Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
I am Sunny Choudhary, a 24-year-old co-founder of PortraitFlip with a B.Tech in Mechanical Engineering from Vellore Institute of Technology, Chennai.
PortraitFlip is a two-and-a-half-year-old e-commerce business that serves as the bridge between artists and customers who need Handmade Portraits.
We deliver handmade portraits globally with a major clientele base in the USA. We provide all types of medium for portraits from Charcoal, Oil, Acrylic, Pencil, Color Pencil, and Watercolor.
Interestingly, we never thought of making this big. It all started as a college side hustle because we needed money to fulfill our whims and fancies. We invested a mere amount of Rs.23,000 and here we are two-and-a-half-years later – a successful startup yielding 3.5crs.
What makes PortraitFlip stand out is our 100% customer satisfaction guarantee. We do not only provide free shipping worldwide but we also give our customers the privilege of getting unlimited revisions of their painting and provide them with a 100% money-back guarantee.
We make sure to choose the best artists across the world so that there are no doubts in the hearts of our customers.
What’s your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
It all started in the VIT hostel in 2017 when Lavdeep Chahal (26), one of the co-founders, was digging the internet for a service that could deliver handmade portraits. He was so eager to find one such platform that could help him get a priceless gift for his girlfriend. We found Paint Your Life but it was charging a lot to deliver in India and sadly, others were plain daylight robbery.
The story pretty much ended with Chahal getting the classic chocolate bouquet for her. But what happened thereafter was the “aha” bit. We realized that there was a handful of companies that provided such a service. Seeing it as a great opportunity, Chahal roped me and Shubhanshu Maheshwari (25), a friend from electrical, into believing that this could be our kick.
Obviously, we weren’t the creative ones, so we instead decided to serve as the filler between the artists and the other Chahal-like customers.
As college students, we could pull off only 20,000Rs ($270) from our pocket-money and started creating a sand-castle for ourselves.
The workload was divided between the three of us. I handled the online marketing bit, Chahal was collaborating with the artists and the delivery partners while Maheshwari was busy developing a premium website to start the initial phase.
[From Top Left – Dhruti Sharma (Creative Head), Anmol Ramgiri (Operations and Strategy), Sunny Kumar (Co-Founder), Umesh Kokare (Digital Designing Head) – From Bottom Left – Ritik Rajgire (Motion Graphic and Design), Adithya Krishnan (Social Media Manager)]
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
With a plan to outsource the artists, we contacted a few studios in the USA, China, and several individual artists from India and Singapore. The entire process was smooth and hassle-free.
SEO is a slow therapy but it works wonders. After three years we hardly have to invest in ads and most of our results come from SEO that we practiced two years back.
The start-up cost came down to a good Rs. 75,000 ($1,000) with approximately Rs. 25,000 that we could manage from our pockets and the rest 50,000 was taken as a loan from our hostel-mates with a promise to be returned with interest.
Most of our legalities were outsourced which made the entire process smooth and untroubled. While the major challenges were awaiting with the logistics, the rest went pretty comfortably.
Describe the process of launching the business.
The launch was pretty smooth too. Everything was taken care of from website to delivery partner. The only thing we were stuck with was a real order. It took us almost three to four months to receive our first proper order. Well apart from, of course, our friends.
It had built a lot of tension and we started losing hope. Books were of great help at that time. It has always been. It started teaching me little things that mattered and most importantly, it taught me how to be patient.
I started churning my brains and after thorough research, we decided to run Google Ads and Facebook Ads with the idea of receiving orders fast. But again, money stood our way. Thank god for friends! All our hostel mates decided to dib whatever they could and funded our initial round of Ads. That was the only ever loan that we took which was soon returned with interest.
Three major things that we learned throughout the process of reaching where we are today was:
- Bootstrapping is a powerful way to grow your business. The decision of reinvesting all the profit into the growth of the business was great and gave wonderful results.
- SEO is a slow therapy but it works wonders. We did not see any visible results from SEO the initial year but it was compensated with Google Ads and Facebook Ads. Three years later we hardly have to invest in ads and most of our results come from SEO that we practiced two years back.
- Human Resource Management is the most difficult part of a business and we still struggle with it.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
Since we are an E-commerce business most of our sales come online. We bettered our traffic by practicing every aspect of SEO from Content Marketing to Email Marketing to Social Media Marketing. It gave wonderful results and it’s been almost a year since we haven’t really invested anything in ads. SEO is doing everything for us.
Our sales also increased because we invested a lot in improving our customer services. We improved our website by making it more user-friendly. We made sure that the entire ordering process is smooth enough with very low chances of people leaving without ordering.
It is very important to invest your funds in the right place, a place that will help the business grow. I thought it was better to pay a decent salary to one professional person than to try fitting in two average employees in that payroll.
SEO took time to show results but it worked miraculously for us when it did. We improved our social media game and started doing everything from sharing memes, to releasing reels to making YouTube videos.
It’s not just about making a website and waiting for orders. There was much more involved in the backend.
Most importantly, we started hiring better and more professional artists around the world who could stand up to our customer’s expectations.
Customer satisfaction is very important. If your customer is content with your work and service, you automatically buy yourself a few future sales.
And other times you have to try to bring back yourself. The best way that worked out for us to bring the existing customers back was through promotional emails. It still works, and we are astonished to see what a well-written email can do.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
Today PortraitFlip is two-and-a-half-years-old with a turnover of more than 3.5crs delivering everything from Pet Portrait to Child Portrait to Compilations to over more than 45 countries around the globe.
With a Trustpilot Rating of 4.7 out of 5, we have tied up with almost three studios of 130 artists and other 40 independent artists from both India and the world.
We have also expanded our in-office team with 6 full-fledged teams – Social Media, Operation and Strategy, Graphic Designing, Motion graphics, Customer Service, and a Creative Team.
We are slowly planning to explore the pet industry and have started working on it with our sister website dogisworld.
Our quintessential vision remains to expose the hidden gems of the art world. Artists are hardly asked for and they end compromising their passion for an outbound job. Our idea is to create a decent living and better place for these artists in exchange for their talent.
We also want to provide as much employment as possible to the potential and promising youth of the country thereby doing a responsible duty of generating better living standards and economy.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
You have to keep doing what you are doing. A lot of people will say a thousand things but the motive is to go on despite everything. There may be hurdles, and there are hurdles all the time. Because of a minor mistake from our side, we were removed from our ETSY platform overnight.
A customer got extremely angry and before we could damage control, he had filed a complaint email on ETSY and we were removed. It cost us a lot because it was our major customer base.
However, we didn’t lose hope on Facebook. Facebook had mysterious ways of working and since we were almost new in the market, it did not have proper data for customers of our-like. Interestingly, what Facebook did to our surprise was to pull our data from other sister platforms of Facebook, and started increasing our sales.
If one door closes, the other is bound to open.
There were a lot of shipping issues and delays in the beginning. Receiving negative mails had become a thing for us and it affected our sanity tremendously. It was because we relayed majorly on one shipping partner which caused immense confusion. To avoid further troubles we took up the express shipping option of DHL and it came as a blessing to us.
There is nothing called mistakes in a startup perse. It is always a learning experience. There is no force out of our control. We either make it a bigger issue and crib about it or learn something and move on.
I learned that we as entrepreneurs cannot do everything. Hire people who know about things better than you. In the course of doing everything, you lose out on your mental peace. Hire professionals, build your team, treat your team as a family, and do whatever it takes to make a strong empire of professionals.
It is very important to invest your funds in the right place, a place that will help the business grow. I thought it was better to pay a decent salary to one professional person than to try to fit two average employees in that payroll.
I started taking care of my health – both physical and mental. To have your health in control and to remain sane is a blessing for both personal and professional. Meditation, regular workouts, eating correctly, and waking up early were a few of them.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
The only three tools we use for the entire business are Photoshop, WordPress, and Klaviyo.
Another tool that we have recently started using is Tawk. It is a free online tool that manages the online chat service for our website.
Apart from that, we use TrustPilot as our review tool and I take pride in saying that PortraitFlip is rated 4.7 out of 5 on it.
Social media works on Ads majorly. We have received a lot of love on Instagram as well. I guess almost everything is working for us. There will always be ups and downs but again, that is a part of learning.
You cannot really be good in both Math and English. So, you gotta learn what you don’t know and move ahead with that.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
Lockdown was a difficult phase for us. It felt as if our half-built empire was about to fall. India was in a fix and we couldn’t deliver even half of our orders. We started receiving emails of PortraitFlip being just another scam because they weren’t understanding that we were in lockdown.
It was then when Peter Thiel came with his book Zero to One and helped me through the downs.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting?
- Know that you cannot do everything. You need to know when to hire the right candidate.
- Outsourcing can be a great help. You don’t have to hire people all the time. Outsource whatever you can instead of hiring.
- Fund management is very important. Most of the entrepreneurs I see today spent so much on unnecessary things – buying an expensive gadget, renovating their office, spending on cars. Is it helping the business grow? No! Spend where you have to – in the growth.
- Art of saying no. Saying no to a friend who is calling you to go, saying no to wasting your time when no one is watching, saying no to anything that does not benefit you, or your growth.
- You don’t have to be secretive about your startup. I have often seen budding entrepreneurs being secretive about their idea. No! Nobody is going to steal your idea. Half of them will forget, half of them will not care – the rest may try to steal it but it is always the survival of the fittest. If you take the right steps and move ahead with a vision, nobody is going to stop you. Food apps started with Swiggy, Uber, FoodPanda, Zomato but who is ruling? It is okay if people steal your idea but you gotta keep moving with original ideas and a strong will to conquer.
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
Our team is one and complete at the moment.
However, we might start recruiting in the first half of 2021.