Sunday, December 16, 2012

How Sandeep Gajakas built unique Shoe-Laundry Business

How Sandeep Gajakas built unique shoe-laundry business in Mumbai & why he rebootd his strategy

He has rebooted his strategy because though people are thrilled about the idea but back off after talks with family, which doesn’t like the idea of cleaning shoes for a living.
He has rebooted his strategy because though people are thrilled about the idea but back off after talks with family, which doesn’t like the idea of cleaning shoes for a living.

Sandeep Gajakas wipes his spectacles clean, methodically and constantly. During the course of a two-hour interview at his residence in suburban Mumbai, Gajakas would have cleaned his glasses about half a dozen times. He also constantly places his phone and this correspondent's phone in straight lines, facing him. Haphazardness doesn't quite work for Gajakas.
"It [cleanliness] used to be almost like an OCD [obsessive-compulsive disorder] a few years ago," says the 35-year-old, smiling. "But marriage has had a good influence on me and I am a lot more at ease." Yet, Gajakas admits that he is very particular about keeping things clean, be it his house or his shoes. The latter — cleaning shoes — is how Gajakas has made a living since 2003. Gajakas is the proprietor of The Shoe Laundry, a shoe cleaning and repair service.
"I can make out the story of a person's life by looking at his shoes. Does he walk a lot? What does he do for a living? What is his lifestyle?" says Gajakas. And how does he divine these insights? Well, experience, he shrugs. "I would have cleaned 30,000 pairs of shoes and repaired some 60,000 pairs personally since 2003," he says. That might sound like an extraordinary claim, but then many things about Gajakas are just that: extraordinary.

Stepping Stone

Gajakas spends most of his time at home, chained to his BlackBerry or laptop. He reads and answers close to a hundred emails each day. A chunk of these emails have photographs of badly soiled or damaged shoes. These photographs have been emailed to Gajakas by employees and owners of the franchises of The Shoe Laundry from across the country. Gajakas looks at each image carefully and suggests a solution, which he emails back. The other emails are enquiries from people who are interested in investing in a Shoe Laundry franchise — known as Shoe Vival.

Gajakas hasn't always worked from home, even though he confesses that there are some great advantages in doing so — like having lunch on time. Till a year ago, he had an office, a workshop and a thriving business in Mumbai. "Back in 2009, we were doing 80-90 pairs of shoes a day and I had 16 employees at the workshop," recalls Gajakas. But then, he decided to close the booming business and focus on expanding his business network. But before we get to know why Gajakas chose to close down his Mumbai business, here's a quick look at how Gajakas built it from a scratch.

Squeaky Clean

When Gajakas was eight years old, he moved to a boarding school in Panchgani. There he excelled in sports and was an NCCBSE 6.17 % cadet. His father, who worked with Air India, travelled the world and would purchase expensive, branded shoes that weren't available in India for Sandeep. "The discipline of NCC [where shoes are expected to be sparkling clean] and the need to maintain my expensive shoes was my first step towards shoe-cleaning expertise... though back then I never thought I would make a living out of it," says Gajakas. "I was a sportsman and cleaning red soil from sports shoes can be quite a challenge," he recalls with a smile. It was probably the beginning of his obsession with cleanliness.

In the late 1990s, as he was pursuing his bachelor's degree in Mithibai College in Mumbai, Gajakas remembers looking at thousands of students going about with dirty shoes, not without some degree of horror. But the shoe laundry idea still did not dawn on him. Armed with a degree in fire engineering, he was all set to move to the Gulf for a regular job in 2001. And then, 9/11 happened. Gajakas' parents shot down any move to the Gulf, afraid that a war was about to break out.

"So, there I was, stuck in India, with a degree that had few employment prospects, wanting to do something different, lots of dreams but nowhere to go," says Gajakas.

Sole Proprietor

Gajakas made a laundry list of businesses that he wanted to try his hand at. Among them were floriculture business, fashion choreography business (he had won several choreography shows in his college days), air-conditioning dealership (since a family friend owned an AC company) and shoe-cleaning business. A financial analysis of each business was done. Eventually, the shoe-laundry idea won simply because "it hadn't been done before and that excited" Gajakas.

Gajakas then hit the first roadblock: parental approval. His father was willing to help his son set up any business but the thought of a qualified, award-winning sports champ cleaning other people's shoes for a living horrified the parent. So, Sandeep found himself without funding. A job at a call centre followed, partly to raise some money.

A little after a year, the monotony of a desk job got to him and he quit. He was ready to take the plunge. He distributed 5,000 pamphlets in a housing complex, advertising shoe-laundering services. "Nine out of the 10 calls I got were from people asking me if this was a prank," recalls Gajakas. But a few tried the service and were impressed. Gajakas, personally, cleaned the shoes. "For me, it wasn't about dirt. It was about cleanliness," he adds. What followed was a series of favourable press reports, thanks to the novelty of the idea.

He has rebooted his strategy because though people are thrilled about the idea but back off after talks with family, which doesn’t like the idea of cleaning shoes for a living.

Wear and Tear

Gajakas toyed with several names for his service, including Sandy's Shoe Laundry. But then, sandy isn't often associated with shining shoes. "We also began to get really badly damaged shoes for repair. People would approach us saying 'take your time, but do something'. You will be surprised at how sentimental people can be about their shoes," says Gajakas, who adds that he would personally repair badly damaged shoes. The trickle of cleaning jobs, over three years, became a flood of repair and resurrection jobs. Today, Shoe Laundry charges Rs 180 to clean a pair of shoes (including pickup and delivery) — up from Rs 99 in 2003

By 2009, The Shoe Laundry had scaled up: cleaning over 2,500 shoes a month. He was giving talks to entrepreneurs; the company itself was a case study in a few business schools. Copycats, sniffing an opportunity, sprang up. Gajakas himself was stretched. "I was dealing with customers, organising the pick-up and delivery of shoes from every nook and corner of Mumbai, paying salaries, running an office, handling and overseeing a workshop, not to mention still personally cleaning and repairing badly damaged shoes," he recalls. "I got into this business not to make tonnes of money but to do something different. I had got to where I was because I had innovated and now I was getting tied to a desk and worrying about the logistics of picking up shoes from all over Mumbai," he says. Also, between 2003 and 2009, he hadn't taken a single vacation.

The Franchise Solution

All this made him take a hard re-look at his business. "If we had to grow the business beyond Mumbai or even beyond what we were doing, I had to do things differently," says Gajakas. These realisations led to the establishment of Shoe Vival, the retail franchise of The Shoe Laundry. The first franchise came up in Bhutan in 2010 and since then franchises have opened in Bangalore, Surat, Indore, Gurgaon, Pune and Coimbatore.

"My biggest handicap is that I am the sole knowledge hub of processes and techniques of this business. Plus, I don't have graduates being churned out in shoe-cleaning and repair technology from any institute," says Gajakas. Those are the perils of starting a business that did not exist.

Gajakas spends a lot of time answering queries from people who are interested in starting a franchise. Even though there are many enquiries, conversions are far less. "People are thrilled about the idea and are all ready to start a franchise. Then they back off after a discussion with their parents or wives, who don't like the idea of cleaning shoes for a living. It's a caste-related perception," says Gajakas. For now, he says he is having "serious negotiations" with 10 people who are willing to start a franchise. Enquiries have come in for franchises from the Philippines, Uganda and Australia, says Gajakas.

What is his next big priority? Gajakas is seriously hunting for franchises in Mumbai, his home turf. "It's among the biggest markets in the country," says Gajakas. He is also in advanced talks with Shoe Service Institute of America, a trade association of the American shoe repair industry for licensing a proprietary service he has developed, which will be marketed in the country.

Does Gajakas ever regret his decision to take the franchise route and work from home? "No," he says. "I have the time and mind space to innovate with new techniques and processes now, instead of struggling with the logistics of a day-to-day business. Plus, I get to eat lunch on time — something that I never did for years."

He has rebooted his strategy because though people are thrilled about the idea but back off after talks with family, which doesn’t like the idea of cleaning shoes for a living.


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