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Akanksha Hazari-Ericson, CEO and founder of LoveLocal
Akanksha Hazari-Ericson, CEO and founder of LoveLocal

Opinion | Thinking growth during a pandemic

LoveLocal’s Akanksha Hazari-Ericson on building the Flipkart of hyperlocal, the challenges of working from home and finding new opportunities during covid-19

Lockdowns change everything, not least the operating rules of Head Office. For only the second time in a decade, I will have to be content with a virtual workspace tour and a phone call rather than an in-person interview. Through the camera, I see a desk that has been modified to turn into a standing desk, two bicycles, one of which has been modified into a stationary bike, a skipping rope, other sports equipment, a piano and several potted plants.

This intriguing assortment of objects is in the home office of tech and social entrepreneur Akanksha Hazari-Ericson, CEO and founder of LoveLocal, formerly known as m.paani. Based in south Mumbai’s Mahalaxmi neighbourhood, Hazari-Ericson, 36, has been working from home since mid-March.

“This is a multi-purpose room, it’s a study, my piano is here and it’s also my sports room. It’s me and my husband living here in our one-and-a-half bedroom apartment, so we alternate using this room. Either I’m in the living room or he’s in the living room. Sometimes it’s nice to sit on the dining table or on the couch," she says.

She likes the plants (“they make me happy"), she is a fitness enthusiast (“I run on my terrace and we bike every day or at least every alternate day"), she stands and work (“I couldn’t sit all day") and she plays the piano. Even just over the video call, it comes across as a serene sun-lit space, extruding the positive energy of athleticism, of melody and of greenery.

There is little to suggest that the four-year-old startup is in the eye of the Covid 19 storm.

LoveLocal is a mobile-based tech platform for local retailers who sell essentials such as household groceries to local consumers. The company charges retailers subscriptions and provides tech solutions that enable earlier offline small businesses to better manage their customers, data and revenue streams. The small, yet fast-track company was chosen to participate in two highly selective global accelerator programmes run for startups by Google and in December closed a $5.5 million series A funding round from investors.

The present chaos

Hazari-Ericson has just one word for the current situation: “chaos". This appears to extend to all aspects of her business.

First, the demand-supply gap for household essentials. LoveLocal deals only with staples, such as rice, lentils, grain, fruit and vegetables, and Hazari-Ericson is encountering a “massive block on the supply chain. We’re actively working with supply side partners, they themselves are trying to solve these issues. On the one side, you have huge demand, and demand going only up. And, on the other side, you have logistics and supply issues. Now, this is faced by, I believe, everybody in the market, even when we speak to our peers. So we’re really, really hoping that these things start to smooth over and the movement of goods will have caught up, it really needs to be fixed," she emphasizes. “These issues have continued with the extended lockdown and in some places, especially Mumbai, grown more severe because movement in sealed areas is even more restricted."

Next, retailers lining up to sign up to the platform. LoveLocal has 80,000 retailers across India, largely concentrated in Mumbai, and a waiting list of 10,000 retailers who would like to get online, with 30 new stores signing up every day. They have also been able to remotely launch Delhi operations and grow their earlier limited Pune base, since working from home began, Hazari says. They now plan to grow “even more aggressively" with the extended lockdown.

“Basically, we’ve evolved into the Flipkart of hyperlocal. For the retailers, we provide an end-to-end solution to digitize their stores online. We’re offering the platform completely free to all essential providers indefinitely for the period of this crisis. And it’s actually listed now as a relief program for small businesses (such as kirana stores)," she says.

“In any case, there was this massive digitization wave, and consumers have been changing, but now it is even more critical to have an online shop, because consumers shouldn’t be going to stores, especially to go and browse. They are going to feel safer with your online shop. Rather than sending even, say, a WhatsApp message or a phone call, you need to show them all your products, your prices, so that they can properly shop from your store because it’ll be better for your business as well and better for the consumer. And we need to play our role in keeping essential products moving in the market," she explains.

Finally, Hazari-Ericson is motivating her 60-person, Mumbai-based team to cope with the challenges of working from home. She says it’s been an easier shift for tech and product teams than for sales and operations teams who were used to being in the market. The latter are finding it harder to carve out quiet space for calls. Working in small spaces is also taking its toll, she says. She is encouraging her colleagues to exercise daily, even if it’s just “going up and down the stairs in your building, go on the terrace, walk, jog, skip, there’s so many workouts online, do some yoga. Getting that 30 minutes of activity in a day is very, very important right now just for not just physical health, but also mental health."

Positive outlook

Her comments illustrate an optimistic approach to a fast-spinning world around her; the same positive energy as in her home office. This upbeat outlook is fuelled by a bigger sense of purpose.

“I am driven by the fact that we are creating a more even playing field for local retail, which employs 40% of people directly or indirectly in this country. Digitization left local businesses behind. What we’re building is incredibly important for India right now. And I think the importance is just as big as the opportunity. Local retail is a $1.1 trillion market," she says.

The covid-19 crisis has clearly provided a “massive validation" of the business’s value proposition, she acknowledges. While she recognises the challenges, her optimism extends to the post-coronavirus world. “We’re going to be in a new world, that is going to need new solutions, new products, new services, a new way of working, and so there are new opportunities that will come out on the other side of it."

Aparna Piramal Raje meets heads of organizations every month to investigate the connections between their workspace design and working styles. Head Office completed 10 years last month.

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