Subal Charla studied MBA, 2013 and has always displayed an entrepreneurial spirit. He tells us how he had 5,000 people waiting for his vegan rucksack brand, Charlie Feist, to launch.
Tell me about your time at Cass!
I joined Cass in September 2012 and graduated in January 2014. Before that I had been working in my family business, which is in stationery and educational products in India. I was looking for a change from I the stuff I was doing, so I decided to do my MBA.
Overall it was a positive experience, especially from a professional perspective. When I arrived at Cass it was a bit different from my previous life experience. I’d been in the family business from a young age, and there in India life has lots of weight to it because of the hierarchy. At Cass everyone around you has an equal footing, is just as smart and as capable, wants to be heard and can do whatever they set their mind to. So it’s a far flatter organisation to work within, which is definitely something to get used to at the start. I had to learn how to deal with people at the same level as me, which had not been the case back home.
During my MBA I took part in lots of entrepreneur workshops and entrepreneur projects. We did things with City University’s City Sparks, and me and another guy from Cass did an internship at City where we helped with the project. We also did some mini entrepreneur projects where you make a business and start to sell a product, for example in the Cass foyer and at events. Entrepreneurship was always a part of my Cass experience.
Do you have a favourite memory?
It sounds like a cliché but there were so many! I definitely think it was the South Africa elective – that was a boatload of fun! The elective happens in Johannesburg and then Cape Town, so me and a few friends who were also on the elective, we reached South Africa a few days in advance and went to a game reserve for a couple of nights, it was amazing! Then we went to Johannesburg and Cape Town and following that also visited Lion’s Head, the Cape of Good Hope and did a trip in to wine country and whale watching. The entire thing was with friends and we had a lot of fun. That’s definitely my favourite memory.
What did you do next?
During the South Africa elective I remember a guy from the Standard Chartered conference, a really sharp guy, telling us about the opportunities in Africa. They were big numbers and my head was spinning. At the time I was trying to launch a social travel app that basically connected an online guide to people who wanted to travel together, but I couldn’t get it to market.
So when I saw this presentation I realised that there were so many options outside the UK, that the world is so big and I haven’t even realised it. I was completely disregarding what I already had in India. So I decided to go back to India and create something there.
I was then thinking of what I could do and I’m not sure how the idea of a backpack brand came in to my head. But once it did I thought that I’ve got access to 100,000 stores selling stationery and educational stuff, a bit like Paperchase, with lots of school children as customers, so the backpack brand would fit in there. I decided to create this brand to sell through my network, and because of that I moved back to India.
So you must have had plenty of customers waiting?
This is where it all failed! I thought I would launch the product in India but then I realised that the product in my head was far too expensive for the Indian market, which is much more price sensitive. I did not want to compromise my idea because I could not make a product I was not proud of but realised if I want to sell my rucksack in India I would always be at the fringes of the market.
So I decided to sell in the UK instead as I’ve already got a foundation there, and know the steps I need to take and an idea of what I can do with it. So I decided to start in the UK to build my brand and then hopefully in two or three years when the time is right I can bring it over to India and use my distribution network then. It’s likely that by then the markets will have changed, and in addition I’ll have that reputation. If you want to sell at the price I want in India you need to be well known.
So how did you build the brand following?
To build my brand following I did something I really want the Cass community to understand. It was driven by my biggest fear when launching, which is that I open the web store and launch to crickets! That fear drove me to action.
I had a delay of two months to get the products shipped from China to the UK, and then Brexit happened, which resulted in a further two-month delay, so I decided to use this time judiciously. I highly recommend my approach. Every night from about 7pm to about 2am after work I would write personalised comments on Instagram users’ posts where the user matched the aesthetic I am going for with my brand. I sought out both guys and gals with the aesthetic.
So they see the brand get in touch with them in a conversational style rather than a spammy message; that doesn’t work. I would literally just compliment them on their style, bearing in mind that the kind of messages that girls get on Instagram is often not appropriate, and that there is a fine line between compliment and being cheeky – that was very firm in my head. I did this for five months straight in the end and had sent 13.5K comments. It was extremely tiring! However it paid itself back.
Before I launched, because of this one-to-one personal engagement, I had 5K Instagram followers and 5.5K people signed up for email list to be notified of my launch. Every day I was getting emails saying “I can’t wait for the launch”, which was amazing.
The truth is I think the way to build a genuine following on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram etc, is that if you want something you have to give them something first. Everyone wants to be liked first and no-one wants to give first. You have to be generous and give to the community and they will give back in due course. I believe 99% of people in the world are good and that we should be completely optimistic. We have the opportunity to connect with any person in the world, and it baffles me that so many people have not realised the scale of what this means. It’s a total change of context and not too many of us have evolved to the new world.
How did you come up with the name?
Charlie Feist is named after a hunting dog that was bred in the US and then brought to the UK, and I called it that because I liked the name. And, who doesn’t love dogs? Probably just cats! Also it’s got a humanistic side to it; the name is almost that of a person but not an actual person, like J Crew or JC Penney. I’ve always liked person-type names, but I’m not pompous enough to name it after me! I also like that the last name is also like feisty or cheeky.
It’s a vegan brand so we don’t use any animal products or leather or fur; we love animals especially dogs! It seems to have resonated deeply with the vegan community in and around London. It’s also a trend that I can see – more people are turning vegetarian. I’ll go vegan when I hit my product goal!
What’s been the biggest challenge?
Definitely one of the biggest challenges came before the launch, and that was creating the product. I had no experience in fashion or design and I created it all myself. I had to learn a lot about fabrics and textile manufacturing and it was so hard. When I look back at the emails to my fabric suppliers from the early days, I can see that I asked such basic questions! But that also shows me how far I’ve come along. I never knew there are so many variations of fabrics and fabric washes, so it was difficult to create the product when I had to first learn to speak the same language. If I’d not had the sheer drive to make a beautiful backpack I would not have learned it at all.
Now I’ve launched it’s all about fighting for attention. I put my content out there and it becomes difficult to continue to engage and increase my following. Even with a lot of followers it’s hard to keep bringing people back and keep them engaged in new creative ways. That engagement is always difficult to keep going.
Every day I keep optimistic and patient that the result I hope for will come. If you’re not optimistic and believe in your product you’re dead and will just give up. Patience and persistence is a challenge for all entrepreneurs. You know it’s not that easy, and that 99% will fail. It’s a losing game and almost all of us lose so it what it really comes down to is a strong head on your shoulders.
Do you have any advice you would like to go back and give yourself?
One of the big lessons I’ve learned is that I have expended too much time trying to figure something out when it could have been done quicker. I’ve got a great product now but I could have hired someone to get it done who already had that expertise in design and materials and then it needn’t have taken so long.
There are way too many people who tell us to improve and to keep getting better by strengthening our weaknesses. I say it’s better to double down – quadruple down – on your strengths, and to address your weaknesses by partnering up or hiring someone. It’s a waste of your time to figure it out; the markets will have changed or you may have lost motivation. I wish I’d been more collaborative in creation of my product.
Whoever has won the game in this world, they have specialised according to their strengths. They are not, for example, both a footballer and a poet. I grapple with this every day! You really need to think about where your true strengths lie. I’m good at product development and art direction, but I’m not interested in VAT and finances and that part really slows me down. So for me, the costs of outsourcing versus learning, both in terms of time and money, really need to be thought about. Now I know about my P&L but I don’t delve deeper in to the finances.
Finally, it’s the quick-fire question round!
Favourite place in London: Any place can be good as long as it’s with the right company
Favourite holiday destination: London is right up there – I visit around six times a year. Also Bangkok, because I have dear friends from Cass there.
Must-check every day web: Instagram
Dream travel destination: I don’t dream of new destinations; I’ve to been the places I want to go to!
Cheese or chocolate: Chocolate!