Fundamatics is launching a regular column covering entrepreneurs and their journeys in startup-land. Our hope is to give the reader a behind the curtains look at what it takes to build a startup. We will cover stories of entrepreneurs who succeeded as well as those who struggled and the trials and tribulations along the way. If you are an entrepreneur or know of one, please reach out to us!
In our inaugural column, we will be covering Runal Dahiwade and Miraj Vora’s journey in building Peppermint. They build industrial robots that can clean industrial and commercial spaces such as manufacturing facilities, warehouses, airports, hotels, and offices. Peppermint has been incubated at IIT Bombay SINE.
Both of you were founders of other startups before Peppermint. What did you learn from those experiences and why did you decide to go down the entrepreneurial path again?
RD: I feel lucky to have had an opportunity to build a successful startup that was acquired by a larger industry player. We built Carkhana (my first startup with a co-founder) into, then, the largest marketplace for automotive accessories and spare parts. Everything that I learned in that journey has provided a foundation for building Peppermint.
MV: I co-founded and ran a B2B SaaS startup, Outsell, for 4+ years. We reached a peak revenue of >$200k ARR and the business continues to grow organically. I started Peppermint because I felt it was the right time for a “built in India, for the world” startup and wanted to be part of that journey. My B2B sales experience from Outsell forms the basis of Peppermint’s sales and customer success matrix. We are building a world-class product and service with an aim to delight our customers.
You started Peppermint more than 2 years ago. What have been some of the highlights and lowlights over the last two years?
RD: At first, defining the exact scope of the robot’s operations and building the core team needed to design and prototype the robots was particularly challenging. It took us three prototyping cycles, spread over a year, to arrive at the final market-ready configuration for the robots. Currently, the most challenging aspect is manufacturing robots. For a startup like ours, outsourcing seems pre-mature and insourcing requires working capital investment. We are navigating these challenges through detailed planning and careful execution.
MV: As Runal mentioned, our journey over the last two years has been full of learning and constant iteration in search of product-market fit. Our first robot went into production in September 2020 (our final line-up will include three robots for floors, walls, and toilets) and is now being deployed across Western India. We will start exporting our robots in the next 6 months too.
How did the Coronavirus pandemic affect your startup? How did you respond?
RD: The pandemic hurt our production and our manufacturing was delayed. It was difficult to meet and demonstrate our robot for the first few months following the lockdown.
MV: On the flip side, it generated significant tailwinds for our business. Everyone realizes the need for maintaining hygienic facilities now. It has accelerated our pilots and product demonstrations. That has helped us accelerate our pilots and product demonstrations. In the long run, we believe, the pandemic will serve as a catalyst for using robotics and other technology solutions to maintain hygiene in commercial real estate and industrial facilities.
How has the IITB ecosystem helped your startup? Why did you decide to incubate the business at SINE?
RD: The IIT Bombay ecosystem has been an accelerant across multiple aspects of our business:
Design and development: Prof. Leena Vachhani and Prof. Arpita Sinha from the Systems and Controls department were instrumental in helping us iterate through our robot prototypes. We arrived at the right configuration of weight, size, operational processes, and software through those discussions.
Prototyping: Our first two prototypes were built with support from SINE and the Nidhi Prayas scheme.
We decided to incubate ourselves at SINE, as it has the richest ecosystem and support infrastructure for hardware startups like ours. The access to industry experts and mentors as well as access to fundraising and grants has been invaluable.
Have you raised capital for the startup? How was that journey?
RD: We are fortunate to have an extremely supportive set of investors who understand the nuances of manufacturing in India and have guided us in the right direction. After receiving a couple of grants from government agencies and SINE at IIT Bombay, we raised a pre-seed round in 2019 to build our product prototypes. The lockdown last year started right after we had kicked off our seed round fundraise. After multiple days full of Zoom calls, we were able to get a group of trusted partners onboard. It has enabled us to build an assembly line, and achieve product-team and product-market fit.
MV: Absolutely, from manufacturing to strategy, our investors have proven to be a great sounding board. Our investor groups’ diversity has been helpful too.
How is your experience of building a hardware startup different than your previous experiences with software and marketplace startups?
RD: At an early stage, building a hardware product is more demanding. It requires more work as many decisions with long-term cross-functional impact need to be made. For example, vendor scouting, logistics, physical space for prototyping, the interdependence of various teams and projects need more attention and management bandwidth.
MV: On the other hand, we get immense joy in seeing our ideas take a physical form. It provides us with daily encouragement.
Where do you see Peppermint in another 5-10 years? What is your biggest concern in getting there?
RD: Our goal is to become the largest housekeeping robotics company in the world in the next 5-6 years. We are upgrading the incumbent housekeeping process with a new approach that yields efficiencies, provides better hygiene outcomes, and delivers cleaner working and public spaces around us.
Our current team of 25 is based out of Western India. In the next year, we will add 4-5 new office locations in India and expand our presence either directly or through distribution partners in South East Asia, the Middle East, and North Africa.
MV: On the manufacturing front, we are working to get a CE certification for our products. We are also going to launch 4 new products in the next year and increase our Pune factory’s production capacity to 50 machines a month. As we continue to develop and build new robots, it is imperative that our robots function reliably. That is the one thing that keeps us up at night. We are aware of the challenge that faces us. All of us at Peppermint are super excited for the months and years ahead, where we will build and deploy the most efficient housekeeping robots across the world.
Any advice that you have for other entrepreneurs or someone considering the entrepreneurial path?
RD: I am an avid advocate of executing with speed – the ability to work fast, make mistakes, remedy them, and move on to the next set of goals can be a big differentiator. While it is important to plan and strategize, the ability to put those plans into action differentiates you from the rest. I would also love for more hardware startups to come out of India in the coming years.
MV: I have to put my salesperson’s hat on and tell budding entrepreneurs that the perfect product will never be built, so the road to success is to ‘sell & build’ based on customer feedback. One of my favourite books, which I recommend to all entrepreneurs, is Steven Blank’s Four Steps to Epiphany. The key lesson from the book is that one must get feedback on the product needs directly from the market and aim to build and deploy a product that meets those needs quickly.
Finally, a lot of founders have a technical background, so it is important that they get out of their comfort zone and learn to sell.” If the founders won’t sell their product, who will?