With many offices extending work from home policies indefinitely, employees have returned to their hometowns in Tier II and III cities to work from the comfort of their homes. But that’s not all. From March 25, 2020 – when the lockdown began – to now, many entrepreneurs have made Bharat or small towns of India as their launchpad to start their own ventures on the back of increased digital penetration, lower cost of living, and innovative ideas – following Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s clarion call for being vocal for local.
Despite the overall economic slowdown, startups from non-metro cities rose to the challenges thrown by COVID-19 and worked hard to innovate.
Here are seven startups that started right in the middle of the pandemic, and prove that even though COVID-19 may have turned our lives upside down, the spirit of Bharat remains high.
ChefJunction in Bhubaneswar
When the COVID-19 lockdown started, social media was full of people sharing their ‘food experiments’, clearly implying that they were not ordering food from outside to maintain safety. While some people explored their culinary skills, others, who wanted to make restaurant-quality dishes like banana bread, could not due to various reasons.
Identifying this gap, college mates Suryanshu Panda and Epari Pritam launched ChefJunction, a website that enables users to order home-cooked meals. Founded in August 2020, the Bhubaneswar-based startup helps consumers to order home-made meals and also provides a platform for home chefs to make a living.
Suryanshu and Pritam – both BBM graduates (class of 2020) from Xavier’s University, Bhubaneswar – began their entrepreneurial journey when they realised that many people would not order food from restaurants amid the pandemic due to concerns around hygiene. Speaking to YourStory, Suryanshu says,
“We are a food delivery platform from where customers can order hygienic home-cooked food, prepared by home chefs, though our website. Our struggle in the hostel to get good food, the craving for “ghar ka khaana”, and eventually the hesitancy to order from restaurants during the pandemic paved the way to the birth of ChefJunction.”
Gradeazy in Surat
After their first startup had a false start in 2018, Surat-based Dishant Gandhi and Alok Kumar found a new opportunity to satiate their hunger for entrepreneurship with edtech when the lockdown started, and all the schools and education moved online.
The duo launched Gradeazy in June 2020 to enable educational institutes to conduct online examinations for just Re 1 per exam. Speaking to YourStory, Dishant says,
“Even after a decade of digital transformation, we still do not see local institutes adopting online exam platforms. Ironically, it takes only Rs 7/km to reach Mars, but institutes pay Rs 10-15 for every student attempting an online test. After researching, we found three major pain points, including poor UI/UX, no vernacular support, and high costs. We decided that we wanted to do something about it and Gradeazy was born.”
Surat-based Gradeazy offers an intuitive performance assessment platform that institutes of all sizes can use to conduct any kind of exams – from multiple-choice questions (MCQ) to subjective tests. It also provides add-ons such as question banks and white labelling at an additional cost as per the institute’s requirement.
CustKart in Bokaro
When Kundan Mishra watched TVF Pitchers, a popular web series about four friends quitting their jobs to start up, little did he know that the show would change his life forever. An engineering student waiting for placements, Kundan’s entrepreneurial journey started in 2017 when he would bunk classes to start his own company. After a hustle of three years, he teamed up with his brother, Abhishek Mishra, to start CustKart, a merchandise startup, in June 2020.
Both in their early 20s, Kundan and Abhishek’s aimed to give back to their home state of Jharkhand and be part of India’s “fascinating” community of entrepreneurs. Kundan says he wanted to create jobs for locals so that they never have to leave their families in search of a job elsewhere.
“There are lots of people who would do it for the bigger cities in India, but very few do this in the village, and hence, I figured out that this was an opportunity in disguise,” he says.
The startup, which sells merchandise like t-shirts, caps, and hoodies to corporates and institutes, especially those located in small towns, has now clocked a turnover of Rs 50 lakh and plans to become the ‘standard’ merchandise retailer in India.
Custkart has its own factory near Bokaro that produces merchandises, and all the workers come from the nearby villages. Having a startup in ‘Bharat’, Kundan says he saves up on building a big office, without any compromise on services and delivery – which is being handled by a 10-people team at the startup.
Greenhive in Rourkela
With everything locked down last year, nature began to heal itself as industrial activities and pollution levels went down. To further heal the environment by targeting plastic pollution in India, childhood friends Abhishek Deo and Gourav Sarangi started Rourkela-based ecommerce startup Greenhive in the middle of the pandemic.
Greenhive sells eco-friendly and sustainable daily use products. The duo launched Greenhive with an initial investment of Rs 60,000 raised from their family and friends.
“Our mission is to offer sustainable and plastic-free alternatives for commonly used items. We aim to cater to the consumer-driven society with sustainable alternatives and make this planet a better place to live in,” Abhishek tells YourStory.
Greenhive is mentored by Arijit Mazumdar, Founder and CEO of Northmist.
Greenhive partners with local manufacturers to procure sustainable products such as bamboo toothbrushes, steel straws, eco-friendly shopping bags, and pure copper tongue cleaners.
“We mostly sell through our own website and Instagram DMs. We also conduct events across our city to promote sustainable products in society to spread awareness of our brand and help solve the plastic waste problem,” Abhishek says.
Felicity in Jaipur
While the skies were clear, the coronavirus-led lockdown set in the gloom. Various health experts reported a steep rise in mental illness since the start of the coronavirus outbreak. The pandemic has also increased awareness about mental wellbeing as people took issues such as depression, loneliness, stress, and anxiety more seriously.
This is what led Pratika Khandelwal and her brother Vaibhav Khandelwal to start Felicity in June 2020. Jaipur-based Felicity aims to help people get access to mental health therapy through online video counselling at an affordable cost.
The online platform breaks geographical boundaries and allows people from anywhere in the country to consult therapists from all across India.
“Establishing Felicity has been an eye-opener for us. While we expected a huge crowd to come from metro cities and urban areas, Felicity currently gets 50 percent of its users from semi-urban cities,” says Pratika, Co-founder and CEO.
Pooja Sansar from Patna
India is a land of festivals, which turned out to be a eureka moment for Sanchie Shroff and Aaditya Anand, as they turned the stay-at-home situation into an entrepreneurial opportunity. The brother-sister duo, along with their father Anand Prakash, launched Pooja Sansar in October 2020. The Patna-based startup helps people get pooja, ceremony, and worship kits delivered at their doorstep.
Pooja Sansar is an online marketplace that offers curated ritual kits for festivals such as Navratri, Diwali, Karva Chauth, Chatt, Bhai Dooj, Bhoomi Poojan, and other Hindu festivals.
“Pooja Sansar is the first-ever ecommerce portal in India that aims to bring auspiciousness to each house in the country by delivering the most authentic pooja items at your doorstep,” says Sanchie. Sanchie Shroff, 24, who moved back to her hometown in Patna from Bengaluru after her employer, a private equity firm, decided to give employees the option of working remotely. She adds that the move helped her to finally start her entrepreneurial journey.
Coming from a traditional family, Anand Prakash was finding it difficult to get authentic kits and items for religious ceremonies. This became more difficult during the pandemic when going to crowded markets was not advised.
After discussing this problem with his children, they all brainstormed, which eventually led to the birth of Pooja Sansar. The trio quickly registered the company, bought inventory worth Rs 4.5 lakh, and began its operations in the mid of October 2020.
Deeps Shop in Jaipur
India is known for its rich and diverse history of art forms. According to IBEF, the handicrafts sector is one of the largest employment generators and accounts for a significant share of the country’s export. But these artisans and craftsmen are now struggling with less work and income due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
To support artisans working in the home decor and home furnishing space, 31-year-old Deepak Jha started Deeps Shop, an ecommerce platform, in August this year. Deepak says Deeps Shop stands out for its elegant, royal, and spiritual curated products. “We are not a typical marketplace. I select suppliers, products, and check the quality,” he says. The Jaipur-based digital marketer already claims to be making a profit, and garners nearly 500 orders a month.
Before staring Deeps Shop, Deepak worked with many IT companies as a digital marketing manager. He continued to stay in his hometown, Jaipur, even though he got opportunities in metro cities such as Delhi, as he wanted to give back to the city.
This was also why he started a side project to celebrate his state’s craft. Initially, they were just reselling, taking orders, and helping suppliers in Rajasthan to manufacture products like handcrafted home decor outside of Jaipur.
Deepak shares that the eureka moment for Deeps Shop came when a supplier who worked with Deepak said that the March-June lockdown left the local artisans in dearth. This is when Deepak decided to pursue his passion project as a full-time job and started enabling artisans in Rajasthan and other states to get business and help India go ‘vocal’ for real.
“I always wanted to start my own venture and COVID-19 made this possible. The pandemic helped me understand the pain of local businesses and motivated me to work on my dream project and join the bandwagon of startups who are making Jaipur a startup hub,” says Deepak.