Startup Mantra: Beauty care rooted in age-old practices
Bootstrapped green cosmetic venture started by first-time entrepreneur Soniya Gaikwad has plant-based and scientifically-developed offerings
Pune: Fed up with skin rashes and dry skin issues, digital creator Akshata Kadam (21) tried unsuccessfully many conventional cosmetic brand soaps and shampoos. Post-consultation with a dermatologist, she realised how chemicals and other ingredients used in production of soaps and shampoos was harming her skin. Akshata is just one of the many people who face skin-related problems, and are switching to “green cosmetics”.
The beauty industry is undergoing a major shift towards more sustainable and ethical practices. Consumers are increasingly demanding products that are good for skin, and the planet, driving a surge in the popularity of green and eco-friendly cosmetics. Sensing the market opportunity, Soniya Gaikwad, a first-time entrepreneur, founded a bootstrapped green cosmetic startup Pratha Naturals and Handmade and launched a product range of plant-based and scientifically-developed bath and beauty products.
The first step
A small-town girl from Buldhana district of Maharashtra, Soniya is now part of startup ecosystem. Daughter of parents in the teaching profession, Soniya’s schooling was done in a Marathi medium school and her interests in science secured her many scholarships.
After completing her Bachelor in Technology (BTech) in chemical engineering from UDCT (university department of chemical technology) Amravati in 2012, Soniya worked for several companies in the US, Indonesia, Singapore, Germany, Saudi Arabia as a process and control engineer till 2015.
“While working jobs in foreign locations, I was also keen on pursuing something of my own interest, especially in the skincare industry. In fact, in my school as an eighth-grade student, we had made a soap from scratch using oil, caustic soda and other ingredients causing my hands to burn. Although it was a failed attempt, it taught me a lot of things while experimenting. I registered my company in 2015 and named it Pratha Naturals meaning ‘elegantly traditional’,” Soniya said.
“I wanted to provide skincare without using any harmful cosmetic products. During my basic research, I realised the gravity of chemical-based products and the absence of natural and safe options. I also believed that stopping the use of soaps or shampoos by people was not the best solution to these problems. The process to develop natural products took almost three years and we launched a few products for trials,” she said.
Cold processed soaps
Soniya started manufacturing cold-processed soaps from a small unit. It took 21 days for the initial process to complete. “I included ingredients used 200 years ago. We designed the product to look artistic and used herbs. We sent the samples for lab-testing, before distributing it among friends and family. Our first customers gave us good reviews. All the products, labels, packaging, and printing were done inhouse at a rented unit with zero outside funds. It was a bootstrapped company.”
“My philosophy behind the endeavour was to bring our old wisdom back to ready-to-use products while ensuring that we validate it using modern science. Hence, we have dermatologists, beauticians, Ayurvedacharyas; and Dinesh Pakade, who is founder of Ensim Solutions, a chemical-tech company, on our advisory panel. Looking back at history, the word shampoo has its root in Sanskrit and India, and means cleansing hair or body. Our ancestors used soda ash, which also finds mention in the Ayurveda, and later the shampoo word and its usage spread across the world,” Soniya said.
As a consultant, Soniya had to stay in Saudi Arabia along with her husband, while her pilot project was launched in India. She trained a small team for three months and handled the operations remotely. The husband-wife duo returned to India in January 2020, just before the Covid pandemic struck the world. Soniya said, “Just before the Covid pandemic hit us, we had finalised a site for our factory. It was an open shed of around 3,000 square feet at Gujarwadi area near Katraj. The agreement was registered, and we modified the space as per our requirement. It took us nearly one year to build the entire set-up with product development requirements, flooring, etc as per FDA (Food and Drug Administration) standards. The FDA officials granted us the licence in January 2021.”
The pilot project since 2015 came to full fruition in 2021 with commencement of bulk production of products. Soniya said, “Initially, we were accepting only few orders that came through social media marketing. We created logo which has copper look and indicates handmade and elegant tradition, website and listed our products on online marketplaces. Our stock keeping units (SKUs) increased from 25 in 2015 to 78 in 2023. This was the real start we were aiming at.”
“There were a lot of challenges right from product development, team building, talent retention, packaging, and marketing. It is not easy to obtain a satisfying formula for product development and it may take several days to achieve results. We had also employed a digital marketing agency, but they lacked the product understanding. Hence, we decided to have the photography and digital marketing agency inhouse. We faced logistics issues regarding order picking and updating etc. As a policy, we encourage hiring women staff. We have grown as a team from 5 to 12 employees withing a year,” Soniya said.
Pratha Naturals has its own lab at their factory to test the products. These products are sent to authorised cosmetic labs in Pune or FDA-approved labs in Aurangabad for certifications. Soniya said, “FDA-approved labs have the expertise and resources to conduct the necessary tests like microbiological testing to detect the presence of bacteria, fungi, and other microorganisms; physical and chemical testing to measure the properties of the product, such as its pH, viscosity, and stability; toxicological testing to assess the safety of the product for human health; and compliance testing to ensure that the product meets the requirements of FDA regulations, to assess the safety of cosmetic products. They also have strict quality control standards.”
“The authorised labs take around 20 days to 30 days to share results after the samples are submitted. Our inhouse lab ensures to fulfil the FDA criteria. Several small businesses and new brands that do not have their own manufacturing facilities, approach us for testing their products. We have done labelling for 23 brands so far, but the problem in the cosmetic industry is that several small players do not survive long as they cannot sustain these initial costs,” she said.
While the first year went into setting up the production unit, second year saw product being developed and launched and now Pratha Naturals has about 78 SKUs in the market. On how she plans to capture the market, Soniya said, “At present, we are listed on online marketplaces to drive our revenue. However, with a basket of products ready, we plan to ramp up our market presence starting with small stores, malls, and marts in offline mode. We intend to start our own factory outlet as well as popup stores in high footfall areas.”
“We have observed that although online marketplaces have good number of hits, serious buyers are not there. The conversion ratio for online marketplaces is just 3 per cent, while offline store increases visibility and can give 80 per cent customer retention and conversion. We are yet to cover the offline market and are looking to tie-up with supermarkets, stores, and malls. We are also looking to export our products as there are lot of opportunities in Africa, Middle East and Southeast Asian countries,” she said.
“Pratha Naturals has worked with the Bank of India in 2021 for corporate gifting and is now empanelled with Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC). We also plan to apply for government tenders for Grade 1 soaps dedicated for handmade or cold processed soaps which has minimum 70 to 80 per cent total fatty material (TFM). Higher TFM ensure better moisturising properties and a soap that deeply cleans your skin yet leaving it soft and supple. Another challenge is the expensive packaging of handmade products. We must put in packaging value equal to the product value, which makes sustaining in the market difficult. A few brands have experimented with doing away with packaging, but in my opinion, Indian customers are not yet ready for this kind of bold initiative.”
Soniya has been chosen as a participant in the Cornell Maha60 Accelerator Program sponsored by the department of industries, Government of Maharashtra. Soniya said, “The opportunity to learn from the Cornell University faculty, engage in discussions, and collaborate with fellow entrepreneurs is truly a badge of honour for me.”