16 August 2022 12:20:22 IST

IIM Ahmedabad duo, Zouk brand founders, share their MBA learnings

Zouk founders Pradeep Krishnakumar and Disha Singh

Disha Singh and Pradeep Krishnakumar, the husband-wife duo, are the founders of the D2C lifestyle brand Zouk. With over 2 lakh customers, Zouk is PETA-approved and sells vegan products such as bags and recently-launched footwear 

While both are IIM Ahmedabad (IIMA) alumni, Krishnakumar is a civil engineering graduate from IIT Madras and Singh received her engineering degree from Jabalpur Engineering College, Madhya Pradesh. In this exclusive interview, they share their MBA learnings and its usefulness to them in their start-up journey. Singh and Krishnakumar say that an MBA teaches you to grow your business in a cost-efficient manner and imparts problem-solving skills, both crucial to excel in entrepreneurship.

How has your MBA helped you in building Zouk, if at all?
Disha: The idea of Zouk was born when I visited Kutch for an IIMA course. I saw that my friends loved the local handicraft items but did not buy any, given they were not functional. It made me realise that there was a gap in the market for a modern Indian lifestyle brand. I also met a great set of professors at IIMA who are now my closest mentors; a special mention to Prof Sunil Honda who has guided me throughout.
Pradeep: My MBA taught me how to grow my business in a capital-efficient manner and that the growth at all costs approach does not work.
What have been the key learnings from your MBA for you?
Disha: I learned the fundamentals of marketing, brand building, and the significance of high-quality products and solid distribution channels, which have really helped me scale Zouk from the idea stage to the execution stage.
Pradeep: We learn different aspects of running a business from analysing business stats and financial statements to the softer aspects such as hiring the right talent and giving them a work environment where they can thrive in an MBA.
At IIMA, especially, we learned these through business case studies and real stories of how companies went through that journey, and they have greatly helped me visualise different scenarios and their outcomes and creatively solve problems.
If you had to re-visit your MBA, what would you have liked to have been part of your course?
Disha: For the most part of our coursework, we studied large companies and their growth stories. I would have loved to learn the same about the new-age companies, born in India, and their growth stories. For instance, it would have been interesting to learn how e-commerce players Flipkart and Nykaa navigated through early-stage problems in their journeys to become such tremendously successful businesses today.
Pradeep: From the time we graduated to now, the influence of social media and influencers has increased dramatically. While we had a couple of courses dealing with how internet-based businesses work, it would have been nice to have more of those.
What have been the best and worst moments of your start-up journey?
Disha: While the early days were really hard, we got some great advice from seasoned entrepreneurs who were also IIMA alumni. The journey has lots of ups and downs and it’s important to focus on the positives and surround yourself with the right people. Despite the highs and lows, I look at this as our life’s work and embrace each day as it comes.
Pradeep: Entrepreneurs, by definition, need to be extremely optimistic. I can’t pick best and worst moments. All I can say is the best is yet to come.
What would be your advice to young MBAs who are joining a start-up or the corporate sector?
Disha: There is no better time than now to embark on a start-up journey. As a MBA graduate, you already have a safety net. There are enough and more mature start-ups hiring young MBAs including Zouk. So, there are many avenues for each one of you to experience the start-up life and build something of significant impact.
Pradeep: Tapping into my experience of working with multiple other start-ups and in the corporate sector, I can definitely say that building something of your own is an extremely fulfilling experience and would therefore recommend starting up early in your life. Moreover, start-up journeys are long and lonely, hence having a strong and supportive system of family and friends is extremely critical.
Are you happy with the way the MBA is structured/taught today?
Disha: IIM Ahmedabad experience was life-changing for me. Since it was a premier institute, I had heard a lot about it before joining, but the experience was better than what I expected. My peers, professors, and all other resources that the B-school offers really allows the young minds to dream big and work towards it. I am a strong proponent of the way the MBA programme at IIMA is structured and taught, and hence, no changes..
Pradeep: The business case studies are a wonderful way to learn. These stories stick with you for a long time and help you think through complicated situations. IIM Ahmedabad opened up my mind and taught me how to break down a problem into smaller modules and solve each of them in a structured manner. These principles are demonstrated using case studies, which is what makes the programme extremely powerful.
What would you advise young MBAs to read?
Disha: I prefer non-fiction as it helps you understand how different people think. I also recommend books written on brands. My favourite books include Psychology of Money by Morgan Housel and Almanack by Naval Ravikant.
Pradeep: I typically read a lot more on Twitter and follow folks who have gone through similar journeys and learn from them. So, I recommend a short-form content and Twitter threads and pocket-sized content which allows me to get a variety of perspectives. After which, I dive deeper into aspects that I found interesting by doing my own research independently on the internet.
Disha, as a woman in entrepreneurship,what would you say to young women wanting to start up?
Given that we operate in a space which involves production and working with artisans, it was very hard to convince people that a woman can drive these processes at the beginning. But over a period of time, I could build that confidence in them to accept my leadership. I have also been blessed with a great team.
My advice to young women would be to actively seek help from fellow entrepreneurs and friends that has tremendously helped me I think through multiple problem statements during my journey and resolve them satisfactorily. Now the time for women entrepreneurs to come in and build companies that provide products for women and thousands of women LED businesses are going to be built from India very soon.
Pradeep, how did the IIT Madras experience shape you?
IIT Madras was it was a life-changing experience for me. It was the first time I was away from home and I got to meet folks from different parts of India and understand different perspectives in life. I was also an active member of the IIT Madras cultural festival Saarang where I learned how to lead teams and work towards a common goal.
Some of my closest friends have been my batchmates from IIT and I still go back to them for any kind of advice or even to just have a fun evening. Engineering, as a course, teaches you how to adopt a problem-solving approach to any situation. Even today, many of the things we do at zouk, we're doing it for the first-time ever. In such situations, I go back to the fundamental principles of understanding the problem at hand and then finding a solution.