Startup Mantra: Bridging the gap between physical and digital retail
Sekel Tech helps brands digitise their distribution channel for discovery to deliver through integrated and real-time engagement for commerce
Pune: A few years back when Rakesh Raghuvanshi relocated with his family from Mumbai to Pune and wanted to replace his car tyre, he tried searching for an authorised dealer or a store of a reputed brand. To his surprise, the first few results on the search engine were comprising advertisements and some service providers who would spam him later with other offers. Rakesh discovered the store one day while he was driving home, and got the tyre replaced. The experience led him to a question — brands spend a lot on bulk advertising to customers through various channels, but they do not think of means to reach out to those customers who are already convinced or decided to buy their products. When Rakesh started looking for similar case studies, he realised it is the same experience across all sectors. Brands were not utilising technology to facilitate the conversion of customers. Rakesh decided to bridge this “digital-to-physical gap” in customer experience of big brands and founded his company Sekel Tech (earlier known as NiftyWindow) in 2018. Sekel Tech is an artificial intelligence (AI) powered hyperlocal Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) platform that automates all the digital needs from discovery, engagement and delivery management within four to eight-kilometre radius.
An MBA with specialisation in marketing from Institute of Management Education (IME) Pune, Rakesh is a firm believer of the fact that “action has always proven that words have no meaning”, and therefore making sure all actions match his words, he took it as a challenge to bring in attribution model to everything digital.
Rakesh’s corporate career spanning over two decades had helped him gain expertise in brand development, consumer insights, sales strategy development, experiential and moments-driven marketing. He said, “When I decided to start NiftyWindow, my first venture in 2013, I knew how sales and business works but I lacked knowledge about technology. Hence, I started looking for a techie co-founder who would not just be a coder but one who would also understand product management.”
“We did a study about how customers look for relevant information at hyperlocal level on the internet. To give another example, I tried searching for a pair of shoes of a reputed brand and its store in my locality, but I got advertisers’ links instead of the authentic brand site link. I realised there is a huge disconnect. Everybody wants to buy online for their comfort and convenience, but the touch and feel of product, experience of trials and shopping is possible only at the physical store or shop. When compared to the US and Europe where you get some amazing hyperlocal level content and information, there is hardly any new or updated content coming from hyperlocal level in India. This was a huge gap which the brands were also unaware of and hence they never thought of facilitating for the conversion of customers like me,” said Rakesh.
Technology as facilitator
Rakesh said, “During my earlier job stints, we used to interact with dealers and distributors a lot to understand their problems. These exercises helped me understand that in retail sector, business always happens at the store counter and technology can only facilitate it.”
“Nowadays everybody uses mobile and IP address is tracked for every device. I thought if we can use the triangulation model to detect the location of the device then we can provide details of the nearest four-kilometre radius stores, map them, and tell the brands about customers who are looking for their products. I spread a word about the need of a tech co-founder and a friend suggested one. While I was in Bengaluru for some work, we met and agreed to start our first venture as co-founders. Since we both had good connects, some brands approached us. However, digital agencies became a stumbling block for us as these brands trusted their agencies more with regards to search engine optimisation (SEO). We also worked with some digital agencies who paid us one-tenth of amounts the brands were paying them for our tool. We had signed up 15 big brands but still we were not making much profits. In 2018, my cofounder quit and I was stuck with the company with only one engineer employee,” he said.
PMF and rebranding
Another challenge that Rakesh and his team faced was the rise of e-commerce and omni-commerce during 2014-2018. Rakesh said, “That time the entire world was running behind e-commerce, and I was among the few who said e-commerce will die someday because 90 per cent businesses continue to come from physical stores. People thought I was crazy, but we believed then and even today that physical stores continue to give 90 per cent of total sales across the globe. E-commerce is for convenience of getting a product delivered at home, but shopping is an experience and hence people will continue to go out and buy at physical stores.”
“We also studied the challenges faced by e-commerce companies and tried to offer a solution through our platform. For any D2C (direct-to-consumer) or e-commerce brand, there are three major challenges – the cost of customer acquisition, cost of delivery and return deliveries (logistics) and the cost of catalogue (to update the photos and innovate continuously). With NiftyWindow, we brought the cost of customer conversion to zero as brands had to pay only a fixed licence fee for discovery of their products. We brought the cost of delivery down by one-tenth as delivering products from nearby stores was cheaper as compared to warehouses or dark stores. For return policies, we asked customers to return the products at their nearby stores within four-kilometre radius. For the cost of catalogue, we decided to go to the source of the brand. Since brands have all product information and images with them, and the retailer does not have the wherewithal, we said we will create the catalogue automatically for the dealer, distributor, retailer. We positioned ourselves as a solution for all retailers and dealers, as a (business-to-business) SaaS platform,” said Rakesh.
“I rebranded the company and ‘Sekel Tech’ was born. My wife, Hemlatha R, an expert in legal and finance, also joined and became my co-founder. We got our new team at the Pune office in 2018,” he said.
Sekel Tech helps brands digitise their distribution channel for discovery to deliver through integrated and real-time engagement for commerce. The platform helps brands to deliver organic growth, online sales from the store and same-day delivery all plugged in, from the payment gateway, CRM, delivery, inventory management, etc., all through automation and with near-zero human intervention.
A French multinational tyre company became the first big client of Sekel Tech. Rakesh said, “Our first customer acquisition journey is also interesting. This MNC was using our tool, but through a digital agency. That agency had not paid our dues and hence we had stopped our services. One of the directors of the MNC approached me through a professional networking platform and asked to resume our services. During our conversation, it was revealed that they were paying 10x amount to the agency than what we were being paid. The company agreed to pay us the same amount as they were benefitting from our tool, exactly as we had visualised. That day onward we decided that we will not engage with digital agencies and work directly for brands.”
“The French MNC director then referred us to his friend who in turn helped us onboard our second client, an Indian chain of jewellery showrooms. This jewellery company had asked us to pitch alongside other big players, but we stood out because we could share first-party data with them unlike the other companies,” Rakesh said.
Sekel Tech does not engage in search engine optimisation (SEO) activities. Rakesh said, “We just structure the data and index it properly so that cost of information collection for the search engine bots is zero. The search engine also needs traffic and for that they need quality content. We aggregate, automate, and publish content in real time. This content comes at three levels — brand level, store level and user level. Based on the freshness and quality of content, engagement, feedbacks, and reviews, etc, the site is indexed and ranked in best results.”
Rakesh said, “India has a robust retail consumption and growth story ahead and we firmly believe that our product will augment this journey. We have become a digital agency of dealer-distributors and created an ecosystem for delivery and distribution. Brand are paying us as we enable data-driven sales for them and hence their business will grow. Primary sales growth is fuelling their secondary sales. We have a stable SaaS product and have started getting good traction with big brands. We are far more profitable and stable with stickiness with our clients since 2018. Hence, we are not looking for any external funding as of now. Our mantra is to grow 1 per cent every day and achieve a slow and steady but sustainable growth.”
“Digital-to-physical bridging is our core focus and product. We are giving best of web and app. Web for discovery and app for engagement and delivery. Since first-party data is entirely with the brand, they own it and get conviction and clarity. Brands can run their advertisement campaigns through our platform. We can offer location specific insights like top product sales to help them with inventory planning. We also have the generative or conversational AI feature ready, however, we do not suggest brands to go for it. This feature incurs a lot of cost and is not of much benefit and value. For example, we have about two lakh calls recorded per month and the computing cost of them would be around ₹20 lakh. Instead of this feature, we insist on user content updates, image quality improvisation, etc.,” Rakesh said.