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Tuesday, January 25, 2022

Tricity Stars: How Sleepy Owl’s co-founders are brewing a coffee revolution

Why Ajai Thandi quit a Wall Street job to start a homegrown coffee brand in India with his best buddies – more on the journey of Sleepy Owl Coffee, its Forbes 30 Under 30 founders and ‘brew-ginnings’ from a small kitchen to raising a whopping $6.5million in funding

Written by Jaskiran Kapoor | Chandigarh |
Updated: December 23, 2021 12:28:54 pm
After schooling at YPS Mohali, Sanawar and Woodstock Mussoorie, Ajay Thandi went on to pursue Economics at the University of California.

The cool climes, mountain breeze carrying a refreshing hint of fresh pinecones, sun bathed slopes and a frothy glass of cold coffee. Sundays at The Lawrence School, Sanawar were special.

“The taste of that cold coffee still lingers on as a cherished memory,” says Ajai Thandi. Today, this co-founder of the very quirkily named homegrown coffee brand, Sleepy Owl, is in the business, er, correction please – mission of creating memories, conversations and more over a freshly brewed, ready to drink gourmet cup of coffee.

Best pals, Armaan Sood, Ashwajeet Singh and Thandi love a good coffee – “but could never find a great cup when needed.” So they decided to brew their own and box it in a to-go. Founded in 2016, Sleepy Owl is active across the country, and boasts of a 75 product portfolio including cold brew packs, hot brew bags, ready-to-drink cold brew bottles, ground coffee, brew boxes and merchandise.

“We don’t consider ourselves in the business of making and selling coffee, but on a mission to make consumers blissfully happy, and transform India into a country of coffee drinkers,” says Thandi. Now, that’s a serious dare to the champions of chai, but going by this start up’s increasing popularity, national traction and the latest $ 6.5 million raised in funding, the Sleepy Owl boys are perched on the top of their game.

Something’s Brewin’ 

Days jam-packed with meetings, interviews, innovation and strategies round the clock – it was really not an easy task to catch 28-year-old Thandi. But when one’s a tea drinker (steaming cups of kadakadrak chai), it became all the more imperative to check out the first movers of a very niche segment – the coffee drinkers, and the space it occupies in the Indian teacup, growing beyond good ol’ Nescafe.

After schooling at YPS Mohali, Sanawar and Woodstock Mussoorie, Thandi went on to pursue Economics at the University of California. An investment banker at JP Morgan, New York, he was living the dream, except that deep inside, he always had this urge to do something on his own. Talent and brilliant ideas, he feels, were never the problem, it was the lack of opportunities and monopolistic hold of giants corporations in India with their muscle and money that limited the possibility of a middle class person to start a business on their own.

“There was hardly anything beyond IIT or IIM for a non-business family person,” says Thandi. It was in the USA that he experienced a disruption of new age companies, online platforms like Shopify (first started out of Canada), that cut down barriers, and provided an all-in-one democratised commerce platform to start, run, and grow a business independently.

Post 2010, Amazon and Flipkart proved to be the game-changers in India. Inspired and motivated, Thandi moved back home in 2014, touched base with his best pals, lawyers Sood and Singh, and brainstormed. Always in search of good coffee, Singh was into brewing his own, while Thandi came home with stories of a stimulating New York coffee culture. Their shared passion for coffee and the experiences it offers literally became the conversation starter of their business idea.

They also saw a potential in the country’s untapped market for freshly brewed coffee. “Indian kitchens, for years, have only known one or two coffee brands. We wanted to change that, give people a product that is easy to use, of great quality and value, and educate them on what a freshly brewed cup of coffee can offer.”

With Rs 15 lakh pooled in from their savings, the brewing began from a small kitchen in Dwarka, New Delhi with Singh as the in-house brewmaster, experimenting relentlessly in search of the perfect brew. Research and recce were undertaken. The best Arabica coffee beans were sourced from Chikmagalur, Karnataka. A category creating product, consumer awareness and feedback was paramount, so to suit the Indian palette, their coffee was fine-tuned to be less bitter, less acidic, and taste better. Their cold brew (freshly pressed coffee that can be brewed at home) had been perfected, and in 2016, Sleepy Owl took the first flight.

“The name is a fun play of words really. One doesn’t mind a caffeinated boost to shake off the sluggishness, and owls, well, they are nocturnals, aren’t they?”

The Coffee Tales

People don’t just drink coffee. Although Sleepy Owl are the first movers in this now rapidly-growing category, their ground rule has always been to create a great product, package it well, accentuate ease of use and educate the consumer, aggressively using social and digital media to reach their target audience.

“We curated events, tastings, visited offices, delivered door-to-door, entertained anyone who invited us with a captive audience, all three of us would be there with Sleepy Owl,” says Thandi, who manages the financial aspect of the start up.

Expansion, sustainability, awareness, innovation are the key areas of focus. “We three are innovators by nature, driven by our curiosity.” Their risk paid off when the trio, after two years of testing and trying, introduced coffee bags in the market. “There are tea bags, so why not some good coffee bags too?” he says.

When they arrived, it was just “Nescafe, Bru and us.” Today, the market is brewing with new players, and Thandi is bracing for a competitive 2023. “Challenges are part of life. As entrepreneurs we navigate it on a daily basis.”

It’s this attitude, planned and disciplined use of their funds that helped Sleepy Owl raise USD 6.5 million (about Rs 48.3 crore) in funding, led by existing investor Rukam Capital, recently. The company has raised $8.5 million in total.

The Highs & the Lows

By all means, the biggest high is ‘when employees are happy, when customers love our product, and when you walk into someone’s home and find Sleepy Owl on their shelf, or on in some shop in a random market place’. Being featured in the coveted ‘Forbes 30 under 30 India’ for the year 2020 was a bravo moment.

The biggest low was the pandemic and the early days of national lockdown. A dip in sales, transportation stalled, markets shut – the co-founders were facing crisis, and an inventory with limited shelf life. It was time to think fast and act faster – “we got special passes made, loaded our inventory and went door to door to sell our cold brew direct to consumer”.

Post ready-to-drink bottles and cold brew, Sleepy Owl needed another shot of caffeine and it came in the form of hot brew bags—coffee in a tea bag—which the startup rolled out during the winter of 2019.

In this uncertainty, the team went into survival mode by opting for zero budgeting – growth, slow and steady, but not at all cost. This rigorous fiscal discipline and their coffee bags bagged them their funding. “It was great validation for our mission. Our vision is being backed,” says Thandi.

The Secret Brew

Thandi gets his entrepreneurial spirit from his father. Retired from the Army, his father’s only regret in life is risk not taken. “The craziest thing I’ve ever done is to quit my job on Wall Street to start a company in India. Once an entrepreneur, always an entrepreneur,” he says, conditioned to take risks, be independent and walk the path less taken thanks to the Army life and boarding school. Curiosity, innovative spirit and resilience – “true grit in the face of massive uncertainty and defeat,” is what keeps Thandi driven.

The Tricity traction

Thandi is passionate about helping people, especially youngsters, make their life easier by mentoring and guiding them. “I love the city, but would definitely like a better start up ecosystem, more opportunity and infrastructure for new businesses and ideas to germinate here – see Chandigarh turn into a model base city for start ups and innovation.”

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