Avishkaar box: Mystery-box challenge
Avishkaar box (www.avishkaarbox.com)
Fresh out of Delhi College of Engineering in 2001, Tarun Bhalla, now 35, joined the Noida office of the US-headquartered Aplion Networks, which made multi-application switch servers—basically big-sized routers for Internet service providers. It was there that he learnt how not to run a business, he says. “The engine of growth, the founder, sat miles away in New Jersey. There was a lot of mismanagement and products were shipped out with flaws,” he says. The company shut down in 2003.
His subsequent experiences—he worked at Wipro in Bangalore, got a master’s in business administration from the University of Washington, interned in the US with online companies Drugstore.com and Expedia, and joined Microsoft in 2005—taught him what he should actually do in business. His $105,000, or around Rs.63 lakh, a year Microsoft job helped him pay off student loans and set aside cash for his first start-up, Building Blocks.
Then, last year, another business idea pretty much knocked on his door: Some of the parents were interested in buying kits focused on STEM, or science, technology, engineering and math, learning.
This was the beginning of Avishkaarbox.com, which sends home a different “box” each month under its yearly subscription. The plan includes nine boxes for Rs.7,000—especially designed boxes for summer holidays are sold separately, and the company budgets for a month-long break for exam preparations. Individual boxes can be purchased for Rs.999.
Starting with straws and twigs and caustic soda, Bhalla’s science workshops have evolved into robotics clubs for students and science experiment carts for teachers. But the business faced certain limitations. The first was that the use of his science kits in schools was driven by teachers—if the educator was not motivated, the kit could sit in a corner gathering dust; something that was unacceptable to Bhalla.
The second, he says, is like the relationship between value-added service, or VAS, providers and big telecommunication companies. “VAS providers seldom get the chance to build their own brand,” says Bhalla.
The third challenge, he says, was scalability. “It takes the same amount of time to convince your second or third school (his customers) as it does the first one,” he explains. Bhalla also found that schools often paid him at the end of the year while the cost of production, etc., was incurred through the year, leading to a perpetual cash-flow problem.
When some parents at IRC League competitions wanted to buy the kits—to ensure their children had access to these all the time—it set the gears in motion. While Building Blocks would continue to focus on setting up robotics labs and holding workshops in schools, Bhalla decided to set up another unit for the sale of science learning kits. “Last year, Rs.50 lakh of our Rs.1.5 crore turnover came from direct customer sales,” he says.
So the solution to their cash flow problem proved to be the plan for yearly subscriptions for Avishkaar boxes that would have kits like Cuisenaire strips to teach multiplication and worksheets to assess whether the children were ready to move to the next level of complexity. For this was a reversal of what the schools were doing, a system where consumers would pay before the company actually put up capital for production, salaries and operations costs. “I was head over heels. It was a magical moment,” says Bhalla.
The company has also been trying to get funding. Bhalla hopes measuring the milestones will help Avishkaar Box reassure investors. “If a child drops out after the first milestone, we’ll know something somewhere isn’t working,” he explains.
Bhalla says that currently his product development side at Avishkaarbox.com is stronger than his marketing and sales initiatives.
Designing for his six-year-old daughter and working with schools over the last five years have helped Bhalla develop a gut feel for what features would work on the Avishkaar box tools. For instance, in the CodiGo kit for younger children—to help them understand computer programming and logic using physical objects like blocks and huts and fences—all the wires and complex machinery have been hidden behind smooth surfaces. In comparison, their robotic design kits for older children, like Robotronics Lite, have clearly visible sensors and wiring—the whole skeleton of what makes the robot tick is out there for the children to explore, tweak, experiment with.
“There isn’t one,” says Bhalla.