When we invite Shantanu Deshpande, the outspoken founder of Bombay Shaving Company (BSC) and host of the hit podcast series The BarberShop, for a Table Talk with us, he picks Maruchi restaurant in Delhi’s tony Sri Aurobindo Marg. Arriving early for the lunch meeting on a cold January day, we can see why. The ambience is incredible with large pretty spaces both indoors and outdoors. We choose a table outdoors with an enchanting view of the rolling greens of the Qutub golf course and sun shining down benignly on us. With an Asian and Teppanyaki menu, trendy décor and friendly staff, the place has a young, informal vibe.
Deshpande when he arrives (driving a funky convertible and dressed casually), fits in well – he is chatty, candid and has a boyish sense of humour. Conversation bubbles and flows like the beer he has ordered, served with a lemony twist. We learn that he was born in Dallas in the US as his dad, Kiran Deshpande, who started his career in TCS, worked there from 1981 to 1997. Shantanu was born in 1988. They returned to India when his dad got an offer to become CEO of Tech Mahindra. “Those days it was a very small firm within the Mahindra group, nothing like now,” says Deshpande. He proudly describes how his dad built it up to take it public (2006), even though he himself quit in 2004 to start his own firm, AirTight Networks, based out of Pune and California which built products to keep wifi networks secure. Deshpande thus did his 11th and 12th from Pune.
He fondly talks about his mom, a talented singer and yoga practitioner, his super achiever younger brother Yash who aced IIT, did his PhD from Stanford and is now a quant analyst with a hedge fund at Berkeley, and his wife Sakshi (he met her at IIM Lucknow) who works with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. He himself plays the tabla.
So entrepreneurship was clearly in his genes? Shantanu hesitates, saying that he never wanted to leave McKinsey. “I was so proud of being there. My parents were so proud of me being there, especially as growing up I was a mischievous boy and they worried about me. I felt I had found my home.”
Getting into McKinsey, he describes, felt like a big achievement for him, especially as he just missed making it to the topmost colleges. “I did my computer engineering from NIT Nagpur and straightaway joined IIM Lucknow for an MBA, not taking up job offers,” he says. “I was very good at writing exams, aptitude tests and did excellently in interviews but I might have been bad at a techie job,” he confesses disarmingly.
“So NIT Nagpur and IIM Lucknow are very interesting sets of places,” says Deshpande describing how at both places people who just missed the top institutions by a whisker land up. “We were a bunch of very smart people, but slightly unlucky. So for six years, I felt like I was part of a community which had punched below its weight but had a lot of fire in the belly.”
With McKinsey, where he worked from 2011 to 2016, Deshpande proved himself. “I was finally in a place where there was nothing better,” he says. “I was the only one in my group to be rated five out five in every evaluation at McKinsey. I worked very hard as initially I had the smaller college insecurity of do I belong?” he says.
The trigger for quitting Mckinsey was because a lot of his friends and mentors were quitting to either join start-ups or found them – Saikiran Krishnamurthy to Flipkart, Anant to Myntra, Deepak Garg to Rivigo. “I felt kuch to hoga that smart people are leaving. Then Sid and Rahul (Siddharth Gupta and Rahul Chaudhary, Treebo founders) told him that salaries would never create the kind of wealth that equity would.” This struck him profoundly.
“I nearly became Treebo’s employee number one,” he confesses, describing how the offer was nixed over the salary issue. “I wanted 10 per cent equity and zero salary.” At that point. Rahul sat me down and said, why don’t you do your own start-up with 100 per cent equity, instead!”
It made a lot of sense, says Deshpande, so he started evaluating ideas. The men’s grooming sector especially looked filled with possibilities. “Three things were happening. One - Men were becoming very conscious about the way they looked. IPL had started and a lot of cricketers who were becoming style icons were sporting beards. Beards were fashionable at the workplace too. Second - A lot of Tinder generation men wanted good profile pictures but social conversations on what products to use were not happening among men unlike women who would exchange notes on lip colour etc. Third – ecommerce had come to phones.”
The existing leaders in this category — Gillette, etc — were not doing anything interesting. “I felt there was an opportunity for a brand to come in, create conversations on grooming as well as make exciting products,” he says.
But 2016 was a bad time to raise funding. “If it was 2015, I would have raised $5 million before starting,” he says. So he put in ₹50 lakh of his own money, and went to McKinsey. Out of the 40 partners, 28 invested in his idea as angels, besides his dad and dad-in-law and people in the family too. “That’s how I arranged my first ₹4 crore,” he says. In the next five years, the company went on to raise nearly $50 million over six rounds. Deshpande hints at a seventh round soon.
Next step was to hire co-founders, all close friends – Rohit Jaiswal, who heads new product development, was his roommate in engineering college, Raunak Munot with whom he hung out in Pune as “our ex girlfriends were best friends”, and Deepu Panicker his junior at McKinsey.
The relationship with McKinsey is so strong till date, says Deshpande that he now advises them externally on how to take businesses online. “I spend two to three days a month with them.” That’s also the value Deshpande says that he brings to Colgate Palmolive and Reckitt Benckiser which have picked up strategic stakes in Bombay Shaving Company. “McKinsey is like my maika. I am on their advisory board and they pull me into client situations,” he says.
Initial two years of BSC were spent brand building and building differentiated products. “We did a lot of brand communication on digital platforms,” he says. “Our products are very good looking – if Gillette sells ballpoint pens, we sell fountain pens, if Gillette sells Royal Stag, we sell Glenlivet – that’s what we thought about our brand – premium, experiential, ideal for gifting” he says.
Our Sushi orders arrive – a medley of vegetarian and non vegetarian with prawn and avocado stuffings - and we spend time admiring the plating before digging in. The wasabi hit is lovely.
The next two years were spent in scaling – but Deshpande admits they made a mistake here by going out too broad. “We had 250 SKUs and 40 products –we had razors, shaving creams, hair oil, soaps, face washes, etc. We struggled in soaps.” The pandemic was a time for the company to take a step back and do a hard think. “We said BSC has great equity in hygiene and hair removers. So let’s focus only on that.”
It helped. “In March 2020, we were doing ₹2 crore a month,” says Deshpande, “But in December 2022, it (gross sales value) was ₹32 crore a month. 16X growth happened.” The company has an annual revenue of ₹350 crore.
During this time, focussing on where the equity was, BSC had launched trimmers and a women-focussed brand called Bombae. Those two really took off, he says.
“So 90 per cent of our women’s business revenue comes from four items - Hair removal cream, face razor, body razor and trimmer. Even among men, shaving cream, shaving foam, after shave, razor, and trimmers account for almost 65 per cent of our business. “
Today, says Deshpande, Bombae is almost 20 per cent of the company’s total business. Was it tough to attract women consumers given Bombay Shaving Company’s rather masculine image and also the fact that the women’s category is saturated, we ask. “Not really” is the answer. “If you look in hair removal cream there is barely any competition. The competition is salon,” says Deshpande.
Post pandemic, says Deshpande, the focus moved to getting omnichannel right, especially the offline piece. “Most D2C brands struggle to scale offline. That’s because pricing and stocking work very differently offline,” he points out.
Some strategic hires helped the company in its offline strategy. “Deepak Gupta, my cofounder and CEO is from Colgate, Gaurav Anand, SVP Sales and Marketing is from Reckitt, Gauri Malhotra the CMO is from marico, and Kumar Sir, 71 years old, and our oldest hand, heads the army canteen business,” he says.
The hiring that BSC has done is very shrewd, we discover, as veteran field horses — someone with 20 years in sales in an FMCG who does not have an MBA but has loads of experience, especially of the supply chain and distribution — is recruited.
Which leads us to Deshpande’s controversial LinkedIn post last year where he advised youngsters to work 18 hours a day and the reams of editorials that followed. He says. “People who know me were okay with it as they know where I come from. Hard work is a virtue. Second, if you visit my office, you will see how chilled it is, and I am. But my point was, don’t waste your youth.”
We find we are rather full eating the variety of sushis, so opt to split a plate of veg fried noodles, which is rather wholesome. The staff seems to have taken a shine to us — Deshpande has been talking jovially to them — and they tell us dessert is on the house, serving us a chocolate and icecream confection with fruit and sesame toppings.
Deshpande’s time these days is mostly taken up on capital acquisition – he talks about the constant treadmill start-up founders are on seeking funding. An IPO will come for sure, he says. “I have an emotional attachment to IPOs for two reasons — My father missed out an IPO twice. Also for me the idea of an IPO is a bit romantic in nature.” He thinks the IPO will happen when the company hits ₹1,000 crore - it is one third on the way. “Hopefully we will do that in about three years,” he says.
The other thing he spends time on is promoting entrepreneurship passionately. He launched the hugely successful TheBarberShop podcast series, now into its second season. He also has a Shark Tank sort of thing going. “I allocate around one to two crores of money in Angel Investing every year. I have done 35-40 cheques till now.” He describes how people began approaching him asking where he was investing and he put out a WhatsApp video about piggybacking on his deals. “It led us to get about Rs 30 crore,” he says. “Then we started an application process - we got nearly 2,000 applications and we have now called seven companies and already invested in five of them,” he says.
Though he has been relishing the sushi and noodles, he says his favourite meal is probably idly, chutney and sambhar, or garlic naan with butter chicken and daal makhni.”
A self-confessed foodie, he says he loves all the favourites of Delhi, Mumbai and Chennai. “I like Bukhara but also love Gulatis and Havmore at Pandara Road. I also enjoy Nagpal C hholey Bhatura, the Jama Masjid chicken, Chowpatty ka pao bhaji... and Murugan Idli,” he says .
Deshpande plays the tabla, having learnt it through his childhood. He confesses that he hates travelling and his idea of a happy vacation is chilling at home, listening to podcasts. Now his own podcast has earned him a fair bit of fan following.