When 21-year-old Mithun Sacheti came to Chennai in 2000, his plan seemed clear: take his father’s jewellery brand, Jaipur Gems, national. But there was a stronger motive—make a success of himself and impress his high school girlfriend enough to win her hand. Things didn’t go as planned, however, for the Mumbai boy—the girl refused to relocate to the ‘hot and humid’ city and he went on to discover another love, his online diamond jewellery business, CaratLane. “I also did much better. I convinced a New York girl (his wife, Anjali Rawat, who he met on a business trip) to move here,” laughs Sacheti, who is now enjoying one of the best times in his career.
With the e-commerce market expected to be worth $22 billion in three years, Sacheti is on track to reap the benefits. Not only did his company, valued at Rs. 750 crore last October, get an injection of $31 million this January from investment firm Tiger Global, but, according to media reports, it is in talks with Titan (to invest $30 million for a 15 per cent equity stake). Sacheti declines comment on this, but is visibly excited about having launched a one-of-its-kind 3D app last week, which has already got over 70,000 downloads. “Only when you discover beautiful jewellery will you buy it. This is at the heart of everything we do at CaratLane and, after our innovative try-at-home service and the Solitaire Experience Lounge (where one can speak with diamond consultants and try on samples), the app will give customers a chance to see how the jewellery looks on them,” says the online vertical’s CEO and founder, whose go-to apps for personal use are simple—Uber and Ola for travel, Magzter for reading and Facebook and Twitter.
|App checkDo drops work or studs? CaratLane’s new app will help you decide on the go. Shattering the idea that mobile commerce is only for buying clothes, the week-old app is simple to use: shoot a quick video and try out thousands of earrings from their inventory—you can even swipe from left to right profiles to get a better view. Facial recognition and 3D imaging technologies provide a life-like, immersive experience. Explaining that it took two years to perfect, Sacheti says, “A lot of thought has gone into it, including the way the video is shot. The angles are composed in such a way that it mimics what you’d see if you were checking out jewellery in a hand-held mirror.” With 20 consultants working on it at any given time, the one-of-its-kind app also gives you the option to share your image on social networking sites, while a chat option will help clear any doubts.|
Of course, things weren’t as ‘streamlined’ when Sacheti launched the website in 2008. He partnered with Srinivasa Gopalan, an IT entrepreneur, and with an initial investment of Rs. 2.5 crore (with a little help from his family), the website went live. “There were so many setbacks. It was like a gun was held to our heads and a bullet fired ever so often,” the 36-year-old reminisces. “We didn’t get our products right—we had jewellery that cost upwards of Rs. 2 lakh and the reality was, there was enough of that in the market. Investors were sceptical, we got no business and we were practically running on fumes,” he adds. A re-evaluation of the market revealed a gap. “What was missing was everyday jewellery, with price points as low as Rs. 25,000. Most jewellers with their bridal collections and advertisements that targeted a significantly older, more traditional audience, spoke to a desi Bharat. We wanted to speak to a contemporary India,” he states.
That meant putting to good use the lessons he’d learned at the Gemmological Institute of America. “At the time, jewellery in India was not being made to exact specifications or with an eye for design. It was viewed more as a way to sell diamonds,” he explains, adding that he believed if they made beautiful jewellery, people would come. So he used techniques usually reserved for expensive jewellery and smaller price points (reducing the grammage of the gold used itself made a difference, helping them retail designs for as low as Rs. 4,200). Like the Lotus range that is being launched on September 15. “It’s part of our revival series. We are using pink enamel work from Benares—one of the most difficult forms, which is usually prohibitively expensive—in everyday jewellery. This way, we are not only reviving the technique, but are also increasing awareness about it,” says Sacheti, who is inspired by designer Anita Dongre’s sustainable fashion label, Grassroot, and wants to do something similar for jewellery.
A firm believer in learning through trial and error, he admits that his most valuable lessons came from his family, with a 700-year pedigree in the trade. “Conversations at home usually revolved around jewellery. Since my parents’ store was located between home and school, my brother and I often landed up there, observing what was going on. When we were young, my mother also worked from home quite often with her design team and this nurtured my passion for design,” he says, adding that college and business school (IIM Bangalore) didn’t teach him anything new, “besides statistics and the concept of probability”. He smiles, saying, “If you build probability into decision making, you make 80 per cent good decisions in life.” It is a lesson he put to good use after witnessing the advent of online retail in the US. “I’d started doing some trading there, to earn extra pocket money. I’d pick up diamonds from wholesalers who shut shop on Fridays, and bring them to retailers, who saw the most business on weekends. That’s when Blue Nile (a US-based online vendor of diamonds) came into the market—with knowledge of what inventory was available where. At any given point there is about $10 billion worth of inventory in the world. If you can access it, a customer can walk in and you can offer them anything they want. That’s the power I saw online,” he says.
|After hoursAn avid badminton player and a huge fan of cricket (“I visit Cricinfo more than Facebook”), Sacheti admits sports took a backseat after he launched CaratLane. Now, on most days off he squeezes in a game of poker. “I love it. It plays on the concept of probability and it helps me understand and read people well, which is a great skill to have, In fact, if I had my way in hiring, I would make playing a game of poker against me compulsory for hiring senior management,” he chuckles. While he’s not had much time to travel recently—though he is planning to take his wife and two children, Mira (6) and Raghav (2) for a four-day break to the beaches of Goa—he does take the effort to visit galleries and exhibitions, in search of great art. “While I have my MF Husains and Jogen Chowdhurys, I love Thota Vaikuntam’s work, especially his 80s paintings, which had a tremendous freshness. I also love Ravinder Reddy’s heads—the beautiful three-dimensional forms have a great sense of proportion,’ he says. A fan of architecture (“anything 3D has my attention”), Sacheti can often be found flipping through architecture magazines, prompting his wife to ask if he wants to build a house!|
Today, CaratLane gets over 50,000 hits on its website each month and has 1,00,000 unique customers—having grown exponentially from just 10,000 three years ago. “The reason we went online was because we wanted to be inventory efficient—people should be able to see everything in one place because it will induce intent to buy,” he says. And as the pioneers of selling solitaires online, he states that educating the masses on how to buy diamonds—demystifying certificates, for example—is a sustained effort, which has ensured that they are the biggest retailers in the category. “With the early move advantage, we’ve built the trust—through double level certifications and tamper-proof packing that assures customers the diamonds they saw online are the ones they receive,” he adds.
Now with in-house designers and their own manufacturing unit, he also assures quick delivery. “We learnt a lot from the automobile industry. If they can build a car in one day, there is no way a jeweller should take more than three days to make one piece,” laughs the innovator, who keeps himself updated and energised with regular meet-ups with new entrepreneurs. A member of Chennai Angels (investors), Sacheti—spotted around town in his favourite Keds and denims or chic Indian designs by Rajesh Pratap Singh, Rohit Bal and Vivek Karunakaran—says he makes it a point to meet someone new every week. “In today’s knowledge economy, there is so much to learn from new start-ups. They have such a creative way of thinking and the energy level you take away is phenomenal,” he says, adding that he spends his free time flipping through writings by business gurus—one of his favourites being Start-up Nation by Dan Senor and Saul Singer.
Ever on the look out for new avenues, Sacheti assures us there are quite a few ideas in the pipeline for CaratLane. Reluctant to divulge too much (“the competition focusses a lot on what we do”), he says they will soon be introducing jewelled accessories, an exclusive men’s line (think cuff links, card holders and even free-spirited experiments with leather and gold), and gifting options for newborns. “This is the time for jewellery online,” he concludes, asking us to stay tuned for many more firsts.
Pictures: Kunal Daswani