Award-winning designer and business woman Sugandh Goel left a seven-year career in the corporate sector to start Gunas, which offers stunning, high-fashion yet affordable designer vegan handbags. She shares her secrets of success.
What drives you to run a socially conscious, vegan business?
I started Gunas because I feel compassionate towards animals and I love fashion. Initially when I went out shopping all I could find were brands with price points at the extremes and style wise there was nothing that filled the gap in the market for a bag that is high fashion, high style and doesn’t compromise your values.
How much of a challenge is keeping the prices affordable, yet still maintaining quality and ethics, along with making a profit?
That’s definitely been a challenge. To keep your prices down you need to have small-scale production because our market is so niche there’s no way I could use a Chinese factory or a large-scale factory to produce 1,000 pieces and then have a bunch eventually that I won’t be able to sell.
Initially the production was done in New York, so my real big challenge of keeping the price point down was getting production which was ethical and at the same time that would do short runs.
Pricing has also been a concern. A lot of people ask why it’s “so expensive” if it’s not leather. But once they understand the importance of ethical manufacturing and cruelty-free fabrics and materials, they tend to buy into the idea so that’s been a little bit easier for me but it’s still something I’m trying to resolve.
When you start out initially, you’re still learning how your customer is going to react and so you just put out a raw product at its very basics. In my case that turned out to be a pricey one, so people wanted me to make it more affordable.
I went to China to look at factories but the conditions were awful. I would never want to sell a product where the people are disconnected from how the product is made. So I started my own studio in India. With the help of my family who live there, I set up a small studio and started working with local women and artisans to produce our bags there.
You recently had a baby – congratulations! How do you cope with the demands of family life and running a business?
I see a lot of times people start burning out because they’re putting in 40 to 60 hours a week because they want to get successful in their business really quickly.
The way I work is to take one day at a time. And I think that because I’m going at a steady and a much maybe slower pace, maybe as compared to other brands, that pace is helping me learn a lot more and rectify the faults that I might be making with my company or with my brand. It also helps me to deeply understand my target audience.
What percentage of your time do you spend working ‘on’ your business, rather than ‘in’ it?
Initially I tried to do four to five collections every year and that made me re-think my whole strategy. I decided to just do two or maximum three collections a year and then the rest of the time on strategizing, improving my production, improving my processes and all the systems that are in place.
This helps me balance things out and now it’s around 50-50. I do my collections half the time and then the other half I’m spending on getting the warehousing streamlined, or the production and distribution and all that stuff taken care of.
How do you get people to stop and take notice of your brand?
The most important aspect of the philosophy behind my brand is being authentic and I think that a lot of marketing that is thrown at the customers today is very pretentious. They’re trying to portray an image of someone that people want to be rather than who they are.
With Gunas I aim to portray an image of the person as they really are, what they want to be, what they want to stand for and what they want to show with the power of their purchase through the products that they buy.
It’s important to stay real, authentic and be honest with the customer. People nowadays are looking for that honesty in the products that they’re buying. So there’s no pretense – I’m absolutely open. I encourage people to ask me as many questions as they have about the brand or the processes, the materials, and so on, and I’m always honest with them.
My customers appreciate this and they like the marriage between that honesty and high fashion because generally people don’t associate high fashion with honesty!
What lessons have you learned through running your business?
Since I’m an artist – I’m a designer at heart – and I’ve never been a people person, I’ve always shied away from the camera and interviews. Running Gunas has pushed my limits and helped me get out of my comfort zone.
Even if you’re a designer it’s so important to talk about what you’re doing and explain it to people. Not everybody is a designer, not everybody thinks artistically, so that’s one of my biggest discoveries about myself.
What advice would you give to someone currently in employment who’s looking to start their own business?
The first thing is to really be very careful with your money. The second is, unless you have plenty of money to invest in your business, stick with your job and start your business like I did, slowly and steady. Don’t try to rush through things because you’ll probably not make the right decisions.
Also, really learn about your demographic before you introduce products and put all your money into making bags or any accessories or clothing, or other items.
You’ve had quite a bit of editorial media coverage, including a recent spread in Fortune magazine, which was quite a coup! How do you go about getting featured in the media?
In the beginning I had a PR firm, but nowadays I contact journalists and bloggers that I believe will be a good fit for my brand directly. A lot of the time I have pieces lying around so I send them free samples so they can check out the quality. This often entices them to write something about me.