A Story of Human Ambition : Abhijeet Sahoo
Abhijeet Sahoo is a final year in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering, and founder of Ovotees, a textile startup based in Rourkela, now popularly rechristened as Fastech Fashions Pvt. Ltd. Cutting a popular figure in the campus, chances are you’ve already heard of him. Today, team Monday Morning brings you the story of a man who has survived engineering, written his book and heads his own business, all in less than four years.
Home away from home: Nagaland
Born on 11th September 1996 to two teachers, he spent the entirety of his childhood in Nagaland till 10th grade. He associates himself closer to the North East than Odisha.
You can't say the same for their college-level education, but till class 10th, I think they have the best education system. There’s a perfect blend of theoretical and practical studies which has helped me a lot. We were designing our own tables and chairs by 7th grade. I remember we had an optional sixth subject which I chose as accounts and book-keeping, a subject which has probably been more useful to me in my career than any I have studied here.
After his 10th grade, Abhijeet Sahoo did his junior college in Bhubaneshwar from the Royal College of Science and Technology. After not getting his desired college in his first try he decided to take a drop and went to Hyderabad for his coaching. Always the one for business, he never considered engineering to be an option, but like so many others overcome by peer pressure, enrolled in it anyway.
Engineering was never an option for me. But luckily I came to NITR, and it gave me a platform to express myself and expose me to the start-up culture.
To NITR and beyond
Abhijeet considers his freshman year to be his happiest at NITR. He was a part of many clubs and was an active member of Spawn, which at that time was in its infancy.
I was an excellent student in my first year and had a high CGPA. But in my second year, as I got more involved with my start-up, I started to pay less attention to my academics. I somehow did my mandatory internship, and now the biggest challenge for me was my mandatory research project.
The wheels of entrepreneurship were already set in motion in Abhijeet's mind from his freshman year itself when he became a co-founder of Penny India which was at the time Odisha's youngest and India’s second youngest start-up. However, things did not work out between Abhijeet, and another co-founder, and Abhijeet went on to start Ovotees in search of pastures anew.
I had just entered my second year, and people were doing a lot of interesting things related to technology. But I was inclined towards the textile industry since it hadn’t developed that much yet and as they say roti, kapda, makaan. The only person who supported my decision of going into the clothing business was Biswajeet; not even my parents supported my decision here.
So with a never say die attitude, Abhijeet Sahoo decided to go into the textile industry intending never to look back. He had a simple plan: i) Setup a printing unit, ii) procure raw materials and plain T-shirts and iii) sell them at fests and to individuals. His first step? Ludhiana.
Rude awakening in Ludhiana
Abhijeet and Biswajeet booked a 5-day return journey to Ludhiana with a reasonably straightforward schedule; procuring machines in the first day, tying up with a t-shirt supplier on the second day and buying printing chemicals on the third. The remaining two days were reserved for exploring Delhi.
Under the naïve idea that printing machines could be procured in a way similar to that of buying a television or a washing machine, they could not find a printing machine shop in their first three days and were even subjects of ridicule by some shopkeepers. After finally finding a shop they were confronted with another problem, the smallest machine cost ten lakhs which far outweighed the three lakhs they had with them.
We couldn’t find the printing machine in the first two shops, but as luck would have it, the manager of the third shop was an Odia who understood our situation and even told us about the process of manufacturing. He trained us for five days which was the first time we were exposed to the different processes that are involved in printing.
After the training period, Abhijeet and his co-founder made elaborate reports on the finances available to them. They concluded that to start a business, a minimum of 15 lakhs of capital was required which was just not available to them. Loans were also not an option as the banks refused to provide them to a couple of students with no experience in the business. This left them with only one choice: Jugaad.
We took a look at the machines required and decided that we can make them on our own in Rourkela using wood. We were so unprepared in our journey that we didn’t even have access to a paper. So all our business plans were written on tissues of the hotel that we were staying in. Thus started our process of cost reduction. If you analyse this properly, this is something you learn during MBAs but our teacher was necessity, and there cannot be a better teacher than that. We also knew that we couldn’t show our faces at home without accomplishing something here because it was the December of our second year and all the other students were doing internships.
So left with no choice other than making this trip successful, Abhijeet cancelled their return ticket to Bhubaneshwar, and the duo started coming up with innovative ideas to reach their goal all the while under budget constraints. They decided that they would procure only one machine, the most important one which they could not hope to build by themselves.
Reflecting I had a lot of confidence and courage at that time, we hadn’t even given our proposal to TIIR for the start-up. I don’t think that I would be able to make the decisions I made at that time if I had to make them today.
The machine that they decided to buy cost six lakhs which were still three lakhs more than the total money they had. This difficulty was overcome by Abhijeet's extraordinary powers of persuasion; an attribute he prides himself with.
What I did was connect with the vendor on an emotional level. I told him that he too was once in a situation like ours, and after a long discussion, he was convinced to give it to us for three lakhs with the remaining 3 to be paid in instalments. I told him that I would not be able to pay one penny more than two lakhs, and again after another long round of bargaining he relented. We even told him that if we were not able to pay the remaining instalments, he could take back the machine.
In Rourkela, Abhijeet found the perfect vendor for t-shirts after a brief search and their association continues till this day. Their first bulk purchase consisted of 300 T-shirts marking their official entry into the market.
Starting a start-up
While they had bought the equipment from Ludhiana, they did not have a place to store it yet. Remember, they had not approached TIIR yet with their start-up plan. But they were welcomed with open arms by Professor B. B. Biswal and Professor Rajiv Panda both of whom saw potential in their ideas and gave them an office in TIIR.
MM: What were the hurdles you faced during the startup?
AS: Hurdles and start-ups go hand in hand. People always look at the triumph in the end, but they can never guess the effort and failures that precede it. The biggest challenge initially was getting a good team. Luckily for me, I had Biswajeet who has been with me since the 11th grade. Because of him, I am never alone, and we face everything together. The second biggest hurdle was marketing. Coming from a non-business background, we were complete novices when it came to marketing.
Ovotees certainly did face a lot of hurdles in their first month. Their first month saw them sell only forty T-shirts. This caused Abhijeet intense disappointment which translated to a meagre twenty T-shirt sales in their second month. This meant pursuing an aggressive marketing strategy. They were not however met with encouragement from all parties.
Coming from computer science and mechanical respectively, people discouraged us a lot and told us that we were wasting time going in clothes based startup when we could be doing something interesting in our fields instead.
This did not hamper down Abhijeet's spirit as he overcame the weaknesses in their marketing strategy and results followed.
The next challenge they faced was finding the right workers.
You can always find good and talented workers, but that is not enough if you want to thrive in a start-up environment. What we were looking for were people who would be dedicated to our vision as well as be ready to work for 24 hours a day.
Even though marred with financial problems, Abhijeet never considered them to be a hindrance. He had complete faith that if one were to work hard and smart, money would follow.
If you could hire the right talent and have a good marketing strategy, then monetary issues won't be issues anymore. Every company no matter how big or small faces cash crunch.
One thing Abhijeet didn’t have to worry about was the lack of challenges. As he tackled one, he was faced with another. This time it was logistics. Still, in his second year, the young entrepreneur did not have the connections required to guarantee the smooth transport of goods. So, initially, Ovotees ordered the raw materials from Ludhiana through a courier who took about 8-9 days and which wasn’t feasible. Abhijeet found his logistics answer in the form of a collaboration with Estinno energy (another NITR based startup) who co-hired an employee in Delhi with his sole job involving collecting the raw materials from Ludhiana, in Delhi and sending them to Rourkela via train reducing the time of delivery to 3 days.
Our second month was pretty bad, all our workers were much older than us, and they didn’t take us seriously enough. So we were in turn dominated by them. We didn’t get orders from the institute itself, so overall it was a terrible phase.
This initial phase hit Abhijeet hard and had put him into depression. He had just finished his second year, and while his friends were doing internships, he was struggling to keep his business afloat. So he fought depression the way only he could have fought it: by writing a book.
Breaking Barriers was written by Abhijeet who found in it an outlet for his depression. The book is divided into two parts; the first part consisted of his battles with adolescence, the drop year, his first year at NITR and various private matters which were meant to connect with the engineering students around the country. The second part of the book mainly dealt with his journey so far as a founder of a start-up.
I aimed to share all the challenges I’ve faced so that any student who wanted to start a start-up had an idea beforehand about them. The Monday morning team helped a lot in writing the book. Both my editors, Nikhil Vobbilisetty and Sweety Shukla, were from MM. I wrote the manuscript, but they did all the ornamenting, editing and approaching the publishers.
The book has received positive reviews from its readers and has sold 900+ copies till date.
Abhijeet's and Ovoteess’ fortune was about to take a turn for the better as they got their first significant order by Silicon Institute of Technology of 300 T-shirts.
Light at the end of the tunnel
The SIlicon Institute of Technology’s Cultural Secretary was a school mate of Abhijeet and had placed the order not because of friendship but because of his belief in Abhijeet's determination.
He was not a guy you could fool into doing business with you. He told me he would come to Rourkela, inspect our material and only then decide whether he wanted to place the order or not. I did not have any money with me at that time but to get the order I went to all lengths. I booked his ticket to Rourkela, went to pick him at the station and even treated him to dinner at a fancy restaurant even though I didn’t eat anything there myself.
All of Abhijeet's efforts came to fruition when he finally got the order. Abhijeet did not take this for granted and had each one of the 300 T-shirts printed in front of him. He wanted every one of his product to be perfect, a trait of his that has enhanced his reputation amongst his customers. He knew that if they were to fail here, they would not be able to succeed in the industry, and fail they did not.
The order was a success and got them a new customer base which has been growing in numbers ever since. Even the vendors that once ignored him and made fun of him for selling 40-50 T-shirts a month came to get his business which now has a monthly procurement of around 1000 T-shirts.
That order was probably the most important one. It made us some profit, but above all, it gave us confidence.
Starting with an initial employee strength of 2 people, they’ve come a long way for a company who had a turnover of 10-20K in their first few months to a company that regularly churns out 5-6 lakhs of profits per month and employs 23 workers. One thing Abhijeet considers invaluable to his success was the fact that he was a student. He knew that people are always willing to help students and that other students helped him for free.
You will face innumerable challenges on your journey, but as long as you don’t give up, you can achieve anything.
For their first year Abhijeet’s company dealt mainly with colleges; however, their ambition has led them to expand due to which majority of their current orders are from the government sector. But with an increase in responsibility come never ending problems.
We still have a lot of problems currently, but I am confident that we will find the solutions for them too. We have been through many critical times, but one thing that engineering has taught me is that we can face anything.”
Why I do what I do
MM: If you could have done one thing differently, what would it be?
AS: I am a guy who mingles a lot with people, as a result of which I have a lot of friends. During my initial days with Ovotees, I didn’t give them much time. I didn’t properly manage my professional and personal life. So if I could, I would spend more time with my friends.
MM: How did you come up with the name Ovotees?
AS: At that time there was a fad that all the significant startups started with ‘O’ like Ola, Oyo etc. so we thought of naming the company Ovo, but the name was already taken by another company, and we named ours Ovotees instead.
MM: What is your motivation? What makes you go to work every day?
AS: My first and foremost motivation is my employees. From my 22 employees, most of them come from impoverished families, and they depend on us for their livelihood. We are not doing the start-up for ourselves; it makes me happy to know that we are giving back to society. We are at least creating employment opportunities for 22 people. Do not think that these employees are from NIT; these are workers from Rourkela.
Another thing that motivates me is the drive to make myself better. I do not compare myself with anyone, and I believe that everyone is unique in their way. Progress is relative, and I want to better myself every day.
MM: What do you do when people ask you about job security?
AS: I have been asked this question a lot. People tell me that there isn’t any security in startups and that I would be better of doing a regular job. I believe that there isn’t any job security in companies either. Even giants like Nokia can collapse and fail. The difference is while doing a job you're risking your security for someone else while in a startup you're risking your security for yourself.
Come what may
Initially starting as a t-shirt company, Abhijeet has expanded it and has gone into handlooms like jute bags etc.
I'm focused only on Ovotees, and I won't be sitting for campus placements. I haven’t even made a CV yet, primarily for two reasons, one because I have no use of it and two because it might demotivate some of my employees to see me having one.
Always ambitious and hungry to grow, Abhijeet plans on setting up offices in Kolkata and Bhubaneshwar after he graduates.
MM: What would you like to say to our readers?
I would advise all my juniors to invest in start-ups. This is the best time to explore and take risks. People would be ready to help you since you're a student and you'll never be alone — There's a great start-up culture in our institute with all its resources available to you. Moreover, even if you fail, it'll be a learning experience for you. Another advice would be to always be eager to learn.