The Independent Student Newspaper of Ashoka University

Ashokan Entrepreneurs | Dabbawalas

Anirudh Pisharam, Class of 2019

Not many student-led start-ups in Ashoka can boast to have had as much impact on the campus population as the Dabbawalas. Where many saw a deficit in Ashoka’s relative geographic isolation from New Delhi, two young entrepreneurs saw an opportunity. Dabbawalas began as a food-delivery start-up back in October 2016 and has grown into much more. Indeed, they have been running pretty much non-stop over the last 4 semesters, where they have served countless happy and satisfied customers.

I sat down with the founders, Abhinav Verma and Anirudh Rao, both from the Undergraduate Batch of 2018, to understand their fascinating journey in building a successful start-up on our campus.

How did it all begin with Dabbawalas?

Anirudh: We’re both foodies, and I often used to visit Delhi over the weekends to explore different places. My friends would often ask me to get them some food, and I’d end up carrying 5–6 packets of food on the shuttle. It was Abhinav who then told me, “Why don’t we do it for money?”. It was a genuine problem; people wanted food from Delhi, but they couldn’t have it.

Abhinav: The way Dabbawalas runs today is not how we initially started our operations. What we did in the beginning was exactly was Anirudh was doing; a food delivery startup with a commission. Every week we’d plan out trips to GTB Nagar or Khan Market. We would share a menu on Google Drive and people could place their orders. We’d charge them a 15% fee. Back then, we used to literally have these dabbas — these suitcases — filled with food like pasta, pizzas, donuts and Khan Chacha’s rolls.

The Dabbawalas logo

Speaking about the risks, what are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced?

Anirudh: Sometimes if the shuttles get cancelled or we fail to get an Uber, we have had to hail a local auto with 30 boxes of pizzas. Then there have been times when for some reason the sale hasn’t gone well, and we’ve had to go around selling our food like street vendors. There were even situations when we have had to eat the food because there was so much left!

Abhinav: We can’t really complain about that, can we? (Laughs) Also, generally working in the food industry, transporting the food and keeping it warm, equipping ourselves with everything from plastic gloves to even buying a momo steamer and running it live in the mess; it’s been fun but has its own set of challenges.

Anirudh: Then, of course, there was the big one — Banjaara 2.0! What happened was that the Banjaara team had told us that a certain number of people would turn up, and for all the fair reasons, that did not work out. To be fair, there was miscalculation on our part as well. It turned out to be a gross miscalculation, and we barely sold half of our order. Financially, it was quite burdensome, and we failed to break-even: this was one of the rare instances where we made a loss. We spoke to our vendors and tried to reduce the order in the last minute but that didn’t really help. Banjaara was an experience — I wouldn’t say a bad one — but it did slow us down. We were riding high our horses and doing well, but this brought us back down.

Often things do not work out as planned. Could you tell me an experience where you had to improvise a solution?

Anirudh: One of the things we’ve learnt with Dabbawalas is crisis management. We had a unique experience during the winter haat sale this semester. We had ordered Pizzas and Biryani, and for some reason, none of our team members could go to Jahangirpuri Metro Station to collect the food. I thought we could do some jugaad and talk to the security guard at the Metro Station and ask him to put the food in the empty shuttle, but in the last minute, he told us that this would not be possible. So, I booked an Uber, called him up and requested him to get the food from Jahangirpuri to campus. We asked him to load the food, and to be quick; this was at 12 PM and the haat was to begin at 1 PM. We didn’t have a choice, we had to trust him. Half an hour later, I get a call, “Sir, you have to come to Rai Police Station to collect your food”. Turns out, his car met with an accident, and the cops had stopped him. So, I had to take an auto and go to the Rai Police Station. Thankfully, nothing bad had happened to the driver or the food. The car was severely damaged, though, and I felt sorry for him. So, I gave him whatever money I had and thanked him. I got into another car, came to campus, and we sold the food. I was a little late, but things worked out.

How is the entire leadership structured and how is Dabbawalas is organized?

Abhinav: Right now, we’re six people — Anirudh, Aashay Verma (UG 19) and I, we’re the equity holders and split the profits. We have two people from the UG 20 batch — Jonathan Fernandes and Vinayak Sahi — and one more from the UG 19 batch — Preetha Datta. They work on a weekly basis, where they’re paid depending on how much time they spend working with us.

Anirudh: It depends on the hours as well as the scale. For example, if the Banjaara sale had gone better, we would’ve paid them better, because the volume would’ve been larger. It also depends on the kind of work they do, like who goes to Delhi to get the food, who does the delivery, and so on.

L to R: Preetha, Jonathan, Anirudh and Vinayak. Credits: Caperture, The Photography Society of Ashoka University

How was your experience of expanding the team?

Abhinav: It was exciting. We were going through the process of building an organization, which was quite interesting. We even booked the meeting rooms in the Student Commons, and put up posters saying “Dabbawalas Interviews”. It was fun doing that. It was also humbling knowing that an organization that you create can help students become financially independent. I’m talking strictly from a student’s perspective, as people who work with us don’t really need money from home; they earn a sufficient amount just to survive off our sales, so being able to do that while having fun is great.

Anirudh: When we started off, it was just the two of us. Aashay came in last year (2016–17) because he was interested in what we were doing and the whole model we were following. He personally spoke to us, and that’s how he became a part of the team. This year, we thought that we need to start expanding, and hence we’d need more people.

How have you adapted to changing dynamics, say in terms of increasing student population and the presence of new competitors?

Anirudh: I’d say that there is healthy competition. We’re glad that people are doing something like what we’re doing. We shouldn’t start to monopolize the business. Whoever the competitors are, we’re on good terms with them, where we inform each other about our upcoming sales to not eat into each other’s’ business. That way it’s good, it’s healthy. As people are starting to do this, we’ve also had to change some of our strategy, because if we do the same thing, it becomes redundant.

Abhinav: Competition has forced us to expand and start selling things others haven’t sold previously. We’ve started selling brownies and more appetizers. The competition has made it exciting and has ensured that this doesn’t become a boring job, and it’s also useful for the student body as it now has increased variety in term of food options. It’s also exciting because as the student body grows, we also grow with it due to increased demand. I mean, last year I would’ve never thought we’d order 50 kilos of biryani and sell all of it, and that’s where we’re moving to now.

Pizzas at Jahangirpuri Metro Station for a typical sale

How do you manage your supply chain?

Abhinav: It is a learning process, right from approaching vendors to negotiating prices, figuring out how to get the food from there to the mess on time, and delivering it hot. In general, we take it one step at a time. So, if we need to find vendors, we look around in GTB Nagar and find places we like to eat at. I particularly like to eat at Spezia Bistro, and we’ve built a great rapport with the owner now. We usually call them a day in advance, and they send it to the Jahangirpuri Metro Station by 6–7 PM on the day of the sale, from where we bring it to campus on the shuttle in time for dinner.

Anirudh: When we sold Momos, we got in touch people who were vendors for a couple of restaurants, told them that we’d be buying a fixed quantity every week, and quoted our price. For Biryani, we went on a tasting tour to Jama Masjid, and to other iconic and old places, and chose the best option considering three main factors — price, taste and safety. We follow this pretty much for all the new things we offer.

How has the support been form the non-student body and the administration?

Anirudh: They’ve been very helpful. We aren’t a registered club, because this is a money-making project. To get our own official Email ID, we approached the Office of Student Life, and we spoke to Ms. Vanita and Ms. Rashmi. We convinced them that getting this would make it more streamlined and efficient for us, and they agreed. Apart from that, being felicitated last year as the “Best Entrepreneurial Initiative on Campus” was really motivating, and made us realize that we needed to take this up in a bigger way. The faculty has been great in supporting and buying from us. Professor Rudrangshu Mukherjee (besides many other non-student staff) is a regular customer and has given us a lot of feedback.

How does the future look for Dabbawalas?

Abhinav: Getting more people on board was a conscious decision as we knew we’d need some people to carry this forward, and we’ve been happy with what we’ve seen. We think they’re more than capable of carrying this forward. We don’t want to dictate everything to them.

Anirudh: I’ll be leaving after graduating this year, but Abhinav will be staying on for the fourth year, so we’re devising a concrete plan. There are a few things like loyalty programs, dealing with more types of food, and probably expanding the team as well. But we’re still working on a plan.

Humble beginnings

What would your advice to other student entrepreneurs on campus be?

Abhinav: If you’re driven and passionate, you should start something, and once you start, don’t give up. There have been so many issues and difficulties with the way we’ve run our business, we’ve learnt from the problems, mistake after mistake. It’s a fun process and it’s important to learn from it.

Anirudh: I think it’s important to also be passionate about your initiative, and not just care about money, because if you do the right things, money will come. Even when there is failure and you lose money, it is important to be passionate to be able continue. I also think having the right vision is important. You shouldn’t do something just for two months, and once you make Rs. 20,000, just let it go.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Abhinav Verma and Anirudh Rao (Undergraduate Batch of 2018) are the co-founders of Dabbawalas.

Ashokan Entrepreneurs is an initiative to put under the spotlight budding entrepreneurs among the existing students and alumni of Ashoka University.

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