July 05, 2020
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Designing A Growth Strategy

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Designing A Growth Strategy
Photo by Jitender Gupta
Designing A Growth Strategy

Gita Ramanan, 35, Co-Founder & CEO Design Cafe

  • Base Bangalore
  • Initial capital Rs 1 crore
  • Total funding $35mn
  • 2018 order booking Rs 60 crore
  • Employees 700
  • Clients/Projects Over 5,000


When 22-year-old architect Gita Ramanan stepped into a meeting room one afternoon to make a presentation to 18 men seated around the table, she was asked: “When is your boss coming?” Having recently been selected from among 150 entrants for a competition to design a complex of 800 apartments, she gently broke it to them that she was in charge.

Thirteen years later, she still reigns—at Design Café, an interiors firm in Bangalore with over 700 employees and 5,000 clients that she founded with her partner Shezan Bojani. “At first, whenever I went to a site, there were men with 20 years of experience who constantly tried to assess what I knew. It’s a rite of passage for female designers,” says Ramanan.

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“Initially, it was hard to convince investors that I was heading the firm. So we sent Shezan for the first set of meetings. Only when they showed interest would I come in the picture. Many women cannot progress when they hit a glass ceiling and if sharing my exp­erience helps them, I must do it. It is hard for women, especially in the real estate industry, though we are now being taken more seriously as professionals.” But the gender issue does not really ­affect her. “I come from a family with educated working women, so I don’t think of myself as a female entrepreneur.”

Ramanan believes in ‘democratising’ design—her initial lofty mission—and using optimum material. “I still don’t know why certain Italian kitchens cost Rs 15 lakh, but I do know that I can give you the same finish for Rs 3 lakh,” says the woman whose startup off­ers personalised design solutions for homes at affordable prices.

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Ramanan realised that there was some level of standardisation and factory production for commercial projects, but not for residences. “You can get 100,000 sq ft done up in 30 days, but 1,000 sq ft cannot be completed in even 120 days,” she says. The prices for homes were equally flabbergasting: “I kept wondering, what were they putting in it? Besides, I couldn’t afford the houses I was designing. I saw in that an opportunity to build a large business.”

She also saw that at lower budgets, customers were getting homes that did not serve their needs—Italian kitchens with no provision for stacking kadais and thalis, cookie-cutter drawers that could not bear the weight of their contents and lack of space to store essentials such as brooms, wires and other stuff that is stashed behind doors when visitors arrive.

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“If you want to design a guest room, for instance,” she expl­ains, “you need to know how many visitors will come and how often. I used to design high-end homes with this level of attention to details, but I realised that many could not take advantage because it was too pricey.” Yet she knows there’s a limit to affordability: “We don’t have a solution if you want to get your home designed for less than Rs 5 lakh,” says Ramanan.

How did she transition from high-end to affordable homes? “There are many ways to cut down costs,” she explains. “For ins­tance, we discovered that a leading retailer does not manufacture their products, so it’s cheaper to source from producers. We found a brand that uses eucalyptus wood, which is naturally termite- and borer-resistant, thereby leading to savings on protective coatings.”

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She also ensures optimal usage of raw materials. Everything comes in standard sizes—plywood, laminate, glass and marble. When one designs odd sizes, the leftovers go to waste. Contractors charge customers for the entire material, which raises costs. “Our software helps us utilise scraps for smaller things like ledges, shelves and coffee tables. Your interiors should work for your lifestyle, at your price point,” she declares. In an industry notorious for delays and maintenance hassles, they promise a 90-day turnaround time, no cost escalation and warranty for 10 years.

Ramanan’s company has taken over each aspect of design and execution. Initially, they used the spare capacity of other factories. But that did not give them control over quality and timelines. So they began procuring materials, set up a factory and hired installers, carpenters, painters and other staff. “Everyone went berserk,” laughs Ramanan, “but the move paid off.” They now deliver around 150 projects a month.

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She explains how Design Café was the culmination of a decade’s experience, including course corrections. After they were selected to design and execute an apartment complex in 2006, they set up a firm. But the promoters ditched the plan as they could not find enough buyers.

“After that, we worked on a salon, schools, offices…,” she rec­alls. “But although many architects like us start their own practices, we were never trained in running a business—understanding pay roll, profit & loss accounts ….”

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That prompted her to enroll for the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Women Entrepreneurs Programme at Indian School of Business, Hyderabad. “I learnt things which now seem basic—what’s a business plan—but out of that experience was born Design Cafe in 2011.” She specifies that the firm was distinct from her latest venture, but she retained the name because their investors preferred it. It focused on residential and hospitality projects—Gold’s Gym and Au Bon Pain were some of its clients.

In 2013, they launched and ran designkhoj.com, which failed bec­ause they “were trying to do too many things”. Although the earlier Design Cafe was a success, they shut it down to focus on interiors for budget homes. With US$500,000 in angel investment, they launched the portal designcafe.xyz (now designcafe.com) in 2015. They set up experience centres in Bangalore and Mumbai; outlets in Pune and Hyderabad are in progress.

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For all her achievements, there’s something Ramanan still lacks—her parents’ approval. “I am the black sheep of my community. For a long time, my parents never told anyone I had started a firm—you are supposed to work in companies. What they find really cool are my gold medals and degrees from ISB and MIT, but even then they tell me, ‘That uncle’s son, after a medal from IIT…’,” she laughs. “Even for their house, they took advice from my sister, who has no design background. It keeps you humble.”

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