Like most women, Kathak Mehta has an emotional attachment with her clothes. Her wardrobe speaks of her fixation with fabrics, texture, prints, and colours. But most of these clothes need to be hand-washed.
Frustrated by this, she decided to create Gentlewasher, a washing machine specifically for hand-washing clothes. Two years and 20 prototypes later, here’s her story.
While pursuing her Master’s degree in Technology and Innovations Management from CEPT University in Ahmedabad, and having worked in technology and innovations with organizations such as the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad (IIM-A), Mehta realized that India has a huge innovation potential.
However, the innovations that see the light of day are meagre. This compelled her to build an innovative product-based business.
Mehta met her co-founder, Coen Vermeer, through a common friend. Vermeer, a Dutch national, came to India after completing his post-graduate from Erasmus University in Rotterdam, where he saw women struggling to wash their clothes.
The two brainstormed together over numerous cups of chai and came up with the idea of Gentlewasher.
The founders talked with more than 500 women to understand the problem in more detail. They found that delicate clothes were being hand-washed in most households. These fabrics include cotton, silk, chiffon, georgette, cashmere, spandex, linen, fur, and more.
The duo started observing women’s washing behaviour across various income segments and in urban and rural areas.
Based on their insights and observations, they started prototyping the product. While designing, they studied fluid mechanics, the tumbling movement of clothes, ergonomics, and material science.
The first functional prototype was a basic drum made of wrought iron and fiberglass weighing 20 kg. Each day, the duo would carry the prototype around to people’s homes or at laundromats in Ahmedabad to have people test it.
“Product development begins with a set of unknown variables,” Mehta said. “We made multiple iterations to determine the dimensions of the drum, the overall form, the size of the holes, and the slider design.”
According to her, it was very difficult to get vendors/suppliers to agree to customize their prototypes, as they usually do not take single orders. Even when these vendors would agree to the prototyping job, it would be their last priority.
The final product today is a result of around 20 different prototype revisions.
After prototyping, the daunting task of manufacturing began.
“Setting up the moulds right is the key to any manufacturing business,” Vermeer said. “Gentlewasher has 12 big and small moulds. For us, mould development was a six-month long process.”
Mehta shared her experience of manufacturing the product as a woman.
“In most cases, the factory owners would be amazed to see me as the person dealing with manufacturers and the unskilled workforce,” she said. “However, it was also heartening to see the respect that they showed toward me, as a woman taking up the challenging path of a business in manufacturing.”
The product now has a physical presence in Ahmedabad.
According to Mehta, “Word-of-mouth took care of the first sales, and most of the product demos are organized around kiddie parties, residential societies, college hostels, and local events.”
The duo has also tied up with fashion outlets and designer stores in the city. “Designers understand the need for Gentlewasher, and having them as our advocates helps us immensely,” Mehta shared.
The product is now available on Amazon Launchpad.
Two years and 20 prototypes later, Gentlewasher saw the light of day.
Having first-hand experience in bringing a product idea to market after two long years of getting their hands dirty, I asked the duo about lessons and advice they’d like to give fellow entrepreneurs building a hardware product.
Here’s what they had to say:
Spend enough time in prototyping. That helps in getting the product right. It also gives you enough time for testing. There will always be bottlenecks when you start manufacturing that can be minimized if you have more prototypes. Initial prototypes can be made from materials which are easy to fabricate—we used iron, mild steel, and fiberglass.
Find the right supplier. There is a big difference between the owner of the factory and those who run the production. You have to invest time in building relations with your suppliers and vendors.
Time and cost management. This is key to any business but more so for physical products because, in this case, every step or trial is subject to time and cost. For example, moulds development can begin only after the complete design is finalized.
The Highs and Lows
Hardware products have a long gestation period. From conception, prototyping, to final mass production, it can often take anywhere between a year to several years.
Since building new hardware entails huge upfront costs, companies have to conduct comprehensive market research before starting the development process. This is contrary to what most IT/internet product-based start-ups adopt since they can easily change their product mid-way. For hardware, it is incredibly hard to iterate.
Manufacturing a smaller batch of physical products in India is a sore point. Most suppliers do not entertain or show interest for scale below a certain order quantity, which is not feasible for most start-ups.
With globalization, the number of companies where you can source these parts from has increased. As competition intensifies, it is now easier to find manufacturers willing to work with smaller orders. The average turnaround time can also be reduced. The manufacturing is faster, more affordable, and more scalable.
“Building a physical product-based business is far riskier than software. Along with being capital and time-intensive, it requires immense persistence. Every day brings with it a new challenge and, as you inch closer to getting something done, there is a new problem evolving. And that’s what has kept me going.”
After all, the renowned venture capitalist Marc Andressen once said: “Hardware is hard.”
While India has seen an onslaught of start-ups in the last few years, most of them are software and app-based. Physical product start-ups are still a very small percentage of the gamut.
Source: Tech in Asia