Falguni Nayar: The beauty entrepreneur

The banker-turned-businesswoman and Nykaa CEO on nail enamels, taking risks, and how she built a Rs280 crore cosmetics and wellness company


Falguni Nayar. Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint
Falguni Nayar. Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint

When Falguni Nayar walks into a brightly lit Nykaa store in Mumbai’s Infiniti Mall, where I’m waiting to interview her, I scan her face quickly for make-up. After all, that’s why we are meeting—to talk beauty. Clearly, I am less subtle than I think. “I love make-up but I don’t have time to put it on any more!” she laughs loudly. The 54-year-old founder and chief executive officer (CEO) of Nykaa, a Rs280 crore cosmetics and wellness retailer, is simply wearing a nude lipstick and kajal.

Founded in April 2012, Nykaa started as a multi-brand online beauty retailer but has since extended its presence through a mobile app and brick-and-mortar stores. Think of it as India’s Sephora (the French multi-brand cosmetics retailer). At present, Nykaa has four stores, one each in Delhi and Bengaluru and two in Mumbai. To go pan-India, it plans to open one store every month from next year.

Nykaa is a young company but Nayar herself has been a force in the Indian business world for more than two decades. A graduate of the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, she spent the bulk of her career—over 18 years—at Kotak Mahindra Capital Co. When she left in 2012, she was the managing director and head of its institutional equities business. But, Nayar says, “I have always been an entrepreneur first.”

Nayar was born and raised in Mumbai, where her father ran a small bearings company, assisted by her mother. The household chatter revolved around investments, the stock market and trade. “Plus, I’m Gujarati,” she deadpans. Entrepreneurship is in
her blood.

Straight out of business school, Nayar started her career as a management consultant. Her husband Sanjay Nayar, whom she met at business school, took a job in finance. He is now the CEO of global investment firm KKR India. Nayar says taking the professional route was easier since it allowed both of them to have transferable jobs.

But the entrepreneurial bug kept gnawing at her.

A few years ago, when her children (twins Anchit and Adwaita) left to study in US colleges, Nayar found herself with time on her hands. “Once I turned 50, I thought I would become complacent,” she said. It was very hard to quit the job at Kotak, “where everything was going right”, but with the self-imposed deadline of 50 looming, Nayar did just that.

Later, as we settle down for coffee at a Starbucks outlet, Nayar—dressed in a grey sari with gold accents (saris are a weakness) and delicate diamond earrings (another weakness)—relaxes into a corner couch and I start getting a sense of what drives her. “I’m an adventurer,” she says. “I was never a good swimmer but I would always be the first to jump in. The thought, what if I break a leg?, doesn’t occur to me.”

So when all the naysayers (and there were plenty) said India wasn’t ready for an e-tailer selling, of all things, beauty products, Nayar chose not to see the risks. Instinctively, she knew what women wanted. And she knew the number of Indians shopping online was about to explode.

"Nayar’s pet indulgence is camping. Camping, not glamping. And there’s nowhere she would rather pitch a tent and roll out a sleeping bag than in the ‘bugyals’ of the Himalayas. These are grazing meadows covered by sheets of snow in winter, and full of wild flowers in spring. It’s so beautiful, Nayar says,that if you visit the Himalayas even once, you will spend your life wanting to go back just like she does."- Falguni Nayar

According to management consultancy Technopak, though e-tailing currently accounts for only 1.5% of the overall retail market in India, it is growing at breakneck speed and will make up over 5% of Indian retail by 2021.

“Full marks to her for getting the retail story of India right,” says Ankur Bisen, senior vice-president, retail, consumer products and e-tailing division of Technopak. The principles of retail are simple, he says: Curate your products and know your products. And Nykaa appears to have done both really well.

Nykaa sells more than 35,000 products from 650 brands, both international and Indian, luxury and mass, and is constantly adding new labels to its stock. Last year, it brought global premium brand Estée Lauder on board, making MAC cosmetics available online in India for the first time. “It took a call on the personal care category and went deep into it. It didn’t get distracted. That’s how a retailer succeeds,” says Bisen.

Two years ago, Nayar introduced her own brand—and it has gone on to become a best-seller.

The company’s revenue has grown 350% in the last two years. In 2016, it raised a total of Rs104 crore from investors and the company hopes to break even by the end of this summer. An initial public offering is planned for 2020.

According to the company, it receives 15,000 orders a day, mostly from consumers between the ages of 22 and 35, who have disposable income and an interest in good grooming. Another attraction is the content—online make-up tutorials and product reviews are a great draw. But let’s face it, the main reason for shopping at Nykaa is accessibility.

“There was a time when women would come down to Delhi from Punjab just for a beauty shopping trip. Or they would ask a cousin to bring back a particular lipstick from a trip abroad. Now they can just order it online,” says Vasudha Rai, a former beauty director at Harper’s Bazaar, now a blogger at Vbeauty.co and columnist with The Hindu.

For those who know her, Nayar is a role model. For those who don’t, hers is an inspiring story. She’s a woman with a formidable career path and a closely knit, supportive family. It leads me to the inevitable question: Does she believe in the philosophy that a woman must “lean in” to be successful?

“Yes,” she replies. “I don’t think there is any glass ceiling. Women need to commit,” says Nayar.

Aware of the push and pull of family life many working women face, she
says there’s no race. “If you need to
take a few years off, you can come back. But when you come back, you need to be committed because you reap what you sow.”

Her daughter Adwaita, 26, recalls the early years of elementary school and says it wasn’t always easy to have a working mum. “I missed her! I would call her non-stop and disturb her in meetings,” she says.

As Adwaita grew older, she understood the choices her mother had made. “Today she’s my most important source of inspiration. She never really dwelt on whether one part of her life was being underserved and in the end it definitely all balanced out,” she says. Adwaita, who helped her mother launch Nykaa, is going to resume work there after she graduates from Harvard Business School this summer.

“Enough” and “done” aren’t words in Nayar’s business vocabulary, says Pratima Bhatia, a brand consultant who has worked with Nykaa, adding, “She never stops, even when she has exceeded expectations.” Once Nykaa had established itself as a multi-brand beauty retailer, Nayar decided to tweak the business model by introducing her own brand, Nykaa, in 2015. First up was a line of nail enamels. The range has since expanded to include kajals, lipsticks, body mists and lotions, among other items.

“It was a response to gaps in the market,” she explains. The beauty salon she frequented did not stock the popular OPI nail-polish range she liked. “They would have four colours of one brand, some from another. The whole experience was terrible,” she says. Research showed that part of the problem was with Indian import regulations, which made registering new colours a lengthy and tedious process. Nayar realized a domestic manufacturer didn’t need to go through that process, so if she made nail enamels, she could get them to the market quickly.

The strategy worked. Nykaa’s own nail colours sell 8-10 times more than the next best-selling nail brand on its website. According to Rai, it’s because of a “combination of good rates and cool colours”.

As we stand in front of a kaleidoscopic display of 120 nail colours at a Nykaa store, I’m drawn to a neon-green one. It’s called Key-Lime Slush. A coral-colour one is named Cherry Pop. I ask Nayar if she chooses the names. Yes, she says, it’s fun.

She shows me the top-selling nail enamel. It’s a charcoal-grey one called Squid Ink Mousse, which retails for Rs199.

And no, she doesn’t have Squid Ink Mousse at home. She prefers floral shades.

All of a sudden, Nayar pauses. She’s found a bottle of ink-blue nail varnish. The Nykaa branding in black is indistinguishable against the dark background. I can see it bothers her. She immediately asks a sales associate to notify someone in her office to fix it. “Retail is all about the detail,” she says, and when you are Nayar, every detail is a big deal.

Before we part, I ask her one last question: Why did she name the company Nykaa? “Because nayika means you are the actress of your life,” she says, smiling. I have no doubt Nayar is relishing her current role.

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