A NIFT alumni and Founder of IDesign, Two Dotts and Maroon Oak, Aditi Tandon elucidates on her journey post NIFT, her various experiences while starting up the three successful ventures and things that have fueled her creativity along the way.
Based out of New Jersey, Aditi’s latest venture Maroon Oak, is an online networking platform as well as marketplace for women.
AR: Take us through your journey during NIFT, what all were your learnings along the way?
Aditi: I was in the knitwear design department at NIFT Delhi during a pretty gruelling time since there was only one NIFT, but the good news was since there was only one institute, all the resources were concentrated extremely well.
The years at NIFT were really good in terms of making friendships, learning about the technical aspect of design and creating with our hands. Back in those days, colleges weren’t that focused on computer-aided design, so I simultaneously took up a course from Lady Irwin College because in an industry such as this, you need a lot of hands-on experience.
In our first year, we had to do one month internship and had to find it ourselves, which basically led us to approach companies on our own and talk to them directly; it’s a step that one always dreads. But this built our confidence.
The second year was about finding a company to work with, for our graduating design collection.
I did my internship in a Mumbai-based company and my final design collection in a company based at Ludhiana, where I directly worked with skilled workers in the factory.
I never gave up a good opportunity to build up on my skills and also worked in a company which used to design accessories, which allowed me to gain a lot of knowledge about this segment.
AR: What was your journey post NIFT? What was the first step that you took after graduating? Did you take some time off and invest in advancing your skills or did you right away go ahead and launch something?
Aditi: The knitwear design students in that particular year got an opportunity from a Japanese company, Shima Seiki, where they were willing to sponsor a few students to go to Japan and train with them but it was conditional – once you came back and graduated, you had to work with a company that has one of Shima Seiki’s machines. You could assist them as a designer.
I was one of the eight students who were selected from a batch of 28-30 students.
We went to Japan for a three-week training period and after coming back, I was fortunate to get a job as a Designer Merchandiser near my home with a company called Boutique International which used Shima Seiki machines.
AR: What were the responsibilities during your first job and how did it shape your career?
Aditi: During my first job, I was handling brands such as Liz Claiborne and GAP.
After working as a Designer Merchandiser for 2 years, I started feeling that I could do so much more and just at that time, my best friend Aarti Bhargava, who also happens to be from NIFT, had the same thing going through her mind. So we quit our jobs to start our own company called IDesign.
We were 20-21 year olds who thought they knew everything and they could conquer the world. So we did it; we both quit our jobs together with 3-years of experience and started our own company.
Initially it started as a design consulting firm. We would consult with various export houses and give them ideas and design directions. A year-and-a-half into consulting for exporters, we came up with the idea to start our own manufacturing unit, but we decided to tap into a segment that was ignored in the Indian market – baby and kids’ furnishings and room decor.
In the early 2000s, this was a very alien concept for India. Our model was based on Pottery Barn Kids because we used to work for exporters who were working with Pottery Barn Kids which we thought would work really well in India – and thus Two Dotts was found.
We had our first big event at a location in Safdarjung Enclave and there was a lot of press there but there wasn’t enough business because consumers were still not ready for a concept like this in India. There needed to be an entire mindset change. Shortly after this, we got our first export order via Aarti’s contact and from there onwards, export also became a part of our design.
While Two Dotts’ domestic business was not really taking off, it was continuing slowly. It was around that time, after our first export order and when the export business started going that I took a break for motherhood and simultaneously my husband got a job in the USA, so I moved, and eventually started Maroon Oak. I have to commend my best friend Aarti, who took charge of the business from where it was till today and quadrupled the business.
“As with most other businesses, they start with a need that you feel is there but is not being fulfilled for you. I really felt that there was a missing link where women were not able to connect locally – they are at home, they have certain skill sets, they can do some work for you if you need some part-time help and it’ll be cheaper than hiring a company, but how do you connect with all these people? That’s why we started.”
AR: Elucidate on Maroon Oak.
Aditi: The women today are actually becoming entrepreneurs at a very fast pace and things are moving online, so we developed a networking platform as well as an online marketplace for women’s digital products.
AR: Having lived and worked in both India and USA, what do you think is the difference between international and Indian standards of training?
Aditi: When I moved to the USA, I realised that there is a very big difference between the way designers work in America versus India and here’s what I noticed:
In India, we put in a lot of gruelling hard work in our college. In terms of the design collection, everything is done by ourselves right from research to creation to buying to cutting to stitching to sewing.
But the minute you graduate, you either start working with a company or you open a set-up of your own which is not difficult to do in India because of the abundance of labour and cheap capital.
Here is where I saw the biggest disparity. Basically, you get 4 years of experience at NIFT and then you give it away to a worker. You now become a manager; you are no more the artist or the creator.
On the contrary, in America, because of expensive labour, expensive materials and processes, designers who graduate do everything on their own for the first few years until they have solid capital in the bank. In the long term, this approach adds to your experience and builds the character of your brand and nothing can beat the impact of personal touch and hands-on experience.
This was one thing that was a big game-changer for me, and maybe this is something that can be implemented in schools in India – once you get out into the real world, do all the work yourself for a period of time.
AR: How can budding entrepreneurs narrow down on prospective clients?
Aditi: At the end of the day, some amount of information is available online. Platforms like LinkedIn are great resources. Research is an important factor here.
Don’t underestimate the power of saying “Hello! Can I meet you? I’m trying to break into the industry, and I would love to pay for coffee and breakfast if you could give me some advice.”
Basically these are mentors you seek out.
“I think this is such a fantastic mentality, don’t wait to get paid, don’t wait for it to come to you, reach out and be prepared for rejection; there will be one ‘Yes’ out of ten ‘Nos’. My uncle recently told me that the job of a sales person begins with the first No.”
AR: There are certain ideas and concepts that you work upon but how do you know when it’s commercially viable. Is there any way to guide students to make them better know what would entail better success rates in the industry?
Aditi: Everybody just has to remember that there is no fast track way to success.
We mostly look at success stories and we are blinded by them but we never look at the entire chapters behind them. There is a decade worth of things that make somebody come to where they are.
It actually means you have to constantly innovate, constantly evaluate your processes and iterate because there is no one solution. There is a very interesting theory out there which says that you should actually design for the extremes.
It states that – If you take a spectrum of users, some will hate it and some would love it and then there are the ones in the middle who are neutral and who say, “Eh I will use it, I won’t, I’ll see.” Most of us are very happy with the population in the middle since it’s a huge number.
But because they said ‘eh’, it means there is no guarantee and it doesn’t factor that importantly in their life but look at the extreme users – the people who totally loved it – that can help you identify whether you should design for the core demographics who actually loved your product.
We have to get out of this middle people mentality and go for the extreme people.
You start with something, you look at the market, you look at the feedback and you change. If you want to go ahead on your own, one of the biggest things you’ll need today is an online presence. So many people do not utilise all the free avenues out there to create a strong brand presence.
AR: Can you elaborate on such avenues/platforms?
Aditi: You do not need to wait till the end when you graduate and you start your business to have a blog and a website; you can get to it while still in college.
If you do all your trials and errors in your student times, then your work has gotten better and compared to your peers, you already have an online presence. You’re already starting with 500 people audience or so, think of the long-term benefits.
Imagine going for a job and telling the person, ‘I have written about this, and I can even do your social media because I’ve been doing it for myself for so many years.’ It’s so different from the other candidates.
About the avenues, social media is out there, and you should all be utilising that. You can create a profile on LinkedIn, or start writing a blog any time, there are innumerable platforms.
I feel that competition is a mind-set.
If you actually think about it, competition keeps you on your toes, otherwise you will be that neighbourhood store that hasn’t changed from the day it was born till today.
“While studying at NIFT, I’ve felt that, it prepares you for the creative aspect but in order to start a business or venture out into the real world, you need to have some sort of understanding about business. Creativity is one thing, but finance is another integral aspect and knowing how to handle and manage a brand is vital to any business.”
AR: What are some of the things you wish you had known when you were back in college in NIFT which probably students can benefit from?
Aditi: What I really want to share with students is that keep yourself informed. And not just about trends in fashion, which are really good to know because that is your industry. There is no harm in knowing trends in sports because for example where fashion connects with sports, you will be able to know if you have read about it.
The second thing I’d really say is seek and work with mentors in your life.
I think another very important aspect missing from schools and colleges in India is ‘communication’. Your strength lies in your communication; so try to make yourself better at it whether it is written or verbal.
In terms of business acumen, I was constantly learning and keeping myself updated with hands-on experiences gained on the job or via books or other resources available at my disposal.
You could also enroll for a two-month crash course on brand management, which could give you some insight into such skills and I also strongly recommend students to read non-fictional business books which are the biggest source of inspiration and information. There is enough information online as well; there are many blogs and resources on how to set up your own business.
AR: What are the top 5 books you would recommend for students to read not only from the business aspect, but also from the creativity aspect?
Aditi: Seth Godin’s podcast – Akimbo Steve Job’s autobiography The Start-up of You by Reid Hoffman, the founder of LinkedIn Steal like an Artist by Austin Kleon.
There is never a single idea – there have to be lots of ideas. It’s only then that you actually filter down and find the one that is workable in terms of business sense, in terms of what the market needs and in terms of what you can deliver as per your skills and if you will be able to monetise it.