Within the wood-panelled interiors of Columbia University, as a student, Anirban Poddar was focussed on his pet project — a curated marketplace for brands of ‘mom and pop’ entities. This project continued till 2015, but when he graduated, he opted for the beaten path and found himself a well-paying job with a multinational company in New York. Anirban graduated from Columbia University with a major in economics-philosophy and a specialisation in Computer Science.
But something within urged him to continue his e-commerce project. “I wanted to take forward what had started in the Fall of 2012,” he says.
Thus, his venture, ShopHop came into existence in Mumbai. Two of Anirban’s high-school friends, Amer Ahmad and Dhruv Jhaveri, joined him as full-time employees and ShopHop grew to become a food discovery platform that lets users buy organic items from small growers.
Essentially, it is a curated marketplace for natural and artisanal home-grown brands. “We source new food and beverage brands from homes, kitchens and farms across the country and provide food entrepreneurs a platform that spans logistics, marketing, data, analytics, branding and distribution,” Anirban explains.
Need for such a venture
“As regular shoppers at farmers’ markets and food exhibitions in Mumbai, we came across a plethora of home-grown culinary talent. While the focus is often on gourmet and artisanal foods made at home and displayed at such events, the unorganised market for food entrepreneurs across the country is huge, though such entrepreneurs clearly lack a distinct platform to showcase their brand of culinary talents,” he points out.
That’s where ShopHop comes in: to locate quality food-entrepreneurs as early as possible and help them build large and sustainable brands. In other words, the e-commerce platform can be a marketer for ventures that do not have the wherewithal or the inclination to understand the nitty-gritty of technology.
Although originally ShopHop aimed to help retail SMEs digitise operations, the current business model takes its services one step further in the value chain by working directly with manufacturers and food entrepreneurs.
The business model is similar to Etsy, a US-based marketplace that is now a global benchmark for community-driven marketplaces. “People were already making and selling these things before Etsy but in a fragmented and disorganised way, at flea markets, and so on. Etsy was able to aggregate and enhance this community through technology,” explains Anirban.
Turn to India and people have been making and selling interesting and exciting packaged food items for decades — from avakkai pickle in the South to Sindhi papads . These products might be sold in local communities but a well-managed marketplace can help these food-makers turn their products into brands that the entire country can access. ShopHop sells items like banana chia pudding, oat milk, dark chocolate sugar-free sea salt ice cream, olive green hummus, quinoa and semolina pasta and more.
ShopHop faced similar challenges in the beginning. “Several products are unique but to convince a curious customer to make the final purchase requires investment in consumer awareness, which can be challenging for a bootstrapped start-up. This awareness is especially important in the food industry as, being edible products, customers like to understand what they are buying,” says Anirban.
As with any other e-commerce start-up, distribution and logistics are also a challenge. ShopHop, as a pure-play marketplace start-up, has limited or no stock of products and all orders are prepared fresh. This results in a slightly longer delivery time. Anirban has had some terrible experiences with third-party logistics providers as the product category is time-sensitive. However, he says it is part of the learning.
Defining brand stories
So, what has the start-up done differently? As a curated marketplace, ShopHop sources food brands that are often unavailable on other platforms or retail outlets. “Sourcing remains a central aspect of our operations and we aim at showcasing brands that are both high quality and have a novelty factor to them,” he explains.
Another critical component that distinguishes the company is that it is building a brand story that talks about the entrepreneurs behind the brands, how they started out and the products they make. These stories play a much bigger role in customer decision-making than most marketplaces realise and is something ShopHop focuses on when taking on new brands and entrepreneurs.
However, Anirban believes that the real value lies in the start-up’s supply side. “We offer assistance on branding and licensing (FSSAI) on demand to help entrepreneurs actually make the leap from a food product to a packaged food brand. We conduct marketing for our brands across digital and physical channels, such as farmers’ markets and food exhibitions,” he says, adding that their products are shipped all over India.
In May, it launched a monthly subscription box called ‘Taste Case’, which offers samples of four new brands to food bloggers, critics and ShopHop subscribers as means of discovering and tasting exciting new brands every month. This is a one-of-its-kind offering that helps vendors reach new audiences and increase awareness while also promoting the habit of food discovery.
Simultaneously, the start-up is building a back-end data-analytics panel to help its brands analyse and understand who their customers are and what’s clicking for their food products. The start-up also recently forayed into offline distribution because of the low penetration of smartphones and patchy internet connectivity in many parts of India.
The company has been bootstrapped and, till date, backed by Anirban’s father Pradeep Poddar, the former South Asia CEO of Heinz. Anirban says that ShopHop is currently in the midst of raising an angel round of approximately ₹1.2 crore. “With the inflow of funds we will also look to boost our sourcing team to continue discovering and onboarding food entrepreneurs.” Its plans include building a mobile app that analyses specific customer behaviour. The start-up currently has around 90 brands in its portfolio, many of which have made the leap towards expanding their businesses.