Mumbai: They were a beautiful pair of shoes. The kind most girls would call statement shoes, crafted by fashion designer Manish Arora for Reebok.
But before 21-year-old fashion student Laksheeta Govil could celebrate the buy, she discovered the price wasn’t an affordable Rs 2,000. The price tag was missing a zero, the guy at the cash counter said.
That’s when the third-year student from the Pearl Academy of Fashion, Delhi, decided she would make a pair for herself. And she did, at a fraction of that price.
Govil bought a pair of white canvas shoes and painted them, developing the design as she went along, with licks of pink and orange flames stretching across. It took her a little over two hours.
That design, reproduced several times over the last year, is called fiery fiesta—one of the best-selling designs from Fizzy Goblet, the brand of hand-painted, customized designer shoes Govil and her friend Abhinav Mehra, a 21-year-old business management student, launched in February 2010.
Mehra had decided to use his project from a business plan competition to help Govil launch her line of hand-painted shoes.
The plan, which was a blueprint for the production, marketing and sale of customized bags, was tweaked to suit Govil’s requirements. The duo discussed the potential of entering the personalized product space with T-shirts and shoes among other things, but picked shoes as they saw a gap in the market.
“We had seen the success of the customized T-shirt model in India. Everyone had their own, print-on-T-shirt thing going on, but the space was really saturated. That’s when we came up with the idea of launching customized hand-painted shoes,” said Mehra, explaining that while there were standardized shoes such as “the Nikes of the world” on one end of the spectrum, and expensive designers brands such as Ed Hardy on the other, there was nothing in between. “We thought we should try and bridge that gap,” he said.
The duo ran a pilot study by handing out shoes to their friends, who would wear the product and come back to them with feedback. While Govil would handle product design and development, with a focus on creating new designs, sourcing canvas shoes, paints, laces, and training employees, Mehra would focus on business development and marketing.
After receiving much positive feedback—their friends offered to pay for the shoes—the duo decided to launch their brand at an exhibition in Hyderabad, encouraged by family and friends.
With Rs 55,000 as seed money from their parents, they launched Fizzy Goblet. The first lot of shoe samples worth Rs 20,000 that were displayed at the exhibition got them orders worth Rs 2.5 lakh.
“By the end of it we had approximately 100 orders,” said Govil.
Their products were targeted at high school boys and girls. The boys gravitated towards designs with hard rock music themes and dark colours, and the girls would pick bright coloured shoes.
The hand-painted canvas shoes are priced at around Rs 2,500 for adults and Rs 1,200-1,500 for children for designs from the catalogue. Customized shoes could cost Rs 3,000-3,500, based on the design.
Mehra decided to enter the business plan into UTV Pitch, an Apprentice-like reality show on Bloomberg UTV, and the team made it to the final round.
“I was participating and reached top two in UTV Pitch. The winner was up for funding of Rs 5 crore. That’s when we decided if our project won, we would put everything aside and focus on it,” he said.
They didn’t win, but making the finals reinforced their belief that they were on the right track. Mehra said there were several signs the market was ready for such shoes.
“Everyone seems to be focusing on the personalized space,” Mehra said, pointing to several brands that allow consumers to personalize T-shirts and even shoes. “The fact that brands like Puma had a customized shoe section, Nike ID was becoming big in India—a platform which offered personalized Nike shoes, where consumers can have six features changed, is testimony to the fact that this market (for personalized products is) growing,” he said.
Thinking ahead, they recently launched their version of the jooti, a local shoe worn by women, “cause it’s Indian-ized and do not expect brands like Nike to do it”, said Mehra.
They are also looking at other products such as bags “or anything that we can get our hand-painted designs on to” to create a differentiated product portfolio.
After six exhibitions, Fizzy Goblet has sold shoes worth Rs 8.5 lakh and is looking to launch an e-commerce feature on their website. The brand is also looking to stock their products in retail outlets and are eyeing corporate gifting orders.
Govil and Mehra say they are not looking for additional funding now as the business is largely self-sufficient, and they have no overheads in terms of office space or staff. They don’t have any inventory either as they cater to a niche audience and start work only on orders.
For now, they have set a three-month deadline for themselves and are hoping to organize the back-end of the business, and standardize the product and the supply chain so they don’t have to be actively involved in the day-to-day sourcing of materials. Once that is done, Mehra said he can focus on the front-end, which is marketing the product, and Govil can focus on creating more designs.
They have several challenges to sort out first. The primary one is of quality control, especially for online orders.
“At exhibitions, people don’t really look into these things cause the designs are selling themselves and the fact that you can touch and feel the product helps in gauging the quality. But when it comes to online, people have questions about quality and whether the paint will wear off,” said Mehra, adding that for online orders they send photographs of the products to the clients, and courier the shoes only after an approval.
Experts say the customized shoe business could work well if the team can find a way to build scale.
“If you are making something that can bring value to your customer’s life, then you’re in business,” said Sameer Guglani, co-founder of The Morpheus, a fund that helps start-ups accelerate their businesses. “I do think this product is desirable for people and, in that sense, it can definitely be monetized. The question then arises is that if each of these pairs is a unique, hand-painted pair of shoes, then can you repeat it a number of times? So, in that sense, there may be a constraint in scalability,” he said.
But he also pointed to the example of Timebuk2, a company in San Francisco started by one man in a garage. The gent, Rob Honeycutt, invested $200 in purchasing a used Singer sewing machine, wholesale fabric and buckles. He put in place a “one-at-a-time” build-to-order production system with all the materials required to make a bag kept within arm’s reach of the machine. Every bag was made-to-order by Honeycutt.
The brand faced the same criticism of limited scalability but the company managed to prove its detractors wrong. “So, while it’s not a limitation that cannot be overcome, I’m not sure if they (Fizzy Goblet) can do Rs 100 crore (in business),” said Guglani, adding that the brand could perhaps come up with a premium line.
The Fizzy Goblet team is in talks with vendors to digitally replicate designs on canvas so their designs can be mass-produced. “We used to argue this and say our USP (unique selling proposition) is hand-painted shoes. But what we’ve realized is that hardly matters to the consumer. It’s more the design that is driving the sale,” said Mehra.
They are trying to zero in on a dozen popular designs that can be mass-produced and sent to retail outlets and stores. “But we will still have the customized shoes for those consumers looking for a truly unique pair,” he added.
This could help them. According to Tinka Bhatia, partner at Attic, a Mumbai-based fashion and lifestyle store, customized canvas shoes find many takers, usually young people looking for something affordable and astoundingly unique. “We’ve stocked hand-painted shoes from different designers at our store, and they’ve always been very popular and make great gifts,” she said.
Bhatia said customers were typically willing to spend Rs 1,800-2,500 on a customized pair. “The minute it goes beyond that price point, they would rather look at a branded pair of shoes.” Bhatia has decided to stock products from Fizzy Goblet because “the designs were really young, fresh and trendy”.
Result of a brainstorming session with friends; the name signifies a goblet that would be full of new different, energetic designs in accessories
Laksheeta Govil, Abhinav Mehra
Product company or services or both
Number of employees
Fifteen painters, two-three helpers, a Web developer, two-three part-time marketing associates
Investment to date
Rs 55,000 from parents
The next closest milestone they plan to accomplish
Anything that they can get their hand-painted designs on to to create a differentiated product portfolio.
Fizzy Goblet was among the finalists of the NEN First Dot Student Startup Showcase