In focus: The women founders Rockstud Capital has bet on

Date: 23 Jun, 2023

At Rockstud Capital we continue to believe in the philosophy of the Chinese bamboo: We believe that in due time, after four years of minimal visible change, the mighty bamboo takes root and grows 80 feet tall in just five weeks. 

As an early-stage VC firm, our responsibility at Rockstud Capital is to ensure that these shoots are given the right kind of environment for growth because when it comes to startups, the actual period of growth without visible change varies. 

For ice cream brand NOTO for instance, that period was 10 months of just perfecting the taste of select flavours. Similarly for SmartVizX, this period was three years when the company was using their immersive design platform for inhouse projects.

While Instoried took about a year to come up with the first iteration of its AI-powered tool for content, Knorish started its accelerator program for women looking to build up their own educational courses only in December 2022. Although the latter isn’t the company’s core product, its impact extends far beyond the company’s own business.

There are about 28,000 startups in India. A mere 18% of these firms have women founders, says a recent report from TiE Delhi-NCR, Zinnov, Google, and NetApp. 

Powered by women, all these companies – are well on their growth journey. This is the story of some of the women Rockstud believes in.

Growing into your heroes: Rakhi Wadhwa of Knorish

From a young age, Rakhi was captivated by the stories of visionary leaders who overcame challenges with unwavering determination. These tales became the foundation of her aspirations, guiding her on the path to entrepreneurship. 

While pursuing a master’s degree in England, Rakhi met Kinner Sacchdev and found in him someone who shared her goals for life. Together, they started Scientity, a design communication company. It would eventually become Knorish, the Gurgaon-based firm which has evolved to be a centralized knowledge platform since its founding in 2018.  

Rakhi describes Knorish as a 360-degree solution for the creator economy, including teachers and domain experts. The company helps creators sharpen their individual brand identity and put up courses on the platform and also schedule live sessions.

Besides integrating AI to help the creators on its platform design their own ad and social media copies, Knorish also helps them track revenue generation and create their own sales funnel, be it through an ebook, webinar or YouTube channel.

Rakhi is the point person for operations at Knorish and is in charge of oiling the sales, support and HR pipeline. As the mother of a six-year-old, Rakhi says she treats challenges in the startup world the same way she’d with the child - by being solution-oriented. 

This approach also extends to other things. For instance, since the end of December 2022, Knorish has been running cohorts for women who wanted to be entrepreneurs. Sized between 18 to 25 people, Knorish has finished three of these cohorts where women are guided into how to create their own academy on Knorish. 

While most of Knorish’s creators come from metropolitan cities, that demographic is shifting. Over the last few months, in particular, Knorish has seen more and more creators coming from tier-2 and even tier-3 cities.

This is a welcome move given its own efforts with women-centric accelerator cohorts since the industry could do with more women from all strata and geographies. 

There’s a perception in the industry that VC firms may prefer a male founder over a female one. This has not been the case from Rakhi’s experience. In fact, this perception may exist because there are far more male founders when compared to female founders, says Rakhi. If one puts the numbers into context, the percentage of male and female entrepreneurs being funded by VCs is likely to be very close to each other.

Backed with customer feedback, Knorish is currently working on strengthening its product offerings. This includes improving the website-builder Knorish offers to the creators on its platform.

One piece of advice Rakhi often shares with creators, especially with the women in the company’s accelerator cohort, is that one doesn’t lose anything by trying. At best, you could monetize something. At worst, you’ve learned something.

Translating VR dreams into tangible ideas: Tithi Tewari of SmartVizX

An inside joke at Tithi Tewari’s company is that before Mark Zuckerberg introduced his metaverse, the folks at Trezi had already been building the Treziverse.

The origins of the Treziverse date back to the challenge Tithi encountered in the 15 years she worked as an architect: There was a big gap between people in the design community and the clients they were designing for. While the human mind has limitless ideas, translating those ideas into images or 2D structures doesn't always do justice to design possibilities. 

This is why Tithi wanted to create something where one could just “walk into” a design, an immersive setup for designers as well as product manufacturers. This is an industry where physical challenges can be immense: while one might have to transport physical mock ups of a building or room from one place to another, there are also times when people carry 15 kilos of tiles for clients to be able to pick one.

Tithi’s immersive platform, which does away with a lot of the physical challenges associated with the industry, is a game-changer. Called Trezi, which is short for transformational design, this platform was used for in-house projects for three years. 

Launched under a parent firm called SmartVizX, Trezi has now evolved to be a SaaS platform that serves architectural and infrastructure firms in India, Singapore, and the MENA region, like the Mantri Developers and the GMR Group which makes airports. The firm’s clients on the product manufacturing side include Schneider, Godrej, Orientbell Tiles,   Saint-Gobain Glass, and UltraTech Group.

Since then, the Trezi family has brought on board several members: the Trezi Lens which one can use for real-time immersive design experience, the Trezi Showcase which helps product manufacturers with virtual catalogues, and the Trezi Academy which caters to students of architecture.

To top that off, SmartVizX also offers Trezi-as-a-service or TaaS. This product offering creates individualised metaverses depending upon the need – Neom, a US$500 billion-worth futuristic megacity in the making in Saudi Arabia, has also made use of TaaS.

While metaverses are of various kinds, TaaS also offers an AI-enabled voice assistant system, so you can ask the questions like how far the nearest railway station is. 

Tithi is grateful for how far the VR tech has come. Going to a meeting in the company’s early days meant carrying a suitcase along because of all the hardware required. Not only are things less clunky now, but they are also faster. These small things also showcase how the industry overall has progressed. 

Today SmartVizX may have branched into multiple directions, but the decision to become entrepreneurs was actually an impulsive one for Tithi and her co-founder, Gautam Tewari, also her husband. 

While being a woman in the industry hasn’t been an issue for Tithi, there have been times when their husband-and-wife team has raised eyebrows. But the duo has learned how to keep their professional roles separate. 

Despite knowing that their non-technical background could pose an issue - and it sometimes has - Tithi knew they could persevere if they had the courage and the patience. Now, SmartVizX is growing like the Chinese bamboo does when it gets going: fearlessly.

In the business of low-calorie dreams: Ashni Shah of NOTO

Ashni’s jump from running a two-person jewellery label to co-founding and running a 200-employee-strong company that makes healthy ice creams happened rather organically.  Ashni’s co-founder and husband, Varun Sheth, is the chef in the family. 

Varun used to run three pizza outlets in Mumbai and Ashni stepped in to help him grow the food brand. As foodies, the duo realized they wanted to do something that was more easily scalable than pizza joints, as well as relatively healthier. Both of them are Gujratais and have a soft corner for desserts, so the idea of a health-conscious brand that didn’t compromise on taste hit home strongly.

When the duo launched NOTO in 2019, they did with just six flavours. They had spent 10 months working with food technologists to get the taste right. But the biggest challenge was convincing people that NOTO’s ice creams were healthier, that they were lower in calories than other ice creams on the market.

Housed under the parent firm of Kavv Foods, NOTO’s example illustrates the point of being at the right place at the right time. The firm’s rise comes at a time when people are overall becoming more health conscious.

As someone who’s often on the ground and in the warehouse, it took some time getting everyone involved, including blue-collar workers, to be comfortable with her being there. But Ashni feels things have become better over the years with there being a lot more respect for women, though minor instances of bias remain, like her co-founder being addressed first when it comes to business-related questions. But new-age entrepreneurs now have clarity on what they want, and having the right support system including VC partners, makes all the difference when you are faced with a challenge.

The business’ rise has different reasons, including having an active strategy that focused on sampling activities. Other reasons include the protein-rich, good-tasting product in itself as well as building a community around the NOTO brand.

Ashni and NOTO had realized something from the get-go: Anybody can build a product, but not everyone can build a brand. Backed by a quality product, that learning is a big differentiator. And their biggest challenge, for now, is a great challenge to have: NOTO’s manufacturing plant in Navi Mumbai can barely keep up with the demand for the ice creams.

Ahead of the AI-content curve: Sharmin Ali of Instoried

Sharmin’s impulse to start her own venture stems from something we can all identify with: the answer to the question of what you really want from life, what your life’s true calling is. 

Having worked as a business analyst in an exacting corporate setup, Sharmin, a theatre buff, realized her calling lay in creating content and storytelling. And so, Instoried was born in 2019 to help storytellers like Sharmin - creators ranging from copywriters to marketeers - to create meaningful content. 

Instoried started as a content analysis tool which could analyze the tone and emotion of one’s content and give recommendations on how to better align it with a brand’s identity. Now it also serves as a content generation tool. Another thing that sets Instories apart is its use of neuromarketing, a technique of emotion-based marketing which demands that the content used is based on customers’ physiological and neural responses, like motivations and preferences.

Sharmin understands the balance between the mind and the outer world well - she says it’s imperative to try and strike a balance between personal and professional things. While societal expectations from women entrepreneurs are rather demanding with women being wired in a way as to feel the need to outperform, she says it’s important to give time to yourself so as to better handle the stress that comes from saddling different worlds. 

Being a woman in tech isn’t always easy. There have been instances where Sharmin has felt people would prefer to talk to a male co-founder of a tech startup, and one reason for that is the skewed ratio of male to female founders in the tech ecosystem.

As the industry in itself changes with leaps generative AI is making, Instoried is in a sector that’s at the centre of a transformational moment. In fact, now Instoried has experts to help other startups navigate the world of ChatGPT, including helping build products that leverage ChatGPT algorithms.

An author of two books, Sharmin is a storyteller at heart. This is why Instoried is now expanding its medium of storytelling and launching a video tool that would help creators generate and analyze videos. 

One piece of advice Sharmin has for other women in the field is to pursue your goals without always putting everyone else first. It's time for women to (also) be selfish, she says.

Disclaimer — The article is made for informational purposes only and should not be regarded as an official opinion of any kind or a recommendation. It does not constitute an offer, solicitation or any invitation to public in general to invest in the stocks discussed. This article is confidential and privileged and is directed to and for the use of the addressee only. The recipient, if not the addressee, should not use this material if erroneously received, and access and use of this material in any manner by anyone other than the addressee is unauthorized. It shall not be photocopied, reproduced or distributed to others at any time. While reasonable endeavors have been made to present reliable data in the article, Rockstud Capital LLP does not guarantee the accuracy or completeness of the data in the article. Prospective readers are cautioned that any forward-looking statements are not predictions and may be subject to change without notice. No part of this material may be duplicated in any form and/or redistributed without Rockstud Capital LLP’s prior written consent.

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