When Anjana Reddy came back to India in 2011 after a postgraduate degree in the U.S., she wanted to follow up on a business idea that struck her when she was in college. She wanted to set up a branded memorabilia business.

In the U.S., sports collectibles such as sports team jerseys and baseball cards are a multibillion-dollar industry. Reddy took a fancy to the idea. She figured that India with its huge cricket-crazy population and sporting stars like Sachin Tendulkar would be an easy market. A friend set up a meeting with a local partner of California-based venture capital firm Accel. Reddy, then 24, pitched her idea of selling sporting memorabilia to cricket-loving Indians. Mahendran Balachandran, who she met at Accel, listened patiently to her presentation. He told her that her idea was impressive and he would invest in her company on one condition: She needed to rope in a celebrity to give her business immediate visibility.

Reddy was clear that if she wanted a celebrity to associate with her company, she wasn’t going to settle for anyone but the best. She zeroed in on Tendulkar, who was then India’s most popular sporting icon. She chased Tendulkar for the next 15 months for an appointment until she managed an introduction through a mutual friend. Reddy convinced the star cricketer to not only endorse the company but also pick up an undisclosed stake. She set up Universal Sportsbiz Pvt Ltd (USPL) in April 2012. Accel invested ₹17.5 crore in July.

But roping in a celebrity isn’t enough sometimes. Reddy’s first business venture, Collectabillia, an e-commerce site that sold autographed merchandise of sports icons like Tendulkar and football star Cristiano Ronaldo, failed to take off. After her first plan didn’t fly, she had to quickly change tack and evolve a new business model. “It soon became evident that the memorabilia business was not going to be easy to scale despite celebrities backing it. There was hardly anyone willing to pay for memorabilia,” says Reddy.

But from the failure of the memorabilia business came another idea. Unanticipated brisk sales of Sachin T-shirts around the time of his retirement in November 2013 got Reddy thinking about zeroing in on garments as her next business. “We sold over 10,000 T-shirts online in a very short period and it set us wondering if apparel would make a good product. It was also a scaleable business,” she says. As it turned out, it did make a good product—and it was scaleable.

Five years after getting into business, Bengaluru-based USPL is a leading celebrity-endorsed branded apparel company. Funded by private equity investors like Accel and Alteria Capital, USPL is valued at ₹1,200 crore after its last round of funding in October when it received $13.5 million. The company sells a range of trendy casual-wear brands like Wrogn, Imara, Ms. Taken, and Single backed by film stars like Kriti Sanon and Aditya Roy Kapur. If you haven’t heard of these brands, it’s probably because you aren’t a millennial shopping for skinny jeans and sequinned tees. Prices are affordable and growth in sales has been nothing short of spectacular: Revenues were at ₹24 crore in FY15 and are estimated to leap to ₹425 crore in FY19, propelling 31-year-old Reddy into Fortune India’s 2019 Most Powerful Women in business list at a debut rank of No. 35.

Reddy’s success is even more remarkable because she has fashioned a successful business even though India’s apparel industry hasn’t exactly been on a tear. India is the world’s second-most populous nation and has all the trappings to become one of the world’s biggest ready-to-wear markets— such as the highest number of young people and a growing middle class—but it still lags behind less populous countries like Germany and Britain. No Indian brand made it to the top 20 list of global apparel brands in a recent report by consulting firm McKinsey. A host of factors such as lack of organised retail trade and fragmented manufacturing has stifled the apparel industry’s growth.

Despite the industry drawbacks, Reddy has stitched a successful business strategy. Initially, her brands were available exclusively on just two platforms—retail chain Shoppers Stop and Myntra, an e-commerce store. Last year, she expanded to brick-and-mortar retail chains like Pantaloons Retail and the Future Group’s Central stores. She is now negotiating with another fashion retail chain, Lifestyle, that will ensure the presence of her brands in 800 shop-in-shops.

Reddy’s products stand out in a crowded market because of her strategy of signing up celebrities to endorse her brands. For her menswear brand, Wrogn, she roped in Virat Kohli in 2014, when he was having a bad run and still not the icon he is today. For Imara, the women’s brand, Reddy first signed up Shraddha Kapoor and last year replaced her with actress Jacqueline Fernandez. “The idea of roping in a celebrity was to solve the problem of discovery of our brands and forms only a small part of our overall strategy,” says Reddy.

In the U.S., sports collectibles such as sports team jerseys and baseball cards are a multibillion-dollar industry. Reddy took a fancy to the idea. She figured that India with its huge cricket-crazy population and sporting stars like Sachin Tendulkar would be an easy market.

A friend set up a meeting with a local partner of California-based venture capital firm Accel. Reddy, then 24, pitched her idea of selling sporting memorabilia to cricket-loving Indians. Mahendran Balachandran, who she met at Accel, listened patiently to her presentation. He told her that her idea was impressive and he would invest in her company on one condition: She needed to rope in a celebrity to give her business immediate visibility.

Reddy was clear that if she wanted a celebrity to associate with her company, she wasn’t going to settle for anyone but the best. She zeroed in on Tendulkar, who was then India’s most popular sporting icon. She chased Tendulkar for the next 15 months for an appointment until she managed an introduction through a mutual friend. Reddy convinced the star cricketer to not only endorse the company but also pick up an undisclosed stake.

She set up Universal Sportsbiz Pvt Ltd (USPL) in April 2012. Accel invested ₹17.5 crore in July. But roping in a celebrity isn’t enough sometimes. Reddy’s first business venture, Collectabillia, an e-commerce site that sold autographed merchandise of sports icons like Tendulkar and football star Cristiano Ronaldo, failed to take off. After her first plan didn’t fly, she had to quickly change tack and evolve a new business model. “It soon became evident that the memorabilia business was not going to be easy to scale despite celebrities backing it. There was hardly anyone willing to pay for memorabilia,” says Reddy. But from the failure of the memorabilia business came another idea. Unanticipated brisk sales of Sachin T-shirts around the time of his retirement in November 2013 got Reddy thinking about zeroing in on garments as her next business. “We sold over 10,000 T-shirts online in a very short period and it set us wondering if apparel would make a good product. It was also a scaleable business,” she says.

As it turned out, it did make a good product—and it was scaleable. Five years after getting into business, Bengaluru-based USPL is a leading celebrity-endorsed branded apparel company. Funded by private equity investors like Accel and Alteria Capital, USPL is valued at ₹1,200 crore after its last round of funding in October when it received $13.5 million. The company sells a range of trendy casualwear brands like Wrogn, Imara, Ms. Taken, and Single backed by film stars like Kriti Sanon and Aditya Roy Kapur. If you haven’t heard of these brands, it’s probably because you aren’t a millennial shopping for skinny jeans and sequinned tees. Prices are affordable and growth in sales has been nothing short of spectacular: Revenues were at ₹24 crore in FY15 and are estimated to leap to ₹425 crore in FY19, propelling 31-year-old Reddy into Fortune India’s 2019 Most Powerful Women in business list at a debut rank of No. 35.

Reddy’s success is even more remarkable because she has fashioned a successful business even though India’s apparel industry hasn’t exactly been on a tear. India is the world’s second-most populous nation and has all the trappings to become one of the world’s biggest ready-to-wear markets— such as the highest number of young people and a growing middle class—but it still lags behind less populous countries like Germany and Britain. No Indian brand made it to the top 20 list of global apparel brands in a recent report by consulting firm McKinsey. A host of factors such as lack of organised retail trade and fragmented manufacturing has stifled the apparel industry’s growth.

To be sure, USPL is still a small speck in India’s ₹5.4-lakh crore apparel business. Big local names are still companies like Raymond and Arvind, who have graduated from textile manufacturing to the ready-made garments business. Some new brands like AND by Anita Dongre and Myntra’s in-house e-commerce brand Roadster have been expanding but building a distribution network is capital-intensive.

USPL faces other challenges. The biggest one is to turn a profit. Its cumulative sales over the years will be around ₹800 crore, but Reddy has burnt a lot of cash in building up her business. Retail prices of garments are on average marked up 3.5 times the cost of production, which means her cost of production stands at around ₹225 crore so far. But she has already received around ₹350 crore ($55 million) in funding from private equity investors, mostly from Accel. Much of this money went into building retail stores and putting up infrastructure in shop-in-shops. “We hope to be PAT (profit after tax) positive within the next three years,” says Reddy.

This is where the real challenge begins for her. To begin with, she made some unusual moves: Unlike many startups that try to populate their presence in as many stores as possible to boost sales, Reddy focussed on just two. “Anjana had no prior experience in retail but took a very different call on distribution which has surely worked. To us, it demonstrates that she has an innate understanding of the business,” says Vinod Murali, cofounder of Alteria Capital, among the early investors in USPL.

Reddy chose this strategy as she thought distributing through several outlets early on would stress her working capital requirements. She also thought that having just two distributors— one in the brick-and-mortar space and the other online—would help her understand the two channels in a more focussed way. “All her focus [at that time] was in building her brands rather than raking up big sales. If we negotiated for exclusivity, she had more say on how her products looked on the floor [in the store]. It was a win-win,” says Salil Nair, ex-CEO of Shoppers Stop who negotiated with Reddy to become an exclusive retailer.

Reddy also spent time understanding the entire garment-making process from manufacturing to distribution. In the early days, she visited several factories in Tirupur in Tamil Nadu, where most of her garments are job worked. Twice a year, she spends a week meeting customers who come to sample her products in Bengaluru before the season begins. “For the spring/summer 2020 collection, a big customer had a few comments on the orange and pink colours we use in some of our lines,” says Reddy. “It was important feedback and I always want to know the customer feedback.”

Her investors appreciate the meticulous customer focus Reddy brings to the table but add that increasingly she will have to play a different role as the operations assume scale. “She will have to move from being a manager to a leader though that transition is well underway. Her key roles will be in accumulating talent and building relationships,” says Murali. As she sees it, all her building blocks are in place. “In the next 18 months, all our focus will be on growing in a disciplined fashion,” she says. That strategy will not go out of fashion in a hurry.

This story was originally published in the September 15-December 14 special issue of the magazine.

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