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“Never Blow Your Trumpet”

Kitchen Review - by Srikanth Iyer CEO and co-founder HomeLaneIt was in 2014 that Srikanth Iyer, ex-CEO of Pearson India and founder of Edurite, joined hands with serial Entrepreneur Krishnan Ganesh to start HomeLane, a marketplace for interior design. A design marketplace as an idea, then, was known to but a select few and Iyer, now CEO and co-founder HomeLane, saw a great business proposition in the chaotic unorganized segment. Today, HomeLane is on an aggressive growth path; Iyer is guided by his belief that in the business domain one can’t be good at everything, and hence the need to choose focus areas carefully. With the design ecosystem witnessing an increased presence of domestic start-ups and a few global brands, Iyer is more than happy to be a part of the competitive space. “I see HomeLane creating a standard for customer service and transparency. And, I see myself playing a small part in transforming this vision into a reality.”Iyer spoke extensively to Kitchen Review about his journey as an entrepreneur, his beliefs and where HomeLane is headed.

The e-commerce marketplaces in India are still in their infancy. They are still grappling with issues such as inventory, cost of delivery, etc.However, they want to exceed customer expectations in terms ofservicequality, affordable price, delivery time, being the preferred choice,etc. While their intentions are noble, the results are not proven yet. Ina practical world all of these are not possible simultaneously – unless you are charging more you won’t be able to exceed the expectations and live up to the brand promise. That’s where the e-commerce companies will face an issue. This is not dissimilar to e-commerce companies in other sectors; if we take the larger companies such as Flipkart in other domains, they too face the same kind of dilemma. In the modular furniture segment, though the ticket size is much higher, the problems are the same.

I have always believed that it’s better to give full effort and work for myself and get better returns rather than work for others. The first person who inspired me was my father, who worked for ICI Paints. He left the job to start a small scale industry of his own, and I saw him in the business for close to three decades. Post my graduation, I was lucky enough to bag a campus placement with Wipro, but somehow I didn’t like it all. I felt that I could be more productive and earn more if I worked for myself rather than for somebody else, and more so, things would be under my control. This feeling has not changed for the last 25 years; I continue to feel the same way. Yes, entrepreneurship comes with its own share of problems, tensions, challenges; but as long as you are willing to overcome them, and if you have the attitude to face challenges, I think it is very good choice to become an entrepreneur.

In my entrepreneurial journey, the greatest learning till date has been – never blow your trumpet when things are going good, and never feeltoo sad when things are going bad. Good and bad are but stages and they’ll change with time. You should treat the two impostors, success and failure, just the same; you can’t treat them differently. That’s one big learning I have had; I never get very happy or sad; I treat them objectively and move on whichever way it is.

Yet another important learning has been that as an entrepreneur you learn how to be frugal – you learn how to conserve money and use it at the right time for the right thing. I have learnt it the hard way. I used to be flamboyant and think that if I spent more money I would acquire more customers much faster, and that’s the only way to do business. But I realised later on that’s not necessarily true. You need to earn it to do it well and do it frugally too. You can’t spend ten times the money as your competition and do two times better than them; you should ideally do the reverse – spend two times more than your competition and do ten times better. That is the trick. Being frugal is very important when you are an entrepreneur.

I joined Pearson because they acquired us, TutorVista, and I became theCEO for their India business. That was my real first job after my Wipro days, and I gave it my best shot for a year but somehow it didn’t work out. I decided to do something on my own. While I was thinking about that, I had picked up a few apartments and got them furnished; I found that it was a painstaking effort to get spaces well furnished. The daily hassles of dealing with carpenters, suppliers and interior designers to get our home furnished ended up in giving us a harrowing experience. Dealing with this completely unorganised market was very troublesome for me and that’s where I saw a scope – to organise and aggregate a segment which was completely comprised of carpenters and brick-and-mortar furniture stores which were hugely labour-intensive, with poor delivery and quality standards, and timelines not being met in most cases. That’s how the idea to start HomeLane kicked in. The journey so far has been exciting as well as challenging;  there have been lots of ups and downs in the last two and a half years; but one thing that has been constant is the learning. There is no failure – either you succeed or you learn; as long as you learn and move forward there is no failure. Besides, I have learnt how to distinguish between plywood and hardwood! We are not an e-commerce company, we are more an offline business – we are mainly into fit-outs, bespoke furniture, etc; we focus on fixed furniture. We work on a model of zero inventory, zero working capital, or rather, negative working capital. It has been an interesting model to try and evolve. It’s new; people have not tried to do it the way we are doing it. There have been a few interesting conversations around it and I am thankful to have been helped by a great team and a few good people in the industry. Let’s see how it goes.

Design Marketplace
The design marketplace is evolving very well. We have a few 100 designers registered on our market list. We curate them, look at their projects, their capability to design, and then only we enrol them on our marketplace. We are only giving them a revenue share and not a fixed salary. We give them leads which we get, and they convert this into orders for us. And if they convert it successfully we share revenue with them. It is a sharing of risk and reward. Our risk is the cost of the lead – by the time I get them to meet the prospective lead it costs us a few thousand rupees – it’s our investment; and their investment is their time- they invest time in converting a prospect into a customer. Both of us take some amount of risk in the hope of a reward. The design marketplace is very sustainable.It’s a good model which has evolved well, and it will definitely scale.We too have learned a few lessons – what kind of designers weneed, what else we need to put in place. The lesson in this business is that it is very difficult to be very good at doing everything. You have to choose wisely what you want to be good at and do only that. For instance, customisation is one area which I believe has been the reason why peoplehave not been able to scale up in this business. Every customer wants a customised solution, but if you were to customise everything you can never scale up or manufacture at a lower cost. It’s a kind of chicken and egg situation- what comes first. I believe one should focus on modular furniture and modularising the solution – only then is it possible to bring the prices down. If you get the price low, you can expand the marke. People who buy from carpenters will then buy from you because you will be competing on the price front. But till date nobody has been able to do it, because everybody is offering customised solutions. To me, that is the problem. For me, what we are to be great at is offering 100% modular solutions at a fantastic price – everything else doesn’t matter.

We work with designers who have varied experience – starting from freshers with 1-2 years’ experience; we prefer working with junior designers with five years experience simply because the senior designers don’t give us enough time. They need to give time on weekends to meet the customers. We need time commitment and that is lacking most of the time when we deal with senior designers. In the years that we have been in this business domain, we have created a robust set of designers who are inour marketplace, earning `2.5-3.0 lakh a month. We look forward to working with more of them, to help them make a better living and create better homes.Vendors are selected based on thecapability they have in terms of the volumes that they can do, the kind of functionary we need (everybody needs to have CNC machines, etc), machinery that they have, their pedigree, and quality they are known for. The vendors, the prospective ones for us, need to be trustworthy, have good reputation of doing business in a fair and transparent manner. Besides, there are functional, technical and commercial criteria that we put the vendor into and accordingly evaluate them.As for business assurances, it is the number of projects that we allocate to them. Usually the number of projects is 20-30 homes/month. From our end, there is a QC person at the vendor’s location; besides this we offer no other support to our vendors.

Private Labels
Coming up with a private label or brand is always good, if one can manage to do it well. However, building a brand is not an easy job; it costs a huge amount of money and it’s time-consuming. It’s not a year or two-long affair but a long-term approach with huge investment. Urban Ladder should be able to build a decent brand – their customer service is impeccable and their product offerings too are good.

It’s good to have a competitive space; it increases awareness. We were the first ones to start a designer marketplace, we do business worth crores based on this model. With more players willing to join this space, it effectively validates our model and the path that we have taken. Also, it creates more awareness. We are still scratching the surface; there are millions of architects/designers that need to be tapped.As far as our financials are concerned, at the moment we are doing approximately 10 times more business as compared to our peers. We do 100+ homes a month.

Success Sutras
If it’s a marketplace, there has to be a culture fit. If you want to be known as a brand for quality, customer centricity, timely delivery, etc; thenevery interaction has to have a cultural fit between the designers (your brand ambassador – they should convey the brand fit and quality) and the company. They should be trained well enough on aspects involving quality, brand proposition, soft skills, etc. Your designer is the primary face of the company as far as the customer is concerned. So you need to ensure that your brand is actually exemplified by what your designers do and speak.

Technology is the only way to move forward. In this business model, be it in the discovery phase or the design phase, we need to have lot of technology. As for us, we have already brought in Kaleido, a virtual reality tool that allows our customers to envision how their living space will look, thus helping them make an informed choice. Now we are on our way to introducing other technologies including SpaceCraft. We are working with the German companyEMOS and are looking at doing the complete ‘design to manufacturing’ implementation software; we are also working to implement CRM. It is imperative for us to include technology in all the processes to scale up our business.

Co-founded by Srikanth Iyer and Rama Harinath, HomeLane is series A funded (US$5 million) and is in the process of closing series B funding. Series A has been funded by Aarin and Sequoia Capital, and promoted by Growth Story. HomeLane is where design, functionality and cutting-edge technology meet to give homeowners a home designing process for all the fixed furniture — modular kitchens, wardrobes and storage units, entertainment centers, shoe racks, display units, laptop and study tables, and prayer room units. Its registered designers lend their expertise to help create one or multiple themed spaces in the customers’ home. HomeLane handles the whole gamut — design, delivery, installation and post-installation service; and gives the customer a transparent cost and promises installation within 45 days (or HomeLane pays the rent)! Over the last two years the company has completed close to 1,000 projects. The services are available across four cities — Bengaluru, Chennai,

Hyderabad and Mumbai.
How HomeLane Works New or existing homeowners who want their interiors done with fixed furniture, get in touch with the company to set up a design consultation with one of the design partners. The design partners guide the customers through designs, materials, colors, finishes, modules and accessories. Together they arrive at the best fit based on the client’s unique needs and budget. Once the design is finalized and quotation is agreed upon, work commences in a seamless manner which includes pre-site visit, site supervision, trained installation and quality check. Only the final installation takes place at the site.

Business Model
HomeLane functions with the objective of building multiple marketplaces (partnerships) — square partners who run the experience centers with the company, design partners who work with the clients, manufacturing partners to produce good quality modules on time, and installation partners — all of which is directed towards delighting the customer in a revenue sharing model.

Design Programme
HomeLane onboards a diverse and talented group of designers to organize the home décor space. This is also an opportunity for moms working from home and freelancers to turn their passion into a lucrative business opportunity. Designers will be entitled to 6% of the project cost, where 3% of the project cost will be paid for booking client’s order and balance 3% on completion of the project.

Benefits to Customer
HomeLane is an attempt to organize the largely unorganized sector of interior décor. Customers can rely on innovative and customized home décor solutions made from good quality factory-made materials.

Recent Updates
HomeLane has 250+ designers on board who guide clients and help them set up their dream homes. The company also hosts a virtual design platform – Spacecraft – that aids with relevant designs for the customers’ home with the option to iterate design and other elements and see how it affects cost right away! One can walk out with a design and a quotation in hand. On the B2B part, HomeLane has strategic alliances with builders and aggregators like CF, Vakil Housing Development Corporation and PropTiger, to name a few.

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