IN CONVERSATION WITH SUCHITA SALWAN
FOUNDER, CEO - LITTLE BLACK BOOK / LEGENDARY, BOLD & BRAVE
Suchita Salwan on building a brand, the merits of niche marketing, and earning success diligently.
LBB: FROM A BLOG TO DISCOVERY LED COMMERCE
LBB has seen tremendous growth since it first started as a blog in 2011. How would you describe LBB to a first-time user in 2022 and what is your target audience?
I'd describe LBB as an Indian millennials definitive guide to discover and shop from unique and independent lifestyle brands and businesses. LBB is also a way of life where Gen Z kids are able to make lifestyle choices outside of the 'basics' and consumers in their 60s and 70s discover brands and events based on our recommendations.
If you're on the hunt for 'something different' for yourself, your home or where you spend your time, LBB's got over 60,000 curated options for you to choose from.
How did you, as the leading entrepreneur, realign to the many stages that LBB has thrived past: from a seed startup to series A and beyond? What were some challenges and learnings - from a professional and personal perspective?
Professionally, what became extremely important once LBB started scaling was knowing how to manage teams better. While I managed freelancers and interns during my stints at Wizcraft and BBC, I had never managed a team of 150 employees. People management is tough because everyone is motivated by different things and has diverse goals and ambitions. While I may operate in a certain way as a founder, it may not always trickle down to my team. Expecting 150 people to be at their 200% everyday just because I am is unrealistic, and I had to realign in that regard.
On a personal level, I grew up a lot. I was 24 when LBB raised its first round of funding and by the time Series A happened, I was 28; so I grew with the business. All things considered, we have done well as a company but we have also had some tough times.
"As founders, we don't usually talk about the tough times because we are expected to move on without dwelling, but I think those experiences taught me a lot about running a business."
ARE WE BEYOND THE GLASS CEILING?
As an entrepreneur, do you believe that the distinction between entrepreneurs and women entrepreneurs is still necessary and relevant?
I think it's important to call out challenges that women entrepreneurs face, because god knows they're never ending and remarkably more elaborate than those faced by 'male entrepreneurs'. But I think bucketing and "other-ing" of women-run enterprises vs. qualifying them based on their category or scale (for example, consumer tech, fin tech or early-stage, unicorn etc) is unnecessary and also detrimental vis a vis making women in entrepreneurship more mainstream.
Do you believe that as women, we often tend to choose a less aggressive approach when it comes to scaling our businesses? Be it the intimidating process of financing a startup or recognizing our product's worth, what would your advice to fellow women-led companies be?
There are many many incredible role models for women in business, even in India (though there could always be many more!). We've got Falguni Nayar, who's really set the bar for how to run a business and is miles ahead of her male counterparts when it comes to stock market performance; we've got co-founders of Open (SME neo-bank), SUGAR, Mamaearth and more; and we've got women at CXO roles of top companies world over.
“My advice would be - we've got examples and reference points of women who've built incredibly successful businesses more than ever before. If they can do it, you can do it too!”
Indra Nooyi once said in an interview, "...women are a big pile of the talent pool. They're getting the best grades, they're doing phenomenally well in schools and colleges. Women want to make a difference, they want to contribute, they want to have the power of the purse. They don't want to be lifelong unpaid labourers. They want to have a life too. But they also want to have families. So we have to create support structures to bring them into the workplace, to give them the choice to come into the workplace."
Having said that, do you think there needs to be a distinction between single women entrepreneurs and entrepreneurs raising families?
My mom was giving her medical exams while pregnant with me. And though I spent a lot of my early years without her constantly hovering over me (she's one of India's top cardiologists now), I'm extremely proud of her for pursuing her career with as much focus, persistence and diligence as she did being a mom to my brother and me. I think a big reason she was able to do this was she insisted on creating an infrastructure for herself that allowed her to do both - pursue professional excellence, and be there for her kids.
I don't have kids, so I can't comment on what it's like to raise a family today; but when I look at my mom (and most women in my family), it's clear to me that we need to demand what we need.
"My takeaway is you need to demand and expect support from your spouse, family, friends etc. You need to stand up for yourself and what you need."
What was your mother's advice to you when you started LBB and how has that shaped the way you've built your business?
What I learned from both my parents was that nothing would come to me on a silver platter; I had to fight and work hard for the things that mattered to me.
Unfortunately on LinkedIn or Twitter today, there are a myriad of glossy stories of triumph, but I think what people have forgotten is that you have to pay your dues to get somewhere in life. And while I'm not suggesting that everyone needs to struggle; sometimes, the learning curve that comes with the struggle helps you determine whether you're willing to put up with the hardships to get where you want to be.
HONING IN ON BRAND BUILDING
We've learnt from your previous interviews that you believe strongly in the merit of being authentic. You once said, "In the age of content where everything is dictated by behemoths like Facebook and empires like Google, what really stands out is authenticity." With the kind of growth that LBB has experienced, what are some practices that help you and the business remain authentic in light of evolving interests, trends and consumption patterns?
What's helped us stay authentic are three things. First, having a user base that expects 'authenticity' from us. Our positioning is built on trust and relatability - if we lose that, we'll lose everything we've built. Our users are helpful in keeping us in check. Second, our "authenticity" is extremely important to me. What founders care about ends up percolating to team members and consumers - so the fact that I care a lot about this, reflects in how we steer the ship. And lastly, being consumer first: we're obsessed with our users and staying on the pulse of what interests them, and how we can give them the lifestyle dopamine they need. This means that LBB will always be about what our users at large are likely to want versus, for example, what I want, or what one of my teammates wants.
Great examples of staying authentic while adapting to changing consumer needs are the New York Times, Vogue's (US) pursuit of digital content, luxury brands and how they adapt to cultural undercurrents (Hermes, Balenciaga, Gucci being great examples), and behemoths like Nike, Target, IKEA & more. We have a lot to learn from all of them.
“We're able to be consumer first, because we put our users above our individual selves - which pushes us to stay relevant and adapt to consumer needs, but also stay true to what we stand for.”
It is a well known fact that in today's day and age, consumers are overburdened with information. Given your background in Digital Marketing, what has your experience been in creating content that has a lasting impact and furthermore, how do you help the consumer filter the noise?
There's multiple different buckets of content - some require 'lasting impact', others don't. For example, SEO content requires lasting impact because that's the only way to juice the medium for impressions and clicks, while Instagram actually requires content with quick bursts of dopamine. YouTube is another example of content that needs to have a longer shelf life because that's how YouTube's algorithm works. But Twitter, on the other hand, needs to be with the times and trends of the day. So, in working on your content strategy, it's important to be medium first and (I use this word loosely) 'ethos' second.
Very simply put, it's not a user's job to care about each piece of content you're pushing out. Content's core job is to make people take notice and the 'prettiest', most 'on-brand' content doesn't always do that. There's a difference between content that is memorable and content that is on-brand.
“A common mistake that marketers make is driving all their content in their brand language and amidst that, forgetting to communicate their brand to consumers in a language that consumers understand and prefer.”
An example here is Cred's IPL ads from last year (the ones starring Bappi Lahri, Rahul Dravid etc). They didn't spam viewers with random product information about Cred and they weren't really on-brand either (Cred's positioning till earlier this year was exclusive, posh-ish, for the affluent etc; there was nothing luxurious about the ads per se). But the ads did what they needed to do - get consumers to take notice and download Cred's app.
How do brands like No. 3 Clive Road compete with the hundreds of other brands that are coming up every month, offering quicker, cheaper and trendier solutions - while maintaining the highest quality standards?
I learnt this at a session with arguably India's best brand consultant, Ireena Vittal - be clear about your market and be clear about your Job To Be Done.
“What is the job your potential user is outsourcing to you that you can do better than the next best alternative?”
I don't think customers are necessarily on the hunt for a quicker, cheaper, trendier option, especially in lifestyle categories. What has helped us is stress-testing what our market is and what's the job we're doing for our users, and are we actually doing it all that well? Once this is clear, competing with other brands becomes totally irrelevant because you've figured out the niche and space that you have in the mind and wallet of your consumer.
What are your views on upcoming brands and platforms competing with behemoths like Amazon? Is there a realignment that needs to take place?
For every movement, there is a counter movement. While Amazon is great for commodities, they fall short for instance, even by their own admission, in the fashion category. Take a look at some of the leading fashion platforms - whether it's Revolve, Fashion Nova or Shein, which is currently raising a round of funding at a $100 billion valuation. There is also Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton or LVMH, a luxury conglomerate that had its best financial year ever during the pandemic because of the increase in the sale of luxury goods.
The notion that Amazon is the end all is factually incorrect today. Within the Indian market as well, we need to look at the performance of Nykaa on the stock market, what Big Basket has been able to do for grocery delivery, and how Liscious is transforming the meat industry.
“Luxury cannot be valued in the terms quick, fast, and cheap.”
At the end of the day, humans are complex beings and by saying that all humans are looking for something that is quick, fast and cheap - you're discrediting how complex they actually are. On LBB's platforms, we have to inspire the customer and help them envision what a product will look like. By picking and serving our niches to consumers in experiences that help them make more informed decisions, we have differentiated ourselves.
TELL US MORE ABOUT SUCHITA
What motivates you to get up in the morning and head to your first meeting? And how do you keep your team motivated in the new hybrid set-up that companies have adopted?
I'm generally a very high energy person and usually have zero problems with motivation. I love working, and I especially love working with my colleagues and for our users. At LBB, we understand that not everyone will be 100% motivated at all times and that's where our processes play a massive role. We have OKRs, KRAs, KPIs and clear metrics for every single team. At the end of the day, motivation is secondary to outcome and if an employee can deliver a 100% outcome at 50% motivation, that's great. As an employer, I can help my employees understand what their outcomes are and build the right kind of infrastructure and framework to help them deliver on the same.
We also give our teams a lot of freedom to operate, test and try new things - to keep team LBB motivated. We do team wide catch ups regularly - from our town halls to LBB Showcase and skill-building and unwinding activities, which give our co-workers a break from their day to day routines.
We know about Suchita as an online entrepreneur, but what is Suchita like offline and in her new avatar as a podcaster?
I've always generally enjoyed design; and architecture and home decor were my new-found lockdown interests. I thoroughly enjoy hunting for vintage finds, fabrics, plants and more when I can squeeze in a window on weekends. It helps that LBB has a great home & kitchen selection! I love reading and consuming information, which is what birthed the idea for Think Fast - a podcast that I co-host with my friend Varun Duggirala.
“The podcast started out as a project for myself but has been extremely fruitful in helping me learn about topics that interest me - startups, content marketing, business and more.”
Last but not least, we're curious to know what your beverage of choice is and how it changes through the day?
I love both tea and cofee! I enjoy a good cup of masala chai and I switch over to a cup of coffee as the day progresses. I consume a lot of Indian brands and my current favourites are No. 3 Clive Road's Aurangzeb Blend and Subko Coffee, which is great for cold brews. Of course, I also thoroughly enjoy my wine and tequila.