How Sangeeta Sukthankar-led Couch Tomato is planning to help home entrepreneurs
“The only way for them to reach out is through exhibitions. That costs a lot. The excitement and kick is about seeing these entrepreneurs grow.’’
Many of them fade away and a few come back after a long break only to find that they are no longer capable of winning the rat race with younger colleagues stealing a march over them. For anyone who has been in technology, finance, engineering, or even research, the aim is mostly to return to what they had done years ago, because they believe that is where their strength lies, and they don’t experiment with something new.
But Sangeeta Sukthankar, the 51- year old wife of HDFC Bank deputy managing director Paresh Sukthankar, is an exception. The Jamnalal Bajaj Institute alumnus who bid goodbye to a career in finance, is back not in the field of finance, but as an entrepreneur. In a world where the Sachin Bansals of Flipkart and Kunal Bahls of Snapdeal are making waves with their retailing ideas for the digital age, Sukthankar, in her small way is experimenting with a digital platform. What does she call it? ‘Couch Tomato’ — to convey the message of nimble, swift — the opposite of ‘couch potato’, which means lazily watching television and videos.
Couch Tomato will be an App-based platform to be launched by the end of May for entrepreneurs who are doing some unique work on a limited scale, but are unable to reach out to customers beyond their neighbourhood. These entrepreneurs don’t run a small business from a shop or a factory, but do something exclusive and special on a very small scale from their homes. Sukthankar terms them ‘Home Entrepreneurs,’ selling things like ear rings, slippers and paintings. “Lots of things are happening in our neighbourhood,” says Sukthankar, who was among the first batch of employees at rating company Crisil when the concept was new to India. “The only way for them to reach out is through exhibitions. That costs a lot. The excitement and kick is about seeing these entrepreneurs grow.’’
Couch Tomato will go on stream next month, connecting entrepreneurs in Mumbai. This could later be expanded to the rest of the country. Its line-up ranges from image consultants, nutritionists and designers of bags, shoes, jewellery and apparel to those marketing Indian and international cuisine. Even before the website goes live by end of May, the venture has created a buzz on Facebook. It is busy servicing an order for atleast a 100 Indian traditional Potli bags from a USbased customer.
Where did Sukthankar get this idea from and why did she not attempt to get back to a career in finance? “Financial services is not an easy industry,’’ says Sukthankar, who also worked for a while at IL&FS. “You can’t just wrap up and go home. I was clear I have to be there when the kids are back in the afternoon.’’
Vohra, 41-year old former banker at Kotak Mahindra Capital who has managed many projects ground-up, is actively involved with the venture’s take-off. Her execution skills — at Larsen and Toubro and as a consultant for Asian Development Bank and the World Bank — makes her Ms Dependable when it comes to following up with the orders.
“It involves endless hours of work and endless learning,’’ says Awasthi. It is the role of chief executive, clerk, peon rolled into one. “That learning of many areas of work every day… I feel I am enriched compared to where I started.’’ Sukthankar and Vohra’s expertise may be good enough when it comes to managing the finances, and in future when they go in for funding. But this is not a finance firm or a manufacturing company. With this being a digital-focussed firm, how do they plan to pull it off?
This is where Awasthi’s experience counts. The MBA from Institute of Management Technology, Ghaziabad, was behind the technology implementation behind many big banks in India — from Axis Bank to Kotak and State Bank of India. in addition, having worked at Tata Consultancy Services, HCL, Satyam Computer and Ramco Systems, there isn’t much she does not know in terms of getting a platform going.
“I have many firsts to my credit,’’ says Awasthi. This may almost be a full-time job, but, “I make sure I don’t work for two hours in the evening,’’ when it’s exclusively family time.
Half-way through the conversation with the budding entrepreneurs, the host orders for some masala chai and green tea with strict orders to not to heat it in a microwave. ‘Sangs’ as Sukthankar is known, follows naturopathy and has given up all processed food.
Sukthankar, a national basketball champion, has been blessed with a good education, fortune and children who have done well for themselves, besides a ground to display her entrepreneurial skills. What does she now crave for? “My name conveys music,’’ she says, a tad disappointed. “So this year, I have decided to study music and identify ragas.” Is that music to the tabla-obsessed Mr Sukhtankar’s ears?