It is always good to start up when you have a decade of retail experience. That’s what Shweta Sharma believes.
Having completed her masters from IIT Bombay in 2004, Shweta began her working life as an engineer in SAP, an in two years, was sent off to the US to work on a project.
While in the US she began to be fascinated with the retail industry and how the whole product chain – from design to production to branding – worked, and she quickly jumped ship. She went from IT to being an analyst in a retail business with a company called Limited Brands (whose flagship brands include Bath & Body Works, and Victoria’s Secret), handling logistics and customer relationships.
Working on the right fit
“I never intended to be in retail as such. But, I wanted an experience beyond managing or building technology specs for an organisation,” says Shweta, Co-founder of OmbreLane.com.
After a decade she launched Ombre Lane in May this year with her sister, designer Prachi Sharma, to change the way Indian women wore and shopped for western wear.
“The challenge as you know with all retail stores in India is that they do not stock western wear based on a Indian working woman’s taste and fitting. The clothes do not suit the Indian body type,” Shweta says.
Online offering Ombre Lane, which was started with an investment of less than Rs 50 lakh, offers a variety of western styles designed specifically for the Indian woman.
The company focuses on premium quality fabrics, with clothes that allow women to go from the meeting room to social engagements and daily life.
Ombre Lane sticks to three basic ideas – introducing subtle feminine details to formal wear, ensuring the outfits go from for work to evening wear, and offering casual elegant collections such as smart casuals.
The early days
Ombre Lane may have been set up this year, but its beginnings go back to 2007.
After her four-year stint with Limited Brands, Shweta began to think big in 2011. She realised soon that although she had learnt the processes of how an organisation was run, she had to learn what it meant to manage a business and think beyond processes.
She enrolled in Wharton where she finished her MBA. She learnt about finance, business scaling and also handling large teams.
In 2013, Deloitte picked her up and she began consulting with large companies on corporate strategy, retail and technology. At Deloitte, she also focused on building omni-channel strategies.
It was also the time when e-commerce began booming in India.
“I realised that it was time to head back and participate in the growth,” Shweta says.
She joined Nykaa in November 2013 and was part of the business development, inventory and brand management team.
“In a startup, you can learn so many things because your responsibility is spread across departments,” Shweta says.
Her big break came in 2015 with Flipkart; the company employed her to run the seller program, which involved signing sellers up, putting them up to speed with e-commerce processes, and managing their growth.
“Two years in Flipkart taught me how businesses must be scaled and the larger vision should be put in place,” she says.
The business of Ombre Lane
In Flipkart, Shweta realised how apparel was being marketed and shipped across several product categories and brands. She also understood the complexities with supply chain and inventory management.
During that two-year journey, she began talking to her sister Prachi to help her with designing clothing that worked for Indian working women. They began discussing the business in late 2016 and by May, Ombre Lane was on track.
Shweta began by talking to a couple of manufacturers who could help her with scale and manufacture her initial orders.
“I am working with manufacturers. All of them want scale for them to focus on a startup, which is where my experience helps,” Shweta says.
The company has made a humble beginning and refused to divulge sales information, citing early days.
What about the competition?
Ombre Lane naturally competes with brands like MsTaken and Imara (brands available online and offline). It has to compete with global brands in retail stores such as ShoppersStop, Big Bazaar and Lifestyle along with Kazo, FashionAffair, Amazon and Flipkart.
The competition is so large, why did Shweta choose this market? She has her reasons.
“None of them offer western wear specifically designed for working Indian women. And the number of women entering the corporate world and doing other work is only going to increase in the years to come,” she says.
Harminder Sahni, Founder of Wazir Advisors, a retail consulting company, says: “One must always focus on the business opportunity to stay ahead in retailing. India has very few brands that are home-grown and that’s where the biggest opportunity is.”
According to Technopak, a leading retail consulting business, the apparel retailing industry is worth $40 billion in size. Only around 40 percent is organised and the opportunity to build brands is tremendous.
Shweta and Prachi seem to have made the right move. But only time – and working women in India – will tell if this e-commerce company thrives or folds.
The challenge clearly is to find a balance between cash generation and burning money from branding. That said, it’s more likely than not that Shweta will raise money soon to put Ombre Lane on the growth track.