In June 2020, amid the global pandemic, Kundan Mishra, who hails from a small village named Pupunki in Jharkhand, launched Custkart Merchandise with his savings. In just two years, his venture, which manufactures and sells customised t-shirts on bulk order, is clocking revenues to the tune of Rs 1.5-2 crore and has a pan-India clientele. What clicked? It was Mishra’s conviction and intention. He wanted to send across a message to the youth of Jharkhand — who often have to migrate for work or end up scrambling for government jobs back home – that entrepreneurship is also an option and one can run a successful venture even from a nondescript village like Pupunki. Mishra, 25, also wanted to be a job creator, so, on the payroll of Custkart are daily wage earners from the village who are looking for additional income or those who were working in big cities but had to return home during the pandemic. Read and share this story because it’s important to promote young entrepreneurs like Mishra who are trying to set an example.
The year was 2014 and the place, Pupunki village, which is about 10 kms from the steel city of Bokaro in Jharkhand. Kundan Mishra, then 17, left his haystack-roofed home and, along with his parents, arrived in Gangtok in Sikkim to join the IT engineering course at the Sikkim Manipal Institute of Technology. It was for the first time that someone from the village was stepping out to pursue higher education.
His mother, Rita Mishra, saw some hoardings outside the college that carried pictures of successful alumni who had made the institute proud. Mishra’s mother got emotional and told him to make it to one of the hoardings someday. Mishra promised her he would. And he did.
Right from the start of college, Mishra was clear that he would never take up a job or work under someone. The entrepreneurship bug bit him in 2016 while watching a web series with his friends. The plot of the popular web series revolved around four friends who quit their jobs to launch a start-up. The idea inspired Mishra.
The start of the entrepreneurial journey wasn’t smooth. “In 2016, three of us came up with an idea for a start-up. We got selected for an entrepreneurship event at our college, but the venture could not take off. In 2017, we conceptualised another start-up, but since we could not find investors for the same, we gave up on that in 2018.”
The same year, Mishra passed out from college, declined a Rs 8-lakh per annum placement offer, and came back to his village. His father Bidyut Mishra, who works as an ordinary contractor with the Bokaro Steel Plant, was quite upset.
The beginning of the journey
“After coming back, I started working on another idea. By mistake, my father got hold of some business documents and when he came to know that I was looking to launch a start-up and not take up a job, he stopped talking to me. He told me that he was disappointed as he had spent Rs 12 lakh on my education, a huge amount for a family like ours,” said Mishra.
In 2018, Mishra launched a venture called Custkart Brand. “I started the business of providing customised merchandise, like bags, mugs, and t-shirts, to customers. However, there were several issues,” said Mishra.
“I did not have any website or any source of reaching out to more customers. There were already many players in the market. Also, I would outsource the raw material and the prints, so I did not have any control over the quality. I realised that the venture did not have a long-term future, so in June 2020, I tweaked the core business idea and changed the name of the start-up to Custkart Merchandise. At this stage, my elder brother Abhishek Mishra also joined me,” he added.
Making Pupunki the business base of Custkart
Mishra, who knows how to stitch and understands the end-to-end printing process, decided to set up a small factory unit, train a few people, and start manufacturing t-shirts. His strategy was to target colleges, universities and corporates and take up bulk orders for t-shirts.
“During events and festivals at colleges and universities, there is a need for customised printed t-shirts. Corporates too require t-shirts in bulk for events or to distribute as souvenirs. And these are bulk orders in the range of 5,000-10,000 t-shirts. I started taking up such orders. Presently, the entire process of cutting of t-shirts, the printing of t-shirts as per customer’s demand, quality check, ironing, packing, and despatch happens from our small factory and warehouse in Pupunki,” said Mishra.
Did he not consider moving to a bigger city, a metro or to Bengaluru, which is the start-up and unicorn hub of India?
“No. I was positive about Pupunki. I realised there are several advantages of launching a start-up from a village. First, I did not have to spend a lot to set up the factory and the rents are minimal. Second, the production costs are very low. Third, in Jharkhand, we get electricity at a highly subsidised rate. Fourth, labour cost is very low, and the availability of labour is also not an issue,” said Mishra.
Hiring locals to do the job
At Custkart, there are two sets of employees.
“Seven of us, including me and my brother, are the permanent ones. We have the experience, so we train others. On our payroll is the entire village! When we get bulk orders for t-shirts, we send across a message on a WhatsApp group. Everyone is on that group. Depending on the number of t-shirts, we give them a time frame and the number of hours they need to put in,” said Mishra.
He added: “People drop by whenever they get the time, do their share of work, take their daily wages, and go. We ask them to do just the cutting part of the t-shirts. There is a separate team of trained members who do the printing. The t-shirts are then sent for quality check, ironing, packaging and finally, they are dispatched.”
Some of these people are farmers, some work as carpenters or plumbers in nearby townships. What they do at Custkart, becomes an additional income for them. Some are experienced. Before the pandemic, they were working as daily wagers or contract labourers with big national and international retail brands in cities like Delhi and Bengaluru. Unfortunately, during the pandemic, some of them lost their jobs and for some, in the absence of salaries, it became difficult to live in cities. So, they came back to the village.
Custkart has something interesting lined up for the women as well.
“Presently, because our factory is in a remote location, we are not hiring women. But very soon we plan to open a 5,000 sq ft factory that will have all the facilities for women. We want to give them a safe and secure working environment. There are many women in the village who are extremely skilled and under the government’s Skill India Mission have received sewing machines. We want to make them financially independent so that the men can focus on their core job, and they won’t have to come to us for additional income,” said Mishra.
A bootstrap venture, zero marketing, word-of-mouth publicity
Custkart does not have a website. It has not spent a penny on marketing. So, how did they manage to secure a pan-India clientele?
“We let our work speak. Initially, we targeted colleges, universities, and corporates where we had some base. People loved our professionalism, the quality of our t-shirts and our timely deliveries. They started publicising our work and we kept getting bulk orders. In fact, now things get so hectic during college annual fests that we end up working non-stop and round the clock. During the lean period, we target corporates,” said Mishra.
The one thing Mishra is extremely proud of is the robust logistical chain the start-up has adopted that ensures timely deliveries. The only requisite is airport-to-airport connectivity. Another fact he is proud of is that he has managed to get all the prestigious colleges and universities in his kitty that would earlier go to a bigger start-up based in a big city or a metro.
Custkart is purely a bootstrapped venture. Bootstrapping is the process of building a business from scratch with minimal external capital, without attracting investment, sharing equity, or borrowing huge sums of money from banks.
“We plan to continue with our bootstrap model. In villages, people believe that once you borrow money, it’s an unending trap. We feel the same. Despite the risks taken, in the first year we managed to clock revenues of Rs 60-70 lakh. We have grown year-on-year and presently, our revenues have touched Rs 1.5-2 crore,” said Mishra.
So, what is the USP of Custkart? “We treat our customers like family. We don’t let them feel they are a part of any business dealing. Also, when we make a mistake, we acknowledge, apologise, and rectify,” said Mishra.
A message for budding entrepreneurs from small towns and villages
“We did it. Others can do it too. We live in a house the roof of which is made of haystack. We did not have any capital or source of funding. We don’t have any entrepreneurs in the family to guide us. We can’t converse in fluent English. We are very ordinary people. Yet, we did it. That was the message we wanted to send across to the youths of Jharkhand who either migrate for work or keep trying for handful of secure government jobs. We wanted to tell them that entrepreneurship is an option. A business can originate in Pupunki, and it can give a Bengaluru start-up a run for its money,” said Mishra.
And what do his parents have to say about his achievement? “Well, my father has started talking to me again. Not that he fully understands what I do, but he is happy that I am doing something! As for my mother, who has always supported me, I recently made it to a poster outside my institute. It was emotional for us,” said Mishra.
This story is a part of our series ‘Venture Stories’ in which we tell stories of ventures or initiatives that were, like us, born during the pandemic. You can read the first two stories here. If you are a pandemic venture and want us to tell your story, write to us at email@example.com