj Singh Sachar) speak with Rohan Mirchandani, Co-Founder & CEO of Epigamia. Epigamia is one of India’s most loved consumer food brands, building delicious & healthy dairy products for millions in the country. Hinged on the core belief that this decade will produce new-age brands that will dominate the Indian lifestyle for the century that awaits us, Epigamia has successfully established a presence for itself by curating a category with its hero product Greek Yogurt and expanding on top of it, with spreads, milkshakes and entire line of plant based products. Started by Rohan and team, Epigamia in its original form began as Hoki Poki ice cream and evolved into its current avatar, having realised the challenges of seasonality in the ice-cream business. Since then, there has been no looking back, and Epigamia has been a success story in the making since the last 7 – 8 years. I chat with Rohan, the Co-Founder & CEO of Epigamia to understand how they got here: Hope you liked this Episode of the Indian Silicon Valley Podcast — Building India’s leading Consumer Food Brand!

Jivraj Singh Sachar

Welcome to the Indian Silicon Valley Podcast. I'm your host, Jivaj, and today I have with me a very special guest. Join me in welcoming Rohan Mirchandani, the co-founder of one of India's most loved brands, Epigamia. Thank you so much, Rohan, for joining me. I'm incredibly delighted to be hosting you today.

Rohan Meerchandani

Likewise, Jivraj. It is an absolute pleasure to be here with you.

Jivraj Singh Sachar

Thank you so much, Rohan. And I want to decode everything that Epigamia has done so well, especially because I know that Epigamia would have touched everyone listening to this episode in some shape or form. But before we get there, I want first to understand how an American-born Wharton graduate with an interest in finance and a job in banking comes to India and starts a food company. Right? So, if you can take us through that journey of maybe not just how you started but also what it was like because in entrepreneurship, we often hear the beginner's mindset is important, and having a fresh perspective is important. You've shown us in reality that plays to your favour, and it's not a disadvantage. So, if you can take us through that trajectory with an emphasis on that point, I think that'd be lovely to kick-start the discussion.

Rohan Meerchandani

Yeah, sure. The entrepreneurial journey is a very philosophical. I think, you know, that's where things start for me. You know, as you rightfully mentioned, I went to Undergrad at NYU Stern. After graduating, I worked in finance and spent time working with my family business, which is what my father and brother do. And while I was doing that, I came to India on a visit and met some really cool people, one of them being one of my older co-founders, Chef Ganesh, who wanted to start an ice cream parlour. 

I had never intended or had any sort of vision of being in India working in India, or doing business in India. It was always a place you would visit for visiting family or vacation or, for that matter, weddings. That was always a big draw for familial weddings. And I got involved as a side investor in an ice cream business, which was our first version of this venture, which was Hokey Pokey ice cream, which some of your listeners may have heard of or tried. And honestly, it was never a focus for me. It was just some money I'd saved up on the side. 

It was just as a passion as an investor, and when I was in B School, things really changed for me. I had intended to go back into finance, and I took a class in India called Marketing to the Indian Consumer. I'd come with B School for a week-long immersion program and was blown away by what I saw happening. Some really had some very interesting professors, guest lecturers that know one of them being he continues to be a mentor on our board. And he spoke about the advent of consumer brands in India, and he said, you will see brands that are born in the next 10-20 years that will stand the test of time. 

And I think every entrepreneur we'll talk about has an outsider's perspective, but I think you have that Eureka moment, the Kanti Bhajgay moment, right? And that's when I got shivers in my arms, and I said, wow, there seems to be a calling here for me. I had this sort of side hustle of the ice cream business, but of course, I had never worked in the industry and had no idea what food was aside from being a very passionate consumer of it. 

And that's where the journey started. I went back to Philadelphia, where I was in B school, stayed in touch with Sripad and ended up having conversations with him and visiting him in India. And he finally said that I'd love to help you with this. And there's a much larger picture here of building a consumer brand in the value-added dairy space, which eventually became value-added dairy and plant-based dairy. But he had three conditions for me. One was that he actually had two conditions for me. 

One was that he'd like to be an investor and be involved. And the second condition was that I'd have to move to India full-time and do this as a full-time business, not just some side thing. And that was a big sort of philosophical learning for me with respect to entrepreneurship. And it's tough because you're always trying to make ends meet initially; no income is coming in, right? You have to do this purely for the love of it. And I always say it's also a very selfish journey because you have to give it all; it has to be 100%. And that was one of my first learnings, that you have to be there all in or all out. You can do a side thing to get things moving. But six months, one year max, and that's when I took a call. And against every advice of every friend and family member here in the United States, everyone is saying, Are you out of your mind? You're going to go there? You've never lived there; you've never worked. Now, coming back to what you were saying earlier, moving there in this industry, having no experience, I came with zero preconceived notions, and that's why having that perspective really helped in this venture. And we can talk about that more when we go along. Absolutely.

Jivraj Singh Sachar

No, I think that's super fascinating to hear, and it's amazing how far you've come since that time. But it's interesting: no story about Epigamia is complete without the pivot that happened, right? So, you went from ice cream to yoghurt as we know it and multiple other products that are in dispute. Now, apart from understanding why that happened, can you also tell us some maybe tangible numbers of knowing how it happened or when the time to pivot happens? Right. Without giving it any fancy terms like a pivot or anything of the kind, when did you know that this is not working? These are my signals, and this might be the more logical step to continue and build out a brand. Right? This is going to be my superstar product that I will follow through, and then we will build a brand on top of it, build distribution on top of it. If you can take us through that bit, especially in what it meant at that moment, as opposed to what we're seeing right now, I think that would be super interesting for everyone listening.

Rohan Meerchandani

Yeah, absolutely. And I completely echo you said it in a very kind way. I think pivot is a very overused word, and I don't subscribe to the definition of that word. I don't think I still know what it means. But let's talk about the journey instead and see how things sort of transpired. And we started with packaged ice cream. I mean, that was sort of the first real thing. When I moved, we had an ice cream parlour, but that was the business plan that I had built. And the idea was always to get into more products. But, of course, the first foray was packaged ice cream. 

One of the leading blogs called us India's answer to Ben and Jerry's, which is always exciting for us. Remember, that was the first media attention we got, which was amazing. The reality was that the first step is, are you really aware of what's happening inside your business? Right, I'm coming back to this word pivot and breaking down the parts. What's actually going on? What is the product market fit, what's working, what's not working? And I think what we came to terms with very quickly was that we had a good product market fit. It was being liked by, wasn't it a very different dynamic? 

Seasonality played a huge role in the ice cream business in India. So, you had large businesses that had been built very regionally over time, and we were trying to build a premium national business.

 And these large, more local businesses built over time had the luxury of being in business for 50 years, 75 years, 80 years, where they had only those few months of the year where the real heavy consumption happened. But they'd been doing this for so long. They had a very good base. Right. And that's what we sort of came to terms with: things like rainy season, literally, ice cream consumption just drops off the cliff. Winter season in northern areas, there's some tradition around having ice cream in the winter in Delhi, but in the film world, it's not a reality, right? Consumption doesn't go up. In fact, when it's cold out, you know, people are not feeling well, they don't have ice cream. 

And that's something, you know, we had to sort of learn the hard way because when we first started, we scaled like crazy. But what we didn't realise is that crazy scaling happened in the months of March, April, May and June. And by July, especially because we were based in Mumbai, the business was less than halved, right? 

And we started questioning what it was, and we started putting efforts behind marketing, which made no sense because it was a market reality. So, we had a product market fit as far as the consumer was concerned. But in terms of the business market reality, we didn't see it now; we still needed a forecast. And this was probably some of the negative part of the naivete that I brought in coming from the United States, thinking where I'm from New York, where we have a real winter, where it snows, we have a real summer, where it's really hot, we wear shorts. So, I'm sure India will be consuming ice cream all year round, which was far from the truth. And that's what sort of led us to, and again, I wouldn't call it a pivot. I would call it a business addition for us, where we always wanted to do more products. 

And the insight that we drew from there was two-fold. One was to look at a product that's not that seasonal. I mean, every product has some seasonality in India, but at least it can be consumed year-round, right? And secondly, because of the ice cream business and some of the parlours we had and the time I spent, we realised that there was this huge shift towards a healthier lifestyle, wellness, and eating. And especially some of the same consumers that were eating our ice cream were saying. We have it maybe once a week or twice a month. It's not a daily product, right? It's a cheat meal, or it's a celebratory product. It's not a lifestyle product. 

And using these two insights, we launched Greek yoghurt. Of course, we'd gotten good at where we were getting our ingredients from. And the Chef came up with a great product. But initially, Jivraj, the idea behind Greek yoghurt, was not to pivot. Again, I don't know what that word means, but if that's the right terminology, it was an addition to the ice cream business. The idea was to work them together and get a lot of synergies out of it. Especially on the raw material sourcing because a lot of the ingredients were similar. And then also, of course, on the distribution front in terms of the stores we would sell to, more importantly, they would be synergistic because during these other months, Greek yoghurt would be very stable, and then ice cream would give us the spurts in the summer months. 

And that's really what the initial sort of the plan evolved into. I like that word better than pivot. It evolved in that direction. Where I think the change came when we realised that we had gotten some really good insights from the ice cream business, from the market, which we put all behind launching Greek yoghurt and where the Hokey Pokey ice cream came below what we had forecasted, especially given the summer seasonality issues. Epigamia Greek yoghurt just blasted all our projections. We had no idea that this was how successful it would be. And then where the real change in business came was when we had to make a decision: Are we going to be able to run two brands, especially one that is now doing business four to five times the other one? And we also came to another market reality that we hadn't sort of prepared for, is that it sounds so easy and straightforward in the beginning, but when you're actually in the business doing so many things, it's not so straightforward. 

Both of the products require very different supply chains; one requires frozen, and one requires chilled, very different temperatures. We thought we could do it in cartons and crates of dry ice inside. It's a separate discussion for a separate day, and that's where the business then dictates the data and where you want to go. So, to your point earlier, when you've launched something as an addition, which is synergistic with how you're evolving the business, but it starts doing five times what your core business was doing before. Those are some very straightforward decisions one takes, and that's when we decided that we couldn't build two brands or run two supply chains, which required all the tender love and care we were supposed to give it. Even though Hokey Pokey is always my first child, I have equal love for it. Business sort of dictated, and hence this pivot, or as I like to call the evolution, happened of the business.

Jivraj Singh Sachar

Got it. That's again very interesting. The insight there is you have to follow the numbers; you have to be intellectually honest about what's genuinely working, what's not and what's going to be most beneficial for the organisation in the long haul. So, I think I love that. There are a lot of ingrained insights there for everyone, especially somebody building a new brand or a new company out there. So super to hear that. 

There are two parts that I want to double-click on; one is the supply chain bit. I'll come to that in a bit. But considering that while yoghurt and what you've built with Abigail seems very intuitive now, I would love to understand that, considering at the start, there could have been reservations around seeing a new product, what does Greek yoghurt mean? What is this about? We see this very infrequently and things like that. So, when you look at category creation in the consumables industry, right? Like, if you're doing it with SaaS and other products, it's fairly intuitive because it's a new product. You can try it out, but with consumables, it's different. Right. So, what was the reaction like if you can take us through that part of the journey where it was a new product launching? And what did you think about launching a different category by itself? Because now we think of Yoga, and simultaneously, Epigamia pops into our mind, and that's been the distance you've covered. But if you can take us to the initial parts of building a category by itself, I'd love to hear.

Rohan Meerchandani

Yeah, no, absolutely. And you alluded to the right things. There are so many meetings, investors, and advisors who said you have yet to see this ice cream journey through. What is wrong with you? Of launching a new product? Right? And I'll start with a different view, and then we'll get into the category creation. 

I find it very interesting that this has again changed in a big way, and the next generation of entrepreneurs who have come out in India in the last three or four years is crushing this concept. But when I first moved in 2013, it's been almost nine years now. This notion of sunk cost, this sunk cost fallacy, as they call it, is very rare; this idea of, if it's not working, don't keep putting resources behind it. Take that call early on. And I think that really drove us in the right direction. And we've had this notion, and things have changed drastically with these new-age entrepreneurs. 

But the old thinking was, I've put so much behind this, itna paisa lagaya, that you would want to see it through, and you're not honest with yourself, like you said, you're not intellectually honest with yourself that this is not working, man. Dude, you got to move on. And I think that's where we had a lot of pushbacks when we first looked at this next. But then we sort of sold it to ourselves that it was a synergistic value addition to the core. It wasn't just a new product launch, to your point. I mean, of course, it was a new product launch. It was a new category launch. But for us, again, being sort of very simplistic, naive entrepreneurs, we just simply looked at the raw material. Sourcing will be the same production facility. We can use similar, even though that also had to change once we scaled. And then the stores we would sell to would be similar. We have a social media team handling one social media handle. They can handle two social media handles. And that was the very simplistic sort of view where we came out is when this scaled as fast as it did. 

I mean, it was just insane. Again, we had obviously done something right in our calculations as to what the market needs were, what the stores wanted and what the big modern trade guys wanted to keep on their shelves. All that played out very well once that hit home to your point. Now you went from ice cream, playing in a very established category. Now, we were trying to premiumize that category. Still, it was a very established category, whereas yogurt, even though a lot of people tried to lump it in as part of the curd category, is different from curd. It's uniquely different. 

And one of the things we took on, and I think one of our early successes, was to sort of position this as not as a flavoured curd or a variation of curd, which is why we specifically went after calling it yoghurt and Greek yoghurt for that matter, is also to give it an independent identity when we talk about category creation. Right? So, when you talk about category creation, what is it really? What does that mean to answer your question specifically? And what that means is it's not just about the product; it's about the consumption pattern as well as the occasion. 

The occasion becomes very critical when you talk about category creation. And we really pushed hard on this notion of our product being a snack versus being used as a curd replacement. And that's something that we push really hard on. And I urge your listeners to think about occasions because that's one area that, especially when you're creating a consumer food category or creating a consumer food brand, we overlook how important occasions are. So, if you look at traditional curd consumption, it's always part of your meal. With your roti or your paratha or as a side pocket to biryani or on many occasions it's at the end of a meal, you finish your meal, and it's a digestive which is happening dahi blame. And that's traditionally ingrained for, I don't know, how many years in the country, right? And for us, it was very clear that we wouldn't win if we fell under the curd category because we'd just be looked at as an expensive foreign curd. 

That's really what we will be looking at. And that's an insight we garnered very early on. What was very important in this category creation journey was to coin an occasion, and we went after our Greek yoghurt as a snack. So, it comes with a high protein content. There's a lot of functionality there. Of course, it's thick, viscous, and has a differentiation from curd. And we really pushed the idea of an after-work out snack at the workplace in between meals. We called it the Choti si book snack, right? 

So, your hunger is between lunch and dinner at four or 05:00 p.m. And we anchored ourselves in that, and that's something we spent a lot of time on, and all our communication really honed in on that being the anchor. So, we called it the Batman-Robin effect. And what I mean by that is Robin is the sidekick to Batman, so that he was always the sidekick to a bigger meal and continues to be. That's the role it plays. And we wanted to create Greek yoghurt as Batman. We didn't want it to be a Robin. We wanted it to be a unique event, and that's where we spent a lot of time. And that's what really the category creation journey means is not just that the product is unique in terms of a category, but the occasion that you're going to be consuming this product in that really helps define a different category.

Jivraj Singh Sachar

That's obvious. There is a lot of food for thought there, especially with the occasion point that you mentioned, and there is lots to think about for everyone listening but very quickly understanding. Epigamia is one of those brands which was not online first, right? And you've mentioned this in the past: you've gone from offline to online to now offline online, both. And we see this trend where now the digital-first brands are also, of course, eventually moving offline as well because the truth is that the consumer is at each place, and a large chunk of the consumer is still buying offline products. Right? So, if you can just help us take us through the trajectory you've seen brands evolve from. Also, of course, how has Epigamia evolved through this trial, and how do you think the next age of brands will get formed in that aspect of which channels to dominate from and how important is it to have that clarity early on, if at all? That would be super interesting.

Rohan Meerchandani

Yeah, absolutely. And this is the discussion of the hour right now, right in all the boardrooms: where does this go from here, and what has happened? So, very clearly, COVID disrupted online. We saw what happened. The adaptation, the urgency of getting online, became very important to all businesses. Of course, consumers took different consumer businesses and consumer food, which we all thought would go in that route. So, you've asked for some stats before. I'll happily share a stat. So, we pre-COVID our e-commerce or digital business. So, all levels of digital was about 4%. 

Today, we're sitting on close to 32% of our business being through online. And that number will be a lot larger because this is just what we see because there are a lot of modern trade accounts or even local, what we call the local modern trade. So Kirana shops are in places like Bangalore and Hyderabad, which have more than one, maybe two or three, but are very restricted to that city. But also provide service you can order on WhatsApp and you can deliver. And for that matter, even today, in a Kirana shop, you can order on WhatsApp, and they deliver. You're not communicating on the phone. So, what's really digital anymore, right? What qualifies as ecom and digital anymore? So, if I were to break that down and make some assumptions, 45% to 50% of our business is coming online today, which in a fresh, short, chef life business is absolutely unheard of, right? 

It just doesn't make any sense. So, what happened, and what's going to happen? Right? Let's answer the two questions that you brought up. So, number one, offline, always has had friction, right? So, the moat for Offline has always been building distribution. And that's what, honestly, a very straightforward journey that we took on when we started Epigamia. We need to get to 200,000 stores as fast as we can. We're up to nearly 30,000 now, but we're still on our way as fast as possible.

 And that's what we once were, those storekeepers, the consumers in those stores, like the product, there's a loyalty that's been built that becomes your moat, which is hard to penetrate for a newcomer, right? And that was the traditional way of doing it. Then we went to this other place now with COVID happening and with our food business because food is something that would be the end of the spectrum when it comes to e-commerce; everything else is easy because, with food, it's perishable. You've got shelf-life concerns, constraints, et cetera, et cetera, planning for inventory. And, with people sitting at home during lockdown and people working from home during COVID, that just accelerated. And it wasn't just an Indian phenomenon but a global one. It happened everywhere in the world as we see it. What surprised us was the tailwinds that we saw with that business, right? The way it took off for us, people sitting at home and consuming. 

And now, of course, with Qcommerce coming into the picture, the Quick Commerce guys who are now my fastest way of getting my own product is Visa vis Quick Commerce, not my own team. Ten minutes, 20 minutes, 1 hour, whatever that number is, depending on which part of the country you live in or which service you're using. That's seen another proliferation in terms of the e-commerce business, right? Because now you've got a product, as I mentioned earlier, you want it consumed during your chhoti si bhook time, which is at four or 05:00 p.m. Time, you can literally just order two cups and in ten minutes it reaches you and you're consuming it. So that's created another interesting sort of evolution or proliferation. If we look at the journey now where distribution had the original distribution strategy, there was a lot of friction because what ended up happening is you were creating the distribution. Still, you were also trying to create awareness within this distribution, right? 

So, it required a lot of effort, a lot of marketing rupees, and a lot of energy. And the way I liked it, I actually don't like the word sort of awareness because that's a word that all marketing departments use; we have awareness. What I like to use for us startups is discovery, right? Discovering the brand, learning about it and what online has done is it's removed friction from discovery. So now discovering a product or brand is just a simple function of browsing on an e-commerce platform or a Quick Commerce platform or just doing your own research around it. And that, to me, is the big game changer in the future if we look at sort of, let's simply define it as pre-COVID, post-COVID; I think those are simple lines in the sand, right, at least for our business, and I'd say for any consumer perishable business.

 So, before that, you had distribution friction and you had awareness friction, right? Because you now had to do distribution awareness, discovery, all in some sense offline, yeah, you had online social media, you could do stuff like that, but that was just communication, that was just a new media channel, it wasn't necessarily leading to less friction. Now you've come to where discovery is happening online, so you've removed that friction from discovery, and now you can consume online. But we still have very good distribution in the country, you've got stores everywhere, Kirana shops, this, that, this, that. So, accessibility, even though Quick Commerce is changing a lot of that, Quickcommerce isn't there all over the country yet, and people do still like to get out and pick something up from their local shopkeeper, right? So, what changes now is, and this is coming back to answer your question, this partnership of Offline online is essential going forward, and our sort of thesis now, and our sort of view, is that offline is going to still continue to be very important. So, we see offline and online, over time it'll become a 50-50 split for us. Right now, it's officially a 30-70 split, but I think it's probably more like a 40-60 split because we supply Reliance Fresh; people are buying from Jio, and it's coming from their shop. 

So, does that qualify as ecommerce or not? And that's the other thing; the lines are getting grey, right? We don't know what e-commerce is anymore. If your local Kirana shop is taking orders from you on WhatsApp, is that e-commerce, or is it not? You're also paying on WhatsApp. You're paying him on Paytm, and then his delivery guy comes and delivers. So, is that online or not? We don't know that, but we know that the moat will continue to be distributed, building a robust back end: supply chain and distribution. But discovery now has been outsourced online, or has the friction gone? 

So, a very simple example. I know I'm taking a long time to answer, but I think it's very important for your listeners to understand this move. A very simple example is for us, right? So, we're predominantly a tier one, major tier two business, maybe in 12-15 cities. Now, in the last one and a half to two years, we've disrupted, and we've now gone into close to 90 cities. Right? One city that was not really on our radar, where we knew we had a good population, is a city in southern Maharashtra called Ichalkaranji. Have you ever heard of it or if some of your listeners have. Exactly. It's not far from Kolhapur, right? And in any case, we didn't have it on our list of cities to go into, but Reliance Jio had set up an operation there where they had set up an online mart where you could order online. And because they're fantastic partners, we went in there with them, and through that, we had discovery happen. 

So, people were on their phones and apps, learning about Greek yoghurt and our milkshakes. We started to see some traction. Now that we've got a city with a Discoverability option available, we should start expanding distribution there. So, we've now started supplying stores. We're probably up; I don't know the exact number, but 50, 75 stores that we're supplying through there, plus, but it all started with that com Discoverability rewind five, seven years ago. We would have had to start with distribution, which would have, again, high friction, and then we'd have to do some billboards or inserts in newspapers and again, high friction, and the return on effort and capital would have been extremely low. So that's where this whole game changes now in terms of this online, offline convergence and, like I said, a very hairy grey area. I don't know if that answers the question. I know it was a long answer.

Jivraj Singh Sachar

But I think that's very helpful. It breaks it down, especially in terms of consumables and the consumer industry, very well, especially in terms of perishables. And that's going to be very helpful in terms of young builders who are looking at this industry. But what's interesting is if we talk about the present day and how far the product has come, especially in terms of building on top of distribution. Because from what I could gather for a long time, it was expanding on top of yoghurts, ensuring that proper evangelism happens. 

And then we've recently seen a surge in types of products. There are now milkshakes and spreads, and you've gone into other categories like plant-based, and a bunch of other things are happening. Right? Talk to us about the mindset that A goes into this. How have you gone about building this? Also, regarding strategy, how have you thought about what comes when and how long, or what does the product launch at Epigamia look like? Like, do you plan months in advance, or do you do a very quick weekly test or something of the kind? Where does innovation come from? If you can, take us through this entire flywheel that leads to the company's innovative side and keeps the consumer on its toes with newer products that dominate its lifecycle. That would uncover a bunch of trade secrets that have led to the massive success of Epigamia and hopefully continue doing so.

Rohan Meerchandani

I'd love to tell you some rocket scientists sit behind the scenes and do something, but the reality is that, Jivraj, is at our core, we're a product company. That's who we are. That's what we do, right? And we've learned the hard and soft way that our consumers are very demanding on seeing new and newer and newer products from us. And also, it's our DNA to launch newer and newer products. 

Now, what that means is it falls under this strategy of contemporising modern Indian dairy, right? So, we're very clear about that. That's why you'll see we've got our take on the lassi, which is our smoothie. We've got our take on the plant-based industry now, so we've got a vegan range, we got lactose-free range. So, I'm looking at disrupting and contemporising this ancient dairy industry. However, for us, product launches, like I said, it's so core to who we are. And at least while I remain CEO, unfortunately, or fortunately for the team, our motto on product launches is Fail fast. It's very important. 

So, what we've come to realise is that you can take a year or two of Nielsen Data research and just keep going and going and know it becomes paralysis by analysis, right? You just don't end up going anywhere. And I remember I'd given a talk to a very large FMCG company, to their team about this, and they stood up and gave me a round of applause. And my take was, by the time you guys do your research and get your initial research data together, which takes two to three months, we've already launched that product, seen if it works or not, or removed it if it doesn't, right? And that's the core of who we are, is to try it out. Fail fast. 

Obviously, as we get larger, it becomes a little harder to do that. However, we have put a little bit of structure. Now we're getting better at that, but our structure is still entrepreneurial-driven. So, we have what we call an alpha and beta test. We look at the tech world for inspiration. And very simply, there's a lot of insight that comes from the marketing team, from the sales team. And we have a very fantastic R and D lab, and we're called the Innovation Kitchen. And there are constantly new products being churned out. On a daily basis, I spend most of my time just tasting. And there are things we're thinking about short term and long term, but constant churning is happening. 

There are constant briefs being sent in on what to look at and how to look at it. I drive a lot of this. I look at consumer trends globally. I look at consumer trends in India. I see when are things going to happen? I'm probably their biggest pain because I'm always sending stuff to them. Once we get a sense of something that's good, there's some interest amongst the management team for this. We do what we call an alpha testing, which means the internal Epigamia team will taste the product, right? There'll be a product, there's a core group that does it, but there's a larger group. And then, at the end of the day, it becomes fun. Whoever's in the office that day is tasting, you get some initial feedback. And we found that immediate feedback is important. You have to look at cohorts, obviously, but look at that. 

And if we feel it passes that alpha test, then it goes for a beta test. The beta test is essential, and we've launched our own D to C website. Now we've got some D to C consumers. Of course, it's not a big part of our business, but that's where we go out to them because we know these are loyal consumers who really care about the company, about the brand. We get their feedback. So, we get some sense from them, what are they liking, what are they not liking? And we've also been very careful about the feedback because some of this stuff can become very subjective. And over time, we figured out what makes sense and what doesn't. Once we get that, we have a group of about 200 odd stores across cities, mainly in Mumbai, though, which is a good litmus test if this will work or not. And we quickly go into those stores. Those shopkeepers love us. They love working with us because we've helped them grow an entire category that never existed prior to. And there is my philosophy. Our philosophy is that you're not getting real feedback until you really get people spending repeats from their hard-earned money on your product. That's the real feedback, right? 

And once we see some pattern of a repeat there, we're convinced we've got something, then we hit the pedal. And sometimes, even once we go through those steps, we see failures. Not that it doesn't. The key for us is making sure you fail fast and remove because that will make or break us, right? So, for example, we've launched many products in the last two years, especially during COVID, people sitting at home were even more demanding. Some of them have not, are on their way to being removed, not going to see it, and some have hit a home like our Milkshakes have just dominated. They've scaled so fast. It's the fastest product launch in our history. But the reality is that all of them had the same approach. I love to tell you that Milkshakes had a better approach than something else that got pulled, but it didn't. They all had equal love, care, and approach, but that's what sees us sort of move forward. But again, the key is understanding the sunk cost fallacy, right? It's sunk, it's gone, remove, move on, and we will continue doing that as we move forward. Brilliant.

Jivraj Singh Sachar

That, again, is very helpful as an entire process and talks a lot about adopting that agile mindset and actually delivering on top of it. So, I love that. Going further, as we go to the end parts of the conversation, I'd love also to uncover how you've continued staying close to the consumer. And the famous story is that you spent around six months serving ice cream in its original form, and you've carried that culture forward. Carried forward that culture with the company as well. So, talk to us about what customer insights look like at scale and especially how deliberate one needs to be to continue doing so because I'm guessing that you probably can't do everything a consumer demand for either. Right? So, if you can talk to us about that conundrum and especially how that's evolved over time and how you've been deliberate about it, I think that'll be great because we've heard customers working a lot of times but uncovering some real insights there would be really fantastic.

Rohan Meerchandani

Yeah, no, it's a good point. I mean, early on, that was my sort of genesis was the time I spent in the parlours, the time I spent talking to the consumers that translated later on to the stores, spending a lot of time at stores with the promoters doing sampling and that's where you got some of the best conversations out. Today, we are a much larger organisation now. We've got teams and spend some money on research here and there. Even though I'm still not a big believer in it, the teams like to validate, so I'm okay with it. 

But where I think a bulk of it comes is still from the salesforce. I think the salesforce being out there, we encourage them to have conversations at the stores, and secondly, I'd break it down today where we stand, I'd say there's three sort of main elements to where we're getting our insights from and again, I'm very involved in this piece of it. The first insight is what's happening in the stores. So, continuing that dialogue with the shopkeepers and not that they have all the answers, but at least you get a sense of the problems, right? What are people asking for? What are they looking for? Do they want this, they want that, and also being able to filter the noise because just one vocal consumer saying something doesn't mean everybody wants that, right? You have to be very clear about that. So that's one side of it, which is still a core part of how we go forward. 

The second part of it is this data c consumer base that we built. Now, it's a small base, maybe 10,000 odd consumers, but it's a pretty good portion in terms of data crunching. Now, the bias there is they are very loyal consumers, so you're going to get some very loyal bias from them and from those shopkeepers. You'll get the offbeat one-off biases because the most vocal person will be heard. So, you have to synthesise and filter both to see what makes sense. And then, finally, the equivalent of sitting in the ice cream parlour and listening to people talk is just looking at comments today, right, on social media constantly. And I still very religiously look at every comment that is there. Sometimes, there are thousands of comments on a post, and, again, you have to filter what makes sense because many people are just bashing you or doing things like that. And I've developed a thicker skin. I used to get very agitated when I saw those negative comments, and I've learned that that's just part and parcel of being on social media. 

But I think there's taking all three buckets, filtering them, synthesising them and then mapping it on just the economy. Where are things headed in the country? So here you get a sense of what people are looking for, but where are things headed? How are things evolving? What are some trends outside of the country that we've seen played out within the country? Are those coming soon? So, there's a lot of mapping that happens. So, these are the three areas where we get the consumer commentary. We filter that into insights for us, then map it against trends happening within the country financially and market-driven and then trends that have happened outside, and that's where we sort of start. It sounds a lot more formal than it is. It happens very informally, but then we start spitting out where we think things will go and where we see products coming. And that's the equivalent of those conversations I used to have at the ice cream parlour back in the day, which I miss very dearly.

Jivraj Singh Sachar

Got it? No, that's lovely to hear and very core to any business and, thus, very important to get iterated. I think about the next. I want to touch upon this theory quickly. You have, and you've spoken about this in the past, but you talk about this value-conscious consumer that India is, right? And not the price-conscious consumer. I mean, I leave it up to you. But if you can decode that and how you've looked at the value aspect of the brand-building journey, as well as the products that you've built with Visa, Visa consumer, I think I'd love to know that and dive deeper into interest with you.

Rohan Meerchandani

Yeah. So, I have an obvious take, and obviously, this was something that we built our thesis on. Every market has a price-conscious buyer that exists everywhere. It's not just in India or America or Europe thing. But we tend to start qualifying the larger bucket of the market as price-conscious buyers. And the reality is, that's not true.

 The reality is that we live in a very value-conscious society in India. What that means is I don't mind spending because consumer spending is happening. The velocity of money is moving, right? Of course, there are some issues, given inflation and all that, which are external factors, exogenous factors that we don't know what's going to play out, but they are okay with spending. The question is, what am I getting in return for that? What am I able to do with what I'm spending on? A great example is the proliferation of smartphones in India. Of course, they were made available at a price that was of value. 

If you look at the actual absolute price of phones, they're expensive; they're not cheap. Even people with lower incomes still spend a significant part of their income on those phones. Why? Because they're getting so much functionality and usage out of it. There's a value that's derived from those phones. Similarly, with our Greek yoghurt, initially, when we launched, there was a huge pushback that it's so expensive, it's on the higher price point side. Right? But the minute you start to decode it, the minute you start to say, one Greek yoghurt is the equivalent of three cups of dahi that are meshed together, okay? One Greek yoghurt is the equivalent of three times the amount of protein you get in a cup of dahi, right? That one Greek yoghurt, if it's a flavoured version, has these fresh mango chunks in it, pieces in it, strawberries in it, and you start telling, and this is the mindset of the consumer, that if I start deconstructing this and try making this at home myself, it's going to cost me more than what I will pay for buying this ready, packaged. And that's where our thesis is on this value-driven consumer. There have been some very interesting products that have been launched in the last few years. Some fresh juices of that nature did not see similar sort of tailwinds. Because the minute you start saying, I can make this fresh juice at home, and my price is similar or maybe lower than what I'm getting it outside. Why would I pay that? Right? So, it's not a function of the actual rupee that's going out; it's a function of the value that I'm deriving from what I'm spending on. And that's something that marketers have to be very conscious of going forward, especially in this world of discovery. I think this world of discovery is going to play out the value-conscious theory of the Indian consumer.

Jivraj Singh Sachar

Lovely. I loved that when I first came across it in one of your past interviews, and I want that to be mentioned here as well. So, I love that explanation. One of the last portions of the company building post, which we conclude with a couple of last personal questions, is the aspect around, let's say, the operations bit or the supply chains that Epigamia has. Beautifully built. Right. As a consumer, I only get to see the end product, but a lot is happening in the background. Right. So, if you can give us some context as to not the glamorous side of entrepreneurship, but the hard-hitting, on-the-ground operational bits and also the cold chain aspects of how difficult it is to manage supply in the business that you are. I think that would give us a lot of these hard-hitting truths that can help us develop a lot of empathy, not just for the company but also for entrepreneurship as a principal.

Rohan Meerchandani

Yeah. No, this one, I can go on for hours and hours, but I'll try to keep it restricted in my answer. The reality for us, Javraj, is we have, and we had a 20-day, 18 to 20-day shelf life. Now, when you think about the context of that and supplying the whole country with that product, by the time it leaves the factory, by the time it goes through the dirty supply chain, as I like to call it, the grinding supply chain, and it reaches the shelf, it probably has maybe ten or eleven or twelve days left, max, right? And out of that ten, 11-12 days, you look at 70% of that time frame when someone will consume it. Because if the product has two or three days left on the shelf, if it's today's, 12th April, if the expiry is 15th April, no one's buying it. 

 It's going to go into expiry. 

So, if you think about it, that poor guy has only seven days to sit on that shelf and sell himself. Right? And that's where we learned that just inventory control, managing those inventories, managing the cold chain, actually became the core competence where we thought we would spend a lot of the money that we raised, the capital that we raised in the fundraise. The typical thinking is it will go towards marketing and awareness, which, of course, we did spend a little bit there. But the bulk of the investment that we took from institutional money went towards building this back end, this cold chain. We opted not to have our own manufacturing for this reason because we realised that taking on our own manufacturing would create more complexities. We had to manage this cold chain very well, from the factory to the store. In the beginning, when we first launched, we were begging distributors to take on our product, literally on our knees, and they told us to get lost. 

And we realised that, so we fell into this. We realised that building it ourselves is the only way to do this. And then, when we started on that journey, we got really good at it. And that's where we've sort of spent the time, energy and effort. So, coming back to what you were saying, so many nuances go into it because you have to manage inventory. You have to make sure it leaves on time because even if you lose one day, and you know, in the Indian context, that happens all the time. The trucks get stopped, and anything can happen. Kuch bhi ho sakta hai, and in this case, you lose one day; that's one out of seven days on the shelf. That's a significant loss in terms of the business. Because there is going to be a forecast that will come back as an expiry or return. And that's something that we've spent most of our time working on. 

We've developed our own forecasting models. It's interesting when we actually grow fast, we struggle a little bit there, and there's always a complaint from sales that we need more supply. But at the end of the day, we have to be robust in our forecasting. Otherwise, the whole business can go for a toss, which it does. And we've spent a lot of time developing our indigenous solutions in cardboard boxes with dry ice, depending on the volumes. Of course, we use a lot of reefers, fully refrigerated trucks. We work with a lot of companies that are doing some really cool sorts of solutions on eco-sustainability in terms of usage of different types of technologies. We continue to be at the forefront of that. But this is some kind of now, whether we liked it or not, become our core competence that is our business, essentially. Fair enough.

Jivraj Singh Sachar

That's, again, heartening to hear and refreshing to know because I think a large part of the narrative is based around the brand, but there's so much happening in the background, and it's wonderful to echo that. Rohan, as we end this, you mentioned another great theory of transitioning from an entrepreneur to a CEO. And considering that it's been a reasonably long time since you've been building Epigamia, if you take us through the transition that you have been through personally, right from figuring out and being an outsider in the food industry or even India to now having established a brand and being on this journey or successfully taking it to other countries as well. How have you scaled as an individual? What are some transitions that you have personally gone through, and how has that entrepreneur-to-CEO shift taken place? I think all of us would love to know that.

Rohan Meerchandani

Yeah, I'll answer that question when I figure it out myself. I'm still trying to figure it out, and I've talked about it before—this sort of journey from entrepreneur to CEO. And people, when they think outside, they tend to think it's the same thing. It's so far removed from each other. That's why good entrepreneurs are good entrepreneurs and good CEOs are good CEOs, and very few are both, right? 

When we look at it as an entrepreneur, you're driven by hustle and ground realities. You're scrappy. You're able to get up every day and just go out there and do what's needed, right? You're ready to do anything. You'll get your hands dirty with everything. And that's something that my co-founder, Rahul, and my other co-founder, Uday, are good at. That's like our thing, right? And I don't think you'll ever remove that from us. You'll never take the entrepreneur out of us. 

We like to build things. We're ready to get our hands dirty and do anything. Right? We don't think twice as you sort of build an organisation, which is what we've done. And now we've brought in some fantastic sort of partners who are leading the journey. Pankaj, who joins us from Johnson and Johnson; Raymond Senta, who's on board as well; and Yatesh on the R & D and supply chain side. These guys are just so much brighter and smarter than we ever will be. Just amazing. Professionals understand how to scale things, right? Understand how to plan, organise, institutionally scale things.

 And in this journey, I've been designated this title of a CEO, and my thought process is, what do I know? These guys really know how to do it right. And that's where you now think through that. What is a CEO and the CEO? Again, something I'm learning is what is the best use of my time. It needs to be sitting and telling Sentil what to do in terms of the ingredients he's putting in. I can give some high-level consumer insight, but he's the scientist. He will be able to do that far better than I can, right? So, what it ends up being is sort of as a CEO, galvanising the team, working with them, demonstrating leadership in some sense.

 Again, I am trying to understand what that means. I'm still trying to figure that out. But it's a very different sort of day-to-day thinking than it was as an entrepreneur when literally everything you were doing, you had your hands on. Right? And today, I think the first step of becoming a CEO is having the self-awareness that your hands on something are probably not the best thing for the company right now. You've got someone who's far more capable, far brighter than you, far more intelligent than you who is now on board and should be doing that, and I think that's the balancing act as I still transition from entrepreneur to CEO and maybe I never will. I don't know. As that journey goes on, we'll figure it out, but it's a very different mindset and way of thinking. Hopefully, at some point, I'll crack the code.

Jivraj Singh Sachar

Absolutely. I think I love how candid you've been there. It's very interesting to understand that distinction and know how evolutionary of a journey it is. I think for the second last question, Rohan, I would love to know any broad principles or guiding values that have led to where you are. That becomes a core component of guiding anybody on a journey that entrepreneurship is right. So, if you can talk to us about what keeps you up, what generally drives you, or any guiding principles that you uphold on a day-to-day level, we all would love to know that.

Rohan Meerchandani

Yeah. So again, I'll get a little philosophical, and I might have said this before, but just a few things. Number one, understand that entrepreneurship is very selfish. You're doing it for yourself. Don't convince yourself otherwise. Yes, the benefits at some point your family will have, but this requires every level of commitment, time, energy, resources, financial and it's not an easy journey. It's not for everybody. Right? That's one thing we always see. Like you said, you see the nice, fancy, dreamy side of it. You don't get to see the behind-the-scenes side of it, and in a personal journey, that takes a big toll. So, I say really think through that part of it. 

The second thing that should play a decision making immediately is whether you need to be all in or all out. There's no 1ft here and 1ft there. A lot of people try this side thing going on, maybe just to get things started and get your financial situation organised by six months, one year, fine. But at some point, that decision needs to be taken because what ends up happening is you're doing a disservice to three different things. You're doing a disservice to the venture because you're only half in it. You're doing a disservice to yourself because you're only half in it, and you're doing a disservice to your current employer because you're only half in it. And all three are failing. When you have one leg here, one leg there, and I've seen that with a lot of peers and friends and that's one big pushback, and I tried to do that in the beginning as well. It's one very. Big pushback for me in terms of guiding principles, all in or all out. And I'm like that pretty much with everything I do; then this drives my team crazy because, with me, it's all in or all out. And that leads to quick decision-making as well. Because if you're going to do something, do not half-ass it, do it. And if you're not going to do it, don't just tease it, don't do it. And that's something that, as an entrepreneur, I had to learn the hard way early on. But at least now, hopefully, I figured that out. And that's something that is a very big guiding principle for me. And it also leads to quick decision-making because the biggest asset and resource you have is time. And if you don't use that meaningfully, it's the make or break of any entrepreneurial journey.

Jivraj Singh Sachar

Fair enough. That's, again, a lot of hard-hitting truths that have to be echoed. And it's great to have that mentioned. This has been absolutely fantastic. Rohan and I don't know if this is a fitting end, but one of the great things about Epigamia is also the mission of taking consumer products from India to the world someday. And a lot of that is being championed by Epigamia. We have this new wave of consumer brands championing the cause. What does that mean to you? How is Epigamia achieving it? What do you have to say about that? If you can end with that note and the core motivation that keeps you ticking as an entrepreneur, I think that would summarise a fabulous conversation.

Rohan Meerchandani

Yeah. So, for now, Jivraj, Jivraj was always making India for the world. It was very clear that's what we wanted to do. Even before the coining of that term, we talked about this back when we started, even for ice cream. The idea was it actually started differently. It started for us because these products are 100% made in India, and people automatically associate this, especially in the beginning, as an imported product. We have had this big thing, especially in food. It was something that bothered all of us. That imported food, first of all, doesn't even sound right because it's sitting in ships coming over, so it definitely needs to be fresh. And secondly, why are we surprised that we can make such amazing quality stuff within the country? The natural resources, the natural ingredients, the fruit, the dairy. And we wanted to solve that and demonstrate that you can make really high-quality products in general, but food products right here within the country. The way we set aside that mission is that these products can sit on any shelf anywhere in the world and stand up on their own. It could be in Dubai, it could be in New York, it could be in London, it could be in Singapore, and that's what we set out to do. 

That feather in our cap came when, initially, we launched with Big Basket years back in their imported section. A lot of grocery stores would put us in their imported section, which is funny because it's 18-day shelf life in your imported section. Customs clearance is happening very fast for this product. And the reality was that people genuinely thought this product wasn't made in the country. They thought they couldn't believe that a product of such high calibre could be made within the borders, and that's something that we took personally, and we want to continue demonstrating that. What's changed a little bit for us is that the scale of business that we now foresee just within India is so high that we see so much now, especially like we talked about Discover Ecom, that we've now sort of put even more effort and energy in building out India. We think there's a 10-11 X just to do within the country in the next few years for us. So, we've put our energies and efforts there. We still have a pipeline dream of putting this stuff in export. It's not a focus for us, but very clearly, the idea was, and it continues to be, that any one of our products can stand up on the shelf anywhere in the world, and I think we've demonstrated that, and that continues to drive us in a big way.

Jivraj Singh Sachar

Lovely. I think that's awesome to hear, and we've all seen the amazing products that Epigamia has. Thank you so much, Rohan, for your time. I certainly have learned so much from this conversation about building a consumer brand at the scale that Epigamia has reached. I'm sure all of us listening in only wish you and the team a lot of success so that we can continue enjoying the amazing products you have. Thank you so much for your time.

Rohan Meerchandani

Thanks, everyone. Guys, I appreciate it and was happy to be on and have amazing questions.

Part of Indian Silicon Valley

The Indian Silicon Valley Podcast is a series of intricate conversations with Founders, Investors and Domain Experts from India’s flourishing startup ecosystem, with the hope to decode the learnings from building legendary institutions.
The mission of this Podcast is to democratise the knowledge to building a truly spectacular Company!
Stay Tuned for an Episode each Sunday as your Host — Jivraj Singh Sachar brings to your some phenomenal conversations!
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