Pallavi Utagi, Co-founder and CEO, SuperBottoms
Image: Selvaprakash Lakshmanan for Forbes India
Mumbai, 2019. Pallavi Utagi’s maiden venture was all set to hit rock bottom. SuperBottoms, an eco-friendly, reusable cloth diaper brand started by the software engineer in 2016, was in the midst of its first major crisis. And literally, it was a man-made crisis. At a Monday morning meeting in April, Utagi’s retail manager displayed his naked ambitions. “Madamji, aap aurat ho ke ye brand bana sakti hain to main kyon nahin [Ma’am, if despite being a woman you can build this brand, then why can’t I],” he praised his boss, dropping a vague hint about his plans.
The rookie founder, though, didn’t get the message. Utagi, who started her professional innings with Infosys in 2005 and went on to work at Strides Arcolab and Piramal Healthcare, failed to understand the trigger for such an unwarranted comment. “I thought he was talking about his aggressive ambitions to build and scale SuperBottoms,” she recalls.
A month later, Utagi got a call from her contract manufacturer. “One of your employees wants us to clone your brand and supply him under a different name,” the voice on the other side conveyed the ominous message. “I almost had a panic attack,” recounts Utagi, who started SuperBottoms as a passion project in 2016. The young mother started exploring the diaper space in early 2014, a few months after her son was born. Utagi’s new-born developed rashes after using conventional disposable diapers, and a concerned mom started scouting for an option that had the best of the new and old world: The convenience of a diaper combined with the goodness of a cloth nappy.
Unfortunately, she found none. Over the next few months, Utagi sarted experimenting with her ideas, roped in a family friend who happened to be a textile engineer, and started stitching at home. With the product execution still not matching up to the expectations, design and quality standards set by the perfectionist mom, Utagi hunted for a contract manufacturer in China. Fortunately, she found one. And the passion project—SuperBottoms—started gaining steam from 2016 onwards. Interestingly, till 2017, diapers happened to be a part-time gig for Utagi. Over the next two years, SuperBottoms grew its operating revenue from a few lakhs in FY17 to ₹4 crore in FY19.Then came April 2019. The ‘copy-cat’ threat tried to knock the bottom out of the greenhorn founder who panicked. Her team—most of them happened to be moms—stayed super cool, though. “He can copy us but not if we are lightning fast,” suggested one of the senior members. Utagi had planned to change the design and style of the products after six months. The plan was now advanced. In a month, the new lot hit the market with a radically different style and colours and features. Consequently, the imposter’s move flopped.
What also helped Utagi survive was a loyal army of mothers. “Till then I didn’t realise that mere paas maa hai [I have mothers],” she says with a smile. SuperBottoms’ fast clip of growth during the formative years was largely due to word-of-mouth advertising. And the reason to build a community of moms, and hire new moms as employees, was based on Utagi’s personal experience. In the first quarter of 2014, when she decided to go back to the job market after her maternity leave, there were no takers for her. “Young mom and marketing job didn’t match the requirements of HR heads,” she rues, adding that she finally joined Sanofi in December 2014.
The bitter experience, though, imparted a priceless lesson. It made Utagi realise the stupidity of the corporate culture in not giving an opportunity to young mothers. When SuperBottoms officially started as a brand in 2016, Utagi decided to build her army. The criterion was just one: New mothers were royally embraced. “And of course they had to be users of SuperBottoms,” adds Utagi. Roping in consumers as employees helped in magnifying the obsession for the brand and the product. “Their needs resonated with me and my brand,” she adds.
Back in early 2019, Utagi’s pitch for funding was not resonating with most of the backers. Though Titan Capital—the investment office of Snapdeal founders Kunal Bahl and Rohit Bansal—came on board in November 2018, raising institutional funds subsequently became a tough task as funders started dishing out ‘frivolous’ reasons to deny investment. “Will your husband join the venture?” asked one of the VCs. Utagi confidently answered in the negative, stressing that her husband, who was into investment banking, was happily pursuing his career goals.
Also read: This is me: Indian women founders are taking up space by being unapologetic
The VC, though, continued to probe. Now the next query questioned the commitment of the solo founder. “If your husband relocates, then won’t you pack your bags and go with him?” he asked brazenly. Utagi was stunned. “Nobody was looking at my business and the numbers and the category I was building,” she recalls. Some questioned her sincerity, some doubted her passion, and some asked her to rope in a male co-founder. “Being a new mother, you won’t be able to run operations. Get a male partner and we will invest,” assured another funder.
Meanwhile in 2020, Utagi faced her second ‘near-death’ moment. P&G, the makers of Pampers, bought a cloth diaper brand called Charlie Banana. The same year, the brand was rolled out in India. Utagi was certain that the Goliath, with deep financial might and extensive retail footprint, would kill her brand which had closed FY22 at ₹56.2 crore. Reusable cloth diapers was a category that Utagi, her team and thousands of moms had labouriously built over the last few years. “The future looked bleak,” she recalls.
Interestingly, SuperBottoms survived the storm. What helped again was the edge that Utagi had over all rivals. The brand SuperBottoms, she underlines, was made by the moms and was always connected to the moms. Nobody was reaching out to mothers and talking to them, understanding their pain points and offering a solution. “It was the support and trust of moms again that helped us flourish,” she reckons.
The brand indeed has been on a roll. Look at the numbers. It has 80 stores across India; counts Tamil Nadu and Kerala among its biggest markets; and sells around 2,800 diapers every day. While direct sale from the website accounts for 45 percent of sales, the rest comes from ecommerce platforms and offline channels. The brand has stopped sourcing products from China and now gets all products made by contract manufacturers in India. “We are clocking a revenue run rate of ₹80 crore for FY23,” claims Utagi, adding that her husband joined as a co-founder in February 2020.
The backers are delighted with the journey so far. “We saw an opportunity to partner with a founder who could build a category-defining brand in cloth diapers,” reckons Hari Premkumar, India head of DSG Consumer Partners. The product, he adds, solved an important customer pain point—diaper rashes—and is sustainable. “A product that combined the goodness of cloth with the functionality of diapers was a great proposition,” he says, adding that Utagi has managed to build a great community of users and believers. SuperBottoms, he claims, has grown over five times since the investment made by the fund.
The challenge for the brand, though, would be to continuously build mass awareness. When you are creating a new category, customer education takes time. “They now need to replicate the online success across offline channels,” adds Premkumar.Also read: Transition of women founders and cofounders to CEOs important: Aishwarya Arunkumar, Shweta Bhatia
Utagi, for her part, reckons that she would focus on sustainable growth. “It can’t be growth at all costs,” she says, quickly delineating one of her mistakes in the entrepreneurial journey. For long, she underlines, SuperBottoms was carried on as a passion project. “I never started it as a business,” she adds. What made her realise the big opportunity was a call made by Kunal Bahl. It was around three-four months after the Snapdeal co-founder had on-boarded as an investor. “Kitna number ho raha hai
[how much are you earning]?” he asked. “Around ₹60 lakh or so,” replied Utagi. “But was it not the same last month?” came a follow-up query. For the next few months, Utagi got some priceless lessons on scaling the business. “Spend, advertise and grow. Don’t be so conservative,” Bahl suggested.
The message was taken. “I started to think and execute as a business,” says Utagi. So is there any message that she wants to share with young girls and women? “Follow your passion. Take the first step,” she says. “Make a beginning and you will never regret,” she says with a smile.
Check out our Festive offers upto Rs.1000/- off website prices on subscriptions + Gift card worth Rs 500/- from Eatbetterco.com. Click here to know more.
(This story appears in the 24 March, 2023 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)