Mumbai: T-shirts, once used by miners as a cheap slip-on garment, have in the past few decades thrived as a form of personal expression for the youth. It wasn’t any different for Adhitya Iyer.
As a second-year student of computer engineering at Mumbai’s Sardar Patel Institute of Technology, Iyer wasn’t content with making a personal statement on his T-shirt, he wanted to make a business out of it.
Iyer, 20, founded Annanymous along with five other friends in 2009. His idea: selling T-shirts with engineering themes, partly inspired by actor Aamir Khan’s 2009 blockbuster comedy 3 Idiots, to fellow students, many of who are disillusioned with life as an engineer, having taken up the subject under parental pressure, similar to the characters depicted in the movie.
For Annanymous, there was already a successful model to follow. Tantra, a T-shirt brand founded 12 years before Annanymous with graffiti-type designs, had already become popular among teenagers and college students.
“The idea is the essence of any successful brand,” said Ranjiv Ramchandani, founder of Tantra and a former advertisement copywriter. “As engineering students, they can see the humour and, therefore, it’s easier to encapsulate their communication.”
While it’s a big market, where anybody can have a part of the pie, sustaining the business with good ideas and quality is important, said the founder of the 13-year-old Tantra, which reported sales of around Rs 20 crore in the year ended 31 March 2010.
Iyer’s idea soon converted into a proper business plan. With 3 Idiots capturing the frustrations of an average engineer’s life, Annanymous soon attracted a few other like-minded students to support him in the venture.
The initial team of six comprised Iyer, Shruti Gupta, Rohit Bhangale, Pranav Rajgopal, Hrishikesh Kulkarni, Swinburn Miranda. Suresh Bomisetti and Tanush Parihar joined the team later.
Expanding reach: Adhitya Iyer, founder of Annanymous, with his friends at the Sardar Patel Institute of Technology campus in Mumbai.
Quitting a career in engineering to pursue one’s true calling wasn’t without a precedent. Singer Shankar Mahadevan and cricket commentator Harsha Bhogle are well-known examples of individuals who have quit engineering to achieve success in their respective fields.
“We already had predecessors who were ghanta engineers—Shankar Mahadevan, Harsha Bhogle, K.V. Kamath and the likes,” said Iyer.
Ghanta, a Marathi-word meaning bell, is a slang word meaning nonsensical.
Of the 450,000 students who graduate as engineers across India every year, merely 2% manage to secure a salary of more than Rs 450,000 a year, writes Iyer on the company’s website.
“Almost all graduate engineers are disillusioned with life, aspire to become management gurus or spend time on Facebook sitting in their cubicles raving about the tennis ball cricket tournament they had arranged back in second year,” he wrote.
Iyer and his group bet that the student’s frustration with the education system and societal pressure will be the hook that will help it sell the T-shirts.
Annanymous was ready with its pieces on 14 September 2009. It was a coincidence that the following day was engineers’ day, giving the group the perfect launch platform.
Iyer, however, tasted his first major success with the company’s third design. The T-shirt sported the text me ghanta engineer capturing the disillusionment among the students.
“We even saw doctors and lawyers copying the me ghanta idea and that’s when we thought about a copyright,” said Iyer.
A college start-up meant they had to start off on a small scale. Advertising expenses were zero as news spread through word of mouth and the Internet. Social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter helped.
“We restricted ourselves to local suppliers to see how strong the brand could grow,” said Iyer.
Iyer realized that selling T-shirts to individuals may not be enough to grow the company. College fests provided the ideal opportunity to sell in bulk.
“College events are annual occasions, so a lot of them (students) are okay with use-and-throw material,” said Iyer. “Catering largely to this section initially helped the business break even in four months.”
Annanymous has already catered to bulk orders to other local engineering colleges, including the Indian Institute of Technology in Mumbai.
Mohanjit Jolly, the managing director of venture capital firm DFJ India, gives Iyer a thumbs up. “The idea is eye-catching, but this will probably serve just as an entry point,” said Jolly. “They may do well to branch out into other categories.”
Iyer plans to do just that. Annanymous plans to expand its offerings to cater to engineers outside Mumbai, aspiring engineers and also has plans to make T-shirts for medical, accounting and other such non-engineering students.
Potentially, 13 million engineering students across 3,200 colleges offer scope for Annanymous.
Low entry barrier for the T-shirt business and increasing competition are among some of the challenges that Iyer may face.
There are internal issues as well. Most of his team members have taken up jobs during the campus placements last month even as the company is in the process of getting registered.
Still, Iyer is optimistic.
“I still plan to run it, probably with a new team. The next immediate plan is to sign a profit-sharing contract with a local bookstore that supplies engineering books,” he said.
It will also start sourcing materials from Tirupur, the garment hub in Tamil Nadu, to lower costs.
“India has forever been a land of wonderful stories and the story of the Indian engineer has achieved epic proportion over the years,” said Iyer. “I am a storyteller after all, and with time I wish to tell the various other stories that make this country what it is.”
An extension of the south Indian founder’s popular pet name ‘Anna’, incorporating the fact that the venture was ‘unknown’
Founder: Adhitya Iyer
Industry: Apparels—theme-based T-shirts
Product company or services or both: Product company
Launched: 15 Sep 2009 in Mumbai.The founder was 20 years old
Number of founders and employees: Six core members: Adhitya Iyer, Shruti Gupta, Rohit Bhangale, Pranav Rajgopal, Hrishikesh Kulkarni, Swinburn Miranda
Later Investors: Shreyans Mulkutkar, Jasvin Sethi, Shraddha Shah and Pramit Kalantri. Suresh Bomisetti is in charge of administration and Tanush Parihar is part of the working team
Investment to date: Self-funding of Rs 70,000
The next closest milestone they plan to accomplish: Cater to engineering colleges outside Mumbai and introduce designs for engineering aspirants and non-engineers
This is the fourth part of a series on student start-ups.
Annanymous was among the finalists of the NEN First Dot Student Startup Showcase